Nothing seemed to work! After trying for three weeks to master breastfeeding her son, my daughter was ready to give up. “Mom, I’m only doing this because of you,” was the last plea of a young mother fed up with the whole breastfeeding experience. My heart broke as I tried to remain calm and reassure her that she would be successful with a little more time and practice. Still, a part of me wondered if this was going to work for her. Maybe it wasn’t worth it.
After all, she had found no joy in sleepless nights of pumping. The failure she felt was understandable. No matter the position her baby couldn’t latch with or without a breast shield, hungry or filled. The struggle was real. Every new mother deserves a few moments of pure contentment after carrying, laboring, and delivering a new life into the world. Perhaps the time had come to move on to formula.
Yet, I could see it in her eyes, the same drive and determination she had as a young child. She didn’t want to give up and was looking to me for the support she needed to help figure this problem out.
Having a drive to persevere gave her an advantage. I knew from experience that she’d need it if she was going push through the difficulties she was facing. For me, breastfeeding was like running a marathon or climbing a mountain, both of which I found grueling and exhausting—nearly beyond my reach but ultimately empowering and rewarding once accomplished. It could also be compared to earning a degree because like that it requires a huge amount of time, energy, and commitment to achieve. I’d even equate breastfeeding to the process of losing weight. To be totally devoted and invested for the duration, you must understand and value the long-term benefits.
My daughter knew the benefits of breastfeeding. The benefits of breastfeeding for mother and child are extensive, ranging from long term health benefits to being convenient and economical. In fact, breast milk is specially designed for a baby’s growing needs, rich in vitamins, proteins, and fats. Much easier to digest than formula, it also contains antibodies that fight illness. Additionally, breastfeeding allows a new mom to burn an extra 500 calories a day providing an easier transition to pre-pregnancy weight. All this valuable information was powering my daughter despite being worn down mentally and physically. But sometimes the knowledge that drives commitment isn’t enough. Even long distant runners need a trainer and coach to push them on when faced with injuries or obstacles.
My daughter was lucky she had support from multiple sources. Her husband was a constant help, a hired lactation consultant was on call and, of course, there was me, a mother who had nursed her own children. We were all cheering her on and offering advice. And so, she persevered until the day her son just figured it out and started nursing. But I’m not sure she would have made it to that point if she hadn’t had the resolve, support, or patience to continue trying. And now, only a few weeks into her breastfeeding journey, I knew it would still take great effort and stamina to continue to nurse her baby to the recommended first birthday.
Much would be lost before her life returned to a new normal. And all the resolve in the world wouldn’t make up for the sacrifices yet to be made. So even her success meant defeat! By the time I nursed my third child, I hardly recognized my body. While I found it liberating to use my breasts for the purpose for which they were designed, it also meant living in a body disproportioned and a bit uncomfortable. For me, nursing meant giving up my “pre-baby” figure.
In addition, the constant demand to be “on call” for a feeding meant a loss of freedom. A nursing mother cannot leave her baby for long periods of time without pumping milk to feed the baby or risk becoming engorged. At times it feels like you are literally tied to your baby. When I think back to my experience, I remember the cries in the night demanding the response of just one parent, me. There was no “passing the baton” to my husband for a break. Breastfeeding is a demanding responsibility that requires emotional strength.
In fact, for a working mother it requires a huge amount of diligence, creativity, and discipline, not to mention a flexible work environment. Working mothers may even see it as a luxury that only “stay at home” moms can have the privilege of enjoying.
Return in the Investment
I struggled with the intense selflessness required to breastfeed, but I also found it extremely rewarding. Having another human being totally dependent on you for survival is inspiring. What I learned is that the work, the responsibility, and the struggle give the whole experience meaning. I believe it is part of an innate design meant to bond a mother to her child. The work of nurturing life is continued beyond the womb, tightening our grip on a little, vulnerable life that has no choice but to depend on you for survival. Moreover, the bond between mother and child impacts brain development in those important first years of life when architecture of the brain is progressing so rapidly.
So, when my daughter looked to me for support, I provided it. I wanted her to break through the barriers that precede any truly satisfying experience and find the joy on the other side. I understand that breastfeeding doesn’t work for all mothers. I know that sometimes the best decision for the baby’s health is to explore other options. No mother should feel guilty about making the decision not to breastfeed. I was ready to back my daughter in that decision if that was her choice. On the other hand, sometimes it is the struggle that is seen as unnecessary and avoided at all cost. My experience has taught me that some pain, sacrifice, and raw selflessness is totally worth it.
The Choice and the Gift
Not all mothers have the choice to breastfeed. Work, health, or just life circumstances can remove that choice. But when given the choice don’t be afraid of the hard work required. By choosing the difficult task of persevering and problem solving, sleepless nights and pumping, you give a priceless gift. Your nutrient-rich breast milk is only part of the gift you give. The other part is the gift you give yourself. By embracing the battle of breastfeeding, you may discover hidden treasures in motherhood, personal growth and even the courage to try other unconquered dreams and goals. It’s one year out of a lifetime a sacrifice worth making, a regret you’ll never have.