Somebody who loves me should have told me breastfeeding was hard. But to hear my elders tell it, you only had to put your boob in a newborn’s mouth and the rest just flowed. False. Breastfeeding is a trip. And if your journey is anything like mine, it will be oddly challenging, weirdly wonderful, and entirely worth it in the end (for some). If it’s anything like mine, your experience will also differ by child. I have two.
I “successfully” breastfed both of my babies, eventually. My first experience was my son and getting it right took more patience, diligence and dedication than I ever expected. There was even blood.
When I gave birth to my son, I was determined to breastfeed him exclusively for a full year. I never even considered the alternatives. I’m not sure why, but I told myself that formula was the enemy and that serving formula meant I failed him. I felt immense pressure to get this right. (It’s worth noting that formula would become a godsend years later when I had my daughter.)
When the nurse handed me my newborn son for the first time, I gave him my breast and my confidence immediately shattered. He didn’t latch. He didn’t do anything. I even tried to force my entire boob into his mouth and he recoiled. The nurse could tell that I was getting nowhere fast and dutifully started giving me helpful tips. Still nothing. My milk had come in and I just couldn’t get my son to take it. The nurse then proceeded to hand me a breast pump and a bunch of tiny syringes, and instructed me to fill as many of those as possible with my milk. Newborns don’t require a ton of milk at first and this process was easy for me so I was relieved. Most importantly for me, at the time, was that I could satiate my child without using formula.
I gave birth where Beyonce gave birth to Blue, which is to say that this hospital was nice and had many resources for new moms, including complimentary sessions with lactation specialists. Like Serena Williams and many other Black mothers, I suffered postpartum preeclampsia. The upside to that complication was that I stayed in the hospital long enough to receive guidance from three different specialists. InBrooklyn, lactation specialists can charge upwards of $300 for an hour of their time so I counted myself as lucky to be able to talk to all these consultants for free.
With their help, I was able to get a latch here and there, but was still mostly feeding my son via syringes. That’s when the nurses from the nursery turned on me. In their opinion, my son wasn’t getting enough milk and I was selfishly starving him. They insistedI give him formula—I refused. They kept pushing, but I wasn’t budging. It even felt like one was prepared to call child services, which blew my mind. My doctor assured me that newborns didn’t require full bottles so I held my ground. In fact, my son didn’t need formula because my milk was increasing. Eventually, they backed off. After five long days in the hospital, it was finally time to go home. But I was terrified.
There are so many emotions involved in breastfeeding. When my son was able to latch, I was flooded with oxytocin and intense natural highs. When he wasn’t, I felt extremely frustrated and disheartened. I tended to feel immensely self conscious when my mom was around, too so I hid in my room to pump. I know my mom felt rejected, but I needed alone time. The stress of trying to get this right was officially wreaking havoc. Why wasn’t he latching more?
Our first trip to the pediatrician changed everything. She looked at my newborn’s tongue and explained that he had a slight tongue tie. That’s what was hindering his latch. She offered the name of a specialist who could clip the tie, but he actually grew out of it days before his surgery date. I felt immense relief.
The next 13 months were a trip. I traveled a lot for work. My pump became my sidekick and I pumped everywhere. Literally everywhere. Some of my clients had luxurious lactation rooms. The worst was having to pump in conference rooms that didn’t lock. I’d sit there praying that no one walked in.
Once we got the hang of things, my son loved to breastfeed. At 12 months, he was sucking so hard that it drew blood. At 13 months, it was finally time to cut him off. Feeding hurt and I’d met my goal. I was done. Even though I loved breastfeeding, by the end it felt like finishing a marathon and forgetting why I ran it in the first place.
I didn’t know it then, but when I stopped breastfeeding, I was already pregnant with my daughter (we weren’t trying, by the way). Her story was much simpler. Yes, I still had to pump in airports and train restrooms, but I knew what I was doing this time around. She latched immediately and gulped her milk furiously. This time, I also allowed myself a reprieve by adding formula into the mix. Surprisingly, she rejected my breast right at nine months. I felt guilty for not giving her a full year, but also refused to pump exclusively so we met the end of that road early.
Ultimately, everything worked out just fine. My children are both intelligent and perfectly healthy, no matter how I fed them. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. I loved breastfeeding my babies and am proud that I pushed through all the challenges sent my way.