Or, “Mothering at the Breast”

by Kasey Stacey

Photo credits: Siné Stabosz

When I was pregnant with my son, I assumed that breastfeeding would be easy, intuitive, and natural. And so it is—now. It didn’t start that way, and all my assumptions were challenged when my non-latching, tongue- and lip-tied, lazy nurser let me know that we were going to do things his way, thank you very much.

I wrote my breastfeeding story for Katie’s blog back in December, but the short version is that the wounds on my nipples from Vincent’s frenula and shallow latch were so severe that I was left with no choice but to almost exclusively pump for about a month. I hated that time. I look back at it now and I can’t remember the nipple pain. I know it was intense, but it’s kind of like giving birth—I’ve forgotten what it really physically felt like. The emotional trauma, though—I remember that.

To use a phrase that I once read in some La Leche League literature, I mother at the breast. Vincent began latching (badly) around day four after birth, and from that point forward, I mothered him at my breast. The slightest cry or indication of discomfort, unhappiness. The smallest hint that he might possibly maybe be getting hungry. The mere thought that it had been almost two hours since he last nursed. It didn’t matter what was really Vincent’s issue. I put him to my breasts constantly. Nursing was his sustenance, but also his comfort. It was how I let him know that I was here, I was able to solve his problems, I was his mama. I was love.

But the nipple trauma was getting worse, not better, no matter what Katie and I tried to heal my broken skin. So, I relented to pumping for a little while. And all of a sudden, I didn’t know how to mother my child. I couldn’t just put him to my breast. He was becoming fussier and now in addition to broken skin, I had a broken heart. I missed spending so much of our day cradling him in my arms, gazing into his eyes, waiting for him to smile at me. I spent that time hooked up to a machine instead, as Vincent lay on his activity mat, interacting with a stuffed fox instead of with his mother. I felt so distant from him then. I remember thinking, “I don’t know how to read him anymore. What is his problem? How do I solve it?” I felt like a terrible mother, not exactly because I wasn’t breastfeeding my son the way I had intended to, but because I wasn’t mothering him the way I had intended to.

And then there was washing the pump parts. Oh, goodness. If there is one household chore I loathe more than any other, it’s washing dishes. This whole stupid process was just making more damned dishes to wash. I still cringe at the thought of that bowl full of milky pump parts taking up room on my kitchen counter.

Photo credit: Siné Stabosz

When my nipples had healed, I threw that pump into the coat closet and took it out only a couple times since, thinking that I ought to have a few ounces of milk in my freezer, just in case. (All the excess milk I had pumped while I healed went to a friend whose milk supply, in her words, “wouldn’t keep a mouse alive.”) Gleefully, I reintroduced Vincent to full-time nursing. My life was going to be so much less complicated without the pump, and my dear boy was going to know the comfort of his mother’s breast again. We reunited and we bonded. Of course, I know that we were still bonding when I was mostly pumping. We were co-sleeping, I wore him in the carrier often, and we were still spending all of our time together. But there’s just something about that physical connection of breastfeeding, that motherly act of literally pouring yourself into your child.

Vincent hasn’t had a bottle since he was three months old. I was supposed to return to my job teaching high school when he was five months old, but when the time came to begin preparing for my return to work, I was paralyzed. I had refused to believe that the day would come, but it was quickly approaching. We were just getting the hang of this breastfeeding thing, getting really good at it, and we were going to have to abandon our now comfortable, intuitive, easy routine to go back to the special kind of hell that was pumping and bottle-feeding. I couldn’t bear the thought. Truly, I don’t think that I could have handled being away from my son. So many other mothers do return to work after having a baby, and I see how hard it is for them. I don’t know how they manage; personally, I don’t think I would have the emotional capacity to deal with it. So, I quit my job so that I could continue nursing my son full-time.

I have continued to feed him on-demand since we kicked the pump out of our nursing relationship, and I can tell that our bond is deep. Vincent is approaching his first birthday, and he’s showing no signs of wanting to wean. Certainly, he nurses less often than before he began eating solid foods, but he nurses many times throughout the day, and he’s especially leisurely about it during naps and when going to sleep for the night. He really soaks in those moments, latched on where he knows he’s safe and comfortable and loved. Sometimes, he doesn’t even really want to suckle; he just wants to sleep with my nipple in his mouth—I’m right there, just in case he needs me. During the day, he checks in periodically to nurse, making sure that mom’s still here. Overnight, he nurses on and off, but we’re still co-sleeping, still snuggled in close, so I don’t mind. I don’t always appreciate all of these moments (because how many times do I have to stop washing those damned dishes to go nurse the baby?), but I love this time. It won’t last forever, so I’m soaking it in, too.

So much of my mothering is connected to breastfeeding, and it will be long after Vincent weans. Mothering Vincent at my breast has taught me how to mother him away from my breast. It has taught me how to read him, how to communicate with him, how to teach him about love and family. Our bond is secure and deep, and while it certainly isn’t unbreakable, we’ve built a solid foundation—one that has taught me lessons about being a mother that I will carry through each stage of my family’s life together.