by Kasey Stacey
I know what you may be thinking: “Shut up, Kasey. We all know that you make a ton of breastmilk and we don’t want to hear about it.” But that’s not what I mean, not entirely. Yes, oversupply has been more of a help than a hindrance in my ability to breastfeed, but what I’m talking about now is not about milk.
Of course, it is also true that I’m passionate about changing the culture of fear surrounding birth and breastfeeding in Western society, and I do want women to know that, from a biological perspective, we were made for this and we don’t have to fear the process of becoming mothers. It’s why we have all the parts we do, and when it comes to breasts, we don’t grow them so they can be merely ornamental. For a lot of reasons (medical, cultural, etc.), breasts and breastfeeding don’t always work the way they’re meant to, but still, we were made for this.
We were made for this process. We were made for this journey. It’s grueling work, and we were made to do it. The sooner we embrace it and learn to adapt with it, the more suited we become for it. It is the process itself that makes us—it molds us into the mothers we are becoming and it prepares us for what is to come further into the journey.
A month of two after Walter was born, I remarked to Katie that I’m not sure I would have been able to make breastfeeding work if Walter had been my first baby. Because of his high, round palate, Walter has a hard time maintaining suction, and he needed a lot of support to stay latched until he was four or five months old. Had he been my first, I never would have known what his problem was or how to accommodate him. Even now at six months, he needs support to stay latched in all positions except side-lying, a skill I didn’t learn until Vinny was around six months old himself. Nursing Walter takes a lot of work on my part—or, it would seem that way if I were a first-time mom. Breastfeeding has truly become second nature, so plopping Walter down on the playroom floor and lying down to nurse him while his siblings play nearby doesn’t seem at all tedious or abnormal. It’s simply how we make breastfeeding work given our circumstances.
I have learned so much from my prior breastfeeding experiences, which have shaped my perceptions and habits. Learning how to cope with breastfeeding difficulties when Vinny was a newborn set me up for the long game—I’ve developed quite the endurance for breastfeeding’s ups and downs. Having a practically textbook nursing experience with Brigid has taught me what nursing “should” be—I can see what is normal and I can accommodate when the process isn’t working the way I would expect it to. Admittedly, keeping myself entrenched in breastfeeding culture via working for a lactation consultant also helps.
I recently pulled out a photograph from just after Vinny was born. Sarah-Grace, my midwife, had just placed Vinny onto my bare chest, and a few moments later, we would attempt our first latch (it would take four days for us to actually get him on the breast). I barely recognize the breasts in that photograph. They certainly aren’t the breasts I’m lugging around these days. They were smaller and rounder—much more manageable, as I recall. But what I notice most: the areola barely distinguishable from the rest of the breast, and that tiny, flat nipple. How was that thing ever going to feed a baby!? (Sarah-Grace had recommended I make an appointment with Katie during pregnancy because of those flat nipples. Woe to me for not listening to her!)
The most obvious change, for me, that breastfeeding has provided is in how different my anatomy is now. It is so, so strange to look at pictures from my pre-breastfeeding days and to barely recognize that woman. Pregnancy and breastfeeding have changed everything about my body. I’ve put on a little weight, but the distribution of it all is what is so different. I know I carry a little extra weight until each baby gets going on solid foods; I figure my body must need it to keep up the milk production. The constant physical changes can be frustrating. But this, I know, is part of the process. My body knows what it needs to do, and I have been stretched and molded into the person my children need me to be (nipples included).
My body was made for this and, through living it, I’ve gotten really good at it (the breastfeeding part, not necessarily the rest of motherhood). But more than the physical capability, something of an accident of biology, embracing (or sometimes merely enduring) the journey has shaped me in mind and spirit. My anatomy has changed, but so has my mind and my heart.
In a recent thread in the Balanced Breastfeeding Mamas Facebook group, I made a comment about how affronted I originally felt about how much time of the day (and night) breastfeeding was going to take. Eight to 12 feeds every 24 hours for a minimum of 12 months—and I was supposed to, like, be a person and not a cow when, exactly? In Vinny’s first few days, I was reminded that babies eat every two to three hours and that I needed to wake him up to eat until he was back to birth weight. “Well, we’re doing every three hours,” I commented, completely ignorant of how breastfeeding is a lot more baby-driven than schedule-driven.
As it turned out, Vinny would nurse about once an hour for the majority of his infancy, and to hell with what my original preferences were, because when a baby needs to eat, you feed him. In this and many other ways, I’ve been made to give up the control I wanted to have over breastfeeding (and, as we know, breastfeeding is a metaphor for motherhood in general). I was made to change how I thought about breastfeeding, made to adapt, made to give of myself in ways I never had before. You see, it isn’t about the milk, really, or about my intrinsic ability to breastfeeding by virtue of having breasts that work as they ought. It’s about what I’ve learned and how I’ve allowed myself to be shaped. I was made for this. You’re being made for this, too.