Krista Elliott is the mother of two little boys, aged 4 years old and 9 months, and is currently on maternity leave from her job as a regional communications coordinator for a multinational conservation organization. Connect with her on Twitter @Quackerflack.
Women have a strange relationship with their breasts. Some love them. Some hate them, and some, like me, have a relationship that is storied and not a little complicated. I was what is euphemistically called an “early bloomer”, meaning that I wore my first bra at age nine. No training bra, though. My breasts needed no training. They were already close to a B cup by this point. I soon outgrew the B cups, roared past C, D and DD, to eventually settle on the unheard-of (to me) size of 38G.
I hated them. My breasts overwhelmed my average frame. Buying bras and bathing suits often frustrated me to the point of tears. And it goes without saying that I received a lot of attention from boys, and that the attention was entirely the wrong kind – the kind that confuses and overwhelms a 14-year old girl just learning to navigate her sexuality and the self-esteem issues that are often tangled up therein. I could not run or play sports. I quit the swim team. More alarmingly, my shoulders started to round and my posture started to suffer. I wanted a breast reduction.
Photo courtesy of Wonkyeye Photography.
Fortunately, I live in a country with universal health coverage, and my reduction was considered medically justified. So cost was not an issue. We met with a surgeon, and asked many questions: healing time, loss of sensation, when I could resume activities, etc.
We never asked about breastfeeding. It didn’t occur to my 16-year old self, nor did it occur to my mom, who had had her babies in the 1970s, when formula feeding was pretty much de rigeur. I just wanted to have normal-sized breasts, and babies were the last thing on my mind.
The surgery was a success, and I moved on with my life and my much more manageable-sized breasts. The hate was gone. I now adored my perky, perfect C-cups. I went to university, graduated, worked, fell in and out of love, and eventually, at age 26, met the man who would become my husband (and who would actually change my previous “no kids” plans).
At 33, we decided to start a family. Suddenly, I wondered…could I breastfeed? Would it be worth a try? With a fierceness that surprised me, I realized that I very much WANTED to breastfeed. I wanted to nourish my baby from my body and I wanted the baby to have all of the benefits of breastfeeding. I wanted it to work. I ordered “Defining Your Own Success”, and read it cover to cover, dog-earing dozens of pages.
I thought I was ready to make it work. When my breasts started leaking colostrum at week 36, I shrieked for joy. Sam was born in August of 2009. A beautiful little boy, delivered after an induction, an epidural, and intervention after intervention. I was determined to nurse him, and being in pain from the episiotomy, I figured that nursing him lying down would work. And it did.
We got a semi-workable latch, and I could see his tiny ears moving as he swallowed that precious colostrum. We were on our way! Doubts and trouble crept in, though. A well-meaning nurse gave him a bottle. Another nurse basically bullied me into trying a cross-cradle hold while sitting in a rocking chair, bringing me to tears of frustration.
I was getting conflicting advice from everybody, and became confused and bewildered. It only got worse when I got home. I just wanted to nurse (and pump, to build my supply), but was still too bashful to nurse in front of anybody but my mom and my husband. And yet, visitors kept coming to see the baby.
The doorbell rang all day long. I was too shy to nurse or pump in front of these well-meaning aunties and uncles, but where they’d come to see the baby, I couldn’t very well disappear upstairs with him either. I stewed and stressed and cried about it, and just wanted everybody to go away. My doubts were further exacerbated by my own hungry baby. I’d nurse Sam for a half-hour, and then offer him a bottle to top him up. He’d drink all four ounces, convincing me that he’d gotten absolutely nothing from my breasts.
My love for my breasts had turned into a sort of tired disgust. Sure, they looked good, but as far as I was concerned, they were useless. This went on for 6 weeks, until I finally threw in the towel. He went onto formula and bottles, and I put my nursing bra away and returned my rented breast pump. I was disappointed, but also relieved that the ordeal was over.
No longer stressed out, I could enjoy Sam and bond properly with him. 3 years later, I became pregnant with Alex. A bit older and a bit wiser, I was determined to not let fear derail me. At my first prenatal visit, I told the doctor that I wanted a prescription for Domperidone. I knew that herbs alone would not be enough, and wanted every possible bit of help. I also ordered a Lact-Aid supplemental nursing system, to supplement at the breast, which would help my supply much more than bottles would. Being realistic, however, I bought a case of concentrated formula.
Alex’s birth was the polar opposite of Sam’s. My labour was unmedicated and quick, with him being born just 5 hours after my water broke. I looked at my little boy with his ridiculous shock of black hair, and remembering all the lessons I had learned from Sam, carefully latched his tiny mouth onto my nipple, where he clamped on like a small crocodile and drank greedily. The nurses marvelled at how beautifully he latched. I smiled ruefully, knowing that the only reason the latch was so good was because I had taught myself how to do it, during those tearful nursing sessions with Sam.
Armed with my Lact-aid, Domperidone, fenugreek, goat’s rue, and a mastered football hold, Alex and I were on our way. My goal was to not have to supplement more than 50% of his intake. My fear of nursing in front of others had been replaced by a complete lack of damns given about who might see my breasts. I nursed in front of my in-laws and other visitors.
I bought an “udder cover” and nursed in public, using that until I mastered the art of the discreet latch. A friend from a Facebook nursing support group gave me the tip of wearing a snug camisole under a loose top, and lifting the top, lowering the cami, latching the baby, and then draping the top. Shortly after that, I gave the nursing cover away.
I nursed at McDonald’s. I nursed at the park. Would you could you nurse in a boat, with a goat, in the air, everywhere? Oh yeah. Definitely. I nursed him in the football hold, the cradle hold, the cross-cradle hold, and even upright in the Ergo. We were PROS at this thing! One day, I realized that Alex was only drinking about 3 ounces of formula a day. I stopped cold, my mind reeling. Could I do it? Could I exclusively breast-feed? I hadn’t even considered it, any more than I had considered sprouting wings and flying.
It seemed impossible for a BFAR mom to exclusively breastfeed, but we were SO close…so very close. I figured going a few days without formula wouldn’t starve him and taking a giant breath (and a couple of extra doses of goat’s rue), took the leap of faith.
I watched Alex’s weight closely. Would he lose weight, confirming the need for formula? Or would he hold steady, or even gain? I remember looking at the scale with joyful tears in my eyes when I realized that he was gaining weight. My baby was gaining weight off of ONLY my breast milk.
I wanted to stop strangers in the street and shake them by the shoulders and tell them what I had accomplished. I wanted to take out ads in the newspapers. I wanted a damn medal. I was doing it! I was exclusively breastfeeding my baby, and he was gaining weight!!! I had succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. My breasts were now beloved. Older and a bit tattered, but full of priceless treasure.
I would stare at my baby, marveling, as he latched on and drank, looking up at me with the heart-swelling trust that an infant has in his mother. Alex is now 9 months old, and has been on solids for a few months. He is pulling himself up on the furniture and trying to eat everything in sight. He’s in the 50th percentile for weight and the 90th percentile for height. He still gets the odd bottle of formula if we go out for a date night or if his cluster feeds have rendered my breasts in need of a break.
But I give him formula on MY terms, not on anybody else’s, and not because I feel I have to. Most days, he still drinks only my milk. And I still stare at him in wonderment as he drinks, as this precious, beautiful little boy takes his nourishment from my body. From my breasts. From me.