“It can’t be as bad as last time.” With a bit of a nervous chuckle, those were my exact words when my midwife asked about nursing baby number two. I (barely) survived those first six weeks with baby number one, so by comparison, number two should have been a piece of cake.
I allowed myself to envision latching my new baby mere minutes after her beautiful birth. After all, I was a breastfeeding pro! I knew all the holds. I knew what I good latch looked like. I could still hear those satisfied gulps, see the unmistakable eye rolls, and feel the dead-weight of a milk-drunk infant in my arms.
When it was finally time to nurse my wriggly, wrinkly new girl, I confidently wrapped my right arm around her back, supported her (not so) tiny head with my hand and expertly guided her lips to my nipple.
My hope for a perfect moment was instantly shattered by a very familiar scream. It was the scream of a newborn that had no intention on latching for a very long time. My first thought, minus a very specific expletive, was “here we go again!”
The first time I went through it, it didn’t really faze me that much. I had no real expectation on what nursing would look like, so the fact that it was hard was just a fact of life with a newborn in my eyes.
The second time around, the emotional toll was much different. I wasn’t just struggling with the physical aspect of nursing, I was consumed with feelings of shame, failure and — most surprisingly — embarrassment. How could this happen again? I’m supposed to know what I’m doing.
And then it was at about week five that I began to believe that I couldn’t do it. It was the weight of expectation that was crushing me.
It seems lately there’s been a barrage of breastfeeding images, especially on social media. I can’t go more than a few days without seeing an image that has gone viral under the hashtag “normalize breastfeeding.”
While it makes my heart so happy to see these images and to think that every one of them is helping to break down the social stigma of breastfeeding, these images haunted me. At 3am, after my new baby had yet another bottle and I was pumping yet again, I couldn’t help but think that I wasn’t normal.
In our current attempt to “normalize” breastfeeding is the pendulum potentially swinging a bit too far in the other direction — are we heading away from villainizing breastfeeding to idealizing it? Are these #normalizebreastfeeding images really normal? Are we now creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure because some women will never be able to nurse their baby through a fence or on Santa’s lap or look like Blake Lively in a bikini?
However inspiring these images are — and I do believe they’re bred from a genuine desire to promote acceptance — to truly normalize breastfeeding, where are the normal moms??
You know what my normal looks like: unwashed hair, dirty sweatpants, milk-stained t-shirts, nipple shields, breast pumps, visible exhaustion. Why aren’t we talking about the fact that nursing a newborn can be terrible? It’s painful. It’s frustrating. It’s boring. And it’s not pretty.
It absolutely sucks sometimes. And that’s when things are going well. Add in any problem to the mix — thrush, mastitis, nursing aversion, teething, biting, etc. etc. etc. — and you can throw a big old f-bomb into that statement.
What messages are new moms receiving when they see these images? That breastfeeding is easy? Of course it can be — and with time and patience it can be the easiest thing about having a baby (hungry, tired, cold, lonely, hurt, growing, teething, sick: boob that baby).
But for the majority of women, at some point in their journey, it is really, really hard. When new moms are internalizing these images of what I call “extreme breastfeeding” under the heading of “normal” how are they to reconcile that fact that their “normal” is nowhere near the Facebook/Twitter’s version of normal?
My hope is that breastfeeding will soon be as normal as a woman wearing pants — yup, stay with me here. Less than 100 years ago, a woman wearing pants was scandalous. If Twitter had been around, #normalizepants would have been trending for most of the 1920s, 30s and 40s.
People would be posting selfies of their pants-wearing ventures: “@badasspantswearer feeling hotsy-totsy in my new trousers #seemyankles #downwithskirts #totallymisbehavin’” And I’m sure there would also be a fair amount of “pants-shaming” as well: “@skirtlover saw another bearcat at the market wearing britches #keepitinyourskirt #myhusbandmightsee #disgusting”.
Yet, now pants are so normal that it’s hard to fathom a time when they were actually pretty controversial. Maybe in 10, 20, 50, 100 years from now someone will utter the words, “breastfeeding is so normal that it’s hard to fathom a time when it was actually pretty controversial.”
That will be a time when breastfeeding is normalized. Breastfeeding hashtags won’t even exist because they will literally hold no conversational value — #normalizebreastfeeding will be as socially irrelevant as #normalizepants.
I remember the exact words that changed it all for me. At my lowest low about five week postpartum, I told my husband that I didn’t think I could nurse my baby any more. His stone-faced response: “Oh, you’re fine.”
It was those words that snapped me away from other people’s normal and refocused on my normal. My normal sucks. It sucked on and off for nearly two years with my first; and eight months [at the time of publication] in with my second, it still kind of sucks. And honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2016 issue of The Holistic Parent magazine.