Nava is 6 months old today. I’ve breastfed her approximately 1,800 times, she has consumed approximately 5,000 ounces – or 600 cups – or about one bathtub – of breastmilk from me, not including the 300+ ounces I’ve frozen. I’ve used nipple creams, breast gels, frozen cabbage leaves, and nipple shields. I’ve nursed through swollen, bleeding, and cracked nipples, growth spurts, sleep regressions, and now we’re teething; in airports, retirement homes, cars, malls; and on park benches, beds, and floors. I’ve pumped on airplanes, at airport gates, at weddings and at all hours of the night. I’ve tripped over my pump tubing; battled an oversupply, plugged milk ducts, breast infections; and I’ve squirted my daughter in the eyes countless times when she unlatched unexpectedly. I’ve joined an online breastfeeding support group, taken my daughter to cranial sacral therapy to improve her latch; watched, read, and reviewed “latch” YouTube videos; and never used the word “latch” so many times in my life. I constantly worry whether she is getting enough breastmilk; I have a comeback ready if anyone tells me to cover my tatas in public; and I knowingly smile at other moms with small babies. I’ve spilled, wasted, and tasted my breastmilk. Three words: vanilla ice cream. Making it this far is my proudest accomplishment because it was hard won.
I’ve always felt a pull toward motherhood. As a child, my stuffed animals were my children, with feelings, in need of cuddling, and deserving of apologies if you sat on parts of their bodies. From middle school to graduate school, I cared for infants, multiples, and birthday parties full of toddlers. There wasn’t an arrangement of children I couldn’t handle well or easily entertain. Everyone told me that I’d be a natural mom one day. When Nava was born, I understood the feeling people obnoxiously refer to as a “calling” in life. Holding her felt instinctive, my love for was instantaneous, and even my maternal anxiety set in that first night in a terrifying nightmare.
And then, for that first week, we tried breastfeeding. Or — to paint a more honest picture — I tried shoving her tiny face into my sore, cracked and bleeding nipples while using my other hand to hold my breast and shape it into a nipple “sandwich,” remembering not to lean forward because that’s “an unsustainable breastfeeding position,” while protecting her fragile body from falling off the pillows and blankets propped under her and surrounding me for the right positioning No one — not family, not friends, not Pinterest, not even the lactation consultant who led my breastfeeding class at Kaiser — told me that breastfeeding wouldn’t feel natural. So, I’ll just whisper to you a truth that no one whispers to you until you are a mom who is struggling with breastfeeding: breastfeeding is really hard, and you might hate it.
Everyone does tell you to “sleep when the baby sleeps.” But when you’re a mom struggling with breastfeeding, you can’t sleep when the baby sleeps because, when the baby sleeps, you just can’t stop yourself from pouring over articles, forums, YouTube videos and online support groups so that you know what to do with your breasts when the baby is awake. I saw swollen, bleeding nipples everywhere: in my miniature cranberry muffin (see below!), in the bulbous blackberries in my morning oatmeal, in mushy figs, and in the tips of lemons. I dreamt that my nipples were elastic and that Nava could stretch them like pieces of gum. And when I filled up my water bottle, all I could see were my collection bottles filling up with breast milk. I could hear my breast pump talk. I had become desperate and deranged.
At the end of our first week, my lactation consultant encouraged me that things would improve by six weeks — as if the babies get some email that they’re supposed to sleep more and chew on your nipples less. With tired eyes, I looked at my hungry, vulnerable baby and at my misshapen, ruby red nipples and could only think, “That’s, like, 400 more breastfeeding sessions.” I didn’t want to quit, but I wannnnnnted to quit. Breastfeeding my daughter was something my body was made to do, something that mothers everywhere have always done, so why couldn’t I? I didn’t feel like a “natural” mom at all. When Nava cried, I felt dread. I felt fear. More than a few times, we cried together.
My lactation consultant gave me the names of several local breastfeeding support groups where I could find support among other moms struggling to breastfeed. I rolled my eyes inside and around my head imagining a bunch of emotional wrecks sitting in a circle with their engorged boobs hanging down to their belly buttons as some stranger with really cold hands grabbed their breasts. What a snob. I should have gone. Eventually I found camaraderie among the strangers in an online breastfeeding support group. There were thousands of moms sharing their desperation to quit but asking strangers to encourage them so they could get to that magical place where breastfeeding is “amazing.” A lot of stories made me laugh, a few stories have made me cry, and all of these women gave me perspective: watching blood from their nipples trickle down the side of their baby’s mouth while nursing, snipping and laser-cutting their week-old babies’ tongue and lip ties, thrush, midnight fevers from infected breasts. I waited for someone somewhere to confess: “and then she completely bit off my nipple.” #Normalizebreastfeeding? #Normalizenipplepain! Those strangers, their success stories, their much-worse-situations gave me the strength to continue. Struggling to nurse is not shameful. It is normal. It could probably even be funny with the right script and the right actors.
Like everyone told me it would, eventually things improved for us but well beyond six weeks. Then things got tough again. And then they improved. Right now, breastfeeding is sweet, euphoric. Nava raises her warm, baby palm against my mouth, searching for my tongue with her tiny fingers. She twirls my hair. She gently waves the palm of her free hand across my chest, back and forth. She groans from pleasure. She takes breaks mid-feed to stop and smile at me and then furiously buries her face in my chest. Everything in her world can be wrong until I bring her close to me to nurse. It’s my superpower.
After weeks of Nava grabbing and lunging at our food, I knew it was time to introduce her to solids, but I came up with lots of reasons why we should keep waiting. Like any parent, I was excited to see her face contort when she tasted sour apples and mushy bananas, but also, I was a little bit jealous. For six months, I’ve been her preferred source of comfort, the first thing she explored when she entered the world. I didn’t deserve to be replaced by produce. When she made her first face of disgust, I was like, “Yeah, this sweet potato is whack. Let’s go nurse, Navi! You want mama!” Look, after what we went through, I’d be crazy not to breastfeed this child until she’s in college.
I never thought I’d breastfeed after six months. It has been an unexpected ordeal, a huge commitment, and it is so exhausting. It is all hours of the day, a few times at night, in outfits that don’t come off easily, in really hot weather, and in the ugliest bras that you have to sleep in foreverrrr. It has pushed me to the outer edges of my limits, teaching me about my own determination, commitment, willingness to sacrifice, and strength. Knowing there will be a not too distant day when we will have our very last nursing session together honestly makes me kind of nauseated. I’m not ready for it. But I also know that being her mom will involve a lifetime of letting go and allowing her to flourish as she is meant to. And so, as I teach her, she teaches me, and I trust that she’ll let me know when she’s ready to leave this stage behind, and I will be there to guide her through the next one.
This week, I am sharing a recipe for cranberry muffins with you – an homage to the early days of nipple creams, walking around topless, screaming in the shower, wincing in pain from a terrycloth towel, and all of that. These muffins are only slightly sweet. They’re mostly tart and you shouldn’t feel bad if you eat five mini muffins because they’re mini. Enjoy!
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line your muffin tin with muffin papers, or don’t – doesn’t matter. In a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, combine the coconut oil, yogurt, coconut sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Mix on medium speed until smooth (about 20 seconds). In a small bowl, whisk together the flours, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, cardamon, nutmeg and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and whisk just until combined. Do not overmix! Fold the cranberries into the batter and add the chocolate shavings, if you’re using them. The batter will appear very dry. That is okay.Fill each muffin tin to the top with batter. Generously sprinkle the tops of the muffins with coconut sugar and bake for 25 minutes. Enjoy!