Breastfeeding as a (s)hero’s journey?

Every single human being was drummed into this world by a woman, having listened to the heart rhythms of their mother.

––Connie Sauer

February 2014 003

Recently I re-posted an article I wrote about breastfeeding and parenting as spiritual practices. I received a comment on the re-post that really gave me pause and some food for thought:

I’ve really liked your writing about preparing for birth as a warrior’s rite. I only wish I’d had materials that prepared me for breastfeeding similarly…

I’d like to have at least one breastfeeding book out there that supports women in breastfeeding even when it’s hell, and that doesn’t assume any pain is due to some tiny, easily fixed problem. I continue to get the most condescending advice when I talk about this in public — I don’t know how anyone thinks, with the amount of pain I’ve experienced trying to make this work, that I haven’t already tried every obvious solution.

Anyway, that is all a bit tangential to your post. I do think breastfeeding can be spiritual, though for some of us, it may be an ordeal as much as birth is. I would love to see that acknowledged better in breastfeeding resources.

 

I’ve been a breastfeeding counselor for nine years. I’ve written before that I have much more often marveled that a mother kept breastfeeding than I have wondered why she didn’t! Mothers are amazing and they go through a LOT. Reading this comment made me wonder why I’ve never really written about my own breastfeeding stories in the sense of a hero’s journey—perhaps because the difficult parts, once overcome, then fade into the fabric of that ongoing relationship? Perhaps because of the sheer ongoing involvement of breastfeeding, rather than the more discreet, definable event of birth? Perhaps because the path can be even more twisty and intimate and embodied and thorough and invested than even pregnancy and birth? Perhaps because, for me, my early breastfeeding stories are very bound up in my overall feelings during postpartum and the struggles I experienced there? Perhaps because for me personally the breastfeeding relationship continues to evolve into toddlerhood and so some of visceral, newborn, early journey elements are subsumed into the more habitual and every day? Why have I never written about the bloody, messy, tearful, painful parts of breastfeeding in my own personal motherhood story?! They’re there. And, when I counsel mothers in person I do talk about those parts. I also never tell people that breastfeeding hurts because they’re doing it wrong—I tell them they will read that phrase over and over, but that in reality, most women experience some degree of discomfort and even pain in the early weeks. Where it becomes not normal is when there is blood or blisters or open wounds, but if someone suddenly started sucking on ANY of your body parts 8-12 times a day, I think it is logical that we can expect some adjustment or difficulty or stress or pain in adjusting to that degree of intense, sustained, body contact/involvement.

I wrote the following at the end of one of my blog posts last year: January 2014 041

I’m also reminded again, however, of why breastfeeding support holds such a lasting pull for me and that is because postpartum is where it is at, that is where we are so very, very deeply needed as support people. Birth is amazing and exhilarating and women most definitely need us there too, but in the nitty-gritty, day-to-day, unglamorous, nipples and breast infections, teething, crying, dirty-haired, exhausted, wrung-out maternal web of daily being is a very tender and delicate beauty that becomes visible only when we’re willing to spend months and months, or even years, serving as a listening ear, a medication lookup, and someone to trust with both her laughter and her tears.

Talk Books: Laughter & Tears: The Emotional Life of New Mothers | Talk Birth.

Birth has been one of my biggest passions for many years. It is so exciting and interesting and almost “glamorous”—it is where the thrill is, the big work, and the big moment: the baby’s emergence. But, guess what, it is in the breastfeeding relationship and the first year with the new baby in which the mother’s strength is really tested. Breastfeeding is the day in and day fabric of connection. It is a huge physical and emotional investment, the continued devotion of one’s body to one’s baby. Breastfeeding support may not as exciting or thrilling as birthwork for me, but it is so very REAL and so very needed, and part of the nitty-gritty reality of individual mother’s complicated lives as they find their feet on the motherhood road. It really matters.

In what ways has breastfeeding been a hero’s journey for you? I’ve written a lot about birth in this context—the idea of the birth warrior or birth as a shamanic experience or birth as a labyrinth path, etc…but what about the breastfeeding journey? How were you tested, how were you challenged, how did you rise, or make peace, or triumph, or cry, or scream, or dig so deeply into yourself that you had to gasp in wonder at your own capacity? What is your breastfeeding story…?

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6 thoughts on “Breastfeeding as a (s)hero’s journey?

  1. Pingback: Breastfeeding as a (s)hero’s journey?

  2. AMAZING post, as many of your writings are. I am mom to a toddler and a newborn. How surprising was the second go-round with breast feeding! I was experiencing pain, and my gut knew something was wrong, but, surrounded by top notch support, even the professionals — midwife, pediatrician, and two certified lactation consultants, contested my opinion that baby had an upper lip tie. I knew what a good latch looked and felt like, and she was coming to the breast with a thin upper lip, not flanged. I persisted until I found a third certified lactation consultant who instantly confirmed my suspicion, put it in writing on letterhead for me, and referred us to a pediatric dentist who performs laser surgery. HOWEVER, after having had the most gentle and wonderful home birth, and believing so strongly in protecting the newborn’s peace, we opted not to surgically correct the lip tie. Instead, I’ve adapted to sometimes painful nursing, because she is gaining weight.

    My point is, my gut intuition was tested and tested, and every time it was tested, it spoke louder and I listened with clarity and acceptance.

    There is so much to say on this subject! What a great perspective you’ve brought to light! Thank you.

  3. Oh my, the breastfeeding journey. I didn’t nurse my first child, my beautiful son, who turned ten today. I could offer you a thousand excuses as to why I didn’t, but it boils down to a lack of education.

    My second child, my first daughter, will turn three next month. Berfore her birth, I armed myself with a tremendous amount of education, and was well supported by an entirely local community of attachment parenting moms, 98% of whom breastfeed currently or had breastfed for an extended period of time in the past. This included some local and at least one regional LLL leader. I had a 40 hour long VBAC with certified nurse midwives and a doula (and an amazing husband, who wept openly as he caught my daughter and brought her to my chest). She latched on great! She nursed! She nursed and nursed and nursed and slept and nursed and that’s all we did…until 5 days after she was born, when she still had mec poop and brick dust pee and was jaundiced. That was the day when I discovered she was born with a bilateral incomplete cleft palate.She was undergoing yet another heel stick to check her bili levels, and was screaming. I saw into her mouth…and into her sinuses. Don’t ask me how the midwives missed it. Don’t ask me how the 3 pediatricians we saw during our stay missed it. Somehow, everyone missed it. By the time she got to see our family doctor on day 8 of her life (we were still EBF), she had dropped a pound and a half. She was still well hydrated, but she was using all of her will and might and fire to extract milk from the breast, and she was not getting enough nourishment to help her gain.

    Now, some moms might have given up and just grabbed a can of formula. Nope, nope, nopeity nope sauce. I got a pump on loan from one of my closest friends, and I started pumping. I pumped and pumped and pumped and took milk donations and went through 4 cases of mastitis, but my daughter was bottlefed breastmilk exclusively for nearly the first seven months of her life. Through colic, through hour and a half long feedings, through no sleep and endless hours at that stupid pump, I fed her precious drops of liquid gold. Want to know about pumping? About hand expression? About flange sizing and lubrication and how to boost your supply herbally and nutritionally and medically and mechanically? I can tell you all of that. What I can’t express in words is my quiet triumph over the agony of the loss of our breastfeeding relationship. It was one of my most selfless loving acts, ever. I killed myself to make that milk for her. My blood, sweat, and tears went into that milk. I met with LC’s and LLL leaders and well meaning friends. I met with a doctor specializing in breastfeeding. I wound up in the ER 3 times with breast infections, each one so bad I streaked to my arm pit. At nearly seven months, I finally threw in the towel. I fed her a combination of donor milk and formula, and I felt little guilt over it. She had her repair surgery at 11 months of age. All through our struggles, I was also fighting our insurance company, fighting the pediatrician on our cleft team (who wanted me to give her rice cereal in the breastmilk through a bottle….don’t even get me started), driving an hour and a half one way to take her to a pediatric dentist, the only one in the state who makes obturators for children with cleft palates. In turn, she fought to gain weight and master her surroundings. She was ten pounds at six months….but she was army crawling all over the house by four months.

    Today, at nearly three, that spunk and that fire is still present. When I prayed to Her to gift me a daughter with strength and a voice and an iron will…She delivered. In spades.

    My third child, my little Zen daughter, was born October first of last year. 14 hour labor, all told. I didn’t need support or help until I hit transition, which lasted about 45 minutes, followed by rocket second stage labor. It was so fast that when they put her on my chest, I literally looked at her like….wtf is this?? It was an amazing, beautiful, peaceful birth. Her pregnancy was the difficult part. I was sick sick sick. Subclinical HG, hyperthyroidism, severe anemia, severe protracted bronchitis that had me coughing so hard I broke a rib and strained both round ligaments. I got risked out of a home birth and wound up having another hospital birth with CNM’s. But her birth…oh, her sweet, peaceful birth. I would have ten more just to get to experience that again.

    She latched great. She nursed like a champ. No cleft for this bebe, no ma’am. But her latch…it was pinchy. I talked to nurses, I talked to midwives, I talked to the LC. I talked to a pediatrician, to my family doc. I got mastitis on day 3. I was so engorged I had lumps in my armpits. I hired a pricey IBCLC, and she came and told me the same damned thing…she has a great latch. She has no ties. You’re overthinking things, of course it hurts in the beginning. She also told me I was big chested and it was easy for baby to slide down the nipple and have a bit of trouble nursing, she also told me I probably had an over supply and a fast let down and things would improve. But this was more than just initial discomfort. I got onto one of my Facebook groups dedicated to all things crunchy mama, and asked for ideas for oversupply/fast letdown. Nursing was so painful I was crying putting her at the breast. I was hand expressing and feeding her with a bottle for at least one feeding a day, just to give my nipples a break. They were cracked, bleeding, bruised, and blanching. I felt as though someone had rubbed them in broken glass. Immediately, one of the women in the group told me to get her checked for an upper lip tie and a 4th degree tongue tie. I looked around, found a local pediatric dentist who identifies and deals with posterior tongue ties, and called the office in tears. They fit me in 4 days later, making room in the schedule for us.

    The dentist examined her and immediately found an upper lip tie that looked mild to moderate as well as a posterior tongue tie. She lasered them both, my daughter hardly cried. The lip tie was A LOT more extensive than it looked at first glance. It still took several weeks for my nipples to heal and for nursing to hurt a lot less. She will be six months old on Tuesday, and I am SO GLAD I stuck it out. Through all the pain and all the tears, through HATING nursing for the first two months…I made it work. I’m so grateful. Now if I could figure out how to make her stop pinching my nipples and trying to suck her thumb and nurse at the same time…

      • I feel blessed to have something of substance to say! I read your blog all the time and you have inspired me so much (so much so that I put my foot down last night and said, that’s it. I am going back to school, finishing my degree, and contributing to the wider community). I have shared your posts widely on Facebook and within my communities, as well as inviting everyone and their mother to your Brigid’s Grove page. One of your statues graced my birth altar for my mother blessing and third birth. I have beautiful pictures of said altar (and said mother blessing and birth).

      • Made my day to read this! If you ever want to send me a picture of your birth altar/mother blessing, I’d love to see! :) And, congratulations on going back to school! Big decision, but one you will not regret.

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