I remember it with startling clarity: the first time I experienced boob envy. Not in the aesthetic sense (many’s the time I’ve seen a shapely pair and thought, idly, that it would be nice if mine were more like those). No, this sort of envy was much more functional. At the time, I sitting with another NICU mother in the corner of the maternity ward reserved for expressing breast milk. We were huddled around the Medela Symphony breast pumps, their rhythmic sighs filling the silence, and I couldn’t help but notice the torrents of maternal largesse gushing forth from her nipple. Then and there, I wanted her superboobs rather than my pathetic, underperforming lot. “Oh, I’m not planning to breastfeed my baby once he’s out of hospital,” she said later and I thought: how shocking! and also: bloody hell, life’s not fair.
Disapproving Medela Symphony breast pump
Breastfeeding is one of the hardest things I have ever attempted, and that includes the pole dancing classes I once bought on Groupon (there was chafing as well as other indignities; I lasted one session).
“It’s easy, it’s more convenient, it’s more nutritious, it’s better, it’s free,” Jamie had declared. Before I had my baby, I would have nodded in dutiful agreement. I assumed that breastfeeding just … happened. You whipped out your boob, plugged your nipple into your newborn’s mouth and away you went. I marvelled at the notion that women might need lactation consultants. Really? Surely, if anything comes naturally it’s this? As it turns out, no.
Since I started breastfeeding three and a half months ago, I have learned to accept that I am now two boobs attached to a body. My life revolves, quite literally, around feeding my baby. It has never not been hard; I’ve lost count of how many times breastfeeding has reduced me to tears. The first time I took expressed milk to the NICU, the nurses laughed at me and I ended up having to order donor breast milk from the breast milk bank, sobbing because I felt like such a failure. During every pumping session, I am on the line. I feel like a 1930s apparatchik nervously eyeing production targets while thoughts drift inexorably in the direction of Siberia.
I’ve spent so many hours watching milk beading stubbornly on the plastic funnel of the breast pump, I could write a PhD thesis on hydrodynamics.
I do have help. I take anti-psychotic medication to promote lactation and drink vast quantities of Jungle Juice, a concoction involving fruit juice and Schlehen Berry Elixir and which breastfeeding mothers swear by – and even then, I often battle to produce enough milk. (Jungle Juice in South Africa is not to be confused with Jungle Juice in America, which usually includes large quantities of vodka.)
The bigger – and hungrier – my daughter gets, the harder it is to keep up with her. I’ve had to breastfeed at a meeting with colleagues as well as a dinner party because it was the only way to get her to stop crying. I seldom express milk now because my baby is hungry. all. the. time. There simply isn’t a gap. It is remarkably difficult to multitask when you have a small person clamped to one nipple. (I just typed that sentence with my left hand while holding my baby with my right.)
Oh, the times I have cried, quite literally, over spilled milk.
Not surprisingly, my relationship with my own body has changed in a fundamental way. My breasts were sexual signifiers doubling as mildly annoying body parts kept corralled and obedient in a bra, to be seen and touched by no one but me or my husband. Boobs, on the other hand, are objects I haul out whenever my baby starts crying. (“Boob is coming”, I tell her, because that’s what she would want to hear if she could process language.) My parents and stepdaughters, as well as the mommy blogger group I attended the other day, have all seen them.
I’ve discovered, incidentally, that it is possible to spray yourself in the face with your own breast milk; I’ve already attended a meeting with a client wearing glasses covered with a fine spray.
How I will manage next month once my maternity leave is over, I don’t know. I don’t want to resort to formula – in a perfect world, I would like to breastfeed my daughter until she is a year old – but I can’t spend so much time either expressing or breastfeeding, not when I have to attend meetings or produce PowerPoint documents. As it is, I work in an open-plan office, so finding both privacy and a plug point for the breast pump is going to be a challenge.
Jamie is wrong on several counts then. Breastfeeding is neither easy, nor convenient, nor free – certainly not when every moment of your work day is accounted for in time sheets. Breast might be best, but it has thoroughly humbled me.
Image – A mother breastfeeds her 2-month-old son outside City Hall during a ralley to support breastfeeding in public on August 8, 2014, in New York City. The event was organized by the New York City Breastfeeding Leadership Council, which advocates for the social acceptance of allowing women to breastfeed in public. (Getty Images/AFP)