Yesterday morning, for the first time, my daughter didn’t ask for milk. It was a relief. It was a tiny heartache. An hour later, she handed me her half-eaten apple, complaining of a sore throat, and said, “Maybe milk can help me.” She poked my breast, checking for contents. I offered a hug and some vitamin C spray. (I still can’t say whether it’s really over, whether she is “officially” weaned.)
Thirty-three months is a long time to breastfeed. I would’ve nursed even longer if I hadn’t felt so physically drained. It took me a while to make the connection and to begin the weaning process. There seems to be very little in the way of literature or discussion around breastfeeding and its impact on energy levels and stamina.
Promoting breast-is-best requires a positive spin that doesn’t always include the complexities and demands of breastfeeding, truths that are more often revealed in conversations among nursing mothers. Still, no one out there said to me, you’ll feel so much better once she’s weaned, except for a best friend who nursed her child into toddlerhood. I witnessed her energy spike after her son weaned; she was more animated and even spoke more quickly. I realized we’d been occupying a sort of cocoon, a space where everything slows, and she’d broken out of it.
Breastfeeding necessitates a slow pace; it casts a biological spell allowing the mother to connect with her infant. For me, breastfeeding was at odds with returning to a “normal” pace. In the beginning, it was almost immobilizing. There were also other factors slowing me down, like recovering from a long and traumatically painful birth. (An essay I want to write: the postpartum mental health gap in our system.)
While I admire women like the artist Hein Koh, seen here nursing her newborn twins while working on her laptop, I have mixed feelings about these kinds of photos because they are misleading. They perpetuate the notion that women can and should do it all, that professional ambitions can never be temporarily tabled and that taking time off means sacrificing a career, that the postpartum period of recovery and mother-infant bonding only lasts a short time and is the same for every woman, and that breastfeeding and caring for children is not valid (and exhausting) work in itself.
Don’t get me wrong, I want to double high-five Koh, a mama who is breastfeeding twins and multi-tasking, a woman who is brave enough to show the world what is possible. But let’s not confuse what is possible with what is typical. I consider Koh exceptional; she inspires the same awe I feel watching an Olympic gymnast catapult her body into the air. It’s spectacular, but it’s the furthest thing from average.
At five-weeks postpartum, I was breastfeeding my infant as naturally as Koh appears to be in her photo. I, too, gave the appearance of physical ease with this task. Less visible was the mental drain and exhaustion. All of my energy was spent on the daunting work of caring for my infant daughter; I was hardly capable of composing a coherent email, let alone returning to work. For so many other women I know, breastfeeding wasn’t easy at all; it was challenging, difficult work. Every feed required singular focus and tremendous perseverance.
Singular focus is dismissed by our culture and multi-tasking is glorified. We must always be doing at least three things simultaneously. And we wonder why we’re perpetually overcome by anxiety. What happened to doing one thing very well and moving on to the next thing? (Says the woman currently negotiating a toddler tantrum while typing these words.)
This piece on ScaryMommy addresses the disservice of perpetuating these myths around “having it all” and calls for reform of U.S. Family Medical Leave Act. I couldn’t agree more.
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