“Didn’t you find breastfeeding hard?” my friend asks me casually, watching my son as he makes his way down the stairs of her home, towards us. She’s just had her first baby and we’re visiting with balloons, little onesies and a plush tiger that growls when you press his belly.
I pause before answering.
The question seems harmless enough and yet it is fraught with all the collective anxiety over parenting and its choices that modern motherhood brings.
My answer, if given any length at all, risks coming armed with a halo and an air of reproach. I have already spotted a bottle and a can of powdered baby formula on my friend’s dresser. And I cannot see, but I can sense the tentativeness, the tremulous uncertainty mixed with overpowering determination that is new motherhood behind her questions.
When you say you breastfed your baby for over two years, people look at you knowingly. Ah, a fanatic, their eyes say. I always turn away, unwilling to engage in a subject so laden with nuance.
Yes! I am a fanatic, I want to say. I am utterly and unabashedly enthralled with the nursing life. Spend an hour with me, and I will leave you convinced that there is no other parenting choice as essential, as primal to your relationship with your child, as vital to his and your emotional and physical well-being.
At the same time, I also want to say: No! I’m a nursing fanatic only for my own kids. I hold no judgment for you and your nutritional choices. Motherhood is complex and we’re all trying our best!
As I consider how to answer my friend, I think back to the moment when my firstborn was handed to me. He latched on immediately. Amidst the overwhelming sensation of being gifted the most precious and beautiful person on earth, I recall being amazed by our joint nursing prowess.
And I didn’t know it then, but I would become a milky, multi-tasking champion. I would be able to nurse my child and do anything at all simultaneously, including shopping or cooking dinner for a party of 20.
Breastfeeding? Hard?! I would be astounded by the protests from my friends. How is it hard? What could be easier than holding your baby to your heart?
There are secrets only breastfeeding mothers know: The first latch. The feeling of fullness as your milk lets down. How a little hand feels as it rests on your chest, in that bony space right above your heartbeat. The tiny pop when you break the suction and your baby, satiated, nestles into you. The bursting pride of nourishing your child using your own body. Those first two years of my son’s life were the easiest years of my life.
Later, my boy will become the most difficult, enraged three-year-old. With every tantrum I will be left shaking and broken. He will have a speech delay and we will struggle to understand each other. In those times, I will remember the breastfeeding years. That secret universe of ours where we both spoke the same language, where nothing was lost in translation.
My boy is six now. He is utterly self-directed, completely independent of my opinion in anything. Two days after his last feed, I asked him about it casually – testing him. How much of our time together do you remember? How much did it mean to you? I was shocked when he shrugged off my question and walked away. He was wholly uninterested. It is clear he weaned me as much as I weaned him. He did not remember then or now.
But I remember.
My body remembers. When I nursed his two sisters for the first time, I was only thinking of him and that first moment of motherhood. When, even today, I come across a picture of me and him during his babyhood, those trusting eyes, that total and complete knowledge that we had of each other, I choke up. How have we suddenly stopped understanding each other? A couple of months ago, when I heard my brother’s baby crying in other room, I felt that familiar sudden fullness. I excused myself to the bathroom, checked that my shirt hadn’t gotten visibly wet, and inexplicably found myself wiping away tears.
And this is what, years on, two more children and a thousand motherhood moments and choices later, I finally understand. I was lucky that breastfeeding my son was easy. For us, it was everything that came afterwards that was hard. For other mothers, it’s sometimes the other way around. And so, breastfeeding becomes a microcosm of parenting.
My friend, the newly minted mama, carefully holding the her child, watching my tall six-year-old boy jump down the stairs, isn’t asking about breastfeeding. She’s asking about parenting. All of it.
“Yes, it was hard.” I tell her simply. “It still is.” And it is the truth.
Breastfeeding is hard. And it is easy. It is complicated and utterly simple. It is terrifying and exhausting and yet, exhilarating. But most of all, it is always worth it.
Just like parenting.
Just like life.
World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) is an annual celebration which is held every year from 1 to 7 August.