Hannah Horvath isn’t the first mom to struggle with breastfeeding.
In “Girls” series finale, “Latching,” we see Lena Dunham’s character essentially lose her sh-t because her newborn baby, Grover, won’t latch onto her nipple and take her milk. She feels like a bad mother whose baby hates her, and acts butthurt (boob hurt?) as though he were just another guy rejecting her. Having Marnie read aloud passages from literature on the subject in a holier-than-thou tone and offer hands-on help only further humiliates her. And giving Grover a bottle of formula is viewed as a last-case scenario — giving up.
Kudos to “Girls” for depicting this incredibly trying aspect of motherhood. We’re often told that breast milk is best for the baby’s health, and that the act fosters a fundamental mother-baby bond that will serve the child for years to come, but no one prepares women for the basic logistical difficulties of the act, not to mention its physical and emotional toll.
More things can go wrong, it seems, than right. For starters, you might not produce enough milk. Getting the baby to latch can take time, and if and when you do succeed, getting him to position his mouth correctly to actually receive the milk can be another frustration. Then there are the horrors of pumping (which turns you into a “Medela cow,” as one woman put it) a painful, time-consuming ordeal that’s challenging for any mother, and nearly impossible to do while working full-time. (Our country’s inadequate paid maternity leave and lack of affordable child care only compound these issues.)
We have a lot of work to do to better support new mothers. A first step is to listen. Here are six women on their struggles with breastfeeding — from not producing enough milk, to getting shade for nursing in public — and what they wish they had known before to prepare.
When you give birth to twins but can’t make enough milk for both mouths
“I physically couldn’t breastfeed. I produced some milk but not nearly enough for two babies. It was so disappointing because before you have a child, breastfeeding vs. formula is presented as this sort of choice of equal options, but the reality is that one is 500,000 times more difficult than the other and there’s not even a guarantee you can do it.
We had to supplement with formula from day one because they were too small and I wasn’t making enough milk. I stopped breastfeeding at all around four months.”
When your church shames you for breastfeeding in the pews
“My second issue was regarding working full time and breastfeeding. From the daycare trying to push me to bring in formula, to my employer being negative about my leaving every three hours to pump, to the church having a negative reaction to my feeding in services with a cover. Comments like, ‘Well, when you work, you don’t get the privilege of breastfeeding always.’ It was a super rural community and they just didn’t understand the concept of a working mom choosing to breastfeed.”
When the baby latches but that’s not the end of your troubles
“My baby latched from day one, but I would have to try a million times until he got the breast right. You need to learn how to position the baby so he doesn’t bite your nipple. It hurts so much. For four or five days you are in pain. He has to have his mouth open and you have to bring him right over to your breast. It was a full-time job. That was all I did really: opened his mouth, brought him over. I called the lactation nurse (every hospital has one, they are the most important people helping moms to breastfeed) many times. Without her help I don’t think I would have made it. Funny thing, from watching movies, I thought nursing was so easy. Do you remember ‘The Blue Lagoon’? The baby just goes to Brooke Shield’s nipple and starts sucking. Well, it is not like that at all.”
When pumping at work is a logistical nightmare
“When I went back to work, that’s when the trouble started. Imagine going in a back room every hour and a half for 30 minutes to do this thing. You end up pumping less than your child would actually eat, so if you’re not forcing your body to keep expelling [the milk], then it thinks it doesn’t need as much so it doesn’t produce as much. Then there’s this battle of, oh my God, I’m away from my kid, I’m not producing enough, I’m a bad mom. For me, I was teaching at a university, so I would have back to back classes and I would have a break every three hours. I’d run to this room, which was like a converted dorm room designated for this, it was so disgusting in there. I would pump and then run back to my next class to teach, hoping there was nothing leaking. It’s the most infuriating process.”
When you’re balancing nursing an infant and taking care of a toddler
“Breastfeeding in general is just exhausting and stressful. I was feeding our second [child] every hour and a half for a while during the day and I already had a toddler to keep up with. Nursing sessions can be about 30 min each, then 20 minutes once they get about a month old, so trying to get anything done in between is tough. Having another child and being outside the house with a nursing baby who feeds often is also difficult. Although breastfeeding should be normal in public, it isn’t, and I definitely was modest about [it], so that was stressful, too. Nursing covers are terribly hot and were impossible for me to use.”
When you can’t breastfeed because you have inverted nipples and your baby is tongue-tied
“I read all the stuff on breastfeeding, but [my baby] wouldn’t latch. After a few days in the hospital, the pediatrician said, ‘Oh, he has a tongue-tie.’ Sometimes babies are born with the skin under their tongue more forward so their mouth can’t really open. Plus, I have inverted nipples. So that, coupled with his tongue-tie, we had a lot against us.
You can imagine, coming home from the hospital, you kind of don’t know what the f—k is happening. Three days later, when the milk comes in your boobs are painful, hard rocks— I looked like a female wrestler — and it needs that suction to come out. So, [because my] baby wasn’t latching, I pumped exclusively for five months. Eight times a day. I was like a Medela cow milking myself.
The whole point of breastfeeding is that you’re supposed to have this amazing connection with your child. The couple of times he did latch, you look in their eyes and it’s really beautiful. I had that twice. And then I pumped, and my husband would feed him the bottle. I felt like my husband was his f—g mother! And because you’re kind of crazy, you’re thinking, ‘Oh my child doesn’t like me, and I’m doing all the work pumping eight times a day, my nipples are chafed, I can’t leave my house for long because I’m attached to this machine, so, it was just this depressing cycle. It wasn’t the experience I wanted.”