Breastfeeding Sucks!

Folks, can we have an honest conversation about something?

Have I mentioned that the hours are long, the pain is unavoidable and the sleep deprivation is a killer?

Lisa spends roughly 10 hours of her day breastfeeding Jack and Eli, spread across eight sessions. It feels odd, too personal, to write about my wife’s nipples, and worse still to describe them as cracked, bleeding and raw. But there it is. And of course there is the sleep deprivation, always the sleep deprivation.

As a new dad, nothing prepared me for the existential angst of watching my wife plod through these endless days, eyelids drooping, face twisting as a shooting pain hit her. I feel the depths of my own powerlessness. And breastfeeding is a primary challenge.

A few months ago, that statement would have seemed nonsensical to me. I mean breastfeeding is natural, right? Well, let me explain: Yes, breasfeeding is natural, as are disease, the occasional infected boil and shark attacks.

Breastfeeding yields dramatic health benefits, for both mother and child. So, right now, for Lisa, there is no other choice. But I can understand why others might reach a different decision. Here in America, for instance, while 70 percent of new moms start with some intention to breast feed, less than 40 percent are still doing so six months later. Breastfeeding can be relatively easy, in some instances. But the problems and time pressure and pain can also prove to be long-term sources of difficulty.

As a dad, the process has put me fully, deeply in touch with my weakness and my limits. I help. And do. I place and remove the babies from my wife’s chest, burp them, change their diapers, and swaddle them when the time comes. I try to do it all pleasantly and to engage my wife in the kinds of conversations we used to enjoy. We exchange notes on the daytimes we spent apart—me at work, her in the salt mines of childcare. But sometimes, when the cumulative effect of sleeplessness and my new, heavily scripted life is too much, I can only manage grunts, a stony expression.

I return to bed feeling like I accomplished nothing, and worse—like I let my wife and new babies down. In my bleakest moments, which are steadily piling up, I wish I could blow this all up somehow, could press a plunger and shatter reality into a zillion gorgeous pieces, leaving nothing in place but me, the boys and my peaceful, happy wife, preserved forever in some rare idyllic moment of cooing, tender bliss. And that is where the powerlessness comes in—my role limited merely to reducing the pain and stress, not eliminating it. Because there is no way to fix this, nothing I can beat down or destroy or fight off. Every three hours or so, my wife gives in to animal nature and use her body to feed our sons. And I go along for the ride, assist, and wonder all the while how we’re going to afford childcare and manage our careers along the way.

I thought I was dealing well with the stress of this till maybe a week ago, when I sat down to a quick dinner, the only kind we get these days. As I ate, I felt a peculiar pain, starting in my jaw and radiating all the way to the top of my head. The heat of it ranged from dull all the way to nasty. The diagnosis? TMJ. I’m grinding my teeth in my sleep, meaning I not only get two babies out of this deal, I get a mouth guard. And Lisa? She is in close contact with a lactation consultant, trying to understand if there is anything else she can do to make breastfeeding less painful and more efficient.

Thus far, the answer is: Yes. Maybe. Sure. Not so much. Keep trying.

A few weeks ago, I told an acquaintance that the majority of people who offered me advice on parenting had been too negative—that they seemed to emphasize the difficulty without noting that the rewards were equal and greater. He retorted that all parents suffer constantly for 18 years, and life never seems “normal” or “free” again till the kids leave for college.

“You’ve been doing this for a few weeks,” he said, “so let me tell you something: You cannot hope to escape the universal experiences that every parent has.”

Something struck me as fundamentally wrong about this. Somehow, I felt, he misjudged what I was after. And I pondered this till one recent night, when the human alarm system that is Eli and Jack started to blare somewhere around 4 a.m.

I peeled myself out of bed, gathered a baby boy into my arms and joined my wife downstairs in our lightless living room. Once Lisa was arranged on the couch with our sons feeding on either side of her, I was tempted to sit beside her and indulge in 15 minutes of sleep. But I feared my own reaction to being awakened. I felt scared that I might snap at Lisa, or merely mumble my way through my duties. So I stayed alert. And rather than try to escape, I endeavored to hold everything that was happening and all my feelings in some rough embrace.

The boys’ jaws worked furiously, emitting little gurgles and slurping noises, and I searched for words that might tether me to the moment.

“I love you,” I said.

“I love you, too,” my wife replied.

“I miss you,” I said.

Silhouetted in the light leaking through from the windows, Lisa turned to face me. “I miss you, too,” she said.

My jaw ached. My wife winced when the boys pulled at her in some awkward way, and there we were, the four of us—borne along, seemingly, by the dark.