Boob envy, and other things I have learned about breastfeeding

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.

Medela Breast Pump
Disapproving Medela Symphony breast pump as photographed in Sunninghill Hospital.

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). Before I had my baby, I assumed that breastfeeding just… happened. You whipped out your boob, plugged your nipple into your newborn’s mouth and away you went. I marveled at the notion that women might need lactation consultants. Really? Surely, if anything comes naturally it’s this? As it turns out, no.

This has been a steep learning curve for me: the emotional stakes are so high, after all. Breastfeeding is loaded with good intentions and guilt. It is quite literally a matter of life and death – if you can’t produce enough breastmilk, your baby starves. Breast is best is one of the most effective slogans ever coined, and if you’re not breastfeeding you’re not giving your kid the best shot at life. No wonder there’s an inverse correlation between breastfeeding and post-natal depression.

Apart from boob envy, I have learned other new things during the three and a half months that I have been breastfeeding.

First, a word on terminology. “Breasts” is so formal; “tits” is far too Benny Hill. “Boobs”, on the other hand, has a cheery informality about it. That’s the word I’m choosing to use for a subject that is both very personal and – as I’ve discovered – necessarily public.

I am two boobs attached to a body. My life quite literally evolves around feeding Ra-Ra. I’m either breastfeeding her, expressing breast milk or sterilising the equipment I use for expressing. As her consumption has increased, I’ve battled to keep up, to the point where it feels as if the day is one long feeding session, with one feed morphing into the next.

My moods are directly correlated to how much breast milk I express. On good days, I’m elated. On bad days, I’m an anxious mess, wondering how I will cope once my maternity leave is up. Breastfeeding while I’m in the office simply isn’t an option.

Yes, it is possible to spray yourself in the face with your own breast milk. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a meeting with a client with glasses covered in a fine spray. (I managed to lose track of an hour, ran horribly late, and had to rush to get there. It was like driving with a dirty windscreen.)

I’m deeply appreciative of antipsychotic medication. Who knew that a drug developed as an antipsychotic would stimulate lactation? Thank you Eglonyl.

I live on Jungle Juice. Ask any South African mother about breastfeeding and she’ll say, “Are you on Jungle Juice?” Yes, I am. I spend a fortune on Rehidrat and Schlehen Berry Elixir, and recently stocked up on fruit juice from Pick n Pay Hyper at R12.90 a litre. It is important not to confuse this kind of Jungle Juice with the  alcoholic American party staple. (This recipe includes 5.25 litres of vodka amongst other ingredients.)

I’m developing repetitive stress injuries from expressing. A couple of weeks ago, the Medela Swing breast pump I borrowed from my sister – the smaller sibling of the Medela Symphony – stopped working as well as it had been. From 100ml in a 20 minute session, I was down to less than 50ml. So I’ve switched to using a Philips Avent manual pump, also loaned from my sister, or expressing by hand. Both methods are hard on wrists and thumbs.

I could probably write a PhD thesis on hydrodynamics. I can tell you, for example, that the plastic used for the Philips Avent breast pump is better than the plastic used by Medela because it prevents the dispersal of droplets which then go to waste. When every single drop counts, waste of any kind is heartbreaking,

I’ve breastfed during a meeting and a couple of dinners. As Ra-Ra’s demands have increased and I’ve battled to keep up, I’ve had to overcome my reluctance to breastfeed in semi-public settings. When she cries, and the only thing that will keep her quiet is Boob, I do what I must.

As a result, my relationship with my own body has changed. Once upon a time, I would never have dreamed of showing my boobs to anyone except my husband. But now that they have become almost purely functional, manufacturing facilities devoted to the feeding of my baby, I don’t particularly care who sees them. (If you are inclined to be shocked, or titillated,  that’s your issue, not mine.)

Most of all, I have learned that breastfeeding is fraught with massive anxiety. I would like to keep breastfeeding for as long as possible because I know that it’s so good for the baby. But, despite last week’s experiences,  having a baby clamped to one nipple is not compatible with attending meetings or maintaining a professional demeanour in the office. Once I go back to work, the kind of routine I’ve been maintaining will be impossible to keep up. I know that at some point I am going to have to accept that I will not be able to keep her going purely on my supply, and that is going to be very hard.

Whoever said “don’t cry over spilled milk” never tried to breastfeed.




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