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Breastfeeding Confidential: It's Hard, It Hurts, and Everyone Should Know It

31/07/2014 19:33 BST | Updated 29/09/2014 10:59 BST

I just got off the phone with a friend who is a few weeks into her first baby. She sounded happy - exhausted, but happy, and as at ease with being a first-time mother as one could expect.

All that changed when we started talking about breastfeeding. "I can't leave the house," she told me. "My husband keeps telling me to go take a break. But all I hear in my head, the whole time I'm gone, is the baby screaming with hunger. I hate being the only way she can get food."

GOD, I have been there. Being someone's sole source of nutrition is the most physically and mentally taxing temporary job I have ever taken on. You get your "break" and all you do is stress that the baby got hungry before the normal feeding time, and next thing you know you're cutting your walk or pedicure or coffee with a friend short and racing home to bring your boobs back within firing range of the baby's mouth.

So, this friend and I got to talking about learning to use her pump, then building up a stash of milk over time. We talked about my personal practice of giving the baby a single ounce of formula to make sure she can tolerate it, for some mental relief that there is a back-up method if it's needed. We talked through introducing a bottle, and how she shouldn't freak out if it didn't go well at first. These tactics, together, create a tiny space for independence: get to the end of the pedicure, sip the cup of coffee slowly, take an extra loop around the block with the dog. Little victories that can lead to bigger ones later. And, for working mothers, these things also set up skills and resources for the back-to-work bonanza.

In the midst of this conversation, my friend said: "Why don't any of the books tell me how to do this?They say 'start pumping to save up milk for when you go back to work' - but they don't ever say HOW to do that. They say 'introduce the bottle', but they don't tell you what that's going to be like. And they NEVER say how much it's gonna hurt. You're just totally on your own."

Um, yes. A huge pile of Hows that no one ever bothered to jot down for us.

In a world overflowing with more parenting books and Pinterest sites and mommy blogs than you can shake a positive pregnancy stick at, why is the Motherhood Industrial Complex failing us when it comes to breastfeeding in the modern world? They just pretend this stuff is not difficult. One best-selling parenting book offers this super helpful nugget to breastfeeding mothers who encounter difficulties: "Hit a breastfeeding bump or two? Stick with nursing and you'll soon be cruising down Easy Street." I threw the book across the room when I read that line.

My first theory on what's going on here is going to sound a bit feminist. When it comes to breastfeeding, it seems like The World (a big generalization) is simply not willing to entertain a picture of a 21st century woman: busy with work and other commitments, interested in physical exercise, even more interested in going on a date or having a glass of wine with girlfriends, not willing or able to be physically tied to a baby non-stop for a full year. Just look at the covers of most breastfeeding books and you'll see a drawing of a mother, still in her bathrobe, cuddling her baby at her breast. That image might ring true in the first couple of weeks (especially the bathrobe part), but for the women I know, the reality looks more like stirring a pot of food while on a conference call while trying to breastfeed a baby while kicking (gently! lovingly!) at a toddler to get out of the kitchen. It makes for a busy cover to a book, but it's the truth.

My second theory is that breastfeeding advocates who want, for very good reasons, to promote and support breastfeeding, have collectively decided that giving women any hint that breastfeeding is going to be difficult might scare them away from doing it. It's an odd conclusion to make: we are talking about women who are well aware that, to paraphrase the late, great Carol Burnett, they are going to have to push something the size of a watermelon out a hole the size of a lemon. We know that having a baby is going to be messy and painful and difficult, and we do it anyway. But to point out that breastfeeding might be difficult, or stressful, or cripplingly anxiety-inducing; that it might (will) make your nipples bleed; that it might (will) be one of the hardest parts about going back to work, that it might (WILL!!!!!) make you crazy? We are patronizingly protected from this information: Women can't handle that! They'll quit breastfeeding if they know! Let's just not tell them.They'll thank us later.

I can tell you that I did not feel particularly thankful for this approach, when my nipples started bleeding and I realized not one of my stack of books had told me that this would happen. I thought back to my prenatal breastfeeding class and wondered, bitterly, how holding a dingy Cabbage Patch Kid to my chest, instead of learning breastfeeding coping strategies, was the right curriculum choice.

Whatever the reasons that we are being kept in the dark on the difficulties and practical how-to's of breastfeeding, it's time we take control of the dialogue. If you've ever breastfed, and have a pregnant friend, sit her down and tell her about the difficult parts of breastfeeding. Take her shopping to buy the leak pads and soothie gel thingies and lanolin ointment. Tell her what mastitis feels like. Tell her what is going to happen to her nipples. And when she has the baby, appoint yourself watchdog of her sanity. Check in on her - a lot - about anxiety and overwhelmed-ness related to the baby, new motherhood, and the strain of breastfeeding. Go to her house and teach her how to use a pump, and make her laugh about how medieval and cow-milking it looks and feels.

Ladies, it is time to let breastfeeding's biggest secret out of the bag: it's hard, it hurts, and everyone should know it.

Thanks, girls.

xo

A version of this post appears on my blog, at http://italkaboutboobs.wordpress.com