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Nipples and Ninny

It was a no-brainer for me: All the books said I should breastfeed my baby because it was best for her -- that she would be stronger, faster, smarter, better for it. And so I rushed out and bought myself a fancy Medela breast pump and stocked up on breast milk storage bags and got all giddy when I started filling out my nursing bras. (Um, yeah -- I was the president of the Itty Bitty Titty Committee and so the prospect of having boobies was a huge plus on my "Reasons Why I Should Breastfeed" list.) And I proudly told anyone who would listen that I planned to feed my child the natural way -- the way my mother's generation and all the generations before hers did, too. The way God intended.

Um, yeah. The nurses at the hospital where I gave birth to my beautiful Mari had other intentions. I mean, in theory, breastfeeding made all the sense in the world for me and my baby. But in the real world, a.k.a. a hospital in the middle of Harlem, where the environment made doctors and staff more prone to assume that a young black woman pushing out a baby was single, poor, uneducated, and alone, breastfeeding just didn't fit into the equation.

And so the nurse put my Mari in my arms and disappeared, leaving me for 12 hours with nothing more than my baby and a "goodie" bag full of coupons for baby lotion and soap, useless pamphlets, and two bottles of baby formula. I was absolutely terrified, overwhelmed, exhausted and clueless; I simply didn't know how to feed my newborn child. No manner of picture/conversation/book chapter prepared me for The Show -- the actual breastfeeding of my baby. Was I supposed to be sitting any particular way? Pop in my boob any kind of way? Squeeze it to help get the milk into her mouth? Where was the milk anyway?!

I mean, I was convinced the baby would starve to death. And that she would die with a piece of my nipple in her mouth (those little gums were killer, especially when I unwittingly pulled my breast out of her mouth).

When a nurse finally made her way back into my room, she seemed surprised to find me breastfeeding. (She was also surprised that I had a husband, insurance, a good job, and that Mari was my first child -- more on this ignorance in another post.) Still, she made quick work of showing me how to get the baby to latch on, how to get her to stop sucking, and, most importantly, she gave me a number to La Leche League so that I could ask an expert questions on how to feed my baby the right way.

Getting the breastfeeding right wasn't easy or natural; for the first two weeks, the skin on my nipple was literally shredded and my breasts were raw -- it was like a toothless little man was sucking on an open, achy wound. I'd smooth Lansinoh on my skin between feedings and sit shirtless with ice packs on my nipples, and literally cry out when Mari latched on.

But I didn't give up.

Through the pain.

Through the doubts.

Through the pumping in the bathroom at work.

Through the ridicule from my more old-school friends and family members who wondered loudly and unabashedly when I'd stop letting my baby "suck on my ninny."

I breastfed my baby for 10 months, and pumped and fed her my milk for two more months after that, even after she stopped taking my breast. I was proud of myself for hanging in there. And proud of my daughter, too, for being patient with me. I know that it would have been just as easy for her to reject my breast. But she didn't. And for this, I'm grateful.

There are plenty of moms who aren't as fortunate -- who don't have the benefit of expensive breast pumps and copious amounts of time to recuperate from the painful beginning stages of breastfeeding or halfway understanding bosses who give them time to pump or even a pamphlet's worth of information telling them how it's done or extolling its benefits. These are things that some of us breastfeeding moms simply take for granted.

Of course, there are plenty of moms who forgo breastfeeding to formula feed -- and this is their right. No judgment here. To each her own.

But I thank goodness that there are plenty of resources available for moms who do want to successfully breastfeed -- much more than was available when I had Mari more than 10 years ago.

And for this, we should all be grateful.

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