Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Amber McCann, IBCLC
Photo: Sacha Blackburne
In 100 Words
As mothers, our stories are incredibly important. Storytelling has been at the core of cultures since the beginning of time and helps establish the norms of society while connecting us on a deeper, more intimate level. Stories help us to make sense of the world around us. They help us define who we are. As our cultural views about breastfeeding have shifted, waxed, and waned over the generations, so has the prevalence of our stories.
As an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and a retired La Leche League Leader, one of my most sacred roles is that of the “hearer of the stories.” I am often the first person to hear a woman’s birth story, the reflections on her experience of entering motherhood. I’m often the first person whose heart clenches at a mother’s stories of being unable to understand or control the environment around her. I am often the first with whom she will express her tears of relief as her little one finally latches in a way that doesn’t cause her pain. I’ve found that, in my work, I am the best clinician when I am the best listener. The women I serve gift me their stories. Listening to them is a privilege that I don’t take lightly.
A few years ago, I read an article in The Washington Post about a project that asked people to write their autobiographies in 100 words or fewer. I found them fascinating and realized that, after reading quite a number, that I was most drawn to the ones where motherhood was an essential part of their story. I found such strength there. I found a moment in each story where I thought, “I get it.” I quickly began composing my own story in my head and as I sought out the overarching themes, I found that my breastfeeding story was essential to who I am. I am not a mother who found breastfeeding easy or without significant obstacles. But, through the support and empowerment of other women who had powerful stories of their own breastfeeding struggles, I was able to find strength and power in the writing of my own story.
I began to ask other women to share their breastfeeding stories, encouraging them to compose them in 100 words or fewer. This form forces us to choose every word carefully, every nuance, every twist and turn. These stories get to the core of what makes a breastfeeding mother. I asked for stories where breastfeeding went well and ones where breastfeeding went horribly wrong. Each story is powerful and each story helps me understand the women I support even more.
Stories help us to make sense of the world around us. They help us define who we are.
Here are a few of my favorites
With a final push you were born, drug free and alert. Placed immediately on my chest to fall in love. Within minutes, you began to root and I put you to my breast. So primal and instinctual. We cuddled and nursed, loved, and bonded. No interventions, no nurses running around, just you and me and the power of birth. We sat there as a family as you took your first breaths, let your cord stop pulsing, and took your first gulp of my milk. I cherish that moment because it was that moment I became your mom.
My daughter turned one last week. One year of negotiating each other’s bodies and personalities. One year of compromise, whether we love it at that moment or not. There were weeks of frustration and tears, and weeks of bliss and peace, and quiet bonding. We’ve logged weeks of nursing while trying to keep up with all of the fast-paced demands of life. Even with all of the distractions, we’ve found time to become an amazing team. My daughter found nourishment and comfort, while I’ve gained confidence, patience, and unspeakable love for the littler person that I have nursed so well.
What a pitiful nursing pair we were: a depressed mother recovering from a traumatic birth and a high-needs, tongue-tied baby girl. By all estimations, we had every right to give up, especially when no doctor was willing to do what would really help. But there was someone else in the equation: Daddy. With Daddy’s help, we endured the physical torture and crying and resentment until we finally found solutions to the physical problems and strategies to help the emotional ones. Because of Daddy, we not only survived, but went on to successfully nurse for 27 months.
I wasn’t worried about it in the least. My mom did it, and her mother before her. My sister, and my sister-in-law, all successful breastfeeders. I was warned about certain things, sure, about pain and latch. But then there was blood and tears and a knot in my stomach that wouldn’t go away. I cried every time, and felt resentment instead of bonding. I trekked back and forth to the lactation consultant. Finally, two days after Thanksgiving, when I made the decision to stop, to do what was best for me and for her, I became a mother.
Mystery of anatomy. New vocabulary, wondering, dreams of breastfeeding before I knew what it even felt like. Colostrum, then milk—capacity tested (physical and emotional). Nursing pads, bras, wet shirts, let-down. Daughter self-weaned at 13 months, surprising sorrow followed. Infertility, miscarriages, deep loss with the longing to breastfeed and nurture and nourish again. After six years, a son. Nursing challenges, full-time job, pumping, freezing milk, all worth it. My two-year-old still enjoys “me-me”, in no hurry to wean. Deep sigh, thankful for these sacred seasons, and the job that only Mama can do.
Brady gazes into my eyes as he is latched on to my breast. He smiles and milk dribbles out of his mouth. I think, “I can’t believe that I almost gave this up.” Why don’t more women talk about how difficult breastfeeding can be? I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. Thoughts of giving up. But then … a little encouragement, the confidence to continue, someone saying, “This is whatever you want it to be … there are no rules.” SUCCESS! It is the most amazing thing I’ve ever done in my life. I can’t believe I almost gave this up!
A short list of things I have nursed: a baby doll, a sheet of paper, a stuffed seahorse, a spoon, an iPod, small cars, small trains, a shoe, a tiny George-monkey, several books, a board book about nursing, three plastic dinosaurs, and a large stuffed dog named Ludwig. An even shorter list of the people I have nursed: Catherine and Esme. The first had her time alone, then learned to share quickly. The second was an eager student of the elder. What a bond between sisters! What Papa’s love and Mama’s milk, our girls grow. I pray that they remember.
For nine days, I held out hope that it would happen, effortlessly. With tears in my eyes, I looked at the rows of formula, struggling to come to grips with the judgment of others, the judgment I’d held of others. The endless pumping and supplements got me to about half supply, and for three years, my body nourished you. Eventually, I banished shame and realized that life does not always go according to my plans. I’m no better than others because I fed you at my breast. But, I will always be grateful that I was able to do so.
There is peanut butter on my nipple. Apparently, there’s nothing like mama milk to wash down a PB&J when you’re almost two years old. These days, I can barely remember that tiny baby who went to my breast just minutes after his birth, but at the same time, it seems like he’s always been there, snuggled up and grinning a milky grin. And nursing is so woven through the fabric of our relationship that it almost seems silly to call it breastfeeding—there’s much more than food passing between us in those moments at the breast.
And finally, my own story
I was mistaken … terribly mistaken. I thought I could get “straight A’s” in breastfeeding, much like I had in most other things in life. I thought if I just tried hard enough, read hard enough, researched hard enough. I didn’t need help, just more resources. I was mistaken. What it required was for someone to come alongside, to sit with me, to tell me that I wasn’t alone on this journey. Instead of isolating, I needed to find and surround myself with the women who were in this with me.
Amber McCann is a retired La Leche League Leader and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in Pittsburgh, PA, USA. While she loves attending conferences and learning about lactation from many of the leaders in the field, her best teachers were her three children: Svea, Rory, and Tait. Amber wrote this for Breastfeeding Today in 2013.
I’ve found that, in my work, I am the best clinician when I am the best listener.
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