Before my daughter was born, I pictured what it would be like to nurse her. Ever the optimist, I imagined her latching well and smiling up at me as we bonded over feedings. I had read about the benefits of breastfeeding — as well as the challenges. But c’mon, I thought, how difficult could it really be?
Fast forward to Feb. 6, when Madelyn entered this world. The first thing I noticed about my daughter was her tongue. She kept sticking it out and staring up at me, imitating the goofy faces that her father often makes when posing for photos.
“She’s hungry,” my obstetrician said. “You can start feeding her now.”
Unsure of myself, and in a post-labor haze, I put Madelyn’s lips up to my breast and watched her gently latch. Okay, this feels a little weird. But it’s not so bad, I thought. It doesn’t really hurt, and she seems to be doing okay …
The next day, I met with a lactation consultant who showed me different techniques for holding Madelyn and helping her latch better. It all seemed to come pretty naturally those first two days in the hospital, and I watched in admiration of my little one with a big appetite. But when we left the hospital and came home, the honeymoon period ended.
Madelyn woke up every hour or two most nights and always seemed to want to eat. I had never heard of “cluster feeding.” which is when a baby bunches feedings together at a certain time of day or night — but I quickly began to dread it.
“Maybe she’s still hungry,” my husband Troy would say in the middle of a Madelyn meltdown.
“But I just fed her less than an hour ago! She can’t be hungry again!”
I would try to move Madelyn from her bassinet to her swing. I’d try holding her. Singing to her. Anything to not have to feed her again. But she almost always wanted more milk. She had trouble latching and would get spastic every time she tried to feed. Her arms would flail in front of her face. She’d finally latch, then she’d quickly come off. Then she’d latch again and clamp down hard. Ouch.
“Are you okay?” my husband would ask as he’d try to keep Madelyn’s flailing arms at bay.
“No, I’m not okay. I hate breastfeeding!” I told Troy on more than one occasion. “My nipples are cracked and bleeding. I’m exhausted, I’m hormonal and I feel like a freaking cow.”
Troy made multiple trips to Target in an attempt to help. He kept Medela in business those first few weeks, buying bags of nipple shields, nursing bras, nursing pads, nursing tanks and hydrogel pads. These things made breastfeeding easier, but they didn’t take away the frustration I felt while trying to feed my daughter. I thought nurturing my child would come naturally, but feelings of inadequacy and helplessness got in the way. I was fulfilling a selfless role that made me feel selfish for wanting my old life back.
In these early months of motherhood, I keep wanting to call my mom. I wish she could hug me and tell me that everything is going to be okay, just like she used to when I was little.
“It’s all going to be okay,” she’d say whenever I’d fall off my hot pink Huffy bicycle and scrape my knee. “It’s all going to be okay.”
“It’s going to be okay” turned into “I’m going to be okay” when Mom got sick with breast cancer. I was 8 years old at the time, and of course I believed her. Because that’s what little girls do. Mom got a lumpectomy, and I got used to the fact that she had one real breast and one fake boob, a cushiony prosthetic that I’d sometimes see lying around the house. I came to think of breasts as bad body parts that served no real purpose other than to make mothers sick. Before I could even fit into a training bra, I’d check my own breasts for lumps in hopes that if I did have any, I’d catch them earlier than Mom had.
I’m going to be okay. It’s all going to be okay.
Until it wasn’t. When I was 11, Mom’s breast cancer spread to her bone marrow, her liver and her brain. She died Feb. 9, 1997, leaving me feeling helpless and out of control. For awhile, I pretended everything was okay. I went to school the day after she died and delivered the eulogy at her funeral with dry eyes. I wore her clothes, not caring that my tiny figure got lost in them. In my bedroom, I kept a bag with three of Mom’s wigs and her prosthetic boob. I’d wear the wigs and curse the boob. I asked my dad to sign all my birthday cards and holiday presents with “Love, Mom and Dad.” And in my journal, I wrote about my mom as if she were still alive.
The past tense scared me.
Feeling like I had lost all control, I turned to food. It started out innocently enough; I’d pick on my dad for not eating enough vegetables, or for eating too many cookies before bed. But when that didn’t work, I started to focus on my own eating habits. My favorite foods soon turned into forbidden fruit. I stopped eating food that I had enjoyed with my mom — pasta, Jiffy Pop popcorn, mocha almond chip ice cream. Then I eventually cut out all the food I liked, surviving on just green beans and fat-free cottage cheese. It became easier to measure the size of my wrists and the width of my thigh gap than to mourn a loss that had upended my life. I eventually ended up in the hospital, the place where my mom had spent most of her final months. When multiple hospital stays didn’t work, I went to a residential treatment facility, where I lived for a year and a half.
For 18 years I had an abusive relationship with food. I got better while in residential treatment but then fell into vicious cycles of bingeing and restricting after I left. My weight stayed the same, so my struggle was a silent one. I thought back to the days when I’d get excited about eating with my mom, when eating seemed easy. Since when did it become so hard to eat when I was hungry and stop when I was full? Over the years I learned to grieve the loss of my mom, but I still kept getting lost on the proverbial road to recovery.
It’s all going to be okay. I’m going to be okay.
Training for my first marathon in 2014 was a game-changer. I wanted to prove to myself that I could take on the challenge and eat well enough to train for and run a 26.2-mile race. Finishing the marathon in under four hours was proof that I could. Four months after I crossed the finish line, I started a new marathon of sorts: pregnancy. During those nine months, I stayed focused on the little being inside of me. She was a symbol of recovery, a reminder that even though I had put my body through hell it was still capable of creating a mini-miracle.
Having support was critical. I met with a nutritionist who helped me figure out how much food my pregnant body, and baby, needed. I talked with a therapist about how it felt to become a mom without a mom. I turned to Troy when I felt self-conscious. He’s always been good at helping me turn irrational thoughts into rational ones.
“I’m getting so fat…”
“You’re growing a baby…”
Ten pounds, 18 pounds, 27 pounds. The numbers scared me, but they also made me a little giddy. I’m eating enough. My baby is growing. I’m a mom!
Recovery from an eating disorder is about so much more than numbers on a scale; it’s about accepting the fact that food will never love us back. When we use it to fill a void, it always leaves us feeling emptier. Recovery is about finding other ways to feel full, to feel loved. The death of my own mom marked the beginning of my struggles with disordered eating. As the cyclical nature of life would have it, I had to become a mom myself before I could really restore order to my eating habits.
Troy and I met our daughter, Madelyn Joelle, on Feb. 6. She was born a healthy 8 pounds, 19.75 inches. I worried when she lost some weight in the hospital (even though I knew this was perfectly normal) and happy when she gained it back. I found comfort in knowing that I was capable of providing her with the nourishment she needed. Breastfeeding, I told myself, would be my incentive to continue eating well. If I didn’t eat enough, I knew it would have a direct impact on my milk supply and Madelyn’s health.
The early challenges of breastfeeding made me want to quit. But fortunate to have a good milk supply, and not one to give up easily, I decided to stick with it. As the weeks passed, Madelyn slowly started cluster-feeding less and sleeping more. She started latching better and stopped being so spastic. She taught me to be more playful — to view breastfeeding as my secret superpower.
When Madelyn cries and screams and nothing else will calm her down, I can use my superpower to instantly placate her. I can nurture and nourish her, all because I’m nourishing myself. I can do what my mother unfortunately couldn’t. Breasts, as it turns out, aren’t just made for cancerous lumps.
One recent morning during a meltdown, I started feeding Madelyn. She looked up at me as she fed and then stopped midway to give me a smile. I looked back at my daughter (my daughter!) in love with all 11 pounds of her. Her big blue eyes. Her tiny dimpled chin. Her long, strong legs.
Madelyn pulled away after she’d had enough to eat, her cheeks glistening with milk. Letting out a coo, she buried her milk-drunk face in my chest. In that moment, it felt like everything was going to be okay.
Mallary Tenore Tarpley is the executive director of Images & Voices of Hope, a media nonprofit organization. You can follow her on Twitter @MallaryTenore and via her blogs, BabyTarpley.com and MallaryTenore.org.
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