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I learned to breastfeed in two ways.
First, when I was pregnant, my husband and I spent four hours in a class with a lactation consultant. We were given baby dolls and a variety of nursing pillows to practice different holds. We learned about pumping and latches, the myriad benefits of breastfeeding, and everything that could possibly go wrong, from clogged ducts to mastitis.
Sounds thorough, doesn't it? Did it leave me prepared? Nope.
It turns out, studying nursing ahead of time is like practicing swimming in your living room: It just doesn't work like that. You need to actually immerse yourself in a body of water. You can prep all you want and call yourself a swimmer, but the bottom line is you're not – until you jump in.
I'm not ashamed to admit I had no maternal urge to breastfeed my son. I planned to do so because I believed it best for his health, but I secretly hoped it wouldn't work out and we'd be forced to stop and switch to formula. I was planning my exit strategy before we even began.
Minutes after my son was born, he was placed upon my chest. Before I could even focus my eyes on his face, he somehow managed to contract and release his tiny body, inchworming across me. "He's ready to breastfeed!" said one of my nurses, which was followed by an eruption of cheers from the room.
I laughed, because I actually expected someone to stop him. My midsection had just been cut open. I was shaking, vomiting, and breathing with the assistance of oxygen. Surely no one expected me to start breastfeeding now, did they? Yes, they did.
I can't think of a better way to describe the scene than that of a baby bird, hungry and angry, opening his mouth and cheeping loudly (wailing, actually), waiting for a worm. Except this was my child and he didn't want a worm, he wanted my nipple.
The nurses helped him latch on and, to everyone's delight except mine, he began suckling. Even though roughly 60 percent of my body was numb, I yelped out loud in pain. It felt as if every nerve had moved into my nipple, and it was being squeezed with an tight grip. My nurse saw the look in my eye and said, "It will get better."
It didn't, at least not for a while.
Everyone says breastfeeding a baby is so natural, but there was nothing natural about it for me. It wasn't a skill I magically unlocked through maternal instincts, and it was awkward and scary.
Over the next few weeks, we kept at it. I'd look at the clock and tense up, knowing that any minute my son would be ready to eat again. I'd wait for the yelp, take a deep breath, and pick him up. I'd practically have to strip down to my waist. I used two pillows and a footstool just to get into position.
I'd look at that little head, far smaller than my engorged breasts filled with granite boulders, his mouth open wide and then closed upon me. Pain coursed through my whole body. With each suckle, the pain started all over again. I'd stifle myself so as to not scream and scare him, and after a few minutes, we'd stabilize.
This was my scenario about every three hours. Forget going out in public at this point. I tried a grocery store run with my husband; it ended in tears in our car, even though we had timed it perfectly, making sure the baby was fed before we left. But five minutes after we got into the store, my son started with his hungry cries. I didn't know where to go or what to do. We left our cart, retreated to the car, and as my husband covered our windows with swaddle blankets, I took over the backseat. My son was able to nurse, but it wasn't great for either of us.
He was gaining weight, he was healthy, so I kept going, but I felt like a failure. Eventually I found a wonderful lactation consultant who taught me ways to better manage my flow and perfect my hold. The pain lessened. I stopped crying and was able to find peace in our nursing sessions. I even started online shopping during cluster feedings and catching up on my emails.
I didn't realize until my son was born that all the classes and books were helpful, but not enough – that this was a skill that could never be mastered without on-the-job training and a really good coach.
I started reaching personal milestones: I breastfed in the Target dressing room, followed by a park bench. When I became able to free a nipple without completely undressing, I began to feel empowered and ditched my nursing cover altogether.
The pain was gone. I mastered clogged ducts and thrush, lived through nipple pads falling out of my shirt mid-conversation with a stranger and leaky breasts that left large wet spots on my shirts. And I didn't cry, I laughed.
You might be wondering how the tale of one of the world's most reluctant breastfeeding mamas ended. It didn't: at least not yet. Two and a half years later, I'm still breastfeeding. Overall, my breastfeeding experience has been something between a hero's journey and a humbling life lesson – but so, so worth it.
Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.