Irene McGarrity, Massachusetts
Portrait by Lori Pedrick

All In

I had never seen a woman breastfeed or given any real thought to the process. I figured it was a relatively straightforward affair. Pull out breast. Feed baby. Put breast away. Repeat as needed. I was thinking about breastfeeding because at 38 years old, I was pregnant with my first child. And although I was well aware of the benefits of breastfeeding, I felt ambivalent about actually doing it. The thought of a baby sucking on my nipples filled me with a strange, uncomfortable feeling. Could I ever experience sexual pleasure with my breasts after months of baby-feeding? Would they be flat as pancakes and saggy as deflated balloons? On the other hand, I wanted to experience every aspect of motherhood. I’d waited until I was 38 to get pregnant because I wasn’t ready. But now I wanted to go all in. 

       When Elia was born after just a few hours of complication-free labor, my wife placed her on my chest. After some blissed out bonding between the three of us we tried to position the baby near my breast. This was an awkward, mostly unsuccessful process. There was nothing instinctual about it. I felt like I had too many hands and not enough hands at the same time. Each micro adjustment brought her into not quite the right position, and my breasts seemed to be smushing her little face rather than feeding her. Once we finally got Elia to latch on, I didn’t want to breathe or move my body for fear of accidentally unlatching her. Breastfeeding was shaping up to be a precarious, labor-intensive process, and I wasn’t really feeling it. 

       Flash forward to a few days later, and I was feeling it, but not in a good way. My nipples were bleeding and chapped. Every time Elia made those puckering moves with her lips, my stomach tightened and I panicked at the thought of that toe-curling pain that was to come. I had fleeting, desperate thoughts of just giving up the whole venture, using formula and being done with it. But with the support of my wife, the help of multiple lactation consultants, and the temporary use of a nipple shield, we got ourselves through the first couple of months. 

       Once Elia and I found our groove, I started to fall in love with breastfeeding. It wasn’t so awkward or painful, and I was able to breathe, move, even drink a cup of coffee. I enjoyed hearing her coos of satisfaction, and watching the funny little hand and arm motions she’d make while nursing. Sometimes she’d gaze up at me and smile. It was so satisfying to watch her grow, knowing that my body was providing all the nutrition she needed. She was my home-grown little baby. 

       Elia is almost nine months old now, and sometimes I catch myself fantasizing about the end of breastfeeding. I imagine sleeping through the night without getting up to nurse her. I picture myself driving away from our house, not hooked up to the breast pump, and not planning my daily schedule around pumping every three hours. Sometimes, I’ll admit, it all seems very nice. But then I feel a pang at the thought of that last time, that moment she decides she is done snuggling up to me in that way, and I am left with only the memories. The days and weeks and months have already flown by, and I know our nursing days are numbered. I hold onto her, stroke her hair, gaze at her beautiful, pudgy legs, with rounded calves, thick thighs, and perfect feet. I think of that first awkward time and all those painful, panicked nights. I never would have pictured us just a few months later in this free and easy place, but here we are. I feel so extremely lucky that we fought through the difficulties so that we can have this experience that is not quite like anything else.

        I’m all in for every moment of it. 

— Irene McGarrity