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I Didn't Expect Breastfeeding to Keep Me Alive—But It Did

Photograph by Getty Images

There is little I remember fondly from the day my son was born. His birth was traumatic, to say the least. I was forced into labor prematurely by hospital staff, bullied into an epidural that nearly killed me, given an episiotomy without consent before my son was vacuumed out (also without my consent).

His birth was all pain and fear and wondering what was happening to me. It wasn’t how I imagined entering motherhood. I had spent months dreaming of this day, and it had quickly turned into a nightmare.

I don’t really remember holding my son for the first time, which breaks my heart, but what I do remember is breastfeeding him while still in the birthing room. It was the first moment of connection I felt with him, the glimmer of hope that I needed so badly after all that had gone wrong with his birth. Though we didn’t click or instantly fall in love the way I had expected, breastfeeding reassured me of our bond as mother and child.

RELATED: 6 Things I Wish I Had Known About Breastfeeding Before I Had My Baby

Breastfeeding was a time of peace amidst the wretched storm of postpartum depression.

In the months following my son's traumatic birth, however, it was hard to keep a strong hold on that feeling of reassurance. I found myself spiraling into postpartum depression and anxiety. I chalked up my fears and emotional spikes to an uncomfortable adjustment period, but we never seemed to grow out of it. Things had been amiss since the difficult day he was born, and I couldn’t figure out why. Our connection still felt off much of the time. I was no longer myself, and motherhood was nothing like I thought it would be.

The exhaustion of parenting was taking its toll on me, physically and mentally. I found myself wondering what I had gotten myself into—if I even should have had a baby in the first place—then I would immediately feel terrified that my unmotherly thoughts would cause the universe to take my child from me. Fear drove my every move. I would constantly check on him to make sure he hadn’t died in his sleep, often waking him from naps unintentionally, which would set us both off crying.

There were many nights where none of my attempts to console him would work, making me feel like mothering instincts were nonexistent. I didn’t know what he wanted or needed. I would drive around the block for hours, begging him to sleep, but it rarely worked. The only respite from our struggle came when I would give up and pull him close to me to breastfeed. The moment when he would latch on would save me from myself—from my racing, panicked thoughts on what a terrible mother I was.

Even though I was a wreck between feedings, having that break from myself and my depression every few hours helped bring me back from the edge.

Breastfeeding was a time of peace amidst the wretched storm of postpartum depression. His screaming would quiet as soon as we nestled into our comfortable nook on the couch. He would look up at me as he ate, and I would know, in that moment at least, I was providing everything he needed. My heart-rate would slow, my breathing would steady, and I would feel, for once, like I was doing something right. Some days, breastfeeding was the only time I felt that way at all.

Breastfeeding became my lifeline during my struggle with postpartum depression. It was one of the only times I truly felt connected to my son in the darker periods of those months, and that tether is often what kept me alive. Even though I was a wreck between feedings, having that break from myself and my depression every few hours helped bring me back from the edge. I was doing this right, I could tell myself. I was doing this one thing right.

RELATED: 10 Things That Make It Hard For Breastfeeding Mothers

Our breastfeeding journey came to an end when my son was 15 months old, around the same time my postpartum depression started to lose its hold over me. It was as if he knew that we no longer needed breastfeeding to keep our relationship afloat. We were on the other shore now; I could take the lifejacket off —even though I didn’t want to. Though the end of that connection was bittersweet, I was forever grateful that breastfeeding had kept me alive for so long.

It saved my identity as a mother when I needed it most.

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