So I had mixed reactions to Rebekah Curtis' book Boob Hell. It's a memoir of breastfeeding her first baby, and it's filled with tortured descriptions of the pain and embarrassment she endured while trying to figure out how to nurse. This wasn't your ordinary sore-nipples-for-a-few-days kind of pain, it was close to 3 months of constant, excruciating pain, even when she wasn't nursing. She had a nipple so deeply cracked that it essentially split in two. She couldn't hold her daughter or bear to have anything brush against her breasts. Turns out she had a raging thrush infection and (my interpretation here) a baby who didn't latch on right. Between those two, she endured more than I think I ever could have. But Rebekah doesn't set herself up as a hero or even a warrior. She feels like she's failing no matter what she does: "I was failing at breastfeeding, and failing at quitting breastfeeding. Human history had never known a more stupendous failure."
Even after she's been nursing for a while, she still feels terribly awkward and embarrassed to breastfeed in front of anybody. Here's a scene when she's visiting her mom and grandma (referred to as "Grandma" and "Great Grandma").
I positioned Baby to start on the safe boob. I had her burpie, a fresh nursing pad, and my receiving blanket. But when It came to the feature presentation, I found myself stalling, making unnecessary adjustments. I just didn't want anyone to watch me feed the baby; not my mom, not my grandma, not anybody. I grimly draped the blanket over my shoulder and Baby, reached underneath it to unhook my bra, and tried to hold her in the appropriate range, but she started flailing and gasping and soon the blanket was tangled around her head and arm, and my face was burning. Was Great Grandma still watching? I didn't want to look.Or this scene at a friend's house, where she and three other moms are gathered for lunch:
"Come on, Baby," I muttered desperately, pulling the blanket back up. But she couldn't get it. Her hands flew and pulled off the blanket again and she cried in frustration. I wanted to do the same. "I'm sorry, we're terrible at this," I said angrily. "Well go upstairs and come back when we're done." I reassembled myself and hauled Baby upstairs where we could sequester ourselves in a bedroom.
Dad [Rebekah's husband] knocked on the door a few minutes later and stuck his head in. "Doing OK?" he asked.
"Why do they say you should just feed the baby wherever you are? Why don't they tell you that babies can't figure out how to eat without you being totally exposed? Why do they make you think that it's totally no problem to feed a baby under a blanket? Don't their babies kick and squirm and cry? I hate all those people, whoever they are!"
We sat around Christine's table while the bigger kids ran and screamed. The lady with the newborn started nursing her, not with as much subtlety as I preferred to employ. I wasn't sure if I should look away. She didn't seem to be trying to make a point (no need in this group); apparently she just didn't care. It was distracting: although I wouldn't normally be looking at her chest, I now had to look consciously elsewhere. I struck me that this was how polite men must always feel around women in boob sweaters or short skirts.
Baby also had lunch coming. But with Other Mom doing the deed at the table, I could hardly excuse myself to the living room. It would even feel rude to try the blanket trick, since she hadn't. My inner anchorite muttered, See, this is why you don't go out with people. I dug through my diaper bag at length as a signal that I was about to need everyone's eyes to be considerately averted. I straightened, unhooked, helped Baby latch, and hoped that my face wasn't as red as it felt. The other girls dutifully conversed around me.
"Are you OK?" asked Christine after I started laughing at their comments again to signal my return to group interaction. "I mean, is it going OK?"
"Yeah, it's no biggie," I said, smiling tightly.
Rebekah's character is aware of these inconsistencies. One time, she is sitting in her husband's office nursing her baby. A woman walks in, looking for Rebekah's husband. Rebekah's immediate reaction is to feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, even though the woman doesn't mind and hardly notices the nursing. Turns out the woman has been struggling with infertility. Rebekah reflects:
Why had I spent all this time angry about nursing mothers being forced out of society to feed their babies, and then when someone who doesn't have a problem with me feeding my baby shows up I get mad and scared?
Reading Boob Hell made me wonder how we ought to talk about breastfeeding. Should we teach that it's something that many or most women can accomplish with the right information and support? Or is talking about breastfeeding in a positive and encouraging way setting women up for failure? Should we instead focus on the potential problems and difficulties so we're not painting an unrealistic picture for new mothers? I understand the reasons for both approaches. Rebekah definitely feels duped by all the breastfeeding books she read. To her, breastfeeding is hard and painful, period. Anyone who says otherwise is simply not telling the truth:
Baby and I were in the middle of a feeding when my aunt stopped by to inspect the newest family member. "How's it going?" she asked me.
Kind of rough," I said.
She nodded. "Yup, that's the way it goes."
Maybe if we all know this, we could give each other a little warning? I thought. "Everybody at the hospital and all the books say that you might be sore for a day or two at first but after that you'll be fine as long as you're doing it right," I said.
My aunt snorted and rolled her eyes. "Anybody who's ever done it knows that's not true," she said. "But at least you can drink again, right?"
Can I?" I asked.
"Oh, sure," she said, "You just can't get hammered."
On top of feeling shell-shocked at how difficult breastfeeding was, she can't even be honest about how she is actually doing:
A friendly grandpa-type asked me how we were doing that Sunday at church. Just fine, I prevaricated.
"You know, at this age, they pretty much just sleep and eat and cry!" he observed jauntily. "And the sleeping you don't mind, and the eating you don't mind, but that crying can sure wear you out!"
I nodded, smiled. He patted me on the back and moved on. I stumbled into my husband's study so that I could get the crying over with before another caring person tried to be friendly. Why did I have to lie about this? Why did I have to pretend that I wasn't in the darkest valley of my life? Didn't anyone know, didn't anyone suspect that things might not be that great for a new nursing mom? Why were we all keeping up this act? I could only conclude that every acquaintance who'd talked to me since Baby's birth had no experience of breastfeeding, because if they had, their words to me would surely have been less presumptuous. The eating you don't mind. The eating you don't mind. The eating you don't mind.
Rebekah finally emerges from boob hell almost 3 months postpartum. Her constant pain between feedings finally dissipates and then, at a friend's urging, she tries gentian violet for her thrush infection. It does the trick after lots of ineffective remedies and useless advice from doctors and lactation consultants.
Boob Hell is self-published. I caught the occasional error and found her usage of titles rather than names confusing (her daughter was named "Baby," her husband was named "Dad," and her mom was named "Grandma"). The writing style is so-so, but her story is positively wrenching and at times frustrating. Frustrating that women go through so much suffering--whether undeserved, unexpected, or self-inflicted. Frustrating that she received so much bad/ineffective advice from numerous health care professionals Frustrating that she couldn't be open about her struggles with mothering and nursing.
I haven't ever been in Rebekah Curtis' shoes. And she's never been in mine. Towards the end of the book, she writes: "I don't understand the people who claim to have no problems and no pain, but I'll take their word for it since one of them was my grandma." I am hesitant to pronounce that breastfeeding WILL be hard and painful and difficult. Or that if you do everything right, you'll NEVER have problems. I know that it CAN be hard, and is for many women. But I'm still uncomfortable with spreading the idea that is is MEANT to be that way.
For those reasons, I'm not sure if I would recommend this book to someone who has never breastfed before. It's simply too overwhelming and discouraging. However, Boob Hell would be great for breastfeeding veterans--especially those who have faced and overcome challenges. Or for those postpartum moms who feel lost and isolated, whether they're cruising along in boob Omaha or stuck in the seventh circle of boob hell.
Paperback available at Lulu ($9.49) and Amazon (paperback & $2.99 Kindle).
* Pleasant, nothing terribly remarkable, hum-drum (phrase borrowed from Rebekah Curtis)