6 Women Talk About What Breast-Feeding Is REALLY Like

Photographed by Sunny S.
This article was originally published on September 28, 2015.

Like many aspects of motherhood, breast-feeding is a fraught topic. Discussions of breast-feeding tend to focus on its health benefits to young children, the propriety of breast-feeding a child beyond infancy, and the politics of being a nursing mother — including the ability to nurse in public and pump in the workplace. Media depictions of breast-feeding tend to cast a glow over the practice; often, we see beautiful, softly lit portraits of new mothers cradling their infants as they blissfully feed. And this is certainly a part of breast-feeding. But what many of our discussions and depictions seldom address is the fact that breast-feeding can also be really fucking hard.

As a physical act, breast-feeding can present a host of difficulties, from chapped nipples to infections to clogged milk ducts. The rapid growth of breasts can cause women to grow several bra sizes, seemingly overnight — and with that growth often comes stretch marks and discomfort. While many of these physical issues resolve themselves over time, the early days of breast-feeding can be challenging. And beyond the physical discomfort, moms who want to or need to return to work while lactating often pump their breast milk several times a day — sometimes in closets that double as "lactation rooms."

We spoke to six women about the breast-feeding realities we don't often hear discussed: from bloody nipples to contracting uteruses.

Interviews have been condensed and edited.
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Photographed by Sunny S.
Pam
"I found that while breast-feeding is supposed to be ‘natural,’ it doesn’t always feel natural. There are challenges, and there are nice parts about it — it’s such a love/hate relationship."
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Photographed by Sunny S.
"Right now, I’m pumping every three hours for the twins. With my older son, I breast-fed him until he was five and a half months old. It’s funny, because when I was nursing him, my job didn’t have a lactation room. We had a storage-room closet."
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Photographed by Sunny S.
"I honestly weaned him from nursing because I went to work one day, and I was like, I’m done! I don’t want to go in the closet anymore and pump."
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Photographed by Sunny S.
"Right now, my breasts are massive. I’m a B, normally, and they’re something like an E now. It’s insane. And there are definitely stretch marks."
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Photographed by Sunny S.
"Even when they go back (they shrink back to their original size), the way they are is completely different from how they were before."
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Photographed by Sunny S.
"They’re obviously not as firm, so they’re looser and they’re almost squishy­ feeling, like if you imagine those balls they sell to squeeze for tension. My breasts almost feel like that."
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Photographed by Sunny S.
Stacey
“I come from a physical fitness and dance background, so body image is really big in that community. Your body changes so much with pregnancy, and I haven’t always been 100% happy with the changes."

Theory pants.
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Photographed by Sunny S.
"My breasts are probably not going to go back to what they used to be. My nipples and areolas used to be very, very small. I used barely have any breasts. Now I have them, and the nipples and areolas are fairly big. I’ve been a little nervous about it. But then, I’ve also had the luxury of almost 19 months to look at the process. Now, I’m a lot less nervous."
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Photographed by Sunny S.
"I didn’t expect the engorgement to hurt so bad. I remember taking a short, little cat nap in the hospital after my child was born, and waking up and feeling like my chest was going to explode."
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Photographed by Sunny S.
"It was probably the most uncomfortable feeling ever. Your boobs just feel like they want to shoot across the room."
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Photographed by Sunny S.
Rebecca
"What was really surprising to me about breast-feeding — and still is, two years in now, with my second child — is how great it feels. There have been physically painful things that have happened; I had a few different infections over the course of the last couple years."
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Photographed by Sunny S.
"There are times where it kind of hurts — my daughter went through a biting phase. But, overall, every time she latches, it feels so great. It’s a really deep, enjoyable feeling of connecting to your child."
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Photographed by Sunny S.
"I was breast-fed, myself, as a child. My mom was actually in La Leche League in the ‘80s, and breast-feeding was not super popular at the time. She breast-fed me, more or less, until I was four."
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Photographed by Sunny S.
"When I first had my son, she gave me The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, which is essentially the La Leche League bible. At first I was like, ‘Mom, come on. Breast-feeding, who cares? Of course I’ll do it, but what’s the big deal?’"
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Photographed by Sunny S.
"I didn’t know anything. Then, I slowly learned that the world is barely any different toward breast-feeding than it was in the ‘80s."
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Photographed by Sunny S.
Tam
"Everybody thinks breast-feeding is the most natural and easiest thing in the world, and you think everybody does it, because it’s natural and it’s supposed to be the best thing.

"In the hospital, everyone told me that breast-feeding was going to be really hard, so don’t give up, don’t give up, don’t give up. And I didn’t understand why people kept saying that, but it’s because you always want to give up."

Theory skirt; model's own shirt.
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Photographed by Sunny S.
"If you’re not used to someone sucking on your nipples 24/7, obviously they’re going to get sore. Mine were bleeding a little bit. So that’s really hard in the beginning...when you have to keep going and keep going, but you’re sore, so you don’t want to keep going.

"The first three days, nobody has any milk, so...you’re already sore when the milk comes down. It’s a very hard first couple weeks. And then I had a duct get clogged because of overproduction. Dealing with that was more painful than giving birth. I had to get it massaged out, because that’s the only way to release it, and it was so painful. Really, really painful."
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Photographed by Sunny S.
"Also, after giving birth, your uterus is the size of a basketball, and it has to go back to its smaller size, and breastfeeding helps to contract the uterus. This is actually a really painful process. That’s something I had no idea about. Nobody told me this would happen.

"I always had double-­D cups growing up; then, when I was pregnant, they grew five sizes. Imagine double-­Ds plus five. I didn’t even know those kinds of sizes existed. It’s just heavy on your back, plus carrying the baby, breast-feeding...just so heavy. I’m super scared they won’t go back to at least how they were before."
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Photographed by Sunny S.
Bonnie
"I took parenting courses, but I was still really ill-equipped for lactation and breast-feeding after I had my first child.

"There were so many things I didn’t know. I didn’t know that your breasts got really engorged right before the milk came in. I went from a tiny A­-cup to a C-­ or D­-cup overnight, and I didn’t know you were supposed to wear a bra to prevent crazy overgrowth. I went without a bra, because my nipples were bleeding and so chapped.

"In the days after birth, when you’re thrown into a situation where you have a newborn baby that’s screaming to be fed...my baby didn’t know how to latch, which was really stressful and really painful, because my nipples are soft and I didn’t know about nipple shields, which are sheaths you can wear over the areola and nipple as you breast-feed.

"My nipples were blistered and bleeding. I would get clogged milk ducts, which were one of the most excruciating experiences of my life.

"Another thing many people don’t know is that when you’re actively nursing your child, your uterus actually contracts. So, on top of having just given birth and then struggling to breastfeed, my uterus was contracting. In a way, it feels like labor."
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Photographed by Sunny S.
"I didn’t actually see any sort of reprieve until 10 weeks, so it was 10 weeks of constant hell. I couldn’t eat certain foods, because if it was too salty, I’d get a breast infection. I’d be in tears, and I’d wake up sweating, with a fever. But I just stuck with it, and then after 10 weeks everything got better. My nipples got used to it and stopped hurting. My child has been so healthy since — she only got sick once. So, it’s been really great for her, just my breast milk, so I plan on feeding her until she’s, like, 18 months, maybe two.

"I pump four or five times a day. It’s quite a bit.

"Right after I had the baby, I was really, really upset about how much my breasts drastically changed. They used to be a nice, perky A. They were really round; they were one thing about my body I was actually psyched about — I had nice breasts! And then, after I had the baby, they got engorged, and they swelled and stretched quickly overnight, and I got crazy stretch marks. I just immediately got these really angry lines. When I would get infections, they would get red and veiny... They would just stare at me in the mirror, like they were pissed off.

"In some ways...it’s disconcerting when they’re no longer what they...used to be. But, I have learned to love them now, despite the fact that they hang a little, and they’re sort of lopsided, and they’re angry from time to time. I’ve come into my own boobs."
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Simone
"Everyone's personal journey is different. It changes the body. It changes the breast."
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