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Can We Please Be Honest About How Breastfeeding Changes Your Marriage?

Image: Chaunie Brusie
Image source: Chaunie Brusie

I have a skewed vision of marriage, because for me, marriage and parenthood burst onto the scene together. As I said, “I do,” to my husband, I also felt the first flutters of our daughter as she kicked in my stomach.

There has been no “us” without “them” — our children — and I’ve often questioned the marital advice that claims that to have a successful marriage, you need to put the kids second and focus on being a couple together first.

I’ve confessed my feelings on that matter before, admitting that for me, right now, at this particular intensive stage of parenting (we have four kids, ranging in ages from six to six months), I just don’t put pressure on myself to always make sure my husband is my number one priority. In this particular stage of parenting, the kids are the primary focus, taking up the bulk of my mental, physical, and emotional energy. In my mind, it’s just dumb to expect anything else of me. My husband is a big boy and I didn’t exactly bring these kids into the world on my own, so instead of viewing it as a kids vs. husband scenario, I think it’s safe to say that we’re on the same team. Mostly.

But lately, I admit that I’ve been re-thinking my stance just a teensy bit. I’m feeling a bit beaten down by the struggle of parenting and the complete lack of any time alone together at all, due to kids that literally never sleep (I don’t understand how they live?!) and crazy demanding careers that we both love.

It has crossed my mind that maybe — just maybe — I am doing myself, my marriage, and my children all an extreme disservice by placing my relationship with my husband on the back burner, assuming that this stage of parenting is something we just need to get through before we can focus on each other again. I’ve had this sort of “survival” mentality, as if we are sleep-deprived, spit-up clad warriors in our own version of The Hunger Games, except it’s a screaming baby that is the hungry one.

I read this article the other day, one of those typical “My Husband Always Comes First” pieces that are always written by first-time moms with only one kid and apparently self-sacrificing parents without jobs who are willing to pay their own way across the country to babysit their kid for free so they can jet off on recharging, romantic vacations with their husbands.

“We’re very happy, and because I want to stay happily-married and give our three-year-old son the kind of joyful home I didn’t have while I was growing up, I put my marriage first,” says the author of her marriage. “My husband comes before anyone else in my life, including my beloved child … It’s almost impossible to have a happy childhood if you have miserable parents.”

Now, let me take pause here and say that when I read her words, a little glimmer of light started to worm its way across my brain.

Well, that makes sense, I thought to myself as I sipped my coffee. Maybe I do have this all backwards and taking some more time with my hubby alone would be a better way to take care of the kids.

And then I kept reading.

And remembered — oh yeah — it’s impossible to do.

Because I’ve been breastfeeding for the last seven years of my life.

I swear I don’t want to come across as a bitter old woman here and I’m genuinely glad that this woman is able to have those kinds of opportunities to invest in her marriage, because that’s great. But can we say reality check? The “advice” that she promotes as ways to put her marriage first are just not all that realistic — especially for breastfeeding mothers:

“Solo Vacations”

To safeguard their marriage, this wife and her husband made sure to take their first couple’s vacay — alone — when their baby was only six months old. (While the author’s mom watched the baby).

Now, aside from the fact that we all can’t afford to take a vacation in the first place, nor have a parent who is so willing to watch our child for an entire week no questions asked (!), the thought of taking a vacation without my child while I’m breastfeeding always sounds like more work than it’s worth to me. I’m not saying it’s not possible to go away for a week when you’re exclusively breastfeeding, but I’m saying that for me, it never feels worth the money when I have to drag out the breast pump and worry the whole time if my baby is actually taking her bottle. Also, transporting breast milk cross-country is no joke and am I the only one who gets singled out as if I am a terrorist packing a bomb in my breast pump?

“Keeping The Baby Out Of The Bed”

“Chris and I made a conscious decision from the very beginning not to co-sleep (although Mason’s bassinet was in our bedroom for months), because we wanted a space where we could have sex or cuddle without worrying about a baby sleeping between us,” she writes.

Oh, honey. That’s so cute. I mean, where do I even begin with this one? Maybe you have to be knee-deep in vomit in the middle of flu season with four kids and a baby who refuses to sleep unless permanently affixed to your nipple as if it is made of super-glue?

“Take Turns Getting Up With The Baby”

“Neither of us are morning people, so we take turns getting up with Mason at the crack of dawn every day,” she explains. “… We’re very clear that he gets the undivided attention of one parent every morning because mommy or daddy is tired and she/he needs some extra rest.”

I think I choked and spit out my coffee when I read this one, because how lovely. Call me crazy, but when you’re breastfeeding, “sleeping in” or “taking turns” never really happens either. Boobs don’t let you sleep in and even if you prepare to have your partner take a turn, it means pumping the night before, taking a bottle of milk from your precious stash that you secretly don’t want to see depleted, and waking up to painful, leaking boobs. So relaxing!

OK, so what’s my point with all of this?

Simply this: That it’s important to be realistic about the effect that breastfeeding can have on a marriage. It’s all well and good to advise wives to take vacations with their husbands and keep the bed a sacred place for sex, but it’s not helpful when you’re talking to a breastfeeding mother who can’t get the baby to take a bottle for her to run to the grocery store alone, let alone leave for a week.

Parenting takes a huge chunk of ourselves and for breastfeeding mothers, I mean that literally. There are things that we can do to try to ease the work of breastfeeding, like pumping, but if we could also be real for a moment, breastfeeding will take some sacrifice, both on your personal time as a woman and yes, also on your marriage.

So to my fellow nursing moms — and I say that not out of spite to any mom who chooses or is unable to breastfeed, of course, which should go without saying but because this is the Internet I will say anyways — let me reassure you:

Don’t feel guilty if things feel a bit unbalanced in your marriage right now because you’re breastfeeding.

Because breastfeeding is hard. It’s a gift in many ways, but it’s also quite literally, a gift of yourself — and that means taking time from the other “selves” in your life, like sexy seductress or impulsive date night planner. Not that those things aren’t possible, but those things can be different when you’re also nursing a baby.

And if you’ve married a guy worth having around, he should support your efforts in nourishing that baby that you both brought into this world without resenting the very real fact that marriage changes a bit with breastfeeding. And even if we can’t take a vacation right now, or sleep in on the weekends, or have the bed to ourselves every night, I have to believe that love can be strengthened in other ways.

I have to hold on to the hope that in some small way, there is something just as romantic as kissing each other good night over the beautiful baby between us in the bed as we tuck in for our respective two hours of sleep every night.

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