I am a birth photographer, mom to three amazing kiddos, and big breastfeeding advocate. But, I’ve had to make the most difficult breast decision ever. I hope sharing my journey will help whether you are struggling with breastfeeding, breast cancer risks, or simple self-love.
Since 2015, I have celebrated World Breastfeeding Week by organizing group pictures to bring mamas together as friends and advocates.
My breasts have been a sensitive topic since I received my BRCA1 diagnosis back in 1999 at 23 years old. But, it wasn’t until I had finished nursing my 3rd child that I learned about D-MER, which explained the dread I felt regarding breastfeeding.
According to D-MER.org, “Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex is a condition affecting lactating women that is characterized by an abrupt dysphoria, or negative emotions, that occur just before milk release and continuing not more than a few minutes.”
This was me. How could a loving mother feel anger toward a helpless and hungry newborn? I felt like the worst mother alive! Maybe it was the guilt that kept me pushing through the ugliness. Or maybe it was because I refused to buy formula when I had the ability to grow a human being without spending a dime. It could have just been pure determination. But, I did not give up and I’m proud of that, though I sometimes wonder if we would have bonded better with a bottle. When each of my babies was about 6 months old and introduced to solid foods, it hit me that I had grown this extraordinary life with just my body. Go me!
Whatever you decide, YOU ARE ENOUGH, MAMA.
So, here I was, this incredibly extroverted and loud person fighting the good fight. But, I was STILL too uncomfortable to nurse in public. Because I kept covered, I never got anything worse than annoyed looks in public. But, I heard plenty of snide remarks made about others. My family criticized my oldest sister for not being modest enough while breastfeeding, and I hate that I didn’t do a better job defending her. Fortunately, she didn’t seem to care what anyone else thought. She wasn’t pulling her boobs out for anyone but her babies. And she was bold enough to do it anywhere and anytime that her little ones needed food or comfort.
My first baby struggled with latching until he was a couple months old. We both fought with my overactive letdowns and my little man absolutely detested being covered up. Even as a newborn, anytime I threw a blanket over his head, he got mad. So, I hid. I have one absolutely terrible picture of me nursing him.
Here is one of only a few pictures I could find of me nursing my second baby. Annika was nearly 2 months old and I simply couldn’t resist the adorable nursing smile. I don’t think I’ve ever showed these breastfeeding pictures to anyone before.
By the time my little Leap Day baby came around, I was super excited about experiencing her labor and birth, but terrified about breastfeeding again. I’m so glad I have some sweet first nursing pictures of Kaia. And even better, my son was a proud, little helper.
I really appreciate being able to look back on both the very first moments and very last moments of this bonding time
with my sweet baby girl. Here we are on January 22, 2013, the last time I ever breastfed.
I nursed Nathan for 15 months, night weaning him around 9 months because he was in the habit of waking every 1.5-2 hours to eat 24/7. I had forgotten what deep sleep was! Annika has been the most independent girl ever since birth and it seemed that she didn’t want to be attached to me. She used to twist and pull, fighting between her basic instincts to eat and wanting to go do her own thing. My second baby self-weaned after I had to introduce a bottle at 9 months old to keep her fed while I underwent a colonoscopy. I had to get a follow-up colonoscopy roughly 4 years later, which just so happened to be when Kaia was 9 months old. Anyone want to guess how that ended up?
I still didn’t enjoy breastfeeding, but the end of this stage of my life brought sadness. My BRCA1 mutation gave me a 60% lifetime risk of ovarian cancer. Since my 1999 diagnosis, I been urged to get everything removed when I was done having babies. I had a full hysterectomy when Kaia was only 5 months old to protect myself. So, this was it. I would never feel this same closeness again. My babies would never need me the same way. I suddenly felt this suffocating realization that motherhood was whisking by too quickly.
And now on to my breast decision. My lovely BRCA1 mutation gave me a roughly 85% lifetime risk of breast cancer, but I had chosen to monitor things closely rather than getting a prophylactic mastectomy. After pregnancy and breastfeeding, I was past due for my routine MRI. This MRI in November 2013 changed the pace of things dramatically when a 9mm lump was discovered in my left breast with a corresponding enlarged and abnormally-shaped lymph node. I was terrified. Pretty much every mammogram I’d ever had revealed something of concern, but this was worse.
The biopsies were horrible, but fortunately there was no sign of cancer. Facing pretty much constant preventative procedures moving forward, I decided it was time to get a prophylactic mastectomy. If there ever was something sexual about my breasts, that was all over now.
The mastectomy and reconstruction process were an absolute nightmare. This breast decision had taken several very painful turns. It took a year and a half before I could sleep on my left side again. I still get shooting pain as nerves regenerate and I’ve got bony cavities where the implants have settled away from my chest wall. My chest looks ridiculous when I try to lift anything heavy. My nipples look like they are trying to smell my armpits. And worst of all, I can’t feel hugs. It’s like there is a pillow between me and anyone that I hug.
As I continue to deal with this breast decision and loss of my womanhood, I wish I could have enjoyed breastfeeding my babies more. At the very least, I wish I hadn’t been so ashamed to take care of them in public. I sat on bathroom floors, snuck away into dark rooms at parties, even covered up in my own house so that I wouldn’t risk offending anyone. Those were stolen moments and I want to do my part to end this stigma.
I love being part of this breastfeeding movement, but I would never want someone who doesn’t breastfeed to feel badly. This isn’t some “breast is best” commentary. I realize the many benefits of breast milk, but I also realize that we are all different and our love is not defined by sticking to arbitrary rules and expectations. Given the D-MER issues, I sometimes wonder if resigning myself to bottle feeding might have been healthier for my relationships with my babies. I don’t regret my decisions as I was doing the best I could with what information I had at the time. And like every mom reading this, everything I did was with my children’s best interests at heart.
I have recently come back from depression brought on by the pain and hormonal changes caused by the mastectomy. It was the thought of missing out on their lives that kept me going, not to mention the pain it would cause them if I weren’t here. I’m still here and I’m still fighting.
Had I known how hard these surgeries would be on me and my family, I would never have gone through with the mastectomy. I’m glad that I didn’t know. I beat breast cancer before she could find me. Now, I get to enjoy my babies without the constant fear and disruptions to my life. The only regret I have was putting my body through reconstruction. At the time I wrote this blog post, I still had a long way to go in my journey. I have since gotten divorced and had my implants removed. I love my flat chest now!
I have since focused a lot of attention on lifting other women up through boudoir photography. It has been quite the journey learning to love this body and I’d love the opportunity to help you appreciate the strength and beauty in your body, as well.
Join me in the private Badass & Beautiful Group on Facebook. And check out TEKimages.com to see some of my boudoir work!