Breast of Burden

The pump. The poop. The panic. A dispatch from the nursing wars.

If you are all of those things, but you simply like your job, or your time off from baby, prepare to be judged. In her field work with La Leche League, Blum says, she repeatedly heard such women referred to as "bad yuppie mothers." I hear that some attachment advocates describe them as "convenience parents."

On Hipmama.com, many of the participants are enthusiastic breastfeeders. One day, for a reason I can't even remember, one mother defensively admitted that she'd chosen the bottle. She was clearly expecting an onslaught of criticism, but instead her post lured a bevy of women out of lurkerdom. It turned into a cyberconfessional. Some of the stories recounted medical dilemmas--like the one about a young woman who'd fallen into a coma following complications during her baby's birth. But just as many came from parents who were simply tired and overwhelmed, and who'd been packing a mother lode of shame.

"It got to the point that I did not want to hold my daughter unless I was feeding her," wrote one. "I began to resent her and that scared the hell out of me. So one morning we sat down and had a talk. I vowed to always hold her, to always pick her up when she wanted me to, and to love her more than my own life. And for my mental health, I stopped."

Craig La Rotonda

Another mother recounted how she had tried, and failed, to nurse after breast-reduction surgery. "One lady, seeing me bottlefeeding [at a bookstore] asked me why I wasn't breastfeeding, and told me she felt sorry for my baby and hoped he wouldn't be sick all his life from not getting proper antibodies. I had to tell my breast-surgery story to countless people--even strangers--who wanted to know if I was breastfeeding. It didn't help when they'd say, 'Oh, well, you have a good reason for not breastfeeding, not like those women who are too lazy and selfish and worried about ruining their perky breasts.'

"I think we should listen carefully to those women who say they're too busy with their work or they're worried about their breasts. Because these women are really telling us some serious, sad things about what being a woman feels like to them."

As I write this, I've made it far enough along the breastfeeding continuum to expect that I won't have to justify myself when I declare last call at the milk bar. But in those early days, when all I wanted was to brush my teeth before noon, log enough sleep to keep from dropping Baby, and maybe even shower, I spent a great deal of time rehearsing my excuses.

 

Once Baby and I got into a calm enough rhythm that I began to believe we actually might both survive breastfeeding, I started comparing notes with other mothers on how long one had to nurse for a child to reap the benefit. I wasn't too surprised to learn that we'd each been told something different by our pediatricians: Four months. Six months. A year.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding exclusively for six months, and continuing along with solids for another six. Many breastfeeding advocates say nursing should continue until the child gives it up "naturally," even if that's more like age four or five.

As I came up on and then passed the six-month mark, I felt virtuous carrying my rented breast pump back and forth to work. I'd made peace with the lactation consultants, too, coming to prize their willingness to take phone calls about the oddest questions. "Breast is best" had been a source of guilt, but the more honest parents of my acquaintance had suggested that I get used to being flawed.

By then I was able to accept this advice in the good humor in which it was offered. Nursing had become a nonchalant part of my routine, and often a pleasurable one. Baby and I got so practiced, I was able to feed him pretty much everywhere women are criticized for whipping out a tit: In a park, on an airplane, even in front of the in-laws.

When I finally took back the pump--having resolved to cut back to nursing mornings and evenings only--I had read enough parenting manuals to expect grief. But what I really felt was relief. Not simply because I was done lugging the big blue milking machine back and forth, or because I would no longer have to conduct business on the phone while the device slurped noisily in the background.

No, the relief settled upon me when I realized that I didn't have to count how many ounces of milk I was sealing up in each baggie. Or worry, when that number plummeted below a quart, that Baby might have to endure a formula feeding at daycare. Or wonder whether I'd eaten enough, or drunk enough water. To be perfectly frank, it felt like the day long ago when I realized I didn't have to own a bathroom scale, especially if stepping on it every morning was doomed to be an exercise in self-flagellation.

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