Breast of Burden
About a year ago, when I was eight months pregnant, my husband and I attended a prenatal breastfeeding class at the hospital where I was to deliver our first child. The class was led by a chubby, exuberant earth-mother type with a thicket of frizzy hair. Brandishing a flannel breast--complete with perky cloth nipple--and matching cloth baby, she demonstrated how to grapple the doll into a "football hold," and what a proper "latch" between newborn mouth and maternal bosom was supposed to look like.
Like all expectant parents, we had long since absorbed the mantra "breast is best." We'd heard about the lifelong health benefits that come from nursing, about research suggesting that breastfed babies are less likely to be obese and more likely to be intelligent. We'd learned that nursing might be our best bet for helping our child avoid the potentially lethal food allergies that plague one of his parents.
Besides, everyone kept pointing out, the process was natural. Baby arrives amid joyful tears, you press the tiny scrap of humanity to your breast and voilà--the two of you bond while, out of sight, a crack medical team whisks away the placenta and any other icky bits that might clutter this magic moment.
Breast milk is free, the experts would add, and it can help mom regain her pre-pregnancy shape. Then, as if we needed further convincing, they'd deliver the clincher: Unlike poop produced on formula, the stools of breastfed babies were "sweet-smelling." With such a miracle waiting, right there in the extra-large, off-pink nursing bra I had already begun wearing, it was hard to imagine anybody would turn to the bottle.
So why, my barge-sized middle wedged into a seat in the packed auditorium at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, did I feel like I was on the receiving end of a pep talk? And why did I suspect there was some dark underbelly to this process that we weren't hearing about? Why, when I asked other mothers about breastfeeding--mothers who had happily confided the messiest, most personal details of their pregnancies and deliveries--did so many of them turn evasive?
Reality set in with a vengeance the night we brought Baby home from the hospital. He had been born with jaundice, a mundane problem suffered by about half of all newborns. Because of their immature livers, babies with jaundice need help getting rid of bilirubin, a chemical produced during the normal breakdown of old red blood cells. The condition is treated by exposing the infants to blue, fluorescentlike "bililights."
The hospital had equipped us with a big metal suitcase that had a mattress in its bottom half and the special lights in its top. We laid Baby, naked, in this giant aluminum clam and took turns standing vigil all night long so he didn't knock off the fuzzy goggles that protected his eyes. He cried for much of the night, much as he had in the hospital.
Every hour and a half, I would take him from the light box and try to nurse him. He'd bleat piteously, and every other feeding it seemed as if a few drops of colostrum, the antibody-rich fluid that precedes milk in a woman's breast, might have actually ended up in his tiny tummy. But mostly my little family just cried together.
By the time dawn crept into our living room, my husband and I had begun entertaining thoughts of nipping out to the store, buying a can of infant formula, and giving everyone a break. In our sleep-deprived states, we saw the situation like this: For three straight days I'd watched helplessly while the baby howled for food and comfort, certain that I'd made a mistake when I thought I was mother material. My husband was supportive, but a good attitude couldn't render him capable of lactating. And he didn't like seeing either Baby or me this miserable.
I'd gotten plenty of advice in the hospital, some of it both practical and supportive. But too much of it was dispensed by nurses who groused that they had too many "high-need" mothers to care for. The lactation consultant (a nurse with extra training in breastfeeding support) who visited me for half an hour praised me for standing up to the night-shift nurses' demand that I let them give Baby sugar water through a baby bottle. She did what she could to fine-tune our "latch," and then left.
We were scared of the bottle, you see, because we'd been told time and again that the first roadblock to successful breastfeeding was the dread "nipple confusion." While babies have to learn to suck to get Mama's milk, the artificial teat lets liquid trickle down their tender throats without much effort. And because breastfeeding is strictly a matter of supply and demand, this can set up a vicious cycle: A mother placates a hungry infant with a bottle. Baby in turn fails to stimulate milk production. The dry breast gives Baby no incentive to learn how to suck. In a word: Introduce the lazy rubber nipple, and Junior may reject the breast for all time.
In our dedication to "breast is best" we hadn't laid in any formula. But we did have lots and lots of nursing literature, all of it sporting pictures of cuddly cherubs nestled up to the perfectly spherical breasts of long-haired, ethereal women in gauzy white nightgowns. The key to successful breastfeeding, we had been told again and again, was commitment.
We were committed all right. But none of that natural, perfect, bonding magic was happening at our house that morning. And the arrival of the home-care nurse only compounded our ambivalence. Sent by the hospital to monitor Baby's jaundice, she gave each of us a brief checkup while she was at it. She watched us nurse, placing her ear close to Baby's throat to try to hear him swallow.
At last, she turned to me. "The baby has lost too much weight since he was born," she said as gently as possible. "It's time to start supplementing his feedings with formula." She showed us how to mix up an ounce of Similac with Iron and use an eyedropper to dribble it into Baby's mouth. We were to do this each time he finished nursing--about every 90 minutes--and I was to get a breast pump and use it for 15 minutes after each feeding to build up my milk production. If perchance I actually collected any milk, I could feed it to him via the dropper instead of formula.
From the reaction we got when we started calling local lactation consultants to inquire about a breast pump, you'd have thought we were looking for free samples of morphine. None of them agreed with the home-care nurse's prescription. Instead of using formula, they suggested, I should pump the milk that hadn't yet seemed to come in, and feed it to Baby through a tiny tube I could tape to one of my nipples. This would teach him to suck and give my breasts the stimulation they needed to become a full-fledged milk bar. If I wanted a pump, they said, they would prefer I first come in for a session with a consultant.
We couldn't, I countered. Baby was under doctor's orders to stay in his little toaster oven in our living room. I was too wobbly and tired to get dressed and make the trek. Plus it was late on a Friday, and the center was getting ready to lock up for a long holiday weekend.
Here we were with very good insurance, two decent salaries, and an extended, supportive family in the neighborhood. And yet we were very much alone in trying, quite literally, to keep this tiny human alive. Panicked beyond belief, we each took a deep breath and I lied to the lactation consultants. If they'd give us the pump, now, we'd come get counseled as soon as the holiday was over.
I'm sure this strikes most of you as a no-brainer. But for us, right then, it seemed as if we could very well be making a choice between a bright, well-adjusted little boy and a frustrated loser unable to form lasting bonds. Our living room simply wasn't big enough to accommodate all of the medical, social, political, philosophical, and economic baggage that attended the moment.
Like all pregnant women, I'd nearly ruined my ankles shopping to prepare for the day we'd come home with Baby. A breast pump had been on my list; after considering the $250-and-up price tag for new electric pumps, I had turned to searching the classifieds for used ones. But I hadn't gotten around to buying one, and I wasn't sure why until that awful moment when the home-care nurse left.
Something that had been rumbling around in my subconscious burst to the surface as the door closed behind her. The last line of agate type in virtually every ad said the same thing: "Only used once."
Fast-forward six weeks. The pump-and-dropper system had worked. I'd mastered the football hold and, in exchange, Baby had developed a pretty decent latch. I was producing enough milk to wake up drenched in it. Indeed, if Baby let go of a nipple too suddenly I sent streams of milk across the room. But nursing was still pretty much all we did, 24-7.
Because breast milk is much more easily digested than formula, Baby got hungry every hour and a half. It took about 45 minutes for him to drain both breasts. Throw in another 10 minutes to change his diaper, (inevitably extra poopy because of said superior digestibility), and maybe 10 more to take myself to the restroom and to drink a couple of tall glasses of water to replace those fluids.
You can't sleep for more than an hour at a time if you do this the prescribed eight to twelve times in every 24-hour period. And while nursing duos in the mommy manuals were surrounded by misty halos of light, Baby and I spent most of that time in the blue glow of the television, learning the A&E and TV Land overnight schedules by heart.
I tried to venture out of the house a couple of times, but it was much harder than anyone had led me to believe: Feed baby, shower while he snoozed in his car seat in the bathroom, change his diaper, dress myself, and gather the 264,789 accessories that must go with us. When all that was ready, chances were Baby would need to be nursed again, since by then he'd have woken up.
Out of sheer necessity, however, we pulled it off one Friday and went to a department store to find something that fit and buttoned up the front to wear to a funeral. More accurate, my friend Betsy raced around the store trying to find this Holy Grail of dresses while Baby and I were parked in the mommies' lounge adjacent to the women's restroom, nursing.
I was just preparing to dislodge Baby from my right breast, coax out a spitty burp, and park him on my left when a woman came in carrying a sleek, black, oversize purse I recognized as the most popular portable breast pump out there, the Medela Pump in Style. She looked too svelte to be postpartum and was dressed in tasteful, expensive career-woman clothes. I hated her.
She set down the bag, flipped open the top, and started taking out the bottles and tubes and various suction devices (picture little tubas) that go with the pump. She laid them all out neatly and fit them together, then reached back into the bag. Out came a granola bar, followed by a can of Dr Pepper.
Ms. Medela took a deep breath, rolled her neck and shoulders in a brief relaxation exercise, ate her snack, and ten minutes later tucked two full bottles into another, conveniently chilled compartment. She could have been a walking Medela ad, "pumping discreetly on the go!" as the promotional literature promises. "Naturally, with the help of a friend."
For me, the pumping process was a little closer to the one described by novelist Anne Lamott, the author of Operating Instructions, a viciously funny account of her son's first year: "I hate the fucking breast pump," she writes. "It's the ultimate bovine humiliation, and it hurts, the suction is so strong. You feel plugged into a medieval milking machine that turns your poor little gumdrop nipples into purple slugs with the texture of rhinoceros hide.
"You sit there furtively pumping away, producing nebbishy little sprays on the side of the pump bottle until finally you've got half a cup of milk and nipples six inches long. It's so incredibly unsexy and secretive, definitely not something you would ever mention on 'Wheel of Fortune,' nothing you'd ever find in a Cosmo piece about 10 ways to turn on your lover--crotchless underpants and a breast pump."
The pump I eventually rented for $45 a month was a giant, electric-blue industrial model. At some ten pounds it was a pain to schlep around, and once I went back to work I planned my forays into the outside world around the times when I knew I could least expect my breasts to leak. Too much milk on a sweater and I'd smell like cheese for the rest of the day.
My pump didn't come with a little cooler pack, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out why anyone would shell out for Medela's expensive breast-milk freezer bags. Instead I'd pump, empty the milk into a Ziploc, and stick it into the office freezer. Most nights I went home with three plump bags, each of which would be thawed by the daycare provider the next day to provide a nutritious meal for Baby.
While all the modern literature suggests that one of the advantages of breastfeeding is economy--it's free, it's always ready when you need it, at the perfect temperature, etc.--nursing has managed to spawn a flourishing industry. Just thumb through a catalog, visit a parenting Web site, or take a walk through the infant-gear aisles at Target: There are slings that snuggle baby close to the breast while mommy moves around, nursing pads, milk collection and storage "systems." There are nursing bras with snap-open flaps and racks full of overpriced clothes that part at just the right seam; footstools to correct mom's posture, nipple cream for when she gets chapped, and shoulder-to-hip "aprons" to create a private cocoon for baby and breast. One such shield boasts a see-through window at shoulder level so mom, and no one else, can watch the child nurse. (Evidently breastfeeding is both an acceptable public activity, and something that should occur under a tarp.)
The ultimate accessory, of course, is the pump itself. Based in Switzerland, Medela is the world's leading manufacturer of these incredibly complicated devices, and as the breastfeeding instructor I endured while pregnant pointed out, their distributors--who typically work as lactation consultants--must agree to sell or rent the pumps for at least a certain amount (typically upward of $250 for the ubiquitous Pump in Style). Then there's the cost of the little cups that draw out the milk, the tubing that supplies the suction, and the special bottles that for weeks I somehow failed to realize were identical to every other baby bottle on the market. (You usually purchase all of this as a packaged "system" for $45 to $50.)
Monetarily, it was a wash: When I took the pump back after seven months I had spent about $400, plus perhaps another $150 on bras and other sundries. If I'd pumped for the rest of Baby's first year, I would have spent essentially the average $1,000 cost of a 12-month supply of formula.
There is, of course, an alternative to all this: Stay home with baby. If Chez Mommy never closes, well then, there's no need for all of this cumbersome equipment, is there?
In Minnesota, a law passed just a few months before I gave birth requires employers to provide breaks and a private space for women to express milk, theoretically ending the need to furtively empty your breasts in restrooms or in cars. And a handful of Twin Cities firms have taken the progressive step of setting up mothers' rooms complete with company-financed pumps--a workplace amenity being pushed nationwide by Medela, among others.
This is terrific, and it probably creates a system where everybody wins: The breastfed baby isn't sick as often as her bottle-fed buddies, so her parents miss less work, more than repaying the employer's investment--not to mention the recruiting benefits of family-friendly perks.
But this technology also makes it easier to expect mothers to do more--even as women are being counseled to let go of the idea of having it all. Linda Blum teaches sociology and women's studies at the University of New Hampshire and has spent the last decade researching attitudes about nursing. "It's amazing how fast breastfeeding is being redefined as pumping," she says. "It's just automatically become part of the process without really much discussion."
Blum dissects this conundrum in her book, At the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in the Contemporary United States. "[The] career breastfeeding Supermom... cannot follow the early or mid-century regime prescribed to nursing mothers, with all its time for sleep," Blum writes. "Nor would [she] likely have time for the 15-minute relaxation interludes Dr. Spock advised before each nursing to ease the let-down reflex" (the process of coaxing one's milk ducts into letting loose of the boob juice). Blum goes on to suggest that we can assume that Supermom is white, affluent, married, and might even employ an immigrant nanny.
"She has solved the dilemma posed by being at once exclusive and irreplaceable but replaced--at least during her hours working and working out. She has the 'lock' of breastmilk, 'Nature's cement,' to bond her children to her even if she has to rely on a breast pump to collect much of it.
"Moreover, any negative feelings about pumping might be resolved by new technological innovations--a new pumping vest has just been patented that allows working mothers to remain at their desks 'while the vest works discreetly.' In the end, the rewards for the mechanistic pumping are the few times when she can actually nurse her daughter 'in the flesh,' for, as several popular manuals put it, this 'reminds the baby who the real mother is!'"
Back up to that department-store quest for the perfect funeral outfit. My friend did succeed in helping me find a dress that wouldn't embarrass anyone, though in retrospect I should have suspected that no mere garment would keep my breasts from bobbing headlong into my in-laws.
It doesn't take little girls long to discover that their breasts are public property. Total strangers feel it's okay to gawk or to comment on their size or shape. Those folks, we've been taught, are rude. Yet when there's a human infant dangling from your chest, people will cross the room to vent either disapproval, or--less expected but just as intrusive--their zeal for breastfeeding.
I was prepared for the in-law who made a special trip to show me the easy chair she'd set up for me in a back room. The consummate hostess, she wasn't so much suggesting that I hide as letting me know there was privacy available if I wanted it. Waiting for dinner at the Olive Garden after the funeral I was irked, but not surprised, when another relative suggested that I nurse in the handicap stall in the bathroom. She clearly thought I should be more modest than I am.
The one that took me by surprise was the sister-in-law who followed me around spouting advice about how to enhance my breastfeeding experience. I should sleep with the baby in my bed, she said, so that he wouldn't miss any opportunities to suckle. While nursing in the dead of night, I should read classic plays (preferably Oscar Wilde) because they would put me in an intellectual state of mind that would in turn trickle down to Baby. And, her spouse chimed in, this practice of my husband giving Baby a single bottle of formula each evening so I could have three hours of uninterrupted sleep, was wrong, wrong, wrong. "You don't understand the importance of fresh milk," he started before we turned away.
Now that my kitchen is stocked with little jars of smashed vegetables, none of these folks would dare stick their noses in my cabinets and proclaim their disapproval. "Hmmm--organic. You must be dripping with money." Or, "Eeesh, puréed green beans. Mommy must not love you very much."
Of course, one reason this discussion is so charged is that human milk really is a miraculous substance. Another has to do with the fact that we still can't seem to talk about, much less display, a female breast without dredging up all kinds of social and psychological baggage.
But don't kid yourself; an equal measure of the rationale for declaring this private decision open to public scrutiny is ideological. Reports Blum: "A group of women I spoke to this year said, 'Why isn't [breastfeeding] just one of the many different parenting decisions we'll have to make? Why does it take on this moral cast that if you're going to be a good mother, this is what you're going to do?' This one, at least in our culture, has a lot packed into it."
As far as I can tell, it's been this way for a long time. Although breast milk has almost always been regarded as "perfect," there have been alternatives to nursing your infant for hundreds of years. Centuries ago, the least fortunate babies were given "paps," or mixtures of animal milks, flour, sugar, water, even tea. But until about the 1920s, when clean water became widely available, "artificial" milk was often linked with higher infant-mortality rates, and generally seen as a last resort.
More privileged babies whose mamas couldn't or didn't want to put them to the breast were turned over to a wet nurse. "There was this idea that if a woman were sexually active, her milk could harm or even kill her child," explains Blum. And because breastfeeding often suppresses ovulation, it was anathema to aristocratic women under pressure to produce male heirs.
In colonial America, by contrast, nursing was thought to guarantee robust babies. The practice was considered a woman's "patriotic duty," Blum says. In the 1800s, breastfeeding was considered a matter of medical necessity, and women who needed a wet nurse would ask their doctor to find one. The ideal candidate, Blum notes, was "a good, sturdy farm wife," preferably white.
As it happened, it was often far more convenient to turn the job over to a black slave: Although research into the practice has generated a good deal of controversy, it's generally thought that 20 percent of slave owners used slave wet nurses. As late as the 1920s white mothers commonly hired black women to nurse their children.
Even after advances in sanitation made formula-feeding less hazardous, doctors recognized breast milk as superior and sought ways to make it possible for more women to nurse. In 1919 Julius Parker Sedgwick, chief of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, set out to increase the rate of breastfeeding among Minneapolis mothers. A longtime proponent of the health benefits of nursing, Sedgwick often passed a beaker of human milk in the classroom for his students to taste. He convinced private physicians as well as the city's Department of Public Health and its Infant Welfare Society, to help him keep in touch with every woman in the city for nine months after the birth of her baby. To this end, Public Health nurses called or visited new mothers--daily, if need be--to help out.
"The personal attention and follow-up paid off," the Journal of Human Lactation reported last year, listing some statistics today's pediatricians can only dream of. "According to mothers' and nurses' reports, more than 96 percent of babies born in Minneapolis during the first five months of 1919 were still breastfeeding at the end of their second month. More than 72 percent were still breastfeeding at the end of their ninth month." Infant mortality, the article went on, dropped 20 percent during that time. The effort was disbanded by 1926 because of a lack of funding. Today, most insurance companies won't so much as pay for a visit with a lactation consultant once a mother has been discharged from the hospital.
But even as Sedgwick conducted his campaign, more and more doctors began to equate formula with progress. "Physicians worried that 'civilized' mothers who lived under unnatural strains and 'had highly developed nervous systems,' were less suited to nursing," Blum writes. Doctors "emphasized the need to avoid becoming nervous, overwrought, or overcome with 'fright, fatigue, grief, or passion.'"
Frequently overwrought by pretty much everything, my grandmother raised both my mother and my uncle on the bottle, a decision I hear she never once considered having to justify. At the time, formula companies were becoming ever more market-savvy: They began sponsoring medical research and distributing samples in maternity wards. By the time my mother was contemplating babies, formula was thought to be actually superior to breast milk. (She never literally faced this decision, since my brother and I were adopted.)
In the 1970s, a decade after my birth, women were joining consciousness-raising groups in droves, and flocking to bookstores to buy copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves. The breast was back, baby, and it was beautiful. (So, by the way, was cold, dark beer--often recommended to improve milk supply. In contrast, the most popular mommy manual out there today, What to Expect the First Year, not only frowns on alcohol consumption by nursing mothers, it lists a whole host of reasons why even women who aren't breastfeeding should refrain from drinking.)
This return to the breast was helped along by efforts to draw attention to dangerous formula-marketing efforts in the Third World. The free samples from the hospital, it was argued, suggested that formula was superior to anything a woman's own body could produce--or, perhaps, simply tempting new parents to pop open the can during that harrowing first night home. Once Mama's milk had dried up and the samples run out, poor families would have to resort to mixing up bottles using too little of the powder and, sometimes, contaminated water.
Early in my career I accepted an assignment from one of the advocacy groups working on this issue to visit hospitals around South America to report on how formula was being marketed. The job took me to neonatal intensive-care units in several nations, each of which was packed with starving babies the size of my hand. Nearly 15 years later, when the nurse told me to start giving Baby supplemental formula, I had to be convinced that this wasn't tantamount to poisoning him. (The boycotts of the Seventies and early Eighties helped draw awareness to the problem, and some formula makers pledged to change their marketing tactics. But the hospital in your neighborhood and its counterpart in Peru still hand out the same free samples.)
By the 1980s the "natural mother" had been eclipsed by Supermom, who caused enough "fright, fatigue, grief, or passion" to soon be replaced by the "Good-Enough Mother." Most recently those icons have made way for my generation's archetype: The Pumping Mother. She is inundated with propaganda about the "secure attachment" created by baby's time at the breast but, lacking adequate subsidized maternity leave, carries her Pump in Style--and a truckload of guilt--to work.
It seems all too predictable that as breastfeeding in absentia has become more widely accepted, there's been a backlash of voices arguing that breast milk alone isn't enough--that mom needs to be physically present in order for baby to reap maximum benefit. Thinking back on my department-store expedition, I almost pity poor Ms. Medela. No sooner had she lined up all the right accessories when someone found a whole new way to make her feel guilty.
Any woman who's contemplated nursing for any length of time has probably run into the most visible movements advocating breastfeeding. There are the devotees of "attachment parenting," a philosophy organized around five core values, dubbed the "baby B's": birth bonding, breastfeeding, bed-sharing, baby-wearing (remember those slings that keep baby at the breast?), and "belief in the signal value of an infant's cry."
And there's La Leche League, a volunteer-run breastfeeding support group that has been the leading source of advice and motivation for nursing mothers for nearly 50 years. League literature describes breastfeeding as "the key to good mothering," noting that "A nursing mother is physically different than a non-nursing mother. She is in a different hormonal state. Because she is breastfeeding, she has a high level of prolactin--the 'mothering' hormone."
Although she documents many positive experiences the group has provided for women, Blum also notes that until quite recently, working mothers weren't allowed to become leaders. League officials, she found, "had been instructed to discourage women from returning to work. Leaders were also to steer the conversation, if mothers mentioned economic need, to suggestions for supplementing family income from home."
One Texas mother posting to Hipmama.com, a parenting Web site I visit regularly, recently wrote that she'd called her local Leche League chapter to ask whether they might have leads toward finding a baby sitter for her toddler so she and her husband could enjoy their first evening out alone since the baby's birth. The group leader--a perfect stranger, she reported--told her to abandon the idea. Her baby needed her too much.
What cold comfort that kind of advice must be to single or low-income mothers who have to work, or whose partners are too harried bringing home paychecks to pick up the slack while mom nurses. After interviewing mothers of different economic and racial backgrounds, Blum concluded that a woman's socioeconomic status pretty much predicts what kind of nursing advice she'll get. The medical establishment, she posits, doesn't work as hard to encourage certain women to breastfeed, often out of fear that they won't be able to resist polluting their younger or darker-skinned bodies and, by extension, their babies.
"The low-income clinic that I did field work in asked mothers to keep food diaries of everything they ate and drank," Blum recalls. "It tends to get so exaggerated that you can think that one cigarette or one beer can do irreparable harm. I think we've gotten to a real height of expecting purity from mothers."
One mother I know, Kathi, gave birth just a month after her 20th birthday and quit breastfeeding two weeks later. "When I told them I had stopped, I felt ashamed," she says, adding that to her surprise, her doctors seemed a tad relieved when she informed them that she was feeding the baby Similac (as opposed to what? Mountain Dew?).
Although Kathi checked herself out of the hospital just 12 hours after giving birth, she says she was there long enough to realize that she wasn't going to get consistent advice. "There were so many different nurses who would come in and put their two cents' worth in," she recalls. "They were all telling me different things, and their way was the right way and I was doing it wrong. They talked at me, not to me. That was really all it was."
All of the breastfeeding advice heaped on new parents is doubtless well-intentioned. The problem is the implication that if you truly love your infant, nothing--giving up income and a career, sleeping with Baby on his schedule, learning to nurse him hands-free in a sling in the grocery checkout--should be too much. And if you're affluent, white, and married, perhaps it's not.
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."
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.
Except that, of course, the worry won't ever end. Recently I ran into an old friend who'd just welcomed her first grandchild. Her daughter had quit working, my friend bragged, and was nursing the baby on demand. "So far [the kid] has only had breast milk, rice, and avocado," she beamed. "She's got that book, the one that everyone's using now about infant feeding." For about a split second I was wracked by guilt. Surely I, too, could get Super Baby Food by Ruth Yaron, and start making my baby's meals from ingredients like millet and soy grits.
The scare reminded me of the last time I feared that I had already screwed up Baby for life. Back when he was about three months old, I'd been plunged into a full-blown crisis prompted by an a innocent quip from my spouse. "Hey, look," he'd said, "when you walk in the room he stares at your breasts and shrieks. When I walk in the room, he wants to play." It hit me like several tons of well-aimed bricks.
I have since overcome the idea that we haplessly programmed a 12-week-old with outmoded ideas of where mommies and daddies belong in the world. Baby, I realize, had simply grown to recognize more than one form of love, security, and comfort--a necessary skill if he was to venture out and conquer the cat, the stairway, the bathroom door, and, eventually, whatever life he would choose for himself.
In her witty, wise new book of essays, The Mother Trip, Hipmama.com editor Ariel Gore nails this one dead-on. "We have children because mothering is good for the soul," she writes. "Having kids won't make us rich. It won't make our lives more tranquil. We do it because it's good for the soul. Simple, right?
"But motherhood is never simple. Because we don't just get new people to raise when we become mama-women. No, with them comes all the chaos of personal transformation and a wicked little cultural blueprint for soul sacrifice and depression cleverly disguised as helpful advice and 'what's best for the children.'"
As I write this, Baby has begun to wean himself. He's replacing his time at the breast with cuddling he initiates between excursions into more exotic realms such as sandboxes and kitchen cabinets. The experience of nursing him has been thoroughly worthwhile, but if there's a next time, I think I'll pass on the ideologies and the guilt.
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