Friday, August 17, 2007

Breast Is Best, Yes – Except When It’s Not

“The secret to being humble is minding your own business.” --- Paraphrased quote by Mother Teresa of Calcutta

After returning home from the hospital with my first baby, when I wasn’t rushing him to the emergency room to have a booger removed from his nose (oh, yes, I did), I was contemplating two very important issues. First, would my cha-cha ever go back to normal?

(“Oh my God!” I wailed to my husband, “It’s HUMONGOUS! What happened to it?!” And he shrugged, “It’s swollen – you know, just like your ankles. It’ll go back to normal.” To which I sobbed, “But what if the swelling never ever ever goes down – what then?!” And he calmly re-iterated, “It will.” I responded by bawling hysterically, “But will you still love me if it doesn’t?”)

He is a saint, my husband – I don’t know how he does it.

The second most important issue on my mind was, Why is everyone so concerned about my boobs all of a sudden? And unlike my obsession with my cha-cha, that was not just post-partum craziness speaking. It’s a weird weird fact.

Breastfeeding got off to a slow start for J and me. So slow, in fact, that several different nurses in the hospital nursery were frequently groping me in a very aggressive manner in an attempt to help us figure out how to do it. My breasts are big to begin with and once my milk came in, each one was like twice as big as J's head and to add to the drama, it turned out that I had “flat nipples,” which are evidently not helpful in establishing the nursing relationship. The nurse promised me that once nursing got established I would never have flat nipples again.

In the end we did figure it out, (mostly thanks to my husband's great support, since I'd turned him into a breastfeeding zealot during my pregnancy by convincing him that our kid would be weak, sickly and dumb if I couldn't breastfeed) and by the time J. was six months old, not only did I not hate nursing anymore, but I started to mist up at the thought that he would some day wean. And the nurse was right. I have good nipples now. Not to be confused with perky, unfortunately, just good.

So I joined La Leche League and, according to my mother, went on to breastfeed my kids until they were thirty-five.

Or I might as well have.

In actuality, I nursed both of my babies for twenty-one months on the dot, much to the shock and disgust of most, if not all, of the people I know. Except the ones I knew from La Leche League – who just found it really really really – well – sad – that I didn’t want to nurse my kids until they went to kindergarten. "Nobody's still nursing when they go to college," they would joke in an attempt at reassurance. Neither baby ever took a bottle, not of formula or expressed milk either. So to say that I’m “pro-breastfeeding” would be to greatly understate the case.

But that said, while I’m not opposed to educating people about the benefits of breastfeeding and returning to it as the normative way of feeding infants in our culture, I object to the scare tactics used to accomplish that.

Is breast milk perfectly designed for babies? Of course. Is a baby’s life “ruined” if he doesn’t get breastfed? Um, I really don’t think so. A baby’s life can be ruined by being dropped on his head down a flight of concrete stairs, but not by drinking formula. It’s particularly irritating to hear formula referred to as “poison.” Anti-freeze and Clorox are poisons. Formula is the next best thing to mother’s milk.

In addition to La Leche League meetings, I read Mothering Magazine and a variety of other pro-breastfeeding literature, all which implies that by breastfeeding you can single-handedly bring about world peace and an end to human suffering as we know it. This is how important, holy and world-changing they make it sound. But, come on, at the end of the day, it’s milk, for God sake. That’s it – get a grip.

And women like the few in this comment section, do not help, with their suggestions that mothers who bottlefeed are clearly selfish and more enamored of possessions than their babies. Shshsh! No one tell them that lactation is a natural physiological process designed to benefit both mother and baby. (Lactation helps the mother’s body return to its pre-pregnancy state, and it’s a protective factor against breast and ovarian cancer. Plus, if you’re lazy and can do it in your sleep, like me, it makes middle-of-the-night feedings so easy.) If those judgmental nuts find that out, mothers who do breastfeed will be the rotten, selfish bitches - breastfeeding their babies for their own personal gain. Because God forbid a mother take into account her own needs, limitations and well-being when making decisions about what’s best for her baby.

I felt judged pretty harshly for my so-called “crunchy” parenting. On J’s first birthday, some family members told me the milk I was producing suddenly had “no nutritional value whatsoever,” and of course they knew it was true because – well, someone had told them. (I asked, hello? How did that happen? Did it suddenly stop being milk and start being paint thinner or what?) They weren’t sure.

But I’ve had a lot of practice with people treating me like I’m crazy, so it didn’t bother me all that much. And my kids are really smart and healthy now – everyone agrees, so I got the last laugh. I also figured out how to make my life easier by, for example, pretending that I didn’t find it the least bit outrageous that someone would nurse an eight-year-old, so that when my kids weaned at two, people would just be so relieved that they wouldn’t say anything more about it.

I know. I should be nicer.

What life experience hadn’t prepared me for, however, is learning to notice when other mothers might feel judged by me, based on my own personal choices.

When one of my dearest friends had her first baby she had a lot of difficulty breastfeeding. There were a lot of issues that one on top of the other just made her decide she couldn’t do it anymore after eight weeks. And she sent me an e-mail about the difficulty she was having and how tired she’d grown of it. When I read the e-mail I thought that she was asking for help. So I sent her all kinds of links, phone numbers for lactation consultants in her area, and, no doubt, my own helpful tips. And then I didn’t hear from her for several days (we e-mail on nearly a daily basis).

So I went back and read her e-mail again and (smacking myself on the forehead), I realized she had not said, “help me figure out how to breastfeed.” She had said (in so many words), “you psycho breastfeeding fanatic, tell me you don’t think I’m a rotten mother if I switch to formula, because I’m telling you I can’t take this anymore.” At which point I felt like a schmuck and called her to say that lots of smart and healthy people grew up on formula (Hello! Look at us!), she’d done a great job of trying, and I love her no matter how long she breastfeeds (or doesn’t). And since she’s still my friend today (with a beautiful, healthy and smart little girl, I might add), I’m guessing that was a good move.

My nursing days are now over (with any luck). In the end it really was a beautiful experience for me, and I’ll always cherish the memory. But I’m really glad to be done with it. I might have nursed J. until he was – I dunno, thirty maybe?

Not really.

I like to think that at some reasonable point one or both of us would have tired of it. But neither of us was “done” when I actually had to wean him at twenty-one months (my milk dried up due to being five months pregnant with Little One).

With my second baby I was ready to throw in the nursing bra at ten months. But my good ol’ maternal guilt made me nurse him as long as I did his brother. So on precisely the day of Little One’s twenty-one month birthday I was just like, Beat it kid… I’ve had enough.

Alright, I was a little more gentle than that, but I really was just so ready to move on to having my whole body to myself and being the mom of older kiddos. It sounds terrible I know. It’s not that I loved him any less, but nursing and sleeping with and just generally being with babies and toddlers twenty-four/seven requires nearly constant selflessness and I apparently only had about three years or so worth of it in me. At that point the well (hence the boob) had run dry, as they say.

Still, my hippie parenting style aside, milk stains in embarrassing places are not indicative of a “good” mom, nor is a bottle indicative of a “bad” mom. Feeding method is greatly influenced by the logistics of our particular situations, how well our babies and bodies cooperate (or don’t) and how much help and support we get (or don’t) from friends and family. And none of those things have anything to do with the inexplicable depth and magnitude of our love and concern for our babies. So give a mother a break already.


madamspud169 said...

When I had my son everyone from the doctor to nurses to family & strangers told me I had to breastfeed. I wanted to breastfeed, I'd read every leaflet & attended every talk on the subject but my milk did not appear, not even a drop.
I was made to feel useless, unnatural & a failure as a mom for this, no one seemed to believe I just had no milk. My son tried to get some out of me for hours, I used expressing machines I had nurses & "experts" try to help me but nothing worked.
I spent every feed feeling like a failure, feeling like I wasn't a "proper" mom, like my son deserved someone better than me for his mum all because of the pressure of "breast is best".
My son is healthy, happy & well cared for but I still feel I'm not good enough because I used formula.

SUEB0B said...

This is so well-written and comprehensive, Stacy. It says it all.

Anjali said...

Well said, Stacy. I nursed for 2 yrs 2 months, and 2.5 years respectively. (Though I would have happily nursed them to 3.) Mine never took bottles or pacifiers, either. But I quit going to LLL meetings after awhile because I couldn't stand how judgmental they were toward women who used formula. (Particularly since many moms that attended the meetings used formula part-time, and were made to feel miserable.)

Catherine said...

Thanks for this. I was a breastfeeding guru too...until I had a baby and couldn't. I know, I know, I didn't believe it either until it happened to me. Now, a year later, I can still cry about it, and did yesterday, and can't believe how much judgement I've received from people who are not interested in knowing the full story.

And then, there's the news this week that toxic levels of BPA have leaked from formula cans in formula...I'm devestated...

You can read my story here:

Part 1:

And Part 2:

And the formula story.

Thanks again...

Her Bad Mother said...

I had a nightmare of a time with breastfeeding - a NIGHTMARE, a ravaged nipples PPD nightmare - and would not have pulled through it to BF for eight months (until WB weaned herself) if I had not been reassured by super-fantabulous lactation consultants that it would not be the end of the world if I gave up trying and that there was an *out* for me if I couldn't hack it. Having that *out* didn't make it easier for me to give up, it made it easier for me to keep trying, knowing that if it was still so hard the next day, I could give it up and feel okay. That knowledge kept me going.

Diana said...

I BF my first for 14 months until he weaned himself (much to my dismay) and agree with everything you had to say. So much pressure is put on women from the moment they give birth that it often makes a tough time seem impossible. When my second was born early and sent to the NICU, I was beside myself with worry: you told me with my first child that I had to BF every 2 hours to establish supply, that I couldn't use any bottle or pacifiers due to nipple confusion, and that not starting immediately would effect our bond forever; now you're saying I can skip all those rules and it'll be fine? Except they were right and it was fine. What seemed like an ordeal ended up with no long-term consequences at all (just ask my 3 month old who is BFing as I type). I completely understand that some women can't or decide not to, but I just wanted to add that the pressure some women undergo makes it seem like an all or nothing confining set of rules that, if I hadn't been so gung-ho, might have made me turn tail before the first latch.

Melissa Markham said...

This is a great post and should be required reading for every LLL member. My milk didn't come in, never! I was happily nursing my son for four days before we realized he was sucking, but nothing was coming out! I didn't know, I had never done this before! I had a friend who came over and in her LLL helping way, tried manipulating my breasts. I tried pumping while nursing to get the milk to come in, the most that ever came in was 5 ml or cc or was like a tspn after 20 minutes! So as my son started growing orange(jaundice) and was shrieking and refusing the breast, we grabbed a bottle and formula that were in our mommy bag (it was Christmas Eve and all the stores were closed) and he was a formula baby ever since! I didn't even try with my daughter, and my milk never came in with her either. No engorgement, no heat, no full breasts...nothing. I have large breasts, but they are not milk making breasts and I got through the flack people gave me because I am a pretty self assured person, however, it did hurt and people should realize that the way they are advocating doesn't always work for a variety of reasons. Thanks again!

Oh, The Joys said...

I had a lot of trouble nursing. I managed 6 months for each kid and then it just up and dried up.

I think it's most important for women to simply be gentle with each other and respect their individual choices. It's such a stressful time with the lack of sleep and everything.

Susan said...

This is a beautiful post, Stacy. Thank you for saying all of this, and for saying it in such an open and welcoming and funny way.

Allycat said...

Hi there

I currently have a three month old son who I am breastfeeding along with one formula feed at night. I really struggled, and still am struggling with both the emotional and physical impacts of breastfeeding. By giving Dante a formula feed at night, gives me a rest, and some time away from feeling like a jersey cow. It also helps him to sleep for seven hours (yay!). I still feel so guilty for doing this and not exclusivley feeding him for six months. I am so pro-breastfeeding, but also feel that there is such a division out there of women who breastfeed and women who don't. I just cant understand why we women are always so judgemental of each other??

Amy in StL said...

Hey, thanks for a great post! I don't have kids and don't know if I'll breastfeed when I do. It's good to hear there are some pro-bf people that aren't all psycho about it. Why does it have to be all or nothing for some? If I do have a baby, I have a job that I'll have to return to after a couple months and it's not like I can do my job with another human latched onto me. I do hear that bf helps with post-pregnancy weight loss though.

Oh, and your cha-cha story was funny! Scary as hell, but funny. On second thought, maybe just scary.

Yup, definitely not ready for a baby....

Lawyer Mama said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! Fabulous post!

I have big breasts and flat nipples too & breastfeeding was damn hard. I had a lot of support and the luxury of a long maternity leave to figure it out. The last thing women need is judgment and blame on top of everything else.

ByJane said...

Great post, Staci. I wish I'd had it last January when my niece was trying to nurse her newborn and all the boards she read made her nuts. She finally stopped reading them. It is amazing how we (all) can turn a help into a holier-than-thou!

Susan Getgood said...

As a mom who did not breastfeed, thank you for your balanced perspective. I made my choice due to my job, which required extensive travel, and I didn't have tremendous guilt at the time. But occasionally I have felt an unsaid judgment when it comes up in conversation, as though I somehow deprived my kid.

I do think the whole discussion would be far less polarized if both sides could just agree to live and let live. But as a society, we seem to still be so unnecessarily hung up on women breastfeeding in public, that the argument gets out of control quickly.

Mama's Moon said...

Very, very well said! Man, am I glad I found you! (Hi! first time here) This brought back so many memories of both my first and second pregnancies. I felt like the worst mother in the world and silently beat myself up for the 'selfish' choices I'd made regarding not breastfeeding. In front of everybody else I tried to maintain a nonchalant composure but it was always the breastfeeding zealots (both moms and dads) that would bring me to the fringe of causing great bodily harm.

It's rare to find someone like you who can really see both side of the story and write about it so eloquently and honestly.

Thanks for this! I only hope many more mothers comtemplating this issue will find you!!!

Mary Tsao said...

I know this post is deadly serious and yet, I was laughing my droopy tits off just reading it.

Also, I agree 100%.

And, I am assuming that nurse was right about your nipples. I never thought I'd look this way. Seriously.

So I'm open to moms either breastfeeding or bottle feeding. The question for me now is how I feel about plastic surgery.

Jennifer aka Binky Bitch said...

Bravo!!! Great post!!! This is my first visit here, and I'm so glad to have read this post.

I am currently bfing my second child and have felt that my formula feeding friends feel like they have to justify to me why they don't bf. Nothing could be further from the truth! Like you stated, there are many factors that go into a feeding relationship with your child...

We women really should support one another's decisions. This post really does just that.

Again, great post!!

Lori at Spinning Yellow said...

Hey there! I've finally recovered from BlogHer and am just now catching up on things. I loved this post! I breastfed both my kids for a year (each). My sister and cousin had not been able to BF so I figured I wouldn't be able to handle it (even though I had friends who had). I was so stressed about it. I begged everyone who came into my hospital room (I was there awhile w/ a c-section) to tell me I was doing in right.
In the end, I had some issues, but mostly from my family (especially my mom) who thought I was weird to BF (not my husband - he was very supportive and hello, dads, um, so much easier for them, don't know why they would complain). I would not have kept doing it if I had felt like I HAD to. I loathe the BF pushers. I think they do more harm than good.
I am glad I BF but I feel no sense of being a better mother from it than I feel less of a mother b/c I had 2 c-sections.