Monday, August 11, 2008

Breast (Feeding) Wars

So, I thought, with which controversial topic do I want to start? All the posts I have been kicking around in my head, including the one about abortion after watching a documentary called Lake of Fire last week, never seem to get written. Then I was browsing around the blogs and came upon this post by less than two-weeks post-partum Julie. She is a fabulous writer and from the huge response (mostly positive) she received, this is a topic many women have stories about, stories they may have not felt able to share in other places (with family or friends, for example). I also linked from there to this post, which is hilarious, and this one, which is also well-written and refreshingly honest. Unfortunately (but not unexpectedly), comments on the original post have degenerated somewhat into a battle between militants. Emotions, hormones, and generous helpings of mommy-guilt and the expectations of others are all involved.

So, why another post about it? From me, who is not currently breastfeeding and may not breastfeed ever again? I guess just because, like most, if not all, women who have birthed babies (and many who want to, but can't), I have strong feelings about breastfeeding. Not so much opinions as feelings. I will start with my own story.

I had no particular opinion about breastfeeding prior to becoming pregnant for the first time. I knew my mother's story, that she had been discouraged from breastfeeding her firstborn twins (one of them was me) in 1972, and that she was determined to breastfeed her second, my brother, in 1979, which she did for a year. She received no support from doctors or others that time around either, although she was told it would be good for her baby. I guess I assumed that I would try to breastfeed. And that's pretty much how I felt even after I found out I was pregnant.

Then my sister, who was two months ahead of me in her pregnancy, convinced me to take a natural birth class with her. Bradley, to be precise. Because I had no plan of my own and am a follower sort of a person at times, I said, Sure, that would be fun. The (12!) classes required our husbands to attend as well, and it was fun (mostly). Our teacher was great. She taught all the Bradley curriculum, but she wasn't hardcore about it. She talked about things that could go wrong and encouraged us to be prepared for things that might not go as planned. I'd like to think that she encouraged us not to think of success as defined by no interventions and no pain killers, but I was a newbie with shining eyes, so I might have missed that part. I did learn a lot about my body and what happens when labor starts, etc. We also learned a lot about the medicalization of birth and how women's natural ability to birth had been co-opted. We learned how to write a birth plan so we could avoid interventions we didn't want.

One of our lessons was about the benefits of breastfeeding. We were encouraged to attend a La Leche League meeting, so I did. If you've never been to one, you might not know that mothers nursing toddlers during the meeting is common. This was not something I'd ever seen before. At this point, I knew I wanted to breastfeed, but I wasn't sure I'd be going back to a LLL meeting. I mean, it seemed simple. Just feed your baby. Why do you have to talk about it? Or do it in front of a bunch of strangers?

So I gave birth (induction at 41 weeks, pitocin, pitocin, pitocin, amniotomy, enema, threatening with vacuum, some kind of drugs to stop contraction, pitocin again, another wave of the vacuum, episiotomy, tear, and finally, baby) and began breastfeeding. I had already watched my sister deal with engorgement, mastitis, and fits of crying from no sleep and pain. For some reason I gave myself an 8 week timetable. Maybe because my sister's son was eight weeks old when my daughter was born and I didn't want to give up before she did. Or maybe she told me it was finally getting better.

I kept an elaborate chart for the first eight weeks: every feeding, every wet and soiled diaper, how many hours slept at night. I never got mastitis, but I did have one sore nipple for quite a while. It was agony to nurse on that side, but I didn't know what else to do. I read my Womanly Art of Breastfeeding which, naturally, suggested that I check the latch and use lanolin and continue nursing on both sides to keep up supply. All in all, though, compared to stories I've heard and read, I had a pretty easy time of it.

I did return to LLL meetings, usually with my sister. I enjoyed communing with other women who were experiencing the same lack of sleep, unsetting change of identity, physical discomfort, etc. Plus, it was often entertaining. LLL meetings always have at least one uber-natural-mommy. The one who grows her own vegetables, tandem-nurses her three-year-old and her newborn, uses cloth diapers, never leaves home without her kids . . . oh, and she tends to be opinionated about other mothers' decisions. As long as no one seemed to be getting their feelings hurt, I kind of enjoyed watching them spar over family bed or potty training issues. We also talked a lot about births. Many of the women were unhappy with their hospital births, where they felt they were treated without respect or were unable to have the birth experience they wanted. I didn't have that experience; although my daughter's birth wasn't the most pleasant (see above), I felt like I made the decisions I wanted to make and that all the medical personnel were working in my best interest. But these women were clearly grieved, and I felt for them.

At some point I stopped going to the meetings, although I still read the magazine (my sister was a subscriber). The stories in that magazine, yikes! It was like the meetings on hyperdrive. Every birth and breastfeeding horror story you can imagine, and these women prevailed through it. I felt thankful I didn't have to go through any of that and "test" my resolve to breastfeed. Breastfeeding my daughter, after the first few months, was mostly a great experience. By three or four months I had her pretty well on a schedule where we nursed at certain intervals or times of the day. I never had to pump because I didn't head back to work. We did call her the Spit-Up Queen because she spit up after every feeding, even as she approached one-year-old, but she exceeded the growth curve and never seemed in distress. It was only a problem of laundry.

I almost weaned her at 11 or 12 months when she was down to about 2-3 feedings a day (and doing very well eating regular food at the table), but I couldn't quite figure out how to cut out the last couple of feedings. She never used a bottle so I couldn't substitute that way. Then we bought a house, so as we packed and cleaned, and did all the things one does when preparing to move, she wanted to nurse more. Likely she needed me, needed my attention, and this was the sure-fire way to get it. I wasn't crazy about it, though, this nursing for attention. My sister, who is an Attachment Parenting sort of girl, nursed when her kids hurt themselves, when they were feeling tired, whenever they wanted. I realized, around this time, that I wasn't in that camp. Breastfeeding was feeding in my mind, and I was starting to feel resentful that this (adorable) little person was sucking on my nipples for attention. Yet, I didn't really know how to stop. I nursed her until she was 22 months old, although around 18 months I tapered off again to 2-3 feedings a day. And none at night. All I felt when I stopped was relief. I felt like my body was mine again. And I decided that if I had another baby, I wouldn't nurse as long. But I didn't tell anyone that. Many people likely thought I'd breastfed way too long anyway, and others held to child-led weaning. I didn't talk about it to anyone because I was afraid of being judged. Either judged as (finally) doing the sensible thing or judged as not being natural enough.

Here's the issue for me. For several decades of this century, women weren't encouraged to breastfeed because science was thought to be better and because breastfeeding was a lower-class or even savage thing to do. So La Leche League was formed as an organization to help women support each other in the effort to feed their babies the natural way. You still get weird looks from some people if you breastfeed (even discreetly) in public. Some women my age and even younger are still uncomfortable talking about breastfeeding; breasts seem to be more easily associated with sex than with feeding. But all of this good effort to allow women more choices and more control has turned some breastfeeding enthusiasts into rabid rigid judgmental fundamentalists. And some of us into more gentle, well-meaning "educators" of those who don't share the same vantage point. Why can't we just let women make their own decisions? Assume that women who've made their decisions have thought about them and don't need our help? It seems to be very hard for women to be neutral about this, or rather neutral about what other women decide. I ask the question because I know I've been judgmental, I know I've felt superior, and I know I know nothing about what some other women have experienced.

I breastfed my second daughter with no complications at all, but I had started back to graduate school and had to be away from home 5 hours at a time twice a week starting when she was three months old. I took her with me for a couple of weeks, but she hated the car, crying and throwing up all the way (1 hour and ten minutes) home. So I started to pump. Compared to women who have to pump right after birth for preemies or women who have to pump for 4o hours of work/week, what I had to do was nothing. But I hated it. For some reason my body didn't like pumping at night, although it would have been the most convenient (baby asleep, me engorged if I've just returned from class). I had to try to pump in the morning with the baby herself sitting in the bouncy seat, usually after nursing on one side. And my older daughter (then just turned 3) wanting breakfast or play-with-me or something. Most mornings I cried.

I would read my sister's LLL magazine and feel like such a wimp for wanting to give up. For some reason I thought it was more important not to be wimpier than some women I didn't even know than to be happy in the morning with my two daughters. I think I gave it four months, then I said, Enough. I still breastfed, but I packed that pump away with a huge sense of relief. She drank formula when I was gone and breastfed when I was home. And when she was a year old, I weaned her. No resentment. No guilt. It was what worked for me.

I am not better or worse than my sister who is still nursing her 2 1/2 year old (while pregnant with her third). I am not better or worse than my friend who returned to work after three weeks and went right to formula, feeling that she'd never had enough of a supply for either of her kids. I am not better or worse than the woman who pumps or the woman who refuses to pump. We all have our own stories and our own choices. We should be glad we have choices and give each other a break.

This post is not as good as I want it to be. For one thing, where's the sense of humor I admire in other people's writing? And the message: give each other a break? Duh!

Whatever. It's too late for me to still be up. #%!$& Olympics!

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