When I first started getting pregnant 17+ long years ago, I took it as a given that I would breastfeed. Of course I would nurse my kids! Breast was best, the formula companies were evil cabals poisoning our planet, and breastmilk is free. I had friends who breezily nursed their children, in public even, lifting a shirt and popping the baby on her boob like it was the easiest and coolest thing in the world.
Then I gave birth, tried to nurse my son, and was met with the most blinding, horrific pain I’d ever experienced (that pain has since been trumped by my horrific homebirth). But I kept at it, and at it, until day 4 when I cracked. “I can’t do this,” I told my mother that night. “If this is what it’s supposed to feel like to breastfeed, the human race would have died out long ago.”
My mother, still working as a principal then, was horrified. “Oh you don’t want to bottlefeed,” she said in her stern teacher voice. “It’s such a pain to prepare bottles, so much effort!”
“Effort I can withstand,” I told her. “Torture I can’t.”
So we prepared a bottle for my son who guzzled that thing like there was no tomorrow. My milk had not yet come in; as a first time mom I didn’t know this was abnormal, and I realize now the poor thing was likely dehydrated and extraordinarily hungry in the name of “breast is best.”
I continued to give him bottles through the next day. This irked my husband who kept harrumphing: “But what about BRAIN DEVELOPMENT?” (Back then they still thought breastmilk increased child IQ, until they figured out smarter women choose to breastfeed, thus their kids are genetically inclined to be smart like mom.) But I kept with my line: If that was what breastfeeding is supposed to feel like, the human race would have died out long ago.
That night (this is day five by now) my milk finally came in. Something in my head clicked. “Let’s try this again,” I told myself. I took off my shirt and sat with my son in the quiet dark, gritting my teeth, and put him on my breast. He nursed, and it hurt like hell, but not quite the hell of the previous days. And this time, unlike every other time, I could hear him swallowing milk.
I quit the formula and continued to nurse him for more than a year. I then nursed my second child for 18 months. And so on. With my fourth daughter I developed recurring mastitis, but I kept nursing because breast is best and every time I tried to wean her I got mastitis from the build up of milk. One time, my fever got so high I hallucinated (which I wrote about in my Wake Up post). This went on for 14 long months while I was bedridden every few weeks with raging fevers. It was so debilitating I had to ration how many times I walked up or down the stairs of our small home. I was only 30 years old but fully expected all this misery and constant infirmity to eventually kill me. I remember lying in the bathtub one time, feverish and in agony with yet another bout of mastitis, asking god to finally take me.
But I kept nursing the babies as they came. I really didn’t know how else to feed a squalling newborn (formula feeding seemed so complicated: what kind of formula? how much? what kind of bottle?) and I still believed there had to be some health benefit to nursing, even though by that point all my kids had eczema and two have severe asthma. Breastfeeding supposedly reduces the risk for both.
In her article The Case Against Breastfeeding Hanna Rosin describes her “aha” moment when she realizes she’s been had by the “breast is best” brigade. Sitting in the pediatrician’s office she reads an article that breastfeeding may not, in fact, reduce the risk of obesity in children. She’s stunned, and realizes her years of breast-based efforts to keep her kids lean and mean may have been for naught.
My own “aha”moment came when I researched drinking during pregnancy. I was flabbergasted to find a study showing children of women who drank moderately during pregnancy actually had higher IQs than the children of mothers who abstained completely. I realized then that just like breastfeeding mothers are smarter (in our culture anyway), drinking mothers probably have higher IQs- being willing to think for themselves, researching the subject- and their children are genetically prone to inherit their intelligence. It was all a lie; breast was not necessarily best, yet I had spent 17 years and immeasurable physical anguish pouring human milk into the guts of my offspring.
But this is where the mommy brain kicks in. For whatever reason, I don’t mind. I’m ok with it, and I’m still nursing my newborn son. To quote Rosin:
My best guess is something I can’t quite articulate. Breast-feeding does not belong in the realm of facts and hard numbers; it is much too intimate and elemental. It contains all of my awe about motherhood, and also my ambivalence. Right now, even part-time, it’s a strain. But I also know that this is probably my last chance to feel warm baby skin up against mine, and one day I will miss it.
Yeah, that sums it up nicely. It’s something that can’t be articulated. When it’s not agonizingly painful or making you sick as a dog, breastfeeding is beautiful, ancient, and visceral. I remember one night those many 17 years ago where I sat up in bed with my son to my breast, and I had the haunting realization that untold women for untold centuries had been sitting up at night doing this very same act and feeling the very same emotions welling up and through them. It gave me goosebumps I was staggered by the weight of it as my son glugged down milk. It didn’t matter who he would become, it didn’t matter even who we were; we were mother and child in the most basic act of sustenance known to man.