Breastfeeding: Choice or Privilege?

As a mom who weaned her last baby almost eight years ago, I feel I have to weigh in on the breast-feeding discussion.  First, some background for those who’ve missed it.  Slated to begin this September, New York City hospitals will be locking away infant formula, just as if it were medication—part of Mayor Bloomberg’s stepped-up efforts to encourage all new mothers to breastfeed.  Similar initiatives are being promoted at the state level—all with the goals of better health and outcomes for children.  Good intentions, no doubt, but are the rights of mothers, of families, at stake?  That’s what critics are saying, including many mothers who are feeling judged for not nursing, as women who are dismayed at the lack of general support for breastfeeding mothers. There have been several good articles  as well as hundreds of thought-provoking comments on this subject.

I’m no expert, but I breastfed for pretty close to three years total, and that’s only spread over two kids.  So, I happen to be on the privileged side of this debate.   I say privileged, because often privileges are what it takes to exclusively breastfeed your baby—a fact that is often overlooked in the discussion.  Too often breastfeeding is described as a choice all mothers have the option of making.  The right choice, as opposed to the wrong choice (presumably formula).  And while I believe everyone is entitled to make that choice; every mother should be entitled to decide what really is best for themselves and their children—often there is no choice involved.   For me, it worked out great.  For me, it was the lazy-mom option.  My kids latched on like pros.   And for me—with the exception of one week where I was making way, way too much milk, so much that my poor daughter sputtered and nearly choked—it came easily.  I was so exhausted and totally out of my depth with a newborn baby.  Nursing was what made them happiest so I relied on it, probably too much in the beginning.  Formula just seemed too complicated; I didn’t feel I had the wherewithal to measure anything, let alone mix anything or warm anything up.   So I nursed.  And nursed.  Sitting up, lying down, wide awake, sound asleep, cradle hold, football hold—you name it, I nursed that way.  Does that make me a better mother than anyone else?  Does feeding your child non-stop because it is less tiring than anything else make you a better mom?  Does reading both Bridget Jones books and American Pastoral and We Were The Mulvaneys in the first two weeks of your child’s life because your child is conveniently occupied at the breast make you a better mom?   You decide.

It’s true that I was planning all along to breastfeed.  Reason number one was that, yes, I’d heard it was healthier.  Reason number two was more personal.  As my followers know, I’m classical ballet dancer by training and by first career.  But (and here’s what I haven’t mentioned before on this blog) I was an anomaly: a classical ballet dancer with what can only be described as a rack.   Now, a ballet dancer with a B cup is considered busty.  I was at least a D.   My breasts had plagued me throughout my dance career, contributing to my eating disorders, and keeping me distant from what I considered my true identity.  Therefore, I told myself—and told my “Girls” as they swelled beyond their normal large, to their mammoth proportions of late pregnancy: they better damn well be worth something!  And lo and behold they were.  When it came to nursing, they served me (and my babies) very well.  They were not only latch-on-friendly to both kids, but productive.  Very, very productive.  Once I figured out how to tame the wild, high-force-shower-nozzle spray of milk that threatened to gag my newborn daughter (my son, it turned out was game), nursing just happened to be a breeze for me.   But how could I possibly judge another mother whose lactation experience was different from my own?  Volume and supply was not the only privilege that allowed me to nurse seamlessly.  Here are the rest:

  • Time.  I had left my job as a special-education coordinator at a charter school a few weeks before my delivery.  My return to work when Zoe was four weeks old, meant seeing psychotherapy clients one morning per      week—Saturdays when my husband was home and usually at least one other      relative was visiting.  When she was      six weeks old, I resumed the second night of sessions, along with a full day of a post-masters family therapy externship at the Ackerman Institute,  a short subway ride away.  I carried my pump to work, had easy access to privacy and refrigeration.  I also had time to pump.  Pumping wasn’t fun, but it was only  twice a week.   My kids, I’ve been told, hated the bottle, but took it begrudgingly.   No one starved.
  • Emotional support.  I was lucky in this: there wasn’t a  single person in my whole life who had any issue with my nursing, not a      single person who didn’t applaud my efforts—from my pediatrician to my      husband to my mother and mother-in-law, to all the other breastfeeding mothers      on the park bench.  And there were lots and lots of them in my ‘hood.  Which brings me to:
  • Good Company: When my daughter was born, it was the beginning of the rise of the Breast is Best movement and I lived in a neighborhood in Brooklyn where everyone, it seemed, was out nursing their babies (some demurely covered up, some not so much).  In my neighborhood, even adoptive mothers found creative ways to nurse their babies, using complicated      contraptions involving tubes and pouches of goat milk.  That said, adoptive mothers are some of the best mothers I know, and on average, NONE of them nurse at all. (See below.)
  • Location, Location, Location:  Another thing about our neighborhood in Brooklyn, if I walked my stroller-baby too far from  my apartment building to go home and nurse when she needed it, I was always less than a minute’s walk from one of several nursing-friendly locations: Starbucks, Cobble Hill Park, my pediatrician’s      waiting room.
  • A loving, unconditionally supportive, and nicely-employed partner.  While my husband didn’t do any early morning feedings, he would have if I’d asked.  As it was, he was always on hand to burp a baby, change a diaper, sing a song, or do anything at all in his      power to make this whole new family thing a happy place for all involved.
  • Access to other moms who told me how to avoid confusion in the hospital.  In my day, back when I started having babies at the turn of the century (2001), hospitals didn’t just hand out free formula, they would feed it to your crying baby any time your back  was turned—unless you had a big sign on the bassinet that said “NO FORMULA!  NURSE ON DEMAND,” which meant you were a  savvy, in-the-know mom, an educated mom, who might sue if someone snuck formula into your little angel’s mouth.   Without a sign, your baby might get bottles of formula as well as sugar water if they cried and it wasn’t convenient for an orderly to bring him/her to you.  I had a sign. (I knew to have one because I’d learned from      other moms, to whom I had access, and the leisure to seek out.)  Though my babies were both with me on the ward, sometimes they got taken away to be measured and washed and vaccinated and honestly, who knows what else?       But the minute they cried, the sign meant they were delivered to my waiting arms (and breast).

And lastly, did I mention,

  • Babies who latched on without a hitch and were not allergic to anything?  (Worth mentioning twice.)

Yes, all the breastfeeding stars lined up for me.  They allowed me to nurse Zoe for fifteen months—until I was ready to try for a second child and weaned to increase fertility—and Theo for seventeen months until one day he decided that was just about enough, thanks (when I offered him a breast, turned his head away and shoved in a thumb).   Does that give me the right to judge, or to lord it over those who didn’t have it so easy?   Absolutely not.  My children are healthy, smart, lean, well-adjusted and awesome, but so are many of their friends who weren’t breastfed.  Those friends had mothers who worked more than I did, or whose offices were not supportive of nursing women.  Some of those friends’ mothers had trouble nursing, or were on medication contra-indicated for nursing, or got infected breasts, or didn’t produce milk no matter how they tried.  Some of those friends were in the NICU and were unable to be nursed.  Some of those friends weren’t nursed for reasons I can’t name, because it wasn’t my business to ask.  Also, some of those friends joined their families through adoption.

Speaking of which, where—in all this discussion—is the acknowledgement that adoptive parenting—every bit as “real” as non-adoptive parenting—does not generally include breastfeeding?   If formula is good enough for children who joined their families through adoption, why can’t it be good enough for children whose families’ lives just aren’t set up for breastfeeding?  Ask any one of my friends who have adopted children.  These mothers will tell you: formula is not poison.  You can tell that by looking at their bright, beautiful and awesome kids.

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6 responses to “Breastfeeding: Choice or Privilege?

  1. I was the lazy mom too! It never entered my head to bottle feed and I never bought any bottles – saved a fortune. I do feel it was a privilege for myself and my children.

  2. Thanks, Gilly. It’s true: I didn’t mention the savings, but it was big. 🙂

  3. Whenever possible, nursing is the way to go. I’m so glad I was able to do it for my kids, though it was back in the eighties when I was nursing my son, and I did have at least one run-in at a department store cafe, late in the evening when there was hardly a soul around. My son was antsy and hungry, so I tried to discreetly nurse him. Soon enough the cafe manager came over and asked me to stop. The only other customer was sitting on the far side of where we were and had his back to me. I was stunned and mortified. Most unpleasant experience, but later, the cafe wrote me an apology. Hopefully, nowadays, that doesn’t happen.

  4. Thanks, Monica. That’s so upsetting, and unfortunately I’m sure this kind of thing still happens sometimes. I’m glad you at least got a letter of apology, though.

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