Tag Archives: Brooklyn

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.

Hermes on the Path

As noted in an earlier post, I have given myself a June 15th deadline for completing a draft of my young adult novel-in-progress (which I call the “WIP” because it has no working title).  Until that time, themes relevant to the WIP–body image, eating disorders, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, rejecting parents, and unrequited love, among others–will figure pretty heavily in this blog.   My two protagonists are seventeen-year-old, ballet-dancing twins, Oliver and Olivia, each facing great hurdles along the road to fulfilling their dreams. 

Hermes on the Path

I happen to be the sort of writer who loves the onslaught of ideas that hits me daily, who feels trapped by outlines.   Yet that very onslaught makes me the sort of writer who MUST have an outline.  I know this because the first draft of my completed adult novel weighed in at 711 pages.  It took me five years and sixteen revisions to get it down to 300 pages.  I just don’t have that kind of time any more (not that I did then either).

This time, I started by envisioning a query letter, went ahead and wrote the “plot summary paragraph,” and used that as inspiration.  I allowed myself to write fifty pages, just enough to get a sense of my twins, their family and relationships, then forced myself to write an outline.  As you’d expect, this was when the process really started to take off.

I’m following my outline in the same way you follow the path on a hike through the woods.  Sometimes the path is clear; sometimes there’s a fallen tree across it.  When you go around the tree, you discover another path, partly covered by moss and vines, but leading somewhere nevertheless.  You check it out, because you’ve got a feeling it might be something worth exploring.  Five times out of ten, you’re glad you did.

There’s a big difference between planning and doing. Who hasn’t traveled somewhere new and arrived to discover that the weather is warmer, colder, or wetter than they expected?  Who hasn’t had to buy an emergency raincoat or Infant Tylenol?  Who hasn’t arrived home and unpacked a heavy sweater or swimsuit that never got worn?  Packing for the journey, you take informed leaps of faith, but only when you get there do you see what’s practical, plausible.

It’s the same way with plot points in an unfinished novel.  My outline keeps me grounded in my knowledge of how the book ends as well as some Big Deal Events that will transpire along the way.  For example, Dad and Oliver have a huge row–over his dancing and orientation–which leads Oliver to leave home (Big Deal Event).  Later Oliver is taken in by a Brooklyn couple in exchange for cleaning their home–which he considers eons beneath him, but does because he has no where else to go (also a Big Deal Event).   But why–in a city full of friends and family–does he have no where else to go?  How is it that there’s no alternative for a budding ballet star but becoming a houseboy?

To answer that, I had to look for off-path tools.  One example is a beautiful Persian cat named Hermes–the pet of a friend Oliver stays with–who triggers an unforseen but severe allergic reaction.  Hermes is not in my outline, but Oliver’s handling of the situation is essential to the plot.

As Oliver’s image grows sharper, so do my instincts as to how he should grapple with the specific obstacles in his path.   Regarding Hermes (pronounced like the designer, not the Greek god), Oliver toughs it out for as long as he can, consuming large quantities of antihistimines, refusing to admit how much he’s suffering.

‘After three days, I’ve found some solace in the right dose of Benadryl and Advil Cold and Sinus.  The sneezing subsides, though I’m wired now, twenty-four hours a day.  The mania helps my dancing.  I’m back on top in terms of jumps and turns and attention too, though my heart is usually racing to beat the band.  When I do sleep, I awaken with my eyes glued shut, the cat’s tail languishing against my neck like the scarves that bear his name …

‘Hermes the Cat becomes a metaphor.  If I admit how he affects me, if I admit I’m allergic, then I’ve admitted defeat.  My father wins …’

Oliver is starting to flow for me, more quickly than Olivia, partly because he is less like me than she is.  I’ve spent so much time writing as him, trying to learn him (speaking to and remembering those who have inspired me to create him).   It’s Olivia I’m working on now.  Today’s task will be to flesh out the story of the twins’ mother, who is very ill.  I have yet to determine her ailment, only that she is largely incapacitated as a parent.  I’ll use Olivia’s narration for this, which should help me refine her voice and character.

In any event, as long as I know I can revise my outline as needed, sticking in devices like Hermes along the way, I’ll never feel constrained by it.

A Mixed Marriage in 1950

(This is the first of two short excerpts I’m including in this blog from my essay, First to Go: A Nice Jewish Girl Survives the Love of Her Life, about my parent’s marriage.)
*

My Parents Sometime in the Mid-sixties

People wonder, and I’ve often asked myself: if my father was so involved with black culture, black politics, the survival and advancement of black people, then why did he marry a white woman?  He actually died before he could explain that in his memoir (believe me, I’ve scoured the various revisions) so I’ve had to come up with answers myself.  The best I can do is the following.  He didn’t marry a white woman; he married my mother.  He married someone who would be his student, his supporter and his best audience.  Not that she’d never challenge him, but I do believe that at first, and perhaps for many years, she hung on his every word.

Though he stood just five foot eight and always looked much younger than he was, my father carried himself with an air of great importance.  His deep voice, eloquence and measured way of speaking demanded respect.  When he made an entrance, strangers would rack their brains and snap their fingers, whispering: “Oh, that’s—that’s … who is that guy again?”

Of course he wasn’t famous, but everyone thought he was and he never disabused people of the notion.  I believe that my mother was the only woman—black, white or otherwise—who could have put up with all that.

In part, my mother’s tolerance was due to a childhood spent in the shadow of her own mother’s pathological narcissism.  My maternal grandmother had been the leading lady of her own world, her daughters, little more than stage-hands.  If ever my mother brought home a boy, my grandmother would flirt with him and later ask, Well?  What did he say about me?   Naturally, before meeting the guy, my grandmother would have asked the compulsory “is he Jewish?” which, prior to my dad, he always was.

My mother had been a very good girl all her life and had gotten no credit for it.  I imagine there was no better way to stick it to my grandmother than marrying a black man—completely unheard of for a nice Jewish girl in 1950.  She’d married my father for the rebellion of it, but also for the excitement.  She knew she was along for the ride of her life and therefore didn’t mind being off to the side while my father took center stage.

Their marriage wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was pretty good—all things considered—and lasted forty-five years, until the end of my dad’s life.

They married at the tender ages of twenty-three and twenty-six, in Chicago: a small wedding held in my paternal grandparents’ house.  In attendance were my father’s whole family, the younger members of my mother’s family, and their closest friends.  My father’s parents had embraced and accepted my mother from the beginning, though her parents would remain in the dark until the young couple had safely arrived in New York City—where they’d moved for my father’s political work.  My mother called her parents from Penn Station to announce her new marital status. (Oh and did I mention: he’s black?)  There had been no thought to invite them to the wedding, nor any possibility of bringing my father home in advance to meet his future in-laws.

My mother was thus cut off from her parents, informally disowned.  For the act of marrying such a man (a gentile as well as a schvartze), my mother got blamed for every evil that subsequently befell the family, including the death of her beloved Uncle Julius.  Somehow no one managed to connect the dots from his daily consumption of creamed soups to the clogging of his arteries and ultimate heart attack.  (Nah.  Must have been the black guy.)

So there she was, twenty-three years old, alone with her dynamic new husband in New York City—no family, no friends—far from everything familiar to her.

They found an apartment in Brooklyn.  My mother was the one who scoped out all their potential homes, for obvious reasons.  She’d meet each landlord, say her husband was at work, and get the tour of everything they could afford.  The landlord of the place she chose wouldn’t learn my father was black until moving day, and by then it was too late to reject them.  In any case, it took only a few weeks to recognize that my parents were a lovely young couple in every sense of the word, regardless of color.

That happened a lot with my father.  People who rejected his race flat out—who really believed blacks to be the scourge of this country—had a way of accepting my father as “one of the good ones.”  He was familiar with the comment “if all black people were like you …”  This never flattered or impressed my father; it just revealed the character of the person making the statement.  My father believed a racist was a racist.  Still, they needed a place to live.

My mother found a job teaching at the Brooklyn Community School where, gradually, she began to make her own friends.  Soon my parents were established in a community of their own.  Their friends were young, smart, black, Jewish or both.  Many of these friendships would last through the era of my childhood (which wouldn’t begin until the sixties).

So New York became less strange, more like home.  In some ways it was more comfortable than the Chicago my mother had known.  Being Jewish was safer, for example.  My mother was accustomed to being discreet about it, letting people think that Rosen (her maiden name) was German.  Growing up, she’d been chased and beaten up, called a “dirty Jew” on numerous occasions.  Part of her Jewish identity was—is—forever connected to the fear of being attacked.  She’d heaved a sigh of relief, I think, in taking my father’s name and becoming a Williamson.  It was less about shame than safety.  There was some pride in being Jewish, too.  My mother has described the feeling of surprise and delight at finding herself in an environment where you could say “knish” and other people would know what you were talking about.

So another piece of my parents’ bond was the experience of being hated, truly hated.  While my mother could hide, to a degree, among gentiles—the way my father could not among whites—they both knew what it was to be far outside the majority.  That feeling of paranoia, which isn’t paranoia at all because you’re not imagining it.

And once united, my parents shared the new experience of being an interracial couple—living with all that it meant to people who saw them together.  In Chicago, they’d been chased by thugs with baseball bats.  In New York, some frowned, some smiled in solidarity, some simply stared, but then went on with their own lives.