Breastfeeding: A Personal or Political Choice?

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OK, so,
the mere title of this post sounds absurd, right?  Of course breastfeeding is a personal
decision, but you sure wouldn’t think so when you Google the term
“breastfeeding.”  Just scan the results
page and not only will you be inundated with soft-focus images of hot moms
looking lovingly down whilst effortlessly nursing their perfect babes, you’ll also
learn that the breast is best, breastfeeding is a womanly art, and that the
boob is better not only for your babe but, incidentally, for your own heart as
well. 

Breastfeeding Mother Breastfeeding MotherBreastfeeding Mother Breastfeeding on the News - Literally Breastfeeding Mother

 

You
will not, however, see search results that include terms such as bosom burnout,
sleepless nights, and difficulty returning to work or spousal resentment.  All that is couched in the “support” sections
(if it’s even addressed, that is) of the fervent pro-breastfeeding propaganda
that dominates what seems to me like a pretty politicized “discussion” of
breastfeeding. 

Add to
the debate a recent article (among the 15 or 20 published each year) in the
April 2009 issue of the Atlantic by
Hanna Rosin, “The Case Against Breastfeeding,” which argues breastfeeding has had a large part in marginalizing women and
their careers and has dubious benefits anyway. 
Oh, and the April 22, 2009 New
York Times
article by Roni Caryn Rabin “Breast-Feeding Benefits Mothers,” and you start to get an idea of how very preoccupied our society is with
boobs—beyond Baywatch, that is. 

I guess
I shouldn’t be surprised given that everything about women is politicized, from
our wombs to our boobs to the length of our hair and skirts; we are sacred
vessels, after all (though not sacred enough to pay equally).  But even so, I find myself, to say the least,
much abashed.  And, while not wishing to
make a case against breastfeeding—for
I’ve certainly done a lot of it and have more to look forward to—like Hanna
Rosin, I am fed up with what some have dubbed the “Breastfeeding
Establishment,” or the “Breastfeeding Conspiracy.” 

The
“Breast is Best” push has crossed the line from support to pressure and it now
so permeates the breastfeeding dialogue that, upon implantation of your darling
embryo, you will immediately find yourself being pressed by your OBGYN, your
pediatrician, the media, your mother-in-law and the lady behind you in the
checkout line to breastfeed.  Worse, once
your kid can finally sit up and you’re going out of your mind looking for
things to do, you might join a play group, where you’ll be hard-put to ignore
the palpable silence, raised eyebrows and disapproving glances that ensue when
someone announces they’ve weaned their child before one year, or THE HORRORS,
fed their child the poison otherwise known as formula from the get-go. 

Case in
point, now expecting my second babe, and totally exhausted by the double whammy
of simultaneous early pregnancy and breastfeeding, I set out to wean my dear
boy from his mommy milk supply around 13 months.  Having never taken a bottle, he fought the replacement
of his first two feedings and his weight had a scary drop, so it was somewhat
traumatic for us both, but in the end, mostly for me. 

When I decided
to wean, naturally, I sought out advice and information on how to do
it—previous attempts to introduce the bottle had resulted in red-faced roaring,
fist waving and ear-piercing wailing that usually dissolved into pathetic gasps
and sobs.  All I found in the cannon of
breastfeeding literature was either completely trite and over-simplified
advice: “First drop the least important feeding, wait three to four days, then
drop another,” the end.  As if it’s that
simple, particularly if you’ve followed all the commonly accepted breastfeeding
advice heretofore, including feeding on demand, letting the baby “set his own
schedule,” waiting until 6 weeks to introduce a bottle, etc.  Or I found weaning “advice” with an obvious
agenda to guilt me into breastfeeding EVEN LONGER.  Check out the Amazon.com reviews of the
virtually useless (unless you want to breastfeed ‘till your kid is 5 years old)
The Nursing Mothers Guide to Weaning to get an idea of what kind of “support” you’ll be getting should you choose to
purchase that book.

So,
saddled with the information (and guilt) that my son probably just wasn’t ready
to wean, I also developed a guilt complex for having put my boy, and myself, in
a situation whereby he was only comfortable and happy receiving milky
sustenance from me personally in the first place.  His staunch refusal to ever take a bottle,
for which, of course, there is no really good advice, translated into a number
of negative outcomes for my husband and me: no shared responsibility for night
wakings; no non-family member babysitters (would you trust a stranger with a
wailing baby who can only be soothed with a boob?); no date nights, etc. to
name just a few.  I say guilt for the
position I put my boy in, but there was also resentment for the position I had
put myself and my husband in, which resulted in more guilt—for the
resentment.    

With no
thanks to breastfeeding advocates, we finally just fought through weaning,
like, tooth-and-nail-style.  Ultimately I
just decided this was game day and I was going to win.  It took about eight weeks, but finally my boy
got used to a sippy cup and being cuddled while watching Sesame Street, but I
continued to grapple with feelings of straightforward mommy-guilt and also with
feelings of guilt for not feeling very guilty. 
I was ready to quit.  I’d been ready to quit.  In fact, for the last three months of
breastfeeding, I had sometimes been so annoyed with it that I found myself
cringing or pulling away from my dear son on occasion, which I also, of course,
felt really guilty about. 

Where
did all this guilt come from?  Prior to the
birth of my boy wonder, I resided, like many of my generation, on Planet
Me.  Guilt wasn’t even a functioning word
in my vocabulary, so truly this is an anomaly in my life.  But as we know, parenthood is wrapped up with
all kinds of idealized conceptions of what a mom should be, and I believe breastfeeding
advocates are preying on those sentiments. 
The second I held my child in my arms, or maybe sooner, maybe when I saw
his tiny heart beating on ultrasound for the first time, my lifelong quest for
self-gratification pretty much took back seat to the miracle that is him.  It was a monumental shift in my thinking, in
my whole reality, that really didn’t need any help from an organized breastfeeding
“establishment” geared towards pushing and guilting me into doing the best for
my offspring. 

Don’t
get me wrong, I do believe there’s an important place for breastfeeding
support and advocacy—breastfeeding certainly isn’t as easy, or as accepted, as
you might think.  But I wish advocacy
were less adamant and the support were more realistic, more practical, more
mother-centric and less (sacrilege, I know!) baby-centric. 

I’m not
arguing that breastfeeding is just another anti-feminist shackle to slap us
chicks with, but enough is enough.  If
the expectations the establishment has set up are making me, previously one of
the world’s most self-centered people and someone who breastfed for 13+ months
feel guilty, what are we doing to moms who just can’t or don’t want to
breastfeed?  It’s either time for a new
discourse on breastfeeding or an end to the discussion altogether.  We get it. 
The information is out there, we understand the breast is best (though
in truth that’s really up for debate).  How
about the breastfeeding establishment works harder on turning the screws on
employers, compelling them to provide more than a public bathroom stall as a
pumping room, say, and let us intelligent, competent, sacred vessels take our
boobs from here on out.  And moms, let’s
go easy on each other.  Being a mother is
probably the best job you’ll ever have, but it’s tough enough on the ego and breastfeeding
is a personal, not a political, choice. 

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14 Comments

  1. Amen! I read Hanna’s article in the Atlantic Monthly and can’t tell you how glad I am to see discussions about breastfeeding take on a subtle but different direction. Well-stated, M!

  2. GREAT Post!!! I think you said it all. I was shocked after my first to see the divides among mothers – breastfeeding vs. non-breastfeeding – working vs. stay at home – natural birth vs. medication vs. c-section. I found it all a little sad.
    One way isn’t always best and we should judge another women for her choices because they may have been difficult for her to make.
    With my second I ended weening earlier (9months) then my first (15months) I felt guilty but then also a little free – no pumping – no worry if I didn’t have enough milk stored.
    Anyway – wonderful post.

  3. I’m a dad of an amazing breast-feeding,co-sleeping 16 month old and it always surprises me when my wife and I get criticized by strangers and friends alike. It often appears that these people are more offended or threatened then concerned. I’ll admit that before my boy was born I laughed at the whole notion of co-sleeping and couldn’t fathom my wife
    breast-feeding past a year. But oh how things change when you’re in the thick of it. Bottom line is these decisions are between my wife,my boy, and myself; and these decisions couldn’t feel more right…for us.
    And that’s the point. I think the breastfeeding movement, with all its “rules” has become conventional wisdom. People (I call them the herd) love to follow without a moment of thought. So thanks for the article M. Thanks for trying to inspire others to step away from the herd and think for themselves and support others who are doing the same.

  4. I just started reading your blog and I love it. I live in Sydney now and bacame a full-time mom when we moved here. Your blog is great as it helps me keep stay “fashionable” while living in the suburbs in a country where they don’t have as many fashion options as North America or Asia (both continents where I grew up/lived all my life).
    Anyway, I breastfed both my boys for 2 months tops. I love them but I hated it. It dperessed me and drove me crazy. I refused to give in to the guilt and I hate celebrities who give random breastfeeding advice..Argh! Like women need more pressure. I want to tell them to come live in the REAL world without their nannies,chefs,stylists and personal trainers..THEN come talk to me!

  5. I know this post is really old, but I have to comment. Thank you. I completely agree with everything you’ve said here and I appreciate you saying it. I had to stop breastfeeding at 10 days for some very serious health reasons and I went through tremendous guilt and outside pressure because of it.

  6. Cedar, thanks for writing in–it's never too late to put in your two cents here at ANMJ!  I hope your health issues resolved, and that all is well with you now.  ANMJ is all about a supportive mom culture, so I'm really saddened to hear you had such a bad experience, particularly after dealing with health issues, after nine long months of pregnancy, and on top of all the struggles new moms go through anyway.  That's just terrible.  Who needs that?  Sisters, we can't be tearin' each other down!   

  7. I never saw breastfeeding as a choice. I just see breastfeeding as part of the parenting package and I think before society made us beliee breastfeeding was actually a choice, us mothers breastfed. And if we didn’t our babies died or we found a wet nurse so they wouldn’t die.
    You don’t need to make breastfeeding stressful. If the worst you had to put up with is a baby who wouldn’t take bottles and you were not able to have a date night with the hubby– well, all I can say is, can we trade places? Please?!!?! I won’t go into what it is like to breastfeed a baby who was in the NICU for 2 weeks. But, how does 3 days of ripping your hair out trying to get your son to latch after he was given at bottle at 4 days old. That was one of the smaller challenges by the way.
    I also went back to work around 6 months or so, full time. You on the other hand, appear to be a stay at home mom. Believe me, you would NEVER pump to give a bottle, if you could just whip your boob out instead.
    Yes, I breastfed and my son weaned himself right after his second birthday. It was really simple that way. No teeth or nails needed, If you are feeling guilty, it probably isn’t society or mothers like me who are making me feel guilty. Buck up mommy, own your own feelings, No one can MAKE you feel guilty. You make yourself feel guilty.
    Breastfeeding isn’t always easy but in the end it’s worth it and our babies will always choose the breast over the bottle. So, when we think about it in terms of a choice, what about our babies’ choice? They don’t have voice yet but they know exactly what to do when it comes to nursing.

  8. Thanks for making the point, Melissa.  This is exactly what I'm talking about.  I loved breastfeeding my babies, just as you, despite your many hardships did, but I don't look down on women who choose not to nurse, and I wish others wouldn't either.

  9. I can’t thank you enough for posting this. You are a hundred percent right, there is a great amount of pressure out there to breast feed right now. There are radio and TV commercials, in politics with the first lady….it’s really every where you look. There are people who think it is an all or nothing deal, and that you are less of a mom if you don’t breastfeed. On the flip side there is an older generation (my MIL’s generation) where many people thought that breast feeding is disgusting and don’t understand why a woman would bother with this. Both viewpoints are very extreme. I gave breast feeding a great try both times with my children, and was unsuccessful. I would love to not be mixing formula and washing bottles out right now and just pull out my boob and feed my child, but it is what it is. I have severely inverted and flat nipples and hardly any milk would come out when I pumped (which I did the first 3 weeks of my first born’s life). After 3 weeks of excruciating pain and bleeding from pumping 10-12 times a day (tears streaming down my face each time) and not getting much milk anyway(even with fenugreek) and frustrating feedings b/c my daughter refused to latch on and was hungry and had lost a significant amount of weight I ended up developing mastitis in both breasts. Thinking I was just coming down with something, it progressed that day and got worse and worse. Not only were both my boobs red they also felt like they were going to explode. On top of it all, I got a high fever and headache and finally put it together what was going on. It was at that point that I reflected on this whole experience and decided that I would quit trying to breast feed at the expense of my daughters health, my health and sanity, and my relationship with my daughter. Aup until this point my daughter would cry in my arms and kick my breasts whenever it was feeding time b/c she was so hungry but couldn’t get a good latch. The lactation consultant was not any help with my first born either and made me feel terrible for not getting it to work. I feel like I made a good decision. I wasn’t depriving my child of food anymore once we switched to formula and I could now enjoy my daughter more who was now finally content and happy. When my son was born, though he latched on a little bit on and off, my nipples were cracked and severly bleeding within a day. I was given a nipple shield to help with that, but the nipple shield would fill up with blood and the sucking was yet again excrusiating. My 2 year old daughter would come in the nursery and need my attention too, which at times made it impossible to breast feed and attend to her at the same time. Within the first week I had mastitis yet again….both breasts. B/c of the ordeal we went through with trying to make breastfeeding work with my daughter and her weight loss, I decided it was time to pull the plug. I didn’t want to loose time with my son (and daughter)the way that I felt I had with my daughter when she was a newborn. That being said, there are times that I feel guilty about not doing it, but I have to remind myself that it is hard to be a good mom if you are continually getting sick (from mastitis) or in pain from nursing. This decision was made by looking at what was best for our whole family and in this case, the formula was the best choice for us.
    My daughter is turing out great. She is well above average socially and according to her pediatrician. She is a very smart, sweet, funny, and polite girl…..yes,even though she was on formula.
    We women need to stop judging one another and be more accepting of decisions women make. Start looking at the big picture. If you can make it work, excellent. That is a wonderful thing that you are doing. If you can’t make it work, whatever the reason, it is alright too. You have made the best decision you could for your family. You are not any less of a mom for not breastfeeding.

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