I just got off the phone with a friend who is three weeks into her first baby. She was eating breakfast while talking to me, her baby asleep on her chest in the baby-wearing-thingie, dropping crumbs into the baby’s hair as we talked. She sounded happy – exhausted, but happy, and as at ease with being a first-time mother as one could expect.
All that changed when we started talking about breastfeeding. “I can’t leave the house,” she told me. “My husband is great and keeps telling me to go take a break, take a walk, whatever. But all I hear in my head, the whole time I’m gone, is the baby screaming with hunger. What if she gets hungry before I get back? I hate being the only way she can get food.”
GOD, I have been there. Being someone’s sole source of nutrition is one of the most physically and mentally taxing temporary jobs I have ever taken on. You get your “break” and all you do is stress that the baby got hungry before the normal feeding time, and next thing you know you’re texting your husband constantly – or worse, cutting your massage (side-lying, because your boobs hurt too much to lie on your front) or pedicure or coffee with a friend short and racing home to bring your boobs back within firing range of the baby’s mouth.
So, this friend and I got to talking through learning to use her pump, then beginning to build up a stash of milk by pumping once a day, immediately after the morning feeding. We talked about giving the baby a single ounce of formula to make sure she could tolerate it, and then having the can of formula on hand in case of absolute emergency and for some mental relief that there is a back-up method if it’s needed. We talked through introducing a bottle to the baby, and how she shouldn’t freak out if it didn’t go well at first (when my son first seemed to be rejecting the bottle, I went immediately to a dark place of I’m Never Going to Be Able to Go Back to Work, I’m Going to Be Tied to This Baby Until College). These tactics, together, create a tiny space for independence: get to the end of the pedicure, sip the cup of coffee slowly, take an extra loop around the block with the dog. Little victories that can lead to bigger ones later. And, for working mothers, these things also set up skills and resources for the back-to-work bonanza.
In the midst of this conversation, the second big thing my friend said to me rang just as true: “Why don’t any of the books tell me how to do this?” I asked her what she meant specifically, and she replied, “You know, they say ‘start pumping to save up milk for when you go back to work’ – but they don’t ever say HOW to do that. They say ‘introduce the bottle’, but they don’t tell you what that’s going to be like. You’re just totally on your own.”
Um, yes. A huge pile of Hows that no one ever bothered to jot down for us “triple threat” mothers (work/mother/make milk).
So, I have started wondering: In a world overflowing with self-help books, with parenting books, with more Pinterest sites and mommy blogs than you can shake a positive pregnancy stick at, why is the Motherhood Industrial Complex failing us when it comes to breastfeeding in the modern world? They just pretend this stuff is not difficult. The best-selling What To Expect The First Year, for example, offers this entirely un-helpful nugget to breastfeeding mothers who encounter difficulties: “Hit a breastfeeding bump or two? Stick with nursing and you’ll soon be cruising down Easy Street.” Problem solved!
These stacks of books can tell us how to get pregnant, be pregnant, birth a baby, nurse a baby, sleep train a baby, follow its development on a moment-by-moment basis, and raise a child. They are overflowing with opinions (which often feel like judgments) on the right and wrong ways to do all of these things: Hospital births are unnatural and germy and traumatic for the baby. Home births are unsafe and creepy and put the baby at risk. Sleep training is the savior of marriages and teaches babies essential sleep skills. Sleep training is child abuse. They also like to suggest that breastfeeding is the only way to feed our babies and still be good mothers, so we’re experiencing quite a lot of pressure, without much practical help in how the hell to do it.
My first theory on what’s going on here is going to sound a bit, well, feminist. When it comes to breastfeeding, it seems like The World (I know that’s a big generalization) is simply not willing to entertain a picture of a 21st century woman: busy with work and other commitments, interested in physical exercise, even more interested in going on a date or having a glass of wine with girlfriends, not willing or able to be physically tied to a baby non-stop for a full year. Breastfeeding seems to create feelings of nostalgia for a type of motherhood that probably never existed, except for among a privileged few for a few decades. Just look at the covers of most breastfeeding books and you’ll see a drawing of a mother, still in her bathrobe, cuddling her baby at her breast. That image might ring true in the first couple of weeks (especially the bathrobe part), but for the women I know, the reality looks more like stirring a pot of food while on a conference call while trying to breastfeed a baby while kicking (gently! lovingly!) at a toddler to get out of the kitchen. It makes for a busy cover to a book, but it’s the truth.
My second theory is that breastfeeding advocates who want, for very good reasons, to promote and support breastfeeding, have collectively decided that giving women any hint that breastfeeding is going to be difficult might scare them away from doing it. It’s an odd conclusion to make: we are talking about women who are well aware that, to paraphrase the late, great Carol Burnett, they are going to have to push something the size of a watermelon out a hole the size of a lemon. We know that having a baby is going to be messy and painful and difficult. No one seems to be shielding us from that reality, and we do it anyway. But to point out that breastfeeding might be difficult, or stressful, or cripplingly anxiety-inducing; that it might (will) make your nipples bleed; that it might (WILL!) be one of the hardest parts about going back to work? We are patronizingly protected from this information:Women can’t handle that! They’ll quit breastfeeding en masse if they know! Let’s just not tell them.They’ll thank us later.
I can tell you that I did not feel particularly thankful for this approach, when my nipples started bleeding and I realized not one of my stack of pregnancy and nursing books had told me that this would probably happen. I thought back to my prenatal breastfeeding class and wondered, bitterly, how holding a dingy Cabbage Patch Kid to my chest, instead of learning I should buy Medela Soothie gel pads and place them on top of a cup of ice for a really “ahhhhhhh” inducing moment in the hospital, was the right curriculum choice.
Whatever the reasons that we are being kept in the dark on the difficulties and practical how-to’s of breastfeeding (and especially breastfeeding and preparing to go back to work), it’s time we take control of the dialogue here. So…let’s hear from you, mamas. What essential “modern breastfeeding” information and practical advice did you have to figure out on your own? Why do you think the hardships of breastfeeding are still the territory of blogs and personal facebook posts, and not breastfeeding classes and new-motherhood books?