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June 28, 2010

How a mother-centered approach to breastfeeding saved my breastfeeding life

The politics of motherhood are a bit like dealing with those people who live in really awful towns who like to tell you about how much they hate your city. That they could never live there, because it’s claustrophobic, soulless, and so expensive. And you just have to sit there and take it, because you’re not allowed to utter the truth you’re convinced that both of you know– that living in their awful town has turned that person’s mind to gelatin, and that if you had to live there, you’d probably blow your brains out.

Or rather, it is acceptable to write an editorial titled “I formula fed– so what?” attempting to liberate women from the “shame” of formula feeding by evoking saggy boobs and breastfeeding horror stories, but an similar editorial so unabashedly pro-breastfeeding would be considered impolite. Because it would make other mothers feel guilty. And apparently alleviating mothers’ guilt is the structure around which the modern discourse of motherhood is framed.

The problem with this structure, however, is that is devalues some really thoughtful choices. Breastfeeding is only one example of this kind of discourse, but it’s the most pervasive one. The problem with this structure is that it makes everybody defensive, then we all decamp to our various corners to argue about just who can scream the loudest. You either breastfeed, or you are selfish. You’re either free of the shackles of motherhood, or you’re a doormat whose nipples knock against her knees.

The point of all this being that I’ve come to understand why some women become so evangelical about breastfeeding, because I’ve seen how they’re driven to it by a society that supports breastfeeding mothers in name only. A society that seeks to undermine the value of breastfeeding or at least fails to celebrate it, because we don’t want people to feel bad. But I’ve also come to understand that breastfeeding evangelists are really irritating, unless they’re preaching to the choir. And I can’t help but think that there has to be a middle ground.

Actually, I know there is a middle-ground, because I found it once, and it’s the only reason I managed to breastfeed at all. One of the many things I didn’t know before I had a baby (though I was warned; I just didn’t listen) was that breastfeeding is really hard. On the second night of my daughter’s life, I fed her all night long. Watching that clock tick through hours until the sun came up was one of the most agonizing experiences of my life, and in spite of all my effort, she lost 11% of her body weight in her first four days. We didn’t receive terrific support while we were in the hospital– we had a “good latch”, which apparently implied that all was well, and so no one took any notice of the problems we were having. (Most problems with breastfeeding are blamed on bad latches. If a bad latch can’t be diagnosed, then nothing can.)

Eventually, we had to supplement with formula, which I didn’t care about because it meant that I could go to sleep. I was just waiting for someone to tell me to quit breastfeeding, because then I’d have permission to do so (and I’m a textbook case, here, by the way, which is why no one should give a woman permission to quit breastfeeding, in my opinion, but then this is troubling too, no?). The baby was finally gaining weight, but her hunger was insatiable. I would feed her for two hours and she would still be sucking and crying when she was done. It was a growth spurt, I was told, or she was cluster feeding, but neither of these things were supposed to last as long as they did. By two weeks, I was out of my mind and couldn’t take it anymore.

We went to a breastfeeding consultant at a different hospital, one picked by chance from a list of resources, and this woman saved my breastfeeding life. The thing about her, however, is that she did everything wrong from a “lactivist” perspective. The first thing she did was promise me that we’d try to get the baby to feed less at night. I remember her saying to me, “You can go all day, but not all night”, and so much of my agony melted away with that acknowledgement that the awfulness was not to be simply withstood. The second thing she did was weigh the baby, then have me feed the baby (with that excellent latch), and then weigh the baby again to see how much milk she’d taken. In fifteen minutes, the consultant determined, the baby was getting plenty of milk. The baby doesn’t need to be feeding for two hours at a time, she told me. She wasn’t feeding, but simply soothing. These marathon sessions were not only driving me out of my mind, but they weren’t even necessary (which, having a baby who’d lost 11% body weight, I’d be loathe to determine on my own).

I also found out that the baby was constantly sucking and fussing not because she was hungry, but because she had terrible tummy cramps which my constant feedings (and formula supplements) were doing nothing to help. Equipped with the knowledge that she was eating just fine, I started cutting her feedings off and finding other ways to soothe her. We were able to quit formula supplements altogether. Breastfeeding finally became manageable, and I could imagine doing it for some period of time. 13 months later, we’re not even ready to quit.

My problems are nothing compared to what other women go through. I’ve had friends who’ve suffered through unbelievable pain while breastfeeding, receiving no support from breastfeeding consultants because to acknowledge the pain would be to acknowledge that breastfeeding really sucks, undermining the cause. But breastfeeding does suck, in the early days. The early days can extend to about six endless weeks though, and beyond, and it’s no wonder that so many women opt out altogether, and that the women who don’t become so fierce about what they’ve struggled through and what they’ve accomplished. Deservedly so.

I can’t help but wonder though if a more mother-centric approach to breastfeeding would ease the hostilities. If it would put everybody on the same side if we acknowledged that breastfeeding was truly awful, so that those of us who made it could have sympathy for those who didn’t. (And maybe those who never found it awful could just thank their lucky stars.) If those who were tempted to pack it in could receive the kind of support I did, the lately-unfashionable support that dares to take the mother’s well-being into consideration, sometimes even before the baby’s (as long as baby is thriving, of course. And maybe sometimes if baby isn’t. What baby is going to thrive if a lunatic is its mother?). If breastfeeding got a little more flexible, more mothers could keep on with it, and maybe we could ease up on the whole all or nothing “nipple confusion!” “formula is deadly!” etc. paranoia that makes things even less easy.

Imagine if we all decamped from our camps to discover we’re in the same boat? Or imagine if the whole breastfeeding thing became so de-polemicized that I didn’t need to mix my metaphors anymore?

13 thoughts on “How a mother-centered approach to breastfeeding saved my breastfeeding life”

  1. melanie says:

    Brilliant! Breast feeding sucked for me too for the most part. I’m part of that “six weeks in pain” group. I was so determined to do it that I managed to seek out lots of support and the last lactaction consultant I had was great. But then I spent 10 months doing nothing but feed Moira until I ran out of milk and I’m still wondering if I did something wrong or could have done things better. I’m hoping it goes better this time around – at least I know where to look for the support. And I rarely talk about it to anyone either – I know people from both camps: the ones who can’t believe I did little else than breastfeed for 9/10 months and the ones who are still nursing their 4-year olds. It’s like there is a war going on.

    1. Kerry says:

      And I bet there are people who tell you it’s impossible that your milk “ran out”. Even though you *know* it’s true, which is why I find breastfeeding experts so unbelievable, how they claim to know about the unknowable. Of course, there are many ways they can help and expert knowledge is valuable, but breastfeeding is a bizarre, idiosyncratic process. The only real experts are us, for our own particular experiences, but it takes a while to get the confidence to know that.

  2. Carrie says:

    LOVED this nuanced post, Kerry. I’m going to link to it on my moms are feminists, too blog. Did you read Margaret Wente this weekend? Your comment re alleviating guilt reminded me of her column on motherhood.

    I also ran out of milk every time I got pregnant, and was never able to breastfeed all the way through and then post-birth feed two, as in the lactivist ideal. I think what the blanket statements don’t take into account is that breastfeeding is entirely individual–and even the same mother might have a different breastfeeding relationship with a different child. So the support really needs to address each mother’s situation individually.

    I wish every woman struggling to breastfeed could visit your lactation consultant.

    1. Kerry says:

      I hated the Wente column though. I can’t stand when so many of the things that are important to me– cloth diapering, making baby food, breastfeeding, etc.– are derrided so other people can feel better about not doing them. But the problem (as I said) is that Wente’s address (and that of that French writer who’s recently published about motherhood as oppression, Elizabeth Badinter) is that it throws out babies with bathwater. I can’t help but wonder if there is a way we can make these things easier and more accessible for moms. (Though mindset is a big part of this– cloth diapering IS easy, and economical, but for some reason people can’t bring themselves to even consider it.)

      And yes, I think my bfeeding consultant is a candidate for sainthood.

  3. m says:

    One thing that I try to remember to tell expectant parents, that I wish I had known, but was told by my midwives the day after the information would have been the most needed (though they were AMAZING. If any of your readers are looking for midwives in Vancouver, contact me!) is that it is NORMAL and EXPECTED that the baby will not feed much the first 24 hours of life. They are still full of meconium and don’t NEED to feed. Also, it is NORMAL and EXPECTED that all babies lose weight in the first few days. I wish they told parents that before birth and reminded them during those first few days. I think many nurses don’t know these things and put fear into the mother.

    Both my boys were home birthed so I was saved from what I’ve witnessed with other friends, regarding pushy nurses who just don’t know and in turn freak out the parents and make them feel useless. Even so, that first night with Atticus, was terrible. Yes, he latched well for the first time, but for the rest of the night he wouldn’t. Only afterwards did I learn that he wasn’t expected to. Oh the sleep I could have had!

    1. Kerry says:

      That was the one good advice I DID get in the hospital. Unfortunately, they neglected to tell me to step it up in the days that followed…

  4. patricia says:

    I have never breastfed, and for obvious reasons, never will, being the proud parent of two neurotic fat cats. But I LOVED this article because it’s so clever and so very enlightening.

    And that comment about people in awful towns whose minds have turned to gelatin is priceless. Laughing and spewing coffee out on the computer screen worthy.

  5. Lovely post! I’m always at a loss with breastfeeding issues (even though I attended LLL meetings for a solid 15 months) because I *didn’t* have any problems and never know where to begin with advice. I’ve read the books and heard other womens’ stories, but unless you’ve actually had a hard time, I think it’s hard to really internalize what a heart-wrenching breastfeeding can be for some women, and how advice beyond “just suck it up and do it” is absolutely vital.

    I have known more than one woman who has given up breastfeeding because they felt overly pressured (or insulted) by the “breastfeeding nazis” (their words, not mine). I don’t want to be that over-enthusiastic advocate who pushes someone away! There’s just no need for that. This is one issue that can only be addressed with an inclusive solution.

    Sounds like we had a similar lactation consultant, btw! I went to see one just after Maggie had her 6-week growth spurt because Maggie suddenly *wasn’t* nursing 24/7 and I panicked. She watched us nurse, weighted Maggie before and after a feeding, and sent me home with the very sane observation that it was possible to overthink mothering. 😉

  6. kittenpie says:

    (here via @jforrest)

    LOVED this. I struggled with breastfeeding, too, and when I posted about the pain of it, had a huge number of people acknowledge that they had suffered through anywhere from 3 to 13 weeks of toe-curling, breath-catching pain before it got better. I was aghast, frankly, at the perseverance and courage of that, but also at the fact that that should be what’s needed. It was torturous enough that I decamped to the safety of my pump, and pumped for a year instead, so I have major respect for the struggle, but also know the defensiveness of being the mom behind the bottle, which makes me a major supporter of people being more open-minded on both sides!

    So very well said, K, and applicable to so much of motherhood, which is itself so mixed up in parts that suck and parts that are miraculous and so hard to speak about clearly without meaning getting loaded down by others.

  7. Kristin says:

    I loved this–great post. Breastfeeding IS hard. And sometimes it really does hurt. I had very few problems nursing my son, but have suffered quite a bit with my daughter (still nursing at 11 months). I’ve had clogged/plugged ducts almost every month of her life. I’m sure I would have quit breastfeeding her if she had been my first baby, but having been through it once I know how rewarding it is to keep going, so I just try to ignore the hard parts. But yeah, sometimes it really sucks–even when you know what you’re doing and feel confident. And pumping? Is for the birds. So sick of it!

  8. Kerry says:

    Can you imagine if as much effort was put into solving the mystical physical problems of breastfeeding as was put into medicating erectile dysfunction? Honestly, it would change the world…

    You women are ALL my heroes. Seriously.

  9. Kerry says:

    Also, Patricia, I can’t believe you didn’t breastfeed your cats. Poor little kitties, missing out on vital bonding and nutrients. What kind of mother are you????

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