Are We All A Little Too Precious About The Boob?

I’m in the thick of trying to keep my kid fed exclusively with breast milk – and as he’s growing fast and I’m working and trying to pump enough throughout the day, the whole thing is getting a little stressful.  Last weekend I even stooped to squeezing in a pumping at 1am.  I had gone out to dinner with the wife, shared a bottle of wine, and O needed milk as soon as we were home.  My milk was in no state for an infant to consume so I fed him a bottle and replenished our tight bottle stock several hours later.

Somewhere around 1:15am and 4 oz into pumping I was compelled to wonder if I was taking it all a little too seriously.  I entered the mom thing with a general plan to breast feed — I knew it was medically recommended, a good public health practice, and perhaps most importantly it was my vision of what having a baby meant.  That said, I didn’t have any very strong feelings about it before getting pregnant – it just seemed like that’s what you do.  And if it was too hard for some reason, I figured I would supplement.

But as my stomach got bigger and I learned more about what we’d do when this baby made his debut – everything from the immediate skin to skin contact once O was born (something we had to forgo because I had a C-section and there was meconium in the fluid) to waiting 4-6 weeks before introducing the bottle to solidify the connection with the boob (something we also immediately abandoned when he needed to eat before he and I had figured out nursing) – I bought into the holy shrine of the boob and became much more fixated on the singular importance of breastfeeding.  And once nursing clicked for us, I became committed to the all-important milestone of exclusive breast-feeding until 6 months.

Several articles over the last week have cast some much needed reality-checks on the whole enterprise of breastfeeding:

First, Emily Oster offers an analysis on the benefits of breastfeeding and finds that the data don’t support the over-obsession with this liquid gold.   And then this Newsweek piece takes a stab at the preciousness with which we approach the experience of feeding our kids by casting light on the market for breast milk.

But it’s this essay that really stopped me in my tracks.  One mother of a 7 months old tells of an encounter with another mother of a newborn baby struggling to feed him when the latch is not happening and she is out of formula.  Emma Saloranta describes making the on-the-spot judgment call to offer to nurse the stranger’s baby when she realizes the baby just needed to eat:

I looked up to [the baby’s] mother, worried that she would feel offended by her baby nursing from another woman’s breast — but all I saw was relief as she saw her baby calming down. The baby wasn’t crying anymore, and neither was the mother. She held my baby as I nursed hers, and though I had feared that it would be weird, odd, or crossing a line of some sort — it didn’t feel like that at all. It felt like exactly the right thing to do.

I nursed the baby for a few minutes, and she dozed off. The mother told me her husband was waiting outside but had to head to the airport. The whole family was supposed to travel back to their home country, Egypt, on that day, but the mother and baby would have to stay behind for a few extra days because some of the paperwork was taking longer. I was worried about how the father would feel about a total stranger having just breastfed their infant baby — but he greeted me with a warm smile, took my hands in his and thanked me with sincere gratitude for helping his wife and their daughter. He asked what my son’s name was, and told me that according to the Muslim faith, our children were now milk siblings, brother and sister.

I like to think I would do the same thing in that situation – and in fact, there have been moments when I’ve had an excess of milk or looked at my freezer drawer full of frozen milk O won’t eat and wondered if there wasn’t somebody who could benefit from it.

Reading this essay – and thinking about my own stress around trying to eke out enough milk for my (rapidly) growing baby reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend who related her disappointment at having to forgo her plans of an unmedicated, vaginal birth for a C-section when her baby was breech.  Her husband said to her “It’s not about you” and she let go of what she realized was her own visions for herself as a mother and got down to the business of being a mother by doing what was best for her kid.

I feel the same about breastfeeding.  It’s a wonderful experience that I’m so thrilled I’m able to offer my son and have for myself.  I still want to make it to six months having exclusively breastfed him and then continue breastfeeding through his first year.  And I love the experience of feeding him – the connection we have together when we do it – and knowing I’m passing on rich vitamins, flavors, immunities and more through my breast milk when he’s taking it from a bottle later.  But at the end of the day, it’s his food – and he needs to eat.  And if I can’t make enough without sacrificing my health and all of our sanity – a little formula (or exclusively formula if need be) is what O needs.  And I hope in that moment, if it arises, I’m mother enough to do that.


One thought on “Are We All A Little Too Precious About The Boob?

  1. Your story about the woman who helped another new mom by breast feeding that mom’s baby speaks to my altruistic vision that was spawned by John Steinbeck. I cannot forget the ending to The Grapes of Wrath when Rose of Sharon breast feeds the starving man with her milk because her milk can no longer serve her dead baby. It was wrenching, startling and awe-striking all at the same time. My baby could never drink all the breast milk I could make, and it was an ethical problem for me. I tried to sell it to a food coop, but that idea was ahead of my time then in 1983. I exhausted all possibilities before I (forgive me) threw it out. There are women out there who desperately want and need breast milk for their baby, and I understand now that it is available in some commercial/coop form. This is great progress. As it happened, my baby did not tolerate formula well, so my milk production took on a life-giving tone that I was profoundly grateful I could provide. It could have easily gone another way, and my memories would be quite different. Let us feed our babies as best we can, with our own milk, or gratefully the milk of others or milk from a formula or a goat or whatever works for our child and us. Yes, the point is to make sure our child is fed. Bottom line. And we still have provided for our child in the best way we know how to do. That is the definition of parenting.


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