Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Nursing: A Brief Two Year Review

Ed.'s Note: We're more than a bit behind on monthly updates. And we've also flown past a birthday post due date. We'll get there. Promise. But first, some boob chat.

After a punishing birth experience, some serious jaundice issues for baby, and more pain than I was prepared for, I sat in my OB's office convinced I was suffering from some sort of breast infection. Surely that was the cause of the fiery pain and abject discomfort I experienced with each, interminable nursing session.  No dice.  I was fine. It was the worst clean-bill of health I'd ever heard. There would be no magic medicine to ease the pain. My OB said it had taken her 6 weeks to get into the nursing groove. I had a 3 week old daughter. I cried. And cried and cried. No way was I going to make it to 6 weeks.  In the end, after one particularly nasty week with a nipple blister that caused me to sweat, writhe, and claw at the bed sheets while I nursed, it took a full 10 weeks until both she and I hit our stride on this whole feeding thing.  So now, twenty-four (that's 24. double digits, y'all) months later, was it all worth it? What would I tell a friend about establishing and pursuing breastfeeding?
Well, I suppose, to borrow from Hanna Rosin's still controversial article: Breast feeding is only free if a woman's time is worth nothing.

But let's back up a bit because that's putting the sippy cup before the nipple.

The challenges
I faced some challenges that most women, fortunately, don't face when establishing and continuing nursing.  First, the aforementioned marathon of sh*t birthing experience. Diagnosed with a rare and rarely, but possibly heartbreak causing pregnancy complication, my kid came early but only after 43 hours of medically-induced labor, 3 hours of pushing, and an eventual emergency C-section. I was a little off my game, then for the initial few hours and days of baby bonding. Eventually, I learned that me and my Medela were not destined to be buddies.  Pumps and I don't mix. No one mentioned that I might not let-down for a pump. I assumed I would take a break or two during work and fill up a couple of bottles.  I even bought a special storage box for the freezer to keep all of those bags of frozen liquid gold organized.

This pump problem led my kid to reverse-cycle, since I was determined to keep her exclusively on the boob juice but only pumped about 6 ounces per day, maximum, while I was at work. So she had one meal while I was gone (for the equivalent amount of time she would've slept without eating at night), and then ate a normal daily amount when I was home, which was overnight.  So we became a family-bed family. Never say never!

The stress
It seemed there was always something stressing me out. Getting a latch and dealing with pain. The hours and hours and hours of clusterfeeding and entrapment on the couch.  Transitioning to work with zero milk supply in the freezer. Pumping at work. Trying to politely decline the million bits of advice on how to increase my supply when I didn't have a supply problem - I had a let-down problem. Trying to navigate family opinions on my dedication to nursing, on bedsharing, on sleeping-through-the-night-or-lack-thereof.  Then introducing solid food. Of continuing to defend my choices about nursing as the months passed and she grew older.  Learning to nurse in public or just away from the safety of the couch.  There was always something. Always.

The choices
It's hard to make statements about nursing without feeling like you're being perceived as judging others just by making the choices you've made. If you can't unravel that sentence: I mean it's hard to talk about nursing with other friends who have - through choice or circumstance - ended, or never begun, nursing their own babies.

I suppose, on some levels, my hell-bent commitment to nursing was driven by what I felt were failures during the birthing process. Had I really tried hard enough on every push? Had I "dogged it" like I had dogged those runs around the parade field during soccer practice when I was 11?  Fine, I would nurse the hell out of this child, no matter what. Screw anyone who gets in my way!  But in truth, my commitment wavered plenty and the thought, "why are you still doing this to yourself" came up frequently.

My kid still had colds. Breast milk wasn't a magic elixir that kept her protected from all germs.  She did go for over two weeks without pooping for a period of a month and a half or so. No, she wasn't constipated. No, I didn't believe that could happen either. Yes, I'd still think something was wrong with a kid in that situation, but it's true, it happened.

Nursing in public
I had steeled myself for battle. I had read the internet-spread anecdotes of women shamed for nursing in public - asked to leave restaurants, admonished to think of the children. I had a quiver of pointed comebacks at the ready.

The first time I really nursed in public without wrestling with those stupid, frustrating hooter hider contraptions was at a Picture People at the Roseville Galleria. It was a bit of a turning point for me. From then on, my kid was going to eat whenever and wherever she needed to eat.  And I never had so much as a side-eye or snide remark from anyone. The internets were wrong!  I certainly, vehemently believe nursing moms must continue to normalize and model the practice. There still aren't enough women out there with a boob out. There are still too many rushed "but of course, I mean, if you do it discreetly" apologies tacked on to the practice. And too many women register for and receive those infernal hooter hiders that reinforce the "of course, just be discreet" message.  Maybe we'll get there eventually. I don't know.

Of course, key for me really living the public nursing life was finally figuring out how to nurse when my baby was in a carrier.  Mei Tais and our Ergo were worth their weight in gold for the freedom they gave me, not only to avoid having to find an elevator and a ramp everywhere, but to continue activities while feeding and calming my child. Hands-free!  Not blue tooth, but milk tooth, I suppose.

Would you I do it again? What would I tell a similar woman about to birth her first child?

This is tough. Really tough.

First, I think, at my core, I am suspicious of formula. But I can't be suspicious of the choice to use that. This brings us back to Rosin's astute observation that nursing is only free if a woman's time is worth nothing.  Nursing is frequently hailed as "Free" - and, I suppose, since you don't have to go buy it at Target, it is free. Except that, because you can't go buy it at Target, it's not free.  Time is money, especially for working moms. It also takes an intangible toll: less time networking, less time attending after work events; it can affect business travel; it can affect work relationships generally.  Because not every woman can merely pump and leave her baby with a supply of fresh milk, pretty much every decision about planning one's day can be compromised or made more complicated by a decision to pursue exclusively one's own breast milk as the source of baby's sole nutrition.

The tide is shifting in many communities today, based on sound research, that processed foods maybe aren't doing great things for our longevity and quality of life.  Formula is the ultimate processed food at arguably the most vulnerable stage of life.  So there's that concern, too.

I suppose, what's hardest about this particular topic is that its nearly impossible to decry the negative aspects of formula feeding without being perceived as judging parents who rely on it for a host of reasons, voluntary and involuntary.  Really, our ire should be focused on the institutions and cultural beliefs that both block nursing and celebrate science's chemical alternative. But we don't so focus - we're happy enough to beat each other bloody in this debate.

I wish there were human milk banks accessible to all women. I wish there were a thriving human milk industry, but there's not. What does exist is a largely informal and always tenuous underground swap market.  I was blessed by milk donations from friends and family that saved our exclusively-breast-milk plan on several occasions.  There must be a way to make this an industry in a way that is safe and free of exploitation of the women who produce to supply it.  But, aside from the current legal and logistical barriers to wider milk banking or sharing, we've yet to beat back the "but that's too Hand That Rocks The Cradle" reaction to feeding a child non-familial milk.  Somehow, powdered other-animal milk remains far preferable.

What would I tell other women? That I support the choice that gets you from your child's birthday to their future in the way that best works for you. But that if you want to commit to nursing, cowgirl the hell up and get ready for some major obstacles.

If I did it again - and I don't think I will be - I assume I'd have the same pump issues. If I had the same pump issues, I freely admit I would turn to donor milk or even to formula because I'd like to see if I can avoid another reverse-cycling situation. And how many opportunities did I miss because I had to rush home to nurse? That's not unimportant. I didn't grow up planning my wedding and I didn't grow up planning how I would mother - so blithe "whatever is best for the baby" is far too simple an attitude for the complex decisions facing parents.

In the end
I nursed my child from her birth day until sometime on the night of March 6, 2011. That's just over two years. Subtract two weeks she was in England if you must. And add the one week or so of 1 ounce formula supplementation directed by an LC/RN to help get us past jaundice issues if you must. She was exclusively fed breast milk from birth (save disclosure above) until about eight and a half months. She was fed on demand. She was fed in public. When she got some words, she called it "mup." She was sad to see it go.

I think I'll always have a complicated relationship with nursing - both my own experience and generally.  I wish more women were able to engage in longer-term, exclusive nursing relationships, but there are so many booby traps making that nearly impossible, it's impressive that anyone can do it.  My most fervent wishes for the future of nursing in America are 1) that women see the call to increase nursing not as a criticism of them or of their choices, but a criticism of the culture and market that limits the true range of choices and then hopes they don't notice those limitations and 2) that publicly nursing moms become an every day sight.

So long, mup. So long nursing pillow. So long nursing bras and tanks. So long to a lot of what has been our - mine and my daughter's - everyday life for two years.  I'm looking forward to what comes next.

1 comment:

  1. I was so glad to see these three new posts and remember having some sort of deep thoughts when they first went up. Sadly, those thoughts have been lost to mom brain since then. Yet, I can't shake this fantastic photo of Fidg. Really, it's one of the greatest kid photos I've ever seen. The background is perfect, her clothes are adorable, her Mona Lisa smile is priceless and the heart adds whimsy. Nicely done, Ms. photographer.