The primacy of the boob

Have you all read this article from the Atlantic Monthly?

I read it before I had Eliza. I heard what she was saying back then but it didn't totally resonate with me.

I've been thinking a lot about it recently, mostly when I am breastfeeding Eliza and Zoe's having a tantrum that can only be about sharing my attention or when CG is working away at projects in the house like an untethered adult while I spend my time nursing or when I'm in public and I'm struggling with my piss poor public nursing skills that seem to get progressively worse instead of better. (You'd think with a nursing tank AND a hooter hider, I'd be able to keep my nips hidden from the eyes of poor unsuspecting waitstaff and restaurant patrons, BUT YOU'D BE WRONG.)

I struggled long and hard nursing Zoe as an infant- weeks and weeks of cracking, bleeding, and both of us SCREAMING- and wound up treasuring it fiercely, probably because of how hard fought it was. Thanks to CG's support and an awesome lactation consultant, we made it through and I experienced true bliss at times. I felt a deep connection with Zoe that I wouldn't have traded for anything. I looked forward to having that same bond with my second child.

Nursing Eliza has been so much easier from the very beginning. I had a week or so of sore nips and that was it.

And I'm sad, and surprised, to say that I'm not as in love with it as I was before.

Now I feel nursing to sometimes be .... a bit of an issue.

When CG and I decided to become parents we were in complete agreement: I would nurse the children as long as we all thought it reasonable. I would be staying home with them, at least for the first year or so and we knew about the research saying breast was best and we're totally cheap and breastfeeding is FREE and all this made sense. It wasn't so much of a decision as it was an assumption.

Now I ponder how the seemingly simple decision to breastfeed our children has shaped the dynamics of our family, for better or worse.

Since I am nursing Eliza, I am constantly pulled away from Zoe, who very clearly notices my absence since I nursed HER and am still her preferred parent as a result. I fear nursing Ellie fuels Zoe's resentment toward me and toward Ellie. Nursing is such an intimate act. Is watching me nurse Eliza more painful for Zoe than watching me give Eliza a bottle would be?

Sometimes, I have to admit, I welcome the fact that I have to go to Ellie and nurse her, leaving CG, when he's home, to deal with the emotional fall-out from Zoe. Other times, it just sucks that I have to been the one constantly pulled away from Zoe.

Since I am nursing, it is me who, of course, went with the girls to Vermont for a month while CG dealt with packing, moving and unpacking. I am grateful for all the work he did on both houses and it's likely that I would not have been able to do half of what he did as well as he did. CG and I have always had stereotypical gender roles, despite both us having strong feminist values. Have they been further entrenched by our decision to breastfeed? I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have switched roles for that month. If we had been bottle feeding, would that have been at least a possibility?

Since I am nursing, the fact that I am going to a friend's child-free wedding in New York in October becomes an even bigger issue, an even bigger favor to ask of my husband. Pump for weeks ahead of time for enough milk to feed Eliza for 48 hours? Bring the pump and pumped breastmilk on the plane (!?@!?!#!$!??)? Bring the pump to the wedding for clandestine pumping in the bathroom?? It's already giving me a headache just thinking about it.

When we made that fateful decision to breastfeed, we were also under the illusion (delusion?) that, though I would be the primary caregiver during the week, CG and I would share equally in the childcare during nights and weekends. Nursing, for us, makes true equality impossible. Of course, it should be me who takes the baby most of the weekend. Of course, it should be totally on CG to support our family. Of course, it should be CG who runs more of the childless errands, does most of the household projects. Of course, it should be me who disappears from the dinner table/adult conversation early to tend to the baby's needs. Of course, it should be me who gets up to feed the baby in the middle of the night.

Of course?


Amie said...

Wow, this post really resonates with me. I also read that article months ago and had a mixed reaction to it. It is a provocative discussion and something I think about a lot. I have times of loving breastfeeding and other times when I feel trapped by it. Ultimately, I think the author of the article focused too much on the nutritional aspects of breastfeeding and discounted the emotional bond formed by breastfeeding. It is huge and sometimes overwhelming for me. I agree with you that nobody really explains how breastfeeding will dictate many aspects of the family dynamic. And I agree with the author of the article that everyone says "breast is best" yet our culture really isn't set up to support breastfeeding mothers. I know for me this has made me feel very isolated at times.

Marie Green said...

Oh, man, I do totally hear you. I breastfed my 3 girls, and it def. had its advantages and disadvantages. For one, nursing twins made me an EXPERT at pulling myself away from one to tend to the other (I never nursed them together b/c it made me TEH CRAZY).

Here's a few thoughts though...

1. The nature of breastfeeding allows the older child to learn to depend on other caregivers besides Mama, which in the end IS good for her/him.

2. The nature of breastfeeding allows Mama time to bond and just *be* with baby, even for just small parts of the day, which (though not nearly the same amount of 1 on 1 time as the first time around) allows Mama and baby to form a strong bond.

3. I think our generation was raised with the notion that *our* marriages would be EQUAL IN EVERY WAY. The harsh reality is that they are not. Even though our generation's husband *are* MUCH more hands on in housework and childcare. My husband and I are both equally pulling our weight in the big scheme of things, but when the chores are listed out it often doesn't *seem* like it's equal. He handles more of the financial responcibility, while I handle more of the household/childcare side.

4. I think in this post you beautifully hit the nail on the head as far as THE biggest struggle with couples today, especially when one person stays home. It's just so HARD to figure out how to divide up the labor of childcare and money making and housework and house upkeep and on and on. We have feminist values, our husbands do too, and yet, there is still a divide. I SO HEAR YOU!!!! (As a side note, I know a few non-breastfeeding families that are struggling with the same issues... I think nursing just makes it more obvious.)

5. Even though I had the same mixed feelings, the same "trapped" feelings that you are describing, I miss nursing, now that I'm done. =( WHY? Why do we wish it away and then miss it? (This goes for SO many things besides nursing, OBV.)

Hillary said...

Breastfeeding didn't work out for The Boy and me. So, I can't speak specifically to that.

BUT, I do think society is set up to put a bigger burden -- sometimes real, sometimes psychological -- on mothers than on fathers. When you have a very equal marriage before children, I think it's very hard to let go of that equality when the reality of children sets in. Your expectation is so much different than reality and there are a lot of feelings of guilt -- should I be taking on this much of a traditional role? Should I want to give up responsibility for my baby? -- and anger -- what the hell is my husband's problem?

Sorry to get so long-winded, but it's a topic I've thought a lot about since becoming a parent. Suffice to say, it's rough

Sarah said...

I, too, read all the books and decided that I would breastfeed Little Man. After five weeks, I gavie it up. But, I have several friends who continued and I think one thing that the books and experts leave out is: It's really a big sacrifice of your time and body to breasfeed. Not to say, people shouldn't do it, but it's a huge committment and isn't always as simple as "It's good for the baby" and, "It's free." The books and the experts sell women short when they just boil it down to those reasons.

Good Enough Mom said...

I read that article when it came out, and I was SO RELIEVED that someone had written about what nursing costs women. I have had so many similar thoughts, but would never have been able to put them together so clearly. My favorite line in the article was the one that said (something like) "nursing is only free if a woman's time is worth nothing." I also loved how the author was a nursing mom herself.

My first son was not a great nurser (we now know this was due to slightly low muscle tone). I stuck with it for 3 months (of mostly pumping), until I was too wrecked and too angry to go on. Life got better after I let it go. My second son was a champion nurser, but, with him, I didn't have the energy or the time or space to devote to it...I decided to nurse him during the day (for as long as that lasted) and let my husband do night feedings from a bottle--formula only, I had sworn off pumping for all eternity! Eventually, I also had to supplement with formula during the day, since my supply couldn't keep up (which I knew when I made this decision). I didn't mind too much though, since I couldn't imagine going through all the things you describe here! It worked for me, and I definitely felt more free...but when I remember what the nursing was like, I still have a slight wish that I had really devoted myself to it, just for the experience and the warm, soft baby closeness. Yeah...a very slight wish...

One thing I can say is that my younger son is much more bonded with his dad...when he is upset, it's his father he usually wants. I have been the one who spends most of the days with him, so I attribute his daddy-love to all those night feedings...and now my husband knows a little more about what the severe sleep deprivation is like (on the negative side) and also what the intense bond is like (on the positive side).

Cindy said...

A friend sent me the link to your blog, and it's just what I needed to read. I have an almost 2 month old daughter that I am breastfeeding. I breastfed my son for a month, and basically starved him - tho I didn't know it at the time. I thought all babies cried day and night. I was determined to make breastfeeding work the second time, and it has. But, now I think my body is failing me again, and the same issues are coming up.

It's a lot to breastfeed. It's not as easy as just stick her on the boob and she'll know what to do. I know sometimes I stare at my husband in the middle of the night and shoot mental daggers at him because the baby is up again and needs to eat. My birthday was a few weeks ago. I asked for 8 hours of sleep. And I was somewhat serious.

Anonymous said...

I read this post and the article when I was at my WITS FREAKING END this morning with the baby.

Then I breastfed him and he shut his yapper for 10 minutes.

I go back and forth, but at least for first baby I think i'll stick with the boob...though I do have to say sitting in a bathroom stall and nursing is the least classy thing I've done in a while, and it's happening more and more

grammalouie said...

This post resonates with me too even though I last nursed a baby (you) thirty-some years ago.
I think of my life divided up in portions that are mostly determined by my children and their ages and stages.
Likewise, I can divide up my marriage of forty-four(yikes) years into stages that might go something like this:
(1) before kids
(2) children have arrived and are little and dependent
(3) children are still around and are bigger and trying to be less dependent
(4) children are no bigger but a lot less dependent, moving towards complete independence (and, may I say, individuation).
(5) children are living hundreds, even thousands of miles away with partners and are even PARENTS THEMSELVES.
(6) Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we parents, we married couple people, are moving through our own life cycles and now find ourselves in senior-citizenhood, of all things.But before we reached this stage of our lives, we have probably had several "marriages" largely determined by the lives of our children. Each of my two children has altered my life in enormous and indescribable ways, all wonderful, by the way. There is nothing I would change and nothing I regret.

See how fast it all happens!
To back up a little (or a lot), the current fad of saying "we are pregnant" interests me because, of course, from a biological standpoint there is one and only one person who is truly pregnant and that, guess who, is the WOMAN. You never hear someone saying "we are breastfeeding"(or do you??)
Those two biological functions in many ways define us as women. They define us but can also contain us; they contain us but also offer a sense of power and freedom not gotten anywhere else. For many (but certainly not all) women, giving birth and nursing their babies is fulfilling their biological destiny.I happily fall into that group of women.

Kathi McCracken Dente said...

I hear ya! I am a believer in breast feeding and am planning on doing it for a year. But breastfeeding is tougher than people make it out to be. I often feel trapped by the fact I cannot really get away, sleep or turn off and won't be able to for about a year. Tessa comes with me everywhere and Mira knows that. But it is starting to get ridiculous. Tessa came to my preschool parents meeting and will come to our anniversary dinner because she is known to refuse bottles and cry for hours. But It has been 2 years since I stopped breast feeding Mira and I have only left her for 24 hours. So I need to be careful not to blame too much on the breastfeeding. I also know breastfeeding will be one of those things like Marie Green said that I will miss when it is gone.

grammalouie said...

One more thing to add to my previous comment: whatever stage of life you are in at this moment, it will really and truly be over before you know it. We are moving* forward all the time, like it or not. A year of nursing? Nine months of pregnancy? Two years of nursing? Poof, it's gone. And onto the next and the next......

*some of us stride and some of us tiptoe forward. I do both but strive for striding.

clueless but hopeful mama said...

Thank you all so much for your comments, it's been so interesting to talk to other mothers about this.

While I am so grateful that I can breastfeed and will willingly continue to do so, I still find myself interested in the choice and all its ramifications. Feminism, to me, is about choice after all.

parking at home- HAHAHA! I have done my fair share of nursing on the toilet. That's something you never read about in the books!

Marie Green and Hillary- love your thoughts on equality in marriage. A thorny subject but one worth talking- and blogging- about.

Good Enough Mom- I was thinking about how "free" breastfeeding really is when, not only is my time not free, but I also have to add up nursing tanks and bras, a daily supply of nursing pads, a pump, bottles, a hooter hider etc. etc.etc. NOT SO FREE.

Good Enough Mom said...

One of my close friends tells stories about being sick, and nursing her baby while she was puking in the toilet...that image is one I'll never forget...what women go through...

Maria Blois, MD said...

i hear you on how hard it is to take care of a newborn. no argument there! what i don't agree with is that breastfeeding is necessarily the problem.

the problem with this argument is that it is suggesting that the alternative to "breastfeeding" (too much time! too much money!) is "not breastfeeding" (more time to myself, not spent on that pesky feeding the baby issue! less money spent!) but this is not true. no matter what you choose, you still have to feed your baby. the alternative to breastfeeding is to bottlefeed using artificial milk and you can bet that you will still spend lots of time doing that and is sure isn't free! in fact, some would argue that it takes more time to bottlefeed a baby what with the actual time spent feeding the baby plus all the prep and clean up time.

and while *theoretically* bottlefeeding frees your husband up to do the late night feedings and create an equal partnership and all, how often does this really happen? any one care to chime in?

i guess what i am trying to say is that parenting a tiny baby is hard work no matter how you cut it.

if breastfeeding costs you too much personally, by all means choose a different way to feed your baby, but don't think for a minute that the new way to feed your baby won't cost you anything, it will just be different "costs."

we are all hardworking mamas no matter how we choose to feed our babies!

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