Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Facing the Costs of Nursing

Many other folks have weighed in on Hanna Rosin's article The Case Against Breastfeeding, including both Amy and Marc at Equally Shared Parenting and Lisa Belkin at Motherlode, so I'm a little late to the party. But I can't let the article go by without making some comment, because it is an important issue that is difficult to talk about.

First, I want to say, "Thank you Hanna Rosin." Thank you for saying what I've been afraid to say of a couple of years now. Thank you for pointing out the sexism in the attachment parenting philosophy (especially as promoted by Doctor Sears). Thank you for a thoughtful look at statistics, which as a mathematics educator I appreciate. I am a little miffed about the title of your article, but I'm going to blame that on an overzealous editor. The point isn't to make a case against breastfeeding, but, rather, to take the rose-colored glasses off of the choice for breastfeeding. While it has many advantages, breastfeeding also has disadvantages: it can sideline non-nursing parents and make it difficult to share the work of caring for a baby, it can be painful and difficult, and it can be incompatible with working.

As a university instructor with a private office, I still found pumping to be a challenge -- I can't imagine trying to pump if I didn't have a completely flexible schedule and my own office with a locking door. Still, I nursed for 14 months and pumped for 9 or 10 of those months. My daughter's lips never touched formula. Why? Sure, nursing saves money, but it didn't for us. Between pumping supplies and medical complications, I'd say any money we saved was marginal. Yes, nursing provides a way to bond and be close with a baby, but I saw my wife create that same intimate environment through bottle feeding. Absolutely, I think nursing was a wonderful experience that brought my daughter and I closer, but it was also a frustrating and upsetting experience for both of us that at times seemed to drive us apart. Yes, nursing melted away my pregnancy weight (and allowed me to eat anything), but it also cracked my nipples and caused me to develop a painful breast abscess that left me with a scar. Sure, my daughter has enjoyed great health during her 2.5 years, but most of the bottle-fed babies I know have also been very healthy, and some of the breastfed babies I know have not.

For me, every positive aspect of nursing has an equally strong negative shadow. Looking back, I wonder why I nursed for so long. Even more, I wonder why I nursed exclusively. My wife and I had so many stressful conversations about whether I had pumped enough at work that day and whether she could feed the baby now or should try to wait until I got home. Why didn't we just give her some formula? Guilt. And the need to be perfect parents. Like Hanna Rosin, Lyn and I live in a community where breastfeeding is the norm, and where women who cannot nurse usually feel sad or guilty. We are also a two-mom family, and we have unspoken fears lingering in dark places within us that our family, with it's missing father, is deficient. Thus we have to make sure that we are above reproach in all other ways. I still feel occasionally defensive that Leigh and I stopped our nursing dance at 14 months. I was wildly happy to be done, but was I supposed to push for more? After all, many of my friends nursed for much longer.

We're expecting another child in June, so we have a chance to do it over. How will we change things this time? Instead of backup up and deciding maybe some formula is OK, we're going for the four-breast treatment. I'm inducing lactation, so this new baby will hopefully be able to nurse with both it's mommies. Perhaps it will be twice as healthy and twice as smart for all our trouble. I have only one good reason for my choice -- I want to be able to share the care of our new baby more equitably with Lyn. As I've said before, I struggled with nursing, and I'm feeling more anxiety than excitement at the prospect of nursing another baby. But I'm still taking hormones each day, and taking medication to stimulate lactation four times a day. When the baby comes, I'll be pumping while the baby snuggles up to nurse. Every time. Even at night. So I'm already going deep into the minus column in order to nurse this baby. I'm excited at the prospect of getting to share the feeding responsibilities with Lyn, but it remains to be seen if the results will be worth all the effort, or if I'll be wondering why we just didn't relax and use formula.


giggleblue said...

you bring up a lot of excellent points. i think that this subject is something that is so different for everyone but i believe that everyone should have the right to do what feels best for them and not feel guilt about their decision.

the breastfeeding community has had their day. and some of them, although passionate, are down right arrogant about what they see their act as being. you have to put their comments in perspective and try your best not to feed into the guilt.

Lyn said...

The decisions around feeding can be so fraught, and Gail is right that perhaps it doesn't have to be that way. I know that I was the source of a lot of that pressure in our own family last time. That said, I'm not sure how to let it go. Maybe we'll do better this time since we've done it before in some form, but maybe not, since I still feel very adament about nursing this baby exclusively, partially because it was hard for me not to be nursing Leigh the last time.

I remember making sure that when I took Leigh to a new parents or moms group on my own, I gave her milk from a medela bottle that had a date written on it in masking tape, expressly so that the other parents would know it was breast milk. And still, some piece of me worried that they thought I was feeding pumped because I was embarrassed to nurse in public. I'm not proud of this now. I clearly bought into the whole feeding hierarchy, and was trying to situate myself as close to the "top" as I could without being able to nurse, and I don't think that's healthy at all. But I was also responding to very real, and damaging, social messages about what constitutes true "mothering." I didn't cook up those pressures out of thin air.

Wow, this got long. Maybe it should have been a post.

Denise said...

Awesome - inducing lactation, brilliant! I cannot wait to hear how it turns out.

Casey from said...

I am a little late here... The biggest problem I have is that all anyone ever talks about is how hard breastfeeding and pumping can be. I understand that it is hard for some, but I nearly didn't even try it because of everyone else's struggles and when I actually tried it has been incredibly easy for us. Pumping is super easy for me and feeding has been no problem (minus a bit of soreness). I feel sad that I almost missed out on this because I had no idea that it could be this way. Of course, we are only 2 weeks into it, it may get complicated, but so far, it has been an incredibly amazing and easy experience. I haven't felt for a second that the burden falls more on me, as my wife gets up for every feeding to help with positioning and diaper changes etc.
I just wonder how many women are turned away from trying breastfeeding because of all the talk of struggle.

I am not saying that we shouldn't talk about our struggles, we should! But rather, those who have had it good need to speak up too.

Lyn said...

CCB-- Glad to see you here and to hear how well things are going! And I'm all for folks telling success stories of all kinds. I think the same kind of silencing can happen around birth. Folks who have a relatively easy time don't tend to speak up.

You know, it's funny, because a lot comes down to perspective. When Leigh was tiny, I felt like all anyone ever talked about was how satisfying and beautiful and wonderful nursing was (nevermind that I was all-too-familiar with Gail's famous abscess, so I knew it wasn't all perfection all the time). Of course, I'm sure plenty of people were complaining, but it was the "I'm-so-bonded-with-my-baby-and-I could-never-be-so-connected-without-nursing" stories that popped out at me, precisely because I was *not* nursing Leigh and some part of me a) wished I was and b) felt defensive that I wasn't. And yes, we ended up bonding just fine.

I'm glad you three seem to be off to a good start (and most importantly, one that feels like it is working for all of you)