The last time I breastfed my first child, I bawled. Unbeknownst to my 13-month-old, I was about to disappear for several days, a last-resort measure to terminate a relationship that was marked by inadequate milk supply, sleepless nights, blocked ducts and metabolic chaos.
She was frustrated, I was frustrated, I was losing more weight than was healthy and I had a job interview in a week. It was taking a huge toll on everyone. Heaving with sadness and guilt, I finally agreed to go cold-turkey.
I took solace in the thought that I would one day breastfeed another baby, and never let it come to this again.
Type a few words into your favourite search engine and you'll find endless talk about breastfeeding. After decades of formula-pushing, the pendulum of public health and opinion today tilts decidedly more toward nursing, but extreme boob-boosters (or "lactivists") like La Leche League have been criticized for shoddy science and insensitivity to women's differing needs and means.
Skeptics have had their biology called into question and been accused of prioritizing work and independence over love and health. The politics of gender are all over it, but the lines aren't neat: there are plenty of feminists on both sides.
When my second daughter was born, she started nursing almost before they had cut the umbilical cord. I was elated. Her gentle tugging miraculously yielded nutrition; her body and our bond grew in tandem, and for the first time I truly understood the adage that food is love.
I felt indebted to the pro-breastmilk movement for de-stigmatizing this most primal activity and enabling women to freely lift their shirts in public and request space to pump at work. At the same time I wasn't doing it for any specifiable reason. The value of breastfeeding is neither purely sentimental nor can it be quantified by clinical trials. For me, as for many women, it was just instinctive.
But the mantra "breast is best" can be as punishing as it is liberating. I had desperately wanted to be my first baby's exclusive food source, and the clunkiness of our supply and demand chain had left me feeling woefully inadequate. I had sought the assistance of lactation experts, who outfitted me with tubes and little vials of formula. They cut her frenulum, which was attached too close to the opening of her mouth, and I ingested copious doses of herbs to boost lactation. "Do you smell like curry yet?" one of my midwives asked. That would be the sign of herbal saturation.
To be free of all such interventions with my second child, to breastfeed on her cue without anyone squeezing my nipples or assessing her latch... this was a gift I would not soon relinquish.
"Boob" was one of her first words. By 10 months, she stood in her crib at night swatting away my husband and demanding her mammalian birthright.
The transition to solids was rocky. She categorically refused to have spoonfuls of mush shoved into her mouth, instead grabbing at whatever interested her and spilling it creatively on the floor. I later found out this is called "baby-led weaning."
We followed folk advice to tantalize her with rich foods. No dice. For months she rejected almost everything but fruit. "No cheese. BOOBY!" (Her most useful word had expanded to two syllables). We tried distraction. "Where's the train?" She's no dummy. "BOOBY!" she cried. "Please," she sometimes added for manipulative emphasis.
In some cultures weaning is accomplished abruptly at a prescribed time. The mother will put chili on her breast or scare the baby to break the positive association. I was still racked with guilt for having abandoned my first daughter without warning, and the weeks of turtle-necks and denial that followed. I was determined to do it gently this time.
"As a feminist I believe that women should have meaningful choices about their bodies. Nobody tells you that sometimes the arc of the breastfeeding relationship just isn't up to you."
But how do you gently withdraw your child's greatest comfort? What could justify saying "no" to her lustful demand at one moment and "yes" at another?
All the blathering about the pros and cons of breastfeeding was useless when it came to weaning.
I could not end the milk economy with the flick of a switch. I was producing far too much milk, for one thing. And whatever my intentions, I would sometimes find my daughter unceremoniously deposited in front of my chest when others tired of creating boob-free amusement.
Meanwhile, the lactation experts who had been so helpful in establishing breastfeeding did not provide support for how to discontinue it. They fed me literature on the health benefits of breastfeeding toddlers and I learned what a cultural idiosyncrasy it is for the mother to presume that she gets to decide when to stop. (So selfish!) Apparently some primates breastfeed until nearly adolescence.
I ran to the parenting bookstore and picked up a promising-sounding volume with the words "gentle" and "weaning" in the title. Due to minutiae of childhood development and various theories about attachment, the authors advised to not even bother trying between the ages of 12 and 18 months. Some kids wean themselves, and the rest should be indulged until they're older.
I listened in wonder to friends' stories of uneventful dénouements to the breastfeeding relationship, or ones that the child initiated. "She broke up with me," one friend said, slightly wistfully, of her daughter.
As my little one passed the year-and-a-half mark, the demand for the breast only became more insistent and more frequent. Although she had mastered the word "Mommy" by now, she had begun to use "booby" in the vocative. My breasts were my name.
I was starting to feel embarrassed about being tackled and undressed as soon as I picked her up from daycare, while the other children ran up to their parents for clothed hugs.
The last straw was our winter holiday. Booby all through the seven-hour plane ride. Booby all through the jet-lagged nights. Booby in elegant cafés and on picturesque Alpine perches. I thought this kid would never let go. Despondent, I began to resign myself to another sudden severing of the breast connection.
In the end, we didn't have to separate: we muscled through a gradual reduction in feedings and I felt good about giving her alternative comforts and avoiding subterfuge. We got down to three times a day, and then two.
But the morning and bedtime feeds were sacred. She was wild with indignation at having them retracted, knowing full well that I was in the house. I second-guessed myself, wondering if ripping the Band-Aid off would have been better after all. By the second hour of hearing her scream "BOO-BY!!!", her little toddler brain frantically searching for less ambiguous words, I seriously considered going back to unlimited feeding.
The texture of these difficult moments is not captured by the ideological advocacy of breastfeeding, nor by its detractors. Feeding another human being from your body is an intimate relationship. It's not a calculation about proteins and antibodies, or a theoretical reflection on women's role in contemporary society. It is the ecstatic fulfillment of emotional and physical union, and then the slow, largely non-verbal process of negotiating boundaries, moving from total attachment to tentative new independence.
Last week I breastfed my second child for the last time. I don't feel guilty, but nor do I feel exactly empowered. As a feminist I believe that women should have meaningful choices about their bodies and be supported whatever they choose. Nobody tells you that sometimes the arc of the breastfeeding relationship just isn't up to you.
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In June, Florida mom Nichole Moore was kicked out of a psychiatrist’s office after she began breastfeeding her eight-month-old daughter during an appointment. “He said that by me nursing her, I wouldn't be giving him my full attention,” the mother explained. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me?!' I can do both, and I told him that I've never had an issue multi-tasking in any appointment ever!” Full story here.
Back in March, Virgin Australia allegedly called the police on a mom after she refused to stop breastfeeding her 10-month-old son as the plane taxied down the runway. Despite wearing a cover and having her son secured in a baby sling, mom Virginie Rutgers and her baby were forced off the aircraft and had to take a different flight home. Following the incident, Virgin Australia said Rutgers was ejected from the flight because she refused to secure her baby in a seat belt, not because she was breastfeeding. Full story here.
Mom-of-two Caroline Hoffman was at LA Fitness in Georgia this past September when her seven-month-old son began to get hungry. Hoffman then went into a stall in the women’s locker room to nurse him. Soon after, an employee told her to leave. “I had no idea any rule was broken,” the mom told The Huffington Post. “I came out to the front right away and apologized to the staff for my mistake, even though, as it turns out I was not in the wrong, and I should have been allowed back there.” Hoffman was then offered two options: nurse in the washrooms of the “Kids Klub” or on a chair by the front entrance. The mom was not a fan of either option, so she asked if she could nurse in a corner of the children’s area, but was denied. The gym manager later apologized to the mother. Full story here.
When Holly Treddenick started to breastfeed her baby at a restaurant in Wiarton, Ont., back in July, her actions seemingly upset two men who were dining nearby. A staff member then told the mother to leave. “She told me I should have asked her first, I was uncourteous, that I was offending the patrons and that I had to leave,” Treddenick explained in a Facebook post. “I started to pack up, then the owner came out. He backed up what she said, but added they had a private area for breastfeeding and I should have asked. I told him they were wrong, that I had the right to nurse my baby anywhere. He disagreed and I left.” Full story here.
In September, Oregon mom Karina Gomez was shamed for nursing her baby in Marshalls. In a viral Facebook post, the mother wrote: “Yes, this is me sitting on a toilet feeding my sweet, Katalina Maria, after I was denied my right to breastfeed where I wanted to by a #marshalls employee. I was denied to breastfeed in a dressing room, instead I was directed to a bathroom stall to breastfeed. “What a way to treat breastfeeding customers, shaming them for breastfeeding, making them feel embarrassed that you need to feed your child. I am angry, upset, but more so humiliated. My rights have been violated.” Marshalls later apologized to the mother and told The Huffington Post that this was an unfortunate incident. “We have a breastfeeding policy in place which instructs Associates to allow customers to breastfeed as they choose within stores,” a spokesperson said. “We have looked into this matter and regret that it may not have been followed in this instance.” Full story here.
An Indiana mom says she was escorted out of church for breastfeeding her baby. “The staff member came up to me and gave a few options: cover up, go to the bathroom (or) the nursery, or leave,” Tayna Ogle said. “Breastfeeding is not a sexual thing, women should not feel shamed or embarrassed to nurse where they need to.” Following the incident, Grace Community Church released a statement saying, “We not only welcome nursing mothers and their babies, but provide optional nursing amenities for the comfort of the mother and child.” Full story here.
In July, mom Raven Dibble was told to leave a Wisconsin postal building two days in a row because she was breastfeeding her three-week-old daughter. According to Dibble, she was told to cover up and a postal worker called her “indecent” for nursing in public. “I'm not standing up for my own right to breastfeed my child,” the mother said. “I'm standing up for other women to breastfeed their child. I'm standing up for those children, my daughter, her right to eat.” A spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service later issued a statement apologizing. Full story here.
In October, Phoenix mom Mariana Hannaman was told she could not pump breast milk in the airplane bathroom of her American Airlines flight from Chicago to Phoenix. After the mom had been pumping in the bathroom for about 10 minutes, a flight attendant knocked on the door and demanded she stop and leave. “I opened the door, with the pump still attached to my breasts and she looked down and then said ‘What are you doing, you can’t do that here. You’re taking too long, there’s other passengers,’” the mom recalled. Following the incident, the airline apologized to Hannaman, explaining that the flight attendant’s “actions were not in line with the company's policies.” Full story here.