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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