I have a lot of mom friends who cringe a little when the topic of breastfeeding comes up.
They’ll smile politely and say that they tried breastfeeding, but for one reason or another, which they go on to explain, it didn’t work. Maybe it was milk supply, or a baby who wouldn’t latch. Maybe they were exhausted, or it was painful, or they just couldn’t make it work and didn’t have any help.
Whatever reason they give, I usually launch into a little diatribe.
Breastfeeding, I say, is a real pain in the ass. First of all, no one likes to tell you that the first week or so is really hard. Everyone keeps saying, “Just wait until your milk comes in,” but when? When? When your baby is crying and you’re exhausted from trying to nurse for the millionth time that day, and you start to feel that terrible fear that you’re a horrible mother who’s starving her baby or that you won’t be able to breastfeed. Eventually it gets a bit easier for most people, but that first week is enough to put the fear of God into you.
Second, it creates an unequal division of labor between you and your partner. You cannot outsource your breasts. There is only you. And yes, there’s the breast pump, but it’s you who has to pump it. You are the kid’s lifeline. You cannot escape, at least not without a lot of planning ahead. Not only does this suck on a regular basis, but it sets up a world where you, as the mother, are the primary parent. Our culture is already set up this way, and it’s hard enough to fight it without the biological fact that the baby sucks its life force from your body.
Breasteeding is often exhausting, physically and emotionally. There are health benefits to being a well-rested, happy mother, ones that far outweigh that of breast milk.
Third, breastfeeding is overrated. Have you heard all the stuff about how it makes your baby smarter and healthier and everything? Of course you have. It’s everywhere. Except, it’s a little bit of a lie. The thing is, they can’t put women into double blind trials and forbid half of them to breastfeed. It’s unethical. So when they measure how kids are doing, they can’t really separate the effects of having the kind of mother who would breastfeed (likely wealthier, more educated, older and married) from breastfeeding itself. And when they do do that with statistical models, the benefits of breastfeeding are still there, but they’re slight.
At this point in the conversation, I refer my buddy to “The Case Against Breastfeeding,” a fabulous article by my lady-crush and reporter/superhero, Hanna Rosin. Read it, I say, and you’ll feel better. It’s all there in black and white. Sure, breastfeeding is good, but it’s not the end all, be all of being a mom.
It feels a little funny to go on and on about how terrible breastfeeding is because I breastfeed. I plan to continue for at least a year, if not longer. I love breastfeeding. I love the bond it’s created between me and my son. I love knowing that every little fat roll I see on Teddy, I created. I love that when he is upset, he comes to me to nurse because it’s comforting to him. I’m happy that I’m able to help his immune system and make him less prone to allergies. I’m glad I waded through the first part and was able to continue. Whereas in the first weeks, I dreaded a hungry baby who wanted to nurse again, now, I look forward to the time to stop, sit still and cuddle my little one. I’m grateful that I got the help and support I needed to keep going.
But I also believe every word of my diatribe. Because there’s too much propaganda out there, and it’s being launched on a very sensitive group of people. Why don’t you want to do what’s best for your baby? Listen, propaganda-makers. There are probably a few mothers out there who actually don’t care about their child’s welfare, a handful in billions. Everyone else spends nearly every waking moment evaluating themselves, wondering if they’re doing a good job. And they are. They’re working their asses off. So cut them some slack, eh?
Sometimes, it just becomes impossible to breastfeed. That doesn’t make a woman selfish or mean or a bad mother. We have to stop framing breastfeeding as a moral obligation. We talk about the “right to breastfeed,” and that should definitely include the time, space and support for every woman who wants to do it, but it should also include a firm understanding that it doesn’t always work out, and that’s OK. It also must include the right not to breastfeed. The same circles who believe in a “woman’s right to choose” seem to forget that when it comes to choosing how she wants to parent. Let’s champion supporting mothers for whatever decision is right for them and their family.
So if you breastfeed, great. And if you want to keep doing it until your kid is 10 years old, who am I to judge? (Seriously, who are all these people who care? If it’s not your breast that’s feeding the child, what do you have to complain about?!?) And if you wanted to and it didn’t work for you, I’m sorry because that’s probably painful. But I support you and your choices. If you never wanted to breastfeed, I envy your freedom and your ability to ignore the enormous social pressure to do so. That takes guts, and it’s the kind of guts that I bet makes you an amazing mother.