The Not-So-Magical Mom Milk
To paraphrase a dear, funny friend of mine, paraphrasing dear, funny author David Sedaris – you should write about something only once you think it’s funny.
I think it’s time to write about breastfeeding.
Lest I set you up improperly, this isn’t meant to be a gut-busting post. But the beauty of waiting until you think something is funny is that, at minimum, you aren’t going to set fire to your computer or get tear-salt stuck in your keys while you recount the experience.
So. Breastfeeding. Here’s what we know:
We’re told that breastfed children experience everything from fewer allergies to higher IQ. In reality, there’s very little evidence that breastfeeding improves long-term outcomes for children. When they’re babies, breastfed kids may have slightly less bouts of diarrhea and ear infections than non-breastfed kids, but we’re talking a single-digit reduction in likelihoods. And let’s be honest, when there’s a trail of poop from the car to the garage, through the backyard, into the house, and all the way to the bathtub, there’s not a huge difference between 12 diarrhea poops and 13.
There is real evidence that breastfeeding results in a sizable (20-30%) reduction in risk of breast cancer in women who do it for longer than 12 months.
(For citations and more on this topic, as well as some nice debunks of guilt trips around Sleep Training and Working Moms, see this NY Times piece on The Data All Guilt-Ridden Parents Need.)
But when Joe and I took a breastfeeding preparation class when I was pregnant, we left with the understanding that breastmilk is The Ultimate Magic Elixir. And that it would help cure our child of any daycare ailment whilst prepping her to be smart, strong, kind, caring, successful, and super-human in most ways.
As life progressed, we had to come to terms with the knowledge that breastmilk is one potential ingredient of many potential ingredients in the much larger recipe for helping a baby thrive.
And when I say “come to terms,” I mean come. to. terms. My brief but tortured experience with breastfeeding no longer feels like the single biggest failure of my life but – it’s up there.
(The “coming to terms” thing is an ongoing thing.)
I think it’s important to talk about this stuff, because I don’t think many of us anticipate how physically and emotionally complex it actually is. And it’s something a lot of women deal with on their own – in the middle of the night, attached to a machine, while exhaustedly poking, prodding, and coaxing what feels like bruised rocks out of their boobs.
My Mom Crew used to call that last part Boob Maintenance. Every mom’s experience with Boob Maintenance is different – but it may or may not include: heating, cooling, pressing, rubbing, and squeezing clogged ducts and milk blisters; making and applying custom ointments to your cracked, blistery nipples, comprised of all kinds of weird stuff you’re pretty sure your baby can’t put in their mouth; creating little tents in your shirts and bras to avoid any/all contact with fabric or – god forbid – water; and ongoing pumping sessions that simultaneously relieve built-up pressure and stimulate more pressure to build up.
And that doesn’t include actually feeding the babe.
I’m going to pause here and acknowledge a couple things:
1. I clearly tried to breastfeed. Many women don’t or can’t in the first place. Major, major props to the woman who stays tuned in with her own body, brain, and needs while helping a newborn thrive.
2. Breastfeeding is universally challenging, during at least some point in the process. I haven’t met a mom yet who disputes that. But many moms ultimately find it to be a beautiful and fulfilling experience that they can maintain for months or years.
My limited experience wasn’t beautiful.
Here’s the thing about my sweet, funny, stubborn, curious, ball-loving little boy – he tried to flip my nipples inside-out while he ate. It was freaking terrible.
When, at our lactation consultant’s advice, I begrudgingly paused breastfeeding after two weeks in order to let myself heal for a bit, I did it with the depressing realization that it was the end of the road for me. Over the following weeks, I tried keeping up with Mars by exclusively pumping – but Joe was back at school at that point, so Mars and I spent our days with me attached to the pump and him lying next to me, whimpering and waiting. When we hit a stage where I couldn’t hold him because my chest was in so much pain, I called it for good. It took another three weeks of periodic pumping and stuffing my bra with ice cold cabbage to fully wean (DM me and I will happily extol the virtues of cold cabbage to you).
I remember my (honestly amazing) husband telling me week five that he wanted Mars to have breastmilk for at least six months, and that if he were in my position, he would tough it out.
I remember a nurse on the other end of a help line asking me repeatedly if I was “sure I wanted to stop” when I called her, sobbing, asking for weaning advice.
I remember people I’m close with telling me they thought I’d “just chosen not to breastfeed” in ways that made me feel selfish and weak.
I remember looking at my beautiful, healthy, incredibly fast-growing boy, and thinking, “I thought I’d be able to do anything for you.”
The realization that you can’t live up to your own expectations of motherhood, let alone anyone else’s, is powerful. It socks you in the gut. It forces you to acknowledge your own humanness, which is counter to the “Mom as Superhero” myth you’ve been sold.
But “Mom as Human” is a far more interesting character. She’s compelling. She’s unpredictable. She’s experiencing some stuff. And her relationship with her kid isn’t defined by the kind of liquid he drinks.
So, whoever you are, if you have thoughts about breastfeeding and they’re anything other than, “It seems like one of many great options,” I encourage you to find another self-talk track. Because moms are hard enough on themselves to begin with.
We’re doing just fine.