Before the babies -- in the days when my breasts tended more toward plaything than all you can eat buffet -- I hadn’t thought a lot about breastfeeding. I intended to try it, I hoped it wouldn’t be too painful, and I hoped the baby and I would get the hang of it quickly, but on the whole, given the hours I spent poring over books on pregnancy, the all-important time spent contemplating the epidural, it seems ridiculous, in hindsight, that I didn’t really think about breastfeeding.
And the babe was born (without an epidural, incidentally), and he was placed to my breast and everything went… perfectly. He latched. He latched again. It didn’t hurt very much. He ate a LOT, but he ate well. He gained quickly and thrived. OK, yeah, there was that brutal couple of weeks of engorgement where our house constantly smelled of rotting cabbage, but on the whole… piece of cake. Right? Not right. The problem was… I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all. To my shock and dismay, breastfeeding became the locus for all of my ambivalence about motherhood and all my rage about gender roles, wrapped up in the “perfectly balanced nourishing meal for baby!”
Breast is best…
Before I had the baby, I was already vaguely concerned about the aggressiveness of marketing campaigns around breastfeeding, as well as the strange contradictions between the fervency with which breast was presented as best and the outright hostility to breastfeeding that I perceived the rest of the time. Our office had a nursing room, a sequestered windowless chamber in the back of the building with a shabby glider rocker and a change table. My nursing friends would heave their enormous strollers through elevators while their babies screamed on the way to the nursing room in the shopping mall. On the rare occasion that I saw a mother nursing in public, she looked guarded and tired.
If I had any concerns around the “Breast is Best” message that was looming from every wall of the health centre where I worked, it was simply that the message went unsupported in practical, concrete ways. Everything was designed to prevent me from breastfeeding: the lack of comfortable space, the modesty concerns of my parents and other family, the big box of formula that had arrived on my doorstep in my last month of pregnancy. As a feminist, I could see the problem with the campaign only in terms that spoke to the contradiction between the message of “breast is best” and the obvious low priority placed on breastfeeding in virtually every way. By having a midwife, by surrounding myself with family and friends and defiantly refusing to be sequestered each time my baby needed to eat, I would make sure that breast was best for us. But there we were, months later, with ample support and nursing well established and I was still unhappy. I was on maternity leave and didn’t need to worry about pumping at work. I was comfortable and experienced enough to nurse wherever I needed to. And I still didn’t like it very much. What was wrong with me?
The problem was: breastfeeding was not best for us: it was best for him. It really wasn’t all that great for me. Oh, there were aspects of it that I liked, in terms of convenience and the snuggling time… but those reasons would probably have made me enjoy nursing once or twice a day. Maybe three times. I wasn’t really getting the joy of nursing the ten or thirty times a day, and night, that my little one seemed to require. On a mundane level, my breasts were slightly sore and bruised feeling. I still struggled with engorgement periodically. And while I had lovingly embraced my ripe pregnant body, my nursing body seemed overripe, unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Through the wintertime, I was often cold and resented the draftiness of breastfeeding.
Ultimately, however, I suppose that I most resented the ways that breastfeeding made me indispensable. No bottles for my boy -- not because I was afraid of the dreaded nipple confusion, but rather because he was a discriminating gourmand who would only take his nectar from the source, thank you very much. Coupled with the fact that he hated solid food, I was intractably tethered for nearly a year. Now, undoubtedly some parenting models, particularly attachment parenting, would tout that as a benefit of breastfeeding, that the biological connection of mother and child ought to be one of indispensability. Although I tend toward attachment parenting in many respects, however, I am very uncomfortable with the extent to which such philosophies tend to promote child-centeredness at the expense of mothers. I certainly didn’t think my child should crawl to the fridge to fix his own bottle in the middle of the night, but I did think that perhaps it would be nice if Dad could feed him for a change.
Ultimately, it was this seemingly undiscussed contradiction between child-centeredness and feminism that led to my deep ambivalence about breastfeeding.
“I’d feed him if I could!” said my partner and my mom. But they couldn’t. And so, from the earliest moments of his life, Noah and I were indelibly cemented together. What does it do to gender equality when a birth mother is immediately indispensable to her child? Can a balanced approach to parenting ever emerge from such a beginning? When Noah was two weeks old, and was sleeping for no more than twenty minutes at a time, my midwife suggested that I connect with another mother who was struggling with breastfeeding. I phoned Heather who was at the end of her rope, cracked, bleeding, and completely overwhelmed. “Even the midwives think I need to give up!” she wept. And so she did. She put her son on formula and he thrived. He quickly dropped to four or five feedings a day, and although I am certain that it was coincidence that he was the only child in our group to sleep through the night at two months, I found myself in the grip of a strange emotion. Heather struggled because she was not able to provide the “best” food for her son. But I struggled because I wanted the convenience and -- let’s face it -- the sleep, that I could see occurring in my friend’s family. I felt that Heather and her partner had a more equal approach to parenting their son because his most basic need could be met by both parents.
At the core of my concern, beyond the issues of discomfort and inconvenience was this: I hated the fact that in the first months of my son’s life, I was undoubtedly the only parent that really mattered. I hated the precedent that it set, I hated the extent to which it bought into gender norms that I spent the rest of my life trying to overthrow. I could live with discomfort for the relatively short time I would spend nursing my babies, but the far reaching implications of our roots of indispensability made me fearful that the reality of shared parenting was a myth. Ultimately, the baby was mine, to be returned to me whenever he was truly hungry (or simply unhappy, or needed to sleep, because breastfeeding serves so many more roles than simply that of sating hunger). Through his nourishment, I became my son’s source of comfort in ways that make our relationship, three years later, distinct. Author Catherine Newman observes a similar dynamic in her family, musing that, “There's no doubt that Michael is the better parent. Which makes this next thing I'm going to say all the more peculiar: At night? At night the children, well, they hate Michael. They loathe him. They treat him like he's a hideous stranger who's broken into the house to give them extra vaccinations and force-feed them hardboiled eggs.” Newman goes on to say, “I think that some primal thing returns at night: I nursed them, and now I'm the night person. The comfort person. The long hair is part of it, but really, I think it's just the way I smell.”1
Undoubtedly my partner and I would have had different relationships with our children, because we are different people. But the extent to which Mama is the solace, the comfort and the rock, particularly in the middle of the night, feels like it plays to the most basic of gender stereotypes. I will never be sure, but I wonder if not nursing would have made any difference. And although I believe that the gender dynamics created by breastfeeding could be minimized in an environment that was much more genuinely supportive of breastfeeding (as opposed to one which simply strongly encourages mothers to do so with no real supports in place), I find it hard to imagine the context that would allow me live in a heterosexual relationship and nurse exclusively for six months without playing into regressive gender roles. As someone committed to raising my children in a feminist way, I am concerned about what I teach them by my indispensability, by the frantic arrangements that need to be made for Mama to take some time out.