tried to eat the safe banana (thefourthvine) wrote,
tried to eat the safe banana

[Earthling] Breastfeeding at Three Years. No, Really.

(Now unlocked!)

  • You have to breastfeed.
  • You have to breastfeed until the baby is six months.
  • You have to breastfeed until he's seven months.
  • You have to breastfeed until he's one.
  • You have to breastfeed until he's two.
  • You should breastfeed until he's four.
  • You should wean at nine months.
  • You should wean at one year.
  • You have to wean by eighteen months.
  • Every baby should be weaned by two.
  • The baby will wean himself when he's ready.
  • Extended breastfeeding leads to secure attachment.
  • Extended breastfeeding leads to over-attachment.
  • Extended breastfeeding leads to improved behavior.
  • Extended breastfeeding causes behavior problems.
  • Extended breastfeeding makes your baby smarter.
  • Extended breastfeeding causes developmental delay.
  • You shouldn't breastfeed a baby with feeding problems, even if he can.
  • You're causing feeding problems by breastfeeding.
  • A baby with feeding problems needs to be breastfed more than the average baby.
All of these things were said to me at some point in the last four years by at least one healthcare professional. (I'm not even including all the crap I've heard from people who don't have relevant degrees, mostly because it would fill a book. Although I tell you what: it would be a funny book.) I've learned to largely ignore healthcare professionals when it comes to breastfeeding, yes, for obvious reasons, but also because of the one thing I've learned from being a mother and from talking to other parents, which is:

You have to feed the baby you have.

That is the only real rule about feeding that I know. You have to feed your baby. Not the fantasy baby you had in your head before yours was born. Not an ideal baby. Not the one the books talk about. Not your best friend's baby. Your personal, actual baby. Some women want to breastfeed and can't. Some women could, but their babies have no interest in it. Some babies are too sick to breastfeed. Some babies (mine included!) won't take a bottle under any circumstances. Some babies can't tolerate any formula you can afford. Some babies are absolutely done with breastfeeding at eight months, or at a year, and some are still very into it long after they are toddlers. Some babies self-wean. Some babies have to be pried off the boob. There is no hard and fast feeding rule. The only thing that is true for all babies is that they all have to be fed.

And no matter how you feed your baby, you will hear a lot of stupid crap about child-rearing and baby feeding from people who should know better. (If you find a way to circumvent that one - earplugs? duct tape? mayhem? - let me know, please.)

That said, here are a few things I've learned during my three years of breastfeeding that I didn't know going in.

Pumping Sucks

Recently, I went to a new eye doctor. He asked me how long it had been since my last eye exam, and I backdated via earthling: "Before I got pregnant, so, um, about four years?"

This led to - well, to a gentle reminder that it is really really important for someone with my family history of bizarre eye maladies to get an eye exam regularly, but also to a discussion of his six-month-old daughter. He showed me a picture, talked about her, and talked about his wife. It didn't take long before we worked around to a question that is on a lot of parents' minds when their kids are that age, although it's unusual for a father to ask it. "Did you breastfeed?" he asked, dropping his voice slightly like he was asking about something very personal, instead of something much of southern California has seen me do by this time.

"I'm still breastfeeding," I said, with the little laugh that became obligatory as the earthling closed in on three.

His reaction was not exactly the typical one. His jaw dropped, and he said, tripping over his words in his haste and shock, "Still? But - it's so hard. I can't imagine - how, how do you do it? My wife, it's so hard for her. She gets up at five to pump, and then she feeds the baby, and then she goes to work, and she's a teacher so she can only pump at lunch, and that's her lunch, and then after work she pumps and grades and feeds and pumps and she goes to bed so, so late. I get the baby at night because she's so tired she can't get up. And she cries a lot. She's so tired. It's so hard. How do you do it? What does your wife do that makes you able to do this?" He clearly thought we had a magic secret that I could share. (And, yes, he said wife. This is, I guess, what it means to own a small business - you listen very carefully to the nouns and pronouns your clients use, and reflect them back exactly as offered.)

I tell you what, I was sick with sympathy for his poor wife. And I did have a magic secret, but I knew it wouldn't help either one of them. "I don't work," I said. "I don't pump. It will get easier when your daughter is mostly eating solids, but - the real thing is, I didn't have to work, and so I didn't have to pump, and after a while I didn't anymore. Pumping is hard. Pumping is really, really hard."

And it is. I know this from when I had to do it after almost every feeding, when the earthling was very small and needed extra breastmilk that he didn't have to work for. I mean, it seems like it should be easy. You just plug your boobs into the pump, do your email or read a book or whatever for twenty minutes, and voila! Milk, and you can be apart from your baby and still be sure she's getting fed. All the ads make it clear that the pump is freedom.

It turns out, though, that actually the pump is a pain in the ass. (And in the boob, sometimes.) I mean, it never was freeing for me, because my kid wouldn't take a bottle. But even for people whose babies do deign to consume milk not directly from the boob, pumping is grueling. It's weep-inducing. Most of the women I know who do it, or did it, hated it. If you're pumping at home, it's time you aren't with your baby. If you're pumping at work, I'm guessing it's just a painful reminder that your baby isn't with you. And this particular type of freedom means having to remember an extra bag (a large extra bag) and all the little parts and then find a place to store your milk and carry it all home and wash it all. Oh, and you have to find time to pump, and a place to pump. And you have to do again and again and again. On a schedule. (You can also forget about having free hands to read or use the computer if you have large breasts. I tried every single method known to womankind to get my hands free while pumping. No dice.) This is not freedom as I define it. It is actually much more freeing to just take the baby with you wherever you go. (And as one who did exactly that for two years: that is not actually freeing.)

Pumping is also unrewarding. The more you pump, the less you get (unless you are also feeding the baby), because pumps just aren't as good as babies at getting the milk out. And with all the effort you put into pumping, wasting milk is excruciating. And there are other delightful wrinkles, too. (It can take forever for your milk to let down while you're pumping. Some people don't get milk when they pump. And you're never more aware of how much a baby eats when every single ounce has to be laboriously removed from your body.)

I mean, yes, I know women who preferred to pump. (Two of them. Both had chronic biters.) I know many women who were and are grateful to the pump. (I am one of them. It let me give the earthling what he needed.) I know women who needed their pumps. (Every mother who has ever had a baby in the NICU, for starters.) But the thing is - breastfeeding starts out hard, but it gets a lot easier as time goes on. Pumping starts out easy, or at least easier than breastfeeding, and gets harder and harder, emotionally speaking, as time goes on. (And it makes breastfeeding harder and less rewarding a lot of the time, too.) By a year, most of the mothers I know were counting down the minutes until they could stop pumping. If they'd even made it that far; lots of them gave up a lot earlier. And I did not blame them.

Because pumping sucks.

Most Mothers Have Some Feeding Guilt

As the still-breastfeeding mother of a three-year-old, I have somehow become, totally against my will, the repository of all breastfeeding confessions. I try to avoid mentioning that I'm still breastfeeding when I'm chatting with other mothers, because they make two assumptions:
  1. I am mommier than they are, because, hey, still breastfeeding.
  2. I am judging them for their feeding choices.
Neither one is remotely true. Breastfeeding is easier than not breastfeeding for me right now, so I do it. It is not a sacrifice. It does not put me way up on the pedestal of Perfect Mothers (I, uh, really do not belong there), nor does it garner me thousands of extra points good for one get-out-of-public-tantrum-free card. This is just what I do. Most people do something else. But I am who I am, and the earthling is who he is, so this is what is working for us. When it stops working for one of us, we'll do something else.

And so of course I am not judging those other mothers. I know they were and are doing what is right for their families. I mean, yes, I am sure there are mothers who don't want to feed their kids well - in fact, I know there are, and it makes me so, so sad - but I mostly don't seem to be meeting them. The mothers I talk to try to do what's right for their families.

But they all feel guilty. A tiny sample of the many things I've heard about feeding:

"I wanted to breastfeed so much, and I tried so hard, but she just wouldn't latch, and after seven months, I couldn't pump anymore."

"He was in the NICU for two weeks, and he just never entirely got the hang of it, so we tried, but - you know, it didn't work. I cried a lot."

"I had to go back on my meds. I didn't want to, that wasn't the plan, but after three months I couldn't get out of bed, and I just had to do something."

"I wanted to go to a year, but at nine months he was biting me all the time and kicking me and he didn't want to and after a while I just didn't want to force it anymore. I guess I should have tried harder, huh?"

Every single one of those things was said to me in quiet, telling-a-secret tones, accompanied by a pained expression of guilt and repentance intended to communicate, I guess, "Forgive me, Patron Saint of Breastfeeding, for I have sinned."

Dear lady telling me this: you haven't Done Wrong in the feeding department. I can always tell, because while we're having these talks, your healthy toddler is running around, trying to eat sand or climb on something high and unstable. You got that kid to this point. You win! If you wanted to breastfeed and it didn't work out, I'm sad for you, but in the end, the important thing is that you remember your baby's first year with as much joy and as little guilt as possible. This means letting the feeding thing go.

(And, hey, if you're curious, I too had my hideous bout of feeding guilt. When the earthling was five months old, a gastroenterologist told me that if only I had never breastfed, we would be able to do more to treat the earthling's reflux. It was awful. I was hurting my baby, and I couldn't even do anything to fix it, because by then he was president of the bottle-haters society. I cried and cried. And then I remembered that this was his choice, too - even in the hospital, he wouldn't take an artificial nipple for love or money - and that doctors are supposed to treat the patients they have, not the patients they wish they had. We got a new pediatric gastroenterologist, and eventually I stopped feeling guilty about feeding.)

Medical Professionals Really, Really, Really Hate Breastfeeding

I mean, I knew this. I did. But at least in the first year they kind of understood, in a hypothetical way, why I was doing it, even if they desperately wanted me to stop. Now, our conversations go like this:

Medical Professional: And I'm going to prescribe [medicine not suitable for breastfeeding women, and, yes, I do have to know this, because doctors don't].
Me: Um, I'm still breastfeeding, so I can't take that one.
MP, looking shocked: How old is that baby now?
Me: [Some number greater than 12] months.
MP, in tones of horror and wonder: And you're still breastfeeding?
Me: Yup.
MP (out loud): You know, the baby doesn't need the milk after a year. It's not really doing anything for him. [Female medical professionals will sometimes add that it's also a real pain to breastfeed and they could not WAIT to wean their own kids.]
MP (not out loud, but obvious all the same): Why? Why are you doing this to me? Is it personal? Are you doing this JUST TO MAKE ME CRAZY?

No, medical professionals! If I wanted to make your lives difficult, I could manage it without milk of any kind. I would just wait until you were almost out the door and then say, "Oh, wait, I had one other question -." If I did that two or three times in a row for a visit or two, you'd long to go back to the days when I just flagrantly and wrong-headedly breastfed.

These reactions are all deeply ironic, of course, because lactation professionals (although not my lactation consultant, who is notable in that she has never once suggested that she should have any input on anyone else's feeding choices; if you want to breastfeed, she'll make it happen, and if you don't or you're done trying, that's fine and she will not judge) are simultaneously saying that there is no reason at all not to breastfeed forever. I think these people need to start having meetings or maybe some therapy or something, because, wow, they are just not at all on the same page. It's like the Cold War, except the iron curtain is a nursing bra. (For those of us with large breasts, the similarities have already been noted.)

It's Okay to Need Help

What I thought it took to make a breastfed baby while I was pregnant:
  • A baby
  • Breasts
What it actually took to get us breastfeeding:
  • Two lactation consultants (in the hospital)
  • One lactation consultant (out of the hospital)
  • Six visits to the lactation clinic
  • Weekly (at least) weighing visits
  • Weekly (at least) check-ins with the lactation consultant
  • Dozens of SNS feeders
  • One hospital-grade breast pump (rented)
  • One extremely expensive near-hospital-grade breast pump (owned)
  • A nipple dome
  • Tons of hot packs and cold packs
  • Even more unguents of various kinds
Oh, and a baby. And breasts.

It was grueling. I did it, because I really wanted to breastfeed, but those first two months were hard. My lactation consultant said, after breastfeeding was properly established, "Maybe one percent of mothers could or would have done what you did." I was lucky that I had a partner at home and an otherwise easy baby, because if I hadn't, I don't know if I could have done it.

Somewhere in those first bleary first few months, I went to see my doctor for a reason unrelated to boobs, and I mentioned lactation consultants. My doctor laughed and rolled her eyes. "Lactation consultants," she said. "It's just breastfeeding!"

I felt like shit. It was, after all, just breastfeeding. I was clearly a terrible failure of a mother and a person for needing all that help. I judged myself very harshly.

Three years later, I've forgiven myself. Now, I judge the doctor harshly. (For that. She's actually a good doctor.) Sometimes people need help to do things. That doesn't mean they shouldn't do those things; it means they should get the help they need.

Because, seriously, if you think you need to be perfect at everything right out of the gate, parenthood is not for you. Once you have a kid, you will never be perfect again. Child-rearing is all about doing it a little better tomorrow. So, hey, if you need help with breastfeeding, consider it great practice for the rest of your life.

Everyone Lies (About Breastfeeding)

In our birth preparation class, we heard a lot about breastfeeding. And since we also attended the introduction to breastfeeding class, let's just say the last trimester of my pregnancy was extremely full of breastfeeding indoctrination. And it all sounded very much the same:

Breastfeeding is easy! Breastfeeding is cheap! Breastfeeding doesn't hurt unless you're doing something wrong! All babies can breastfeed!

Every single one of those things is bullshit, for the record.

Breastfeeding is easy. It totally is. When the baby is six months old. When you really need it to be easy - when you are exhausted and experiencing the biggest hormonal crash of your life and trying to learn how to be a parent and trying to recalibrate your family - it is very often not easy. About half the mothers I know who tried to breastfeed struggled in some way in the first weeks. Most of them didn't struggle as much as I did, but something went wrong.

Breastfeeding is cheap. Unless you need help. Or special equipment. All that shit costs money. They tell you in class that formula for a year costs two thousand dollars. They don't mention that once you add up the breast pump, the milk bags, the nursing bras, the nursing pajamas, the My Breast Friend, the glider, the lactation consultant, the lactation aids, and the books, breastfeeding can also cost about that much. And, sure, it doesn't have to. Sure, you can do it on the cheap. But some of that stuff you probably will need, and whatever you need you'll mostly be paying for in the first months, all together. And if you really need it, you can get government help to pay for formula. (Probably. In some locations.) Try getting the government to buy you a breast pump.

Breastfeeding doesn't hurt unless you're doing it wrong. Or, you know, unless you're unlucky. It's useful to hear that if it hurts you should call a lactation consultant. You absolutely should. Probably she can help. But sometimes she can't, or she can't right away. Breastfeeding does sometimes hurt. There you go. It's just the truth. (It's also, for the record, true that it does get better.)

All babies can breastfeed. Except for the ones who can't. I do think that most babies can, if you work at it, but even then, with some babies - or with some boobs - the amount of effort you will need to put in may prevent you from doing anything else at all with the baby.

Now, please note - I am in no way against breastfeeding. I put in a ton of effort to breastfeed. And I am very glad I did. I think it did make me closer to the earthling. I think it did, in the long run, make raising him much, much easier. I think it kept me saner and happier for the first year of his life, and him calmer and more cheerful. It was entirely worth it.

I just wish people didn't lie so much about breastfeeding. Women aren't stupid just because they're pregnant; they're capable of making good choices even if you give them all the relevant information. And, actually, all this lying, all this careful whitewashing - it probably leads a lot of women to give up. If it's so easy, you think as you stare at your wailing baby on your first night home from the hospital, in pain and so tired and so, so scared because she just won't latch and you can't remember what you're supposed to do, then why isn't it working? And since no one has told you that it isn't necessarily easy to start with, it makes a lot of sense to assume that something is seriously broken and give up right then.

And, also, if I had not been programmed to believe all that crap, maybe I would have listened a little more to other mothers right from the start. In our birth preparation class, there was a teenage girl whose birth partner was her mother. That mother was the only woman in the class besides the teacher who had actually had a baby, so one night the teacher asked her if she had anything to share, anything she wished she'd known.

"When I had my son two years ago," she said, "I wish I had started him on the bottle earlier. By the time I tried, he wouldn't take one. I had to go back to work when he was six weeks, and he had to go to daycare, and there was no way to feed him there, because he wouldn't ever take a bottle." These days, I am filled with sympathy for that woman. I had a bottle refuser, and it was hard, but at least I didn't have to go to work and think about him hungry, sobbing in daycare for boobs that didn't come.

But back then, all of us stared at her in horror. We had all taken the classes and read the books, and we knew that didn't happen, and we also knew starting the bottle earlier was evil and wrong! She was clearly insane and possibly warped and very likely a secret Nestle board member.

She was none of those things. She was giving us information that she learned the hard way. And there was no reason for all the other sources of information to keep that from us. If I had known that bottle refusal was a real possibility (my informal guess is that this happens with 5% of babies who are exclusively breastfed in the early weeks of life, which is not the same as never), I would still have breastfed. I would still have waited to try the earthling on a bottle. But I wouldn't have been so miserable and frustrated and scared when the earthling didn't take it, wouldn't take it, refused all possible bottles. If I had known, I would have been prepared.

So, yes, everyone lies about breastfeeding. But they shouldn't. It is actually easier and better with complete information. It's time we trusted the people who are raising these children to make the right choices (for them) about feeding.

And that is why I am not a feeding absolutist: I trust other parents. And I know that we can make different decisions and both be right, because we have different kids and different families. And we're different people, all just trying to feed the children we have.

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