There’s No Shame in Breastfeeding

This piece originally appeared on Role/Reboot.  

There’s a soundtrack that I hear in my head when I’m nursing my son. Among many lactation-themed takeoffs, my playlist includes a gender-swapped version of the Temptations song, My Boy, a variant on the Beastie Boys’ Brass Monkey (Milk Monkey), and a takeoff on Salt-n-Pepa’s Let’s Talk About Sex, which goes a little something like this:

Let’s talk about breast-feed-ing.
Let’s talk about you and me.

Let’s talk about all the good things
and the bad things that may be.

Let’s talk abouuuuut breasts.
Let’s talk about breasts.

Because you know what? With the possible exception of lactation consultants, none of us talks nearly as much as we should about the realities of lactation and what breasts are capable of. I’m thinking Nursing: True Grit, or The Real Breastfeeders of New York. Can you say taboo much?

(To my relatives, my coworkers, and perhaps my son someday, if you’re out there reading this: I hope that you’ll pick yourselves up off the floor, sit back in your chairs, and read on, because this is important. Stay with me.)

In the past month, a few influential writers have berated certain celebrity mothers for choosing childrearing practices that they claim serve to “animalize women.” Most notably, feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte scoured Mad Men star January Jones for ingesting her placenta as a post-partum homeopathic medicine. She sees the actress mom’s choice as “demand(ing) that new mothers act like four-legged animals.” Elsewhere, the blogosophere and even traditional media like The Chicago Sun-Times have been awash with similarly harsh criticism of high-profile mothers, while notably silent on fathers. Their crime appears to be engaging in parenting practices that aren’t a part of mainstream modern American parenting, like co-sleeping (the family bed), food pre-masticationelimination communication, and extended breastfeeding beyond the first year of life. It’s worth noting that these “gross,” “primitive,” and “animalizing” practices have long histories outside the United States, and continue to remain alive and well in other cultures today.

This flavor of mother-shaming is exactly why it’s hard to talk about breastfeeding’s intimate, messy, gorgeous, sometimes queasy-making animalian inside. Because modern, Western women have come a long way, baby. Which means that we have internalized a deep, perhaps rightful suspicion of any biologically-based or non-modern way of using our bodies—anything that evokes the mammalian parts of motherhood. Lest we come too close to the dangerous precipice of biology-as-destiny.

As modern humans, particularly those of us with feminist sensibilities, it’s hard to talk in real, practical terms about the ways that we are animals, much less to explore where our animal parts end and our conscious decision-making parts begin. But like it or not, even if technology increasingly gives us greater flexibility and power to use our animal bodies in new ways, we continue to be mammals. Mammals who gestate our young inside of our animal bodies for nine-ish months, and who possess the physiological set up to exterogestate said young across a variety of environmental conditions during the first years of life.

So back to breastfeeding (the “mammaries” after which mammals are named).

If I could dish with my friends and family about the realities of modern breastfeeding, specifically the hard and hilarious parts, here’s what I’d say:

Did you know that nursing isn’t nearly as plug-and-play as lactation experts often make it out to be? It turns out that there’s a learning curve between mother and baby, and it often takes a while to get things working. Even when it does work, those early days of nursing can be sharply, breathtakingly painful.

Would you believe that nursing a newborn is a full-time job, consuming up to 12 out of every 24 hours? I mean, how can any working mom be expected to breastfeed exclusively for very long? The realities of many mothers’ lives are stacked completely against the now-mainstream notion that “breast is best.” Talk about a setup for feeling like a failure.

Have you ever seen a nursing mom use a breast pump? Talk about feeling like a diary cow. Among the hilarious and humbling moments for me was when my barely verbal child would see the pump, cup his hands to his chest, and approach me saying rhythmically, “Oooo eeee oooo eeee oooo eeeee.”

Has anyone told you that nipples gain more “motility” the longer that a mother nurses her child? (That’s every woman’s dream, right? Motile nipples. Like they’ve got the ability to just get up and walk right off, as if they’re on strike.)

You might’ve heard rumors of this part, but hell hath no fury like the insatiable, rapacious hunger of a nursing mother. Can someone get me a bagel, please?

That despite my lactivism, I’m embarrassed to admit to some deep shame about breastfeeding a toddler. My out-and-public newborn nursing has, these days, turned into something we do discreetly, in private. But there’s no one like a toddler to keep you honest, especially a very verbal one who can now shout across the crowded grocery store, “Hey, mama, I want to nurse, and I want it RIGHT NOW!”

And if I could talk to friends and family about the surprising, sublime parts of modern breastfeeding, here’s what I’d say:

It’s an incredible biological gift to be able to impart, with one baring of a breast, an instantaneous neuro-calming effect to one’s over-stimulated, stressed-out child. (Babies calm themselves by sucking, a biological tool that appears to continue for many people into later life. Apparently, there are many closeted thumb-sucking adults out there.)

Despite the ridiculousness of breast pumps, there’s an immense satisfaction in knowing that you’ve been able to express enough milk to satisfy your hungry child when you have to be away. Thank you, breast pump inventors, for allowing us pump-possessed modern mothers the chance to work or even to take a break, while still maintaining our breastfeeding relationship with our babes.

One of life’s greatest intimacies has been the chance to have a conversation with my older nursing child about where the milk comes from, about what he likes about nursing, and about what it will mean for him to someday wean.

These past 2.5 years, my nursling and I have negotiated a number of sophisticated relationship dynamics together, like how to reconcile differences in who wants to nurse when, in what position, and where each person’s hands will go. I hope that these early lessons about respectful, mutual relationships with another person’s body will pay off for him someday, like it has already paid off for me to get clear about my own desires and boundaries.

But alas. Despite the fact that four times a day, I pull up my shirt and snuggle down with my child, I will never talk to my coworkers or my non-lactating friends about what I’m struggling with, or what’s wonderful about it, or how much grief I anticipate when this nursing relationship ends. Even my husband, who has been physically next to us much of the time that we’re nursing, doesn’t know a lot about the inside of it. To reveal any of these real details would be, as the naysayers point out, to admit my messy inner mama animal.

Unlike 40 years ago, much thanks to La Leche League, there’s a growing consensus in the United States that nursing is worth trying. An impressive 75% of American women attempt to breastfeed, although less than half make it to 6 months, and even less than a quarter to 12 months. But most American women trying to breastfeed for the first time have never actually seen another woman nursing a baby up close. When you couple the lack of real exposure, modeling, and social support for breastfeeding with the fact that learning to nurse can be awkward and painful at its best, intractable or just impossible at its worst, you can imagine why nursing relationships often don’t go on long or end well.

The problem isn’t just a lack of social support—it’s actually entrenched social prohibitions against anything evoking the tension between our human-ness and our animal-ness. We’ve all heard, perhaps even felt, disgust at the notion of nursing a child who is old enough to walk and talk in sentences about what they’re doing. And as much as I like to think of myself as a sensitive, broad-minded long-term lactivist, I still get a little squidgy at the suggestion that someone else might ever nurse my child.

Our modern focus on self-actualization, necessary as it is, means that none of us gets to talk much about what it’s like to live in our animal bodies. Our inner animal is something we’re all always striving to civilize, to overcome. But the truth is that even though we’re not talking about it, particularly with regards to motherhood, we are negotiating what it means to be modern animals all of the time. Talking about breastfeeding is an opportunity to visit this intersection—a chance for all of us to understand more about our needs, our drives, and our desires, and how they shape our identities. About where we come from, and who we can become.

Right now, I want to talk about how some days, I’m ready to be done with nursing, ready to have my body back to myself. How nursing can feel like it pits my son’s needs against mine, in a way that can sometimes make me feel trapped. And yet still, how I can see that he needs this particular connection, that nursing still does his system well. For my part, I’m also encountering how much I will miss nursing him, as he transitions from baby to boy—as the place he came from inside of me becomes an increasingly distant memory to us both. As we negotiate a new relationship, beyond the mammalian.

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