Breastfeeding is awesome. There. I've encouraged you.
Last week I went shopping for Ben's birthday cookout. I took the Jeep, which we drive only infrequently, and opened the liftgate to put in the groceries. As I adjusted the seat to make more room in the back, out sprang a long-lost nipple shield. It landed among the grocery bags and I had to dig a little to get it out. Oh, there you are! Right between the blackberries and my sense of worth as a mother!
Once I had it in my hand, it took me a second to recognize it. I put it in my pocket and carried it there for the rest of the day. I couldn't tell you why, but I put it back in my pocket the next morning. I'd kind of poke at it as I went through the day. Woink. Woink woink. Is that a linty plastic sombrero in my pocket, or is Nestle just happy to see me?
I kept waiting, I think, for some feeling of significance. There I was holding a memento from a pretty important time in both my children's lives, in my life, and I waited for a revelation. An epiphany. A searing jolt of perception or even a slow recognition. Anything, in fact, beyond the shamed awareness that, ew, I was carrying around a two-year-old nipple shield that still bore a scurf of Goldfish crumbs.
At the end of the second day, no thunderclap forthcoming, I simply, unsentimentally threw the thing away.
A couple of days ago I got a comment on an old post, as I occasionally do. These always intrigue me; it's like some weird inverted Moebius wormholey time-capsule Wayback thing. Sometimes I answer, if it seems a sincere and urgent question has been asked, but usually those comments just sit there, three or four years after the initial post and its comments. Someone was wrong on the Internet! There's proof right here in the fossil record!
This particular comment was left on a post I wrote shortly after Charlie came home. For those of you who missed the glory days of Things That Really Sucked and need the short version, Charlie was born more than ten weeks short of his due date. Our breastfeeding relationship? Welllllll, it's complicated. Let's just say I pumped for a long time, hated every second, and never got him successfully to the breast. (The longer version features considerably more tears, low production, more swearing, three lactation consultants, a screaming baby with acid reflux, an illegal drug — domperidone — and a punishing first six months. I'd have thrown in a car chase and, I know, a stolen ankh! With a curse! Oh, and maybe a big-ass explosion, which I miraculously escape with a dramatic dive toward the camera, but I didn't want to get dramatic.)
So the comment came in the midst of all this, which I faithfully reported on my blog as it was happening. The commenter said I was discouraging new mothers from even trying breastfeeding. I was bashing breastfeeding, she wrote, and charged me with putting a negative spin on nursing. "Five years later," she finished, "I hope that all ended well for you and your little one, and that you don't continue to discourage new moms from breastfeeding because of your personal nightmare." (Click the banner, lady. Come find out. Or is your interest merely predatory?)
I'm not highlighting this comment because I'm indignant, and I don't want to summon that response in anyone else. I'm telling you about it because of what I felt when I read it. Now, if I had gotten that comment while I was in the thick of things, I can't say how I'd have reacted, though I'm pretty sure mixing hormones, trauma, and guilt with just plain flat-out meanness makes one hell of a Molotov. But five years later all it does is make me roll my eyes.
Leaving aside the obvious — that in those entries I spoke of a personal experience as it unfolded, and felt no responsibility to lie about it in order to shill for mother's milk — all I thought when I read the comment was, Man, that's some stupid shit. Because when you look at that time in my life as I've recorded it here, if you can miss how committed I felt to feeding my son breastmilk — well, man, that's some stupid shit.
But it wasn't a jab to a vulnerable spot, not so many years after. It's like it was with the nipple shield. It's just a piece of plastic, or an insult from a stranger. It doesn't hurt anymore.
Ben was a little different. No heroic measures, I'd promised myself during pregnancy, knowing what a wreck feeding Charlie had become. In retrospect I knew that my tenacity had cost us all a great deal: peace of mind, time together, and the simple, sweet relationship I worked too hard chasing. I feed you because you're mine; you love me because I feed you turned into something much more fraught. I didn't want that with Ben. At the first sign of difficulty — a tongue tie, an ineffective suck even after the snip — I dropped it and didn't look back.
If it makes anyone else feel better, I can reel off the disclaimers: I pumped, so Ben did get breast milk. We co-slept and babywore, so we felt a bodily closeness. And so on and et cetera, justificatio ad absurdem. But it doesn't make me feel better, primarily because I don't feel bad to begin with. Whatever other effects that decision might have had, it allowed me to glide right past the baggage I might otherwise have picked up. To me, it's been nothing but worth it.
I bring this up, this choice I made well away from the heat of the moment, not to invite a scolding — You didn't even try! — but to establish my bona fides. My time with Charlie should tell you that I believe breastfeeding is important; my time with Ben should tell you that I don't believe it's everything. I've put one foot firmly in each camp, with my reproductive parts astraddle. (So what else is new?)
There are perfectly lovely women who believe all their lives that how we feed our children is an essential component of our mothering, and count themselves successful. (I know they exist because a small obnoxious mutation of the species won't stop announcing itself.) There are women who believe that not nursing is an unequivocal failure, and regret it for years to come. And there are all sorts of women in between. I'm speaking as one of them now.
This entire post is meant to say that however you feed your baby, ultimately, it doesn't need to matter.
Pay attention: I'm not saying breastfeeding carries no inherent advantage, that you needn't bother trying, that the signifcant effort many mothers make is unimportant. I'm saying that five years down the road, whether you kept at it or not, you may look at your child and think, "I wonder why that was such a big deal."
That is a strange message, I admit, to be trumpeting during World Breastfeeding Week. Stranger still to say that I'm writing all this explicitly to encourage you.
What I want, more than to promote breastfeeding itself, is to promote kindness to mothers. To that end let me suggest that in the grand scheme of things, however you choose to feed your child, however hard you find it, however long you try or quickly you abandon it, a few years from now you'll likely be beyond it.
For a long time I regretted the awful slog with Charlie, everything about it, from trying for too long to trying the wrong things to not trying hard enough to ceasing, finally, to try at all. But somewhere along the line, without my even noticing, the regrets have fallen away. A poke from a stranger makes me snort, not cry.
For a long time after Ben's birth, when I decided hardly to try, I fully expected some sort of guilt to arrive, stealthily, while I was busy enjoying him. Ready to take it like a man, I waited. But somewhere along the line I guess I just got bored, and wandered away from the meeting point. The nipple shield was just a nipple shield, not some cosmic reproach.
I don't know exactly where it comes from, this merciful easing up, but I have a theory. With a bit of distance and perspective, now I can look at my two kids, strong and bright and funny, and understand how short a time that all was when such a life is ahead of us.
And how exactly, my outraged commenter might ask, is that meant to be encouraging? Just this: It's short. No pressure. Try. If works, you can enjoy it. If it doesn't work, you can get help. If it still doesn't work, you can stop. And none of it has to linger, not for very long.
You don't have much to lose. An honest endorsement, my strongest encouragement, the very best I can do.