My Thoughts About Breastfeeding: Then and Now

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mother nursing infant Providence Moms Blog

I always knew that I would breastfeed.

I mean, I had to. Otherwise, my mother would never speak to me again.

My mother was very committed to nursing. For good reason. When I was born, in 1951, only 15% of all new mothers nursed. She had to fight for it. In the hospital, she never took any of the pills that the nurses handed her without making sure what they were. Because, in 1951, everybody was routinely given dry-up pills. And she was glad that they didn’t do 2-week well-baby visits. 

“They would have insisted I supplement because you hadn’t re-gained your birth weight.”

After all, nursing was old-fashioned. Science and modernity had created formula. My mother was committed to breastfeeding because she had to be. Otherwise, her mother would have never spoken to her again. (I have two theories about my grandmother’s insistence. Either she was ignorant of the “prevailing wisdom” or, she was a bright, well-read woman – like my mother-in-law- who knew that the “prevailing wisdom” was crap.)

My grandmother nursed because otherwise, her babies would die.

In any case, I knew that, for me, formula was NOT an option.   

Feeding my first baby was hard, at least initially. The nurses in the hospital gave me wrong advice, and my baby wouldn’t latch. Fortunately, I was saved by another mother, who told me a secret…’put your nipple on his cheek, not directly into his mouth. He’ll find it…’

And it did hurt, at least initially. He did want to nurse all the time, and my husband wondered what in the world I was doing all day long. Then, just when it seemed to be going well, there was that uncontrolled spraying thing. I distinctly remember, at about 2 months in, sitting in the bath, gloriously alone, and experiencing “the-let-down-reflex.” I had relaxed and jets of that precious milk shot out 3 feet or more into the air. Should I laugh or cry?

But it never occurred to me to stop. My mother had told me I had to nurse.  

With my first baby, I was lucky. I was able to take nine months off. But, with my second baby, I had another problem. My boss told me that I would have to return to work after two months.

“But…how can I nurse?!” I pleaded and ran out of the room. I didn’t want him to see me cry.

A day later, he offered me a life-line. 

“Look. I can give you six-hour days. Pump in the middle of the day. You can work and still nurse your baby.”

All right. But. It was 1981, and I worked in a mostly male, conservative environment. My boss was a bit of a bully; I was shocked by his unexpected show of sensitivity and generosity. I said yes. Of course yes.

Still, despite that, I was cautious. I didn’t tell anyone at work what I was doing. I closed my office door and pumped, with my huge, odd-looking manual pump, worried and embarrassed that I would be discovered. I hid my milk in a small plastic cooler filled with artificial ice. I didn’t dare leave it in the company fridge. Then, I dutifully bought all those small baggies filled with 2 to 3 ounces to my child-care provider…until she told me that she had a zillion baggies in her freezer and had no idea of which was the oldest or newest.

“Oh hell,” I remember saying… “I’m gonna start bringing formula to you.” So my baby wasn’t entirely breastfed.

I also worried a bit about nursing in public. I carried a nursing blanket and tried to choose dark corners. Except for one day at a zoo, when my baby was screaming and my 3-year-old had to see everything. I just put her to my breast and walked. But although there were hard times, I was lucky. I never got criticized for nursing in public or at family gatherings. I had support from my mother, my grandmother, my mother-in-law, and even at my work.

But, as I was writing this article, and reading some of the other posts, I realized that all this talk about discomfort and hardships obscures the most important truth about breastfeeding.  

The truth is that I loved it. I just loved nursing my babies. Thirty years later, I still miss it. I can still feel the ease and pleasure of cradling a baby to my chest; of cuddling up in bed, attaching and falling immediately back asleep; of always being able to comfort.

Some say that breastfeeding mothers are strident; that they insist that everyone do the same as they do. That they “shame” those mothers that don’t or can’t.  

But I think there is another side to this accusation. My mother and grandmother were strident. But they weren’t being sanctimonious, or even conscientious. And when I told my daughter that she absolutely had to nurse, I wasn’t doing it solely for my grandchild. I wasn’t telling her to eat the broccoli because it was good for her. I was telling her to ‘please…just try’…the ice-cream. Because I knew she would like it so much. Yes, breastfeeding is best. Of course, grandmothers care about their grandchildren. But mostly, I’m sure, my mother and grandmother cared about me. Because mostly, I care about my own baby girl, now all grown up. My people wanted me to nurse because they remembered how much they had loved it. I wanted my daughter to nurse because I loved her, and wanted her to experience that joy. All those nursing evangelicals really just want to share the good news. And new mothers should listen to them — because they are right.

And here’s another, sadder thing that is true.

When my mother nursed, it was a ‘custom’ that upper-class women had abandoned in favor of the convenience and new science of “formula.” Today, in contrast, breastfeeding is one more privilege granted only to those who can afford it. Some women have lactation rooms; other’s are forced to return to work after 2 weeks leave and aren’t given breaks or space. I’ve even heard that African and Latino woman still have to make sure that ‘well-meaning’ hospitals don’t slip them dry-up pills.

I would hate to return to my grandmother’s world, where everyone had to breastfeed to keep their babies alive. But our world would be a much better, healthier (and happier!) place if we recognized the right, and duty, of all mothers to breastfeed if they possibly can. And the duty of everyone else to make that possible! To let all mothers, and babies, share the joy.  

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Carol-Ane Woodard was born in Rehoboth, which is in Massachusetts, but really should be a part of Rhode Island. She grew up taking the Trailways bus into Providence and shopping at the Warwick Mall. She currently lives in Foxboro, Massachusetts with her husband of of 38 years, Paul Woodard, but she misses coffee cabinets, red clam chowder, and hot wieners, and she still considers Providence to be her home city. Carol-Ane graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1973 with a degree in sociology. She minored in business at U Mass Dartmouth and took a job for the FDIC as a bank examiner. She worked there for 30 years and retired 10 years ago. Other than her 3 children and 5 grandchildren, her hobbies include reading, reading, and more reading, interrupted only by hikes in the woods, Freecell, and knitting. Although her Linkedin profile lists her as a stay-at-home grandmother, Carol-Ane actually has a rather nervous disposition and is frightened by small children. Nevertheless, she persists.