07 Jul 2020

Why did I breastfeed?

I was born in 1950; my baby dolls all came with bottles. The little siblings of my peers in the neighborhood were all bottle-fed. I remember sitting in my high chair, watching my mother making bottles of formula….store-bought formula was too expensive for our family.

(To this day, the thought of drinking anything milkish makes me gag, as sometimes the milk used to make my formula had turned, just a little; this feeling memory gives me the shivers right now as I write.)

When I was 9, I attended a family reunion and saw the wife of a cousin of my father’s breastfeeding her 4th baby. They were sitting in a rocking chair by a window, in a distant corner from the party. The light shone on them.  I had been taught that it was rude to stare, so peeped at this lovely scene from the corner of my eye. I was fascinated with the aura of the dyad, the visible connection, the Light.

My first baby was born in 1975. I read Suzanne Arms classic work, Immaculate Deception during my pregnancy and WOW!  The power of that book sold me on an unmedicated, Lamaze-style delivery.

I always assumed that I would breastfeed, even before reading Ms Arms’ book. Another important factor leading to my choice was that I had a deep commitment to being a better mother than my own; my mother had PTSD from a lifetime of every kind of parental abuse, and mothered me the way she had been parented, with one exception. She breastfed me. I have no idea why.

Perhaps she herself had some deep connection to breastfeeding, having been breastfed for the 10 days of lying-in given to new mothers in Philadelphia in 1929.  Once my grandmother returned home with her newborn, everything fell apart. My grandmother’s family was a full day’s car ride away, in Lexington, Virginia.  My grandmother had no one to encourage or teach her, so ended up moving to homemade formula, all that was available at the time.

My father was breastfed for 9 months in 1925; however, my mother had no connection with her mother-in-law, who lived 3,000 miles away.

My parents gave me different stories about my breastfeeding duration. My mother says about 6 weeks, because then she had a postpartum collapse from a combination of mental and medical problems.  My father insisted all my life that it was about 6 months.

During the hell that was my childhood, I would sometimes have comforting feeling memories of something wonderful in my mouth; these consoled me up until I was around 10.

As a high school graduate in 1968, I was caught up in the social revolution of those times. This included protesting the Viet Nam War, an explosion of great music, the drive for reproductive justice that gave the US Roe vs. Wade, the Boston Women’s Health Collective’s great book, “Our Bodies, Our Selves”, the Pill, and consciousness raising in childbirth and infant feeding that led to childbirth education, widespread community breastfeeding support, the publication of Tine Thevenin’s book “The Family Bed”, and a resurrection of midwifery care. All that happened during my college years.

After finishing graduate school, I was as much of a hippy as a new mother married to a physician could be. Breastfeeding was encouraged and honored by those with whom I felt similar: educated young white women whose husbands earned good money.  My husband the gastroenterologist endured breastfeeding and bed-sharing until the minute our baby turned one year old. He then said, “You can stop that now, she’s gotten all the benefits.” How could I stop? How could I end this blessed, special relationship that we both loved so much? This choice was a factor in our separation 6 months later. (Our breastfeeding relationship continued until our baby was past 3 years old, despite the separation.)

I still believe that seeing my cousin’s wife nursing her baby was the major element in my decision to breastfeed. But who can really say as the decision is complex and multi-layered.

What’s your story?

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