When people see me breastfeeding I typically get the same reaction. Which is to say, none at all. I am lucky to live in a community where breastfeeding is very common, but that hasn’t always been the case. In fact before my mid-twenties I had never actually seen a woman breastfeed in person. I can still remember sitting in my boyfriend’s parents’ house when a dinner guest, the wife of a local artist, discreetly pulled up her shirt and proceeded feeding her child.
I had that deer-in-the-headlights reaction that so many guys have described themselves having. I didn’t know where to look. Do I look away, or would that offend her? Do I look at her and attempt to not look anywhere that might make her think I’m staring at her breast? Oh god, I am totally staring at her breast! I even had to talk about it with my boyfriend, now my husband, afterward because I was so flustered at my own reaction.
When I got pregnant with my first child, my husband and I knew I would breastfeed. It was a financial decision more than anything. I was wrapping up grad school and he was frantically applying for a new job in his home state because he believed he needed to provide a house for this baby to sleep in. We knew we were going to be financially tight for the first few years and anything we could do to offset that was the right thing to do. There isn’t a much cheaper way to feed your baby than to do it the way nature intended. Not that nature always plays by the rules.
But finances weren’t the only thing that influenced my choices. You see, I am also an Anthropology major. In fact I was getting a Master’s in Visual Anthropology when I became pregnant. Long before that, though, I can remember being an undergrad in a cultural anthropology class watching an ethnography about an African tribe and seeing things I’d never seen before. Babies swaddled close to their mothers bodies all through the day. Babies allowed full time access to breasts for nourishment. Toddlers allowed access to breasts, and so much calmness about these children. No pinched screaming faces, or bodies prostrate on the ground in defiance, just totally relaxed cherubs showing curiosity in what was going on around them with little to no tears in their day. Somewhere in that undergrad course I had made a latent decision about the way I wanted to birth and the way I wanted to parent – all at a time when I honestly believed I would never marry let alone have children.
Nearly a decade later when I was round with my oldest son, I remembered that class and those women. I remembered seeing women give birth crouched on their haunches with sticks in their mouths. I remembered seeing happy, healthy babies hugging their mothers as the women went about their day. I wanted that.
Yet, as I said, nature doesn’t always play by the rules. The med-free birth I wanted to attempt just so I would know what my ancestors had known about their bodies did not happen. My son was Frank Breach and had to be removed via section. And breastfeeding was no easy thing, certainly not the instinctual event I had expected – especially not with nurses you’ve never met bursting into your sanctuary at all hours and grabbing your newborn’s head to thrust it into your breast. There was certainly none of the calmness I’d remembered from the ethnography.
For two months I hid in my room as I tried to get my son to latch, all the while pumping furiously for every drip drop of milk I could give him while still having to supplement because my supply just kept dwindling. I was never more relieved than the day my spirit broke and I decided that two months was enough. Two months of being hooked to a machine in an endless feeding cycle only to feel utter disappointment when my body failed me yet again was enough. I had been defeated by torticollis and tongue tie and flat nipples and a complete lack of local nursing mothers to guide me through it all.
Two years later I had my daughter. Again, the birth wasn’t what I had hoped for and she ended up in the NICU where they refused to let her eat for four solid days due to birth trauma. And I spent every one of those four days determined that my body would not fail her as I felt it failed my son. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder isn’t only for those who have endured violence at the hands of others, it turns out. There was so much pumping to build up a frozen supply for when she’d be allowed to eat. And when they finally let me try to breastfeed her, I remember being terrified of failure only to be completely shocked when she immediately latched on.
She was perfect. It was perfect. Finally something had gone the way I hoped it would and nature told me it should. I overcame uterine rupture, reversed my flat nipples with all of those months pumping with my son and had muscle memory to aid me in football holding this new little person. Still, my daughter also woke me up every 15-30 minutes all night for three months until I realized she didn’t want to sleep in the co-sleeper, she wanted to sleep in the crook of my arm. I was beginning to think those calm babies in the ethnography were a lie, except that she was the vision of perfection in temperament in the daylight hours.
The closeness, the bond between my daughter and I, is as solid as granite and I believe it has everything to do with the 22 months I held her close and nourished her with my body. The hugs this child demands throughout the day are endless and amazing.
I weaned my daughter when I became pregnant with my youngest son. I wanted to give my body a break for the duration of the pregnancy, and as it turned out it was perfect timing. My daughter asked me once or twice to nurse, I instead offered her milk and that was that.
Kimball, my youngest, is 16 months old this week. He nurses mainly in the evenings or first thing in the morning now, but we’re still going strong. He was a late pre-term baby so we had difficulties breastfeeding in the beginning – he would forget how to latch and didn’t seem to me to be getting enough nourishment from my milk. We kept at it and here we are, still chugging along. And again, there is this closeness that I have experienced with him that is similar to the bond with my daughter and is so much more than I had with my eldest son.
I’m sometimes sad for that first baby, who didn’t much care for being cuddled and didn’t need me close to fall asleep. But it only lasts a little while. That now five and a half year old has plenty of need for cuddles and closeness, all while being fiercely independent.
And sometimes I think about those women in the video with their calm babies pressed close to their hearts, and I know that mine are just as close to my heart.
Audrey lives in Cleveland, Ohio, where she runs Bustafeltz Designs, a graphic design and photography business, blogs at The Idea Girl, inconsistently tries to keep an orderly house while chasing a 5.5 year old, 3.5 year old and 16 month old and tends her five chickens named George.