It seems like breasts are having a moment. With Heidi Montag sporting G-cups, cult leaders staging topless rebellions, and everything from dog collars to umbrellas emblazoned with the pink awareness ribbon, it seems there is no place boobs aren’t welcome.
Except, apparently, in a baby’s mouth.
Okay, that’s a little extreme. I’m welcome to feed my child however I want, as long as I’m in my own home, or if I’m covered up by a quilt, or if children aren’t present, or as long my kid appears to be younger than 6 months. Otherwise, tuck those puppies away and shove some Cheerios in that kid’s mouth, right?
Recently, yet another woman was asked not to breastfeed in a public place. Lately, it seems like the news is full of stories about women “inappropriately” exposing their tits in the name of a little nutrition.
I get it. Really. Before I had kids I actively campaigned for women’s rights while at the same time uttering such delightful bon mots as, “That child had to be, what, at least TWO? I’m all for breastfeeding and all, but you have to wonder what’s missing in that woman’s life that she’s shoving her breast in the mouth of a toddler.”
Not my proudest moment. And it’s one I reflect on all the damn time now that I’m nursing my toddler. Even worse, he isn’t even the first child I’ve nursed to such an “advanced” age. I breastfed my older son well past the age where he: walked, had teeth, could ask for it; all previous milestones I had announced would signal the end of my nursing career.
I always thought I would breastfeed my kids, at least a little bit. I saw the ads in subways and in doctor’s offices reminding me that “breast is best,” and I had no reason to doubt the marketing gurus who espoused such wisdom.
But breastfeeding is more complicated – both physically and emotionally – than I’d assumed. Prior to giving birth I had never witnessed a women put a babe to breast. And I’m willing to bet many women find themselves in the same position. In the 80’s and 90’s fewer than 60 percent of moms even attempted breastfeeding, and these days only a third of moms continue past their kids’ half-birthday. Even without seeing it firsthand, I knew it wouldn’t be that easy, but I wasn’t prepared for what faced me.
Feeding my kid was hard. I mean, not just hard, but nearly fucking impossible.
In my first week, I didn’t have enough milk to feed my 9-pound son and his weight dropped precipitously. Then, once I actually had milk, despite the fact my B-cups had ballooned into DDs, I didn’t have enough. Whenever the baby cried for a meal, I cried too. I spent hours in lactation consultant’s offices, sobbing as bright red drops of blood dripped from my chafed and raw nipples. Under a nurse’s advice, when my boy was 6 months old and dropping percentiles on his weight chart, I wrote away to a Canadian pharmacy to supply me with Domperidone, a drug traditionally used to help patients with stomach problems, but had the useful side effect of boosting milk production.
I still don’t know why I went to such extreme measures. I knew formula was a fine alternative, and in fact had been supplementing my son’s diet with readymade formula since his fifth day of life. Frankly, I had no idea how to be a mom, much less a good one. Word on the street was, good moms breastfeed, so, by gum, that’s what I would do. In all the uncertainty of becoming a parent, in the bombardment of rules and advice and lists of ways to kill, or not kill your baby, the one thing that stuck with me was the bumper sticker slogan, “Breast is Best.” Late nights, as I crouched weeping over my pump, I had little else to explain my actions.
And while I never intended to become a lactivist, and I continued inexplicably to sneer (internally) at women who attended La Leche League meetings, I quietly transformed into something of a radical. After I worked so damn hard to breastfeed, there wasn’t ANYONE who was going to stand in my way. Where I had previously regarded extended breastfeeding as the motherhood equivalent of being a crazy cat lady, suddenly I was lying on a couch while my son stood, my nipple in his mouth, casually flipping through a book.
It was weird. For all the thought I had earlier put in to other women’s choices to breastfeed older kids, I put relatively little into my own decision. It was just something we kept doing, until one day we didn’t anymore. It wasn’t political, it wasn’t defiant. Mostly, it was just lazy. Why stop, when it’s working pretty well and gets him to be quiet and still a few times a day?
One day a friend who was due soon with her first child asked, “Are you still breastfeeding him? Isn’t he, you know, too old for that?” As gentle as her question was, it infuriated me. “The World Health Organization reports the average age for cessation of breastfeeding globally is four years old,” I replied, unaware of what a sanctimonious asshole I was being. Later I fumed to my husband about the exchange, adding, “And I bet she’s going to give that baby formula, too.”
For all my posturing about reproductive rights and outrage over anyone who dared question MY choice to feed my kids, I was still a judgmental jerk. Instead of giving me perspective into other women’s choices, my battle to breastfeed had given me boob tunnel vision. A year-and-a-half after my son’s birth I was still insecure about my choices, draping a blanket over my 25-pound toddler’s head as I huddled on an out-of-the-way park bench, giving into his demands for “milk? Meeeeeelk?”
One day I was at a local music festival and a woman pulled her boob over the top of her sundress to nurse her baby. “How obscene,” I remarked to a friend. “I don’t need to see all that.”
You’d think I would have pruned that sort of hypocrisy from my repertoire somewhere around the time I nursed my child at an event promoting abortion rights, but you’d be wrong. I’m embarrassed to say I was still judging ladies for the way in which they fed.
It was only after the birth of my second child (I’m a slow learner) that I figured out reproductive rights covered more than ovaries and uteri. I took a cue from the badass-looking moms I’d seen at the park and ditched the fussy cover up. Its name — Hooter Hider – demeaned me. And, frankly, my kid was more likely to thrash around and wave it like he was spelling out “boobs” in semaphore, than nurse discreetly below its twee seersucker pattern.
My new style involves unclipping my super-hot nursing bra, positioning my kid on my lap, then pulling my shirt up and shoving my baby’s face towards my torso as quickly as possible. This results in – at a minimum – a Kardashian-level of modesty. If I am around non-parents, I make an extra attempt to keep it as discrete as possible. If someone suddenly is failing to make eye contact or is inspecting the ceiling fan a little more closely than necessary, I do a quick check to see if anything is hanging out. Typically it’s a flash of sideboob, or my doughy pale midsection.
Once in a while, when I’m getting ready to pull out my boob, I look around anxiously for anyone who might object. I have an outraged speech prepared in my head for whoever would be so bold as to stop my nursing. But that’s just my guilty conscience at work. The judgmental stare I’m truly facing down is my own.