“They sent me baby formula,” my grandmother told me, “They sent it to me in the D.P. camp in Germany when your mother was born. We had nothing. I used to catch pigeons. We ate them. If I caught a lot, I sold some, and we got bread, eggs. But otherwise it was pigeons.”
“The formula? It smelled disgusting,” said the woman who ate pigeons. “I wasn’t feeding that to my baby. I threw it away.”
It was a slightly different world that I was living in when I, like my grandmother, threw the formula away. I was in a hospital in Hoboken with a view of the Empire State Building out my window. We weren’t eating pigeons. My husband and I were new parents—with good medical insurance.
We got the hospital’s “champagne” dinner: the option of salmon or steak, rice, veggies, salad, chocolate cake, and sparkling apple juice (wouldn’t want the alcohol of real champagne to creep through the breast milk). There was a tablecloth on the two-seater table they wheeled into our room and small electric candles. The cooing nurses took the baby down the hall so we could have a last hour of alone time. It was almost romantic.
But the next day, the nurses were markedly less friendly. They had weighed the baby and declared he wasn’t getting enough milk from my newly lactating breasts. And then they handed it to me: an entire case of Similac.
Remembering today how I ranted about the disgusting formula—which I dropped straight into the trash can on our way out of the hospital—I am a little sad. I was so sure that breastfeeding was the only right way. I was outraged that the nurses would have even suggested formula feeding in a hospital where “Breast is Best!” posters papered the walls of the maternity ward.
And don’t ask about my fury when my mother—that breastfed, pigeon-eating baby who grew up to give her daughters smelly formula—winced visibly when she watched me repeatedly try to get “Lazar the Grazer” to latch on.
I worked at this at all hours, as the mohel, who had looked into the baby’s yellow eyes and shook his head and warned me he would have to delay the bris, instructed me to do. “Doesn’t it hurt?” my mom asked. She told me she thought doing away with breastfeeding was part of the women’s lib movement.
“Obviously you didn’t care for me to go to Harvard,” I replied.
It’s ironic, then, that my feelings have done a near-180, so much so that a similar fury washed over me this week when I read a breastfeeding cheerleading piece in The Guardian.
The article begins by citing a recent Lancet study: “Breast milk makes the world healthier, smarter, and more equal.” Twelve years after throwing away that case of Similac, I can’t help but scoff at this statement and wonder if my mother had it right. What I see it really meaning by good for the “world” is: It’s good for kids. Maybe the admission bar for Harvard will rise even higher. (Great).
The question is where moms fit into this “world.” What happens to our health? Our intelligence? Our equality?
I don’t regret breastfeeding my three children. I am glad I gave them what modern science says is good for them. I was grateful for the bonding opportunities breastfeeding can offer, particularly as they all clearly preferred their dad after that first year. I felt lucky to have the time off work to stay home, even if at times I felt limited to that home, to my sofa, to the My Brest Friend pillow that I toted from living room to kitchen to bedroom.
But during those eight years of near-constant pregnancy and breastfeeding, my previously solidly healthy body started failing on me in all kinds of random ways. “This is not something I say in Westchester every day,” said my doctor, “but we think you have diphtheria.”
Exhaustion became a permanent state of being, both physical and mental, and I thus easily traded in thick novels for breastfeeding-convenient TV binge watching. Years, but not publications, were added to my CV, making it flatly uncompetitive in the academic job market, and no amount of hard work now can mitigate my “stale” PhD.
Here’s the thing. These “breast is best” studies fail to address the real repercussions of breastfeeding for women: namely, women are confined to their bodies and essentially their homes for long periods of time (and with several children, multiple times); they often take serious career and personal hits as a result of needing to be home to breastfeed. And despite potential benefits in terms of lowered risk of breast cancer, they are faced with a depletion of resources while they breastfeed.
I suspect dads’ or non-lactating partners’ lack of close interaction with babies’ needs over the first year due to breastfeeding is also a repercussion for both second parent, if there is one, and the baby, too. So where are the studies on that?
I don’t regret breastfeeding, but I do wonder what I might have done differently had I been told not only the benefits for baby, but also the drawbacks for mom.