Breastfeeding is like child-rearing: not as easy as it first appears. Women’s breasts don’t look all that complicated from the outside.
But our mammary wonders produce a mysterious, magical food source that can’t be measured. And no two mothers have the same nursing experience. Plus each baby is unique. My three presented me with distinct challenges. The first couldn’t latch on because my breasts were engorged (a lovely term that doesn’t begin to describe the pain and pressure of having two milk-filled fire hydrants strapped to your chest). The second took to it right away but nursed long and slow. This resulted in raw, bleeding nipples. I felt like a pro with my third but physically spent from chasing after two busy toddlers. I had zero energy, which translated into zero milk supply. With each succeeding pregnancy it was more and more difficult to accomplish this “natural” task.
Why did I breastfeed? There were those many beautiful bonding moments that I still treasure. But other times I was exhausted and felt like an automated milk machine. One reason I choose to nurse had to do with reports showing a link between breastfeeding and a reduced risk of breast cancer. My mother had been diagnosed with the disease and it couldn’t hurt to try and lower my odds. Another reason was my mother’s sense of disappointment at not having nursed her babies. Back in the 1950s breastfeeding was viewed as backward and unnecessary. My mother was told not to bother and given an injection to dry up her milk supply. She regretted not having a choice.
Today’s modern moms confront more hurdles than those I faced 20 years ago. I had the luxury of being a stay-at-home mom with time to focus on all the details. Women are now discharged from maternity wards within 24 hours of childbirth. This is long before their milk comes in or any breastfeeding problems might arise. If it weren’t for the extra nights spent in the hospital due to an emergency c-section, plus the guidance of a caring and patient nurse, I might have given up long before I was sent home. Now only families who have the money or health insurance covering the services of a lactation specialist can afford such expert assistance.
Time Magazine’s infamous cover failed to portray a realistic picture of breastfeeding practices in the U.S. While 75% of new mothers start out with the breast of intentions, only 35% are exclusively breastfeeding by three months. Some argue it’s unrealistic to encourage new moms to nurse for the recommended six months. It doesn’t matter how committed you are to the cause when the obstacles appear insurmountable. Even if you’ve gotten off to a good start, you may have to return to work right away (where you aren’t paid to pump your breasts, although you’re covered to go out for a smoke break). Working and non-working women take sides in the Milk Wars, battle the right to breastfeed in public, and hear how men want a greater say in sharing their partner’s breasts. Arguing whether “breast is best” may be irrelevant. That mantra isn’t backed up by practical policies that might ease a nursing mother’s burdens. The United States ranks last on supporting measures that would break down most barriers to breastfeeding.
Who pays the price when women are no longer free to breastfeed? My daughter may find herself in the same position as her grandmother: given no say over how she wishes to employ her lactating breasts.
What’s your view? Do you think women’s breastfeeding options are limited?
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