Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Breastfeeding (Continued)

My daughter's two year birthday was last week, and her last night of nursing was this past Friday night. I've now gone several days without nursing, pumping, or otherwise relieving the pressure in my breasts. They are slightly tender and uncomfortable, but less so than I expected.

The transition has been smooth. I thought it would be difficult with my daughter as compared to weaning my son. I started to say that she is more emotional than he was at the same age, but the truth is that I hardly remember him at two, and I don't trust my characterizations of my children's personalities as they are heavily influenced by my expectations and stereotypes of their genders. Regardless, my daughter is vocal and prone to fussiness, and has always been loud about her feelings, so I expected this week to be full of screaming and wailing. I expected also to get very little sleep. Instead, after a couple of nights of still waking and fussing lightly, she has taken my matter of fact refusals to nurse her very much in stride, and for the last two nights I have had unbroken rest. I am thrilled.

But I didn't intend for this to be quite such a detailed journal. All I meant to say is that the ending was less bitter than sweet. My body returns to my ownership for the first in a very long time, and my daughter got all the benefits I ever desired of nursing, in better health, extra intimacy, closeness, emotional security, and a healthier view of the human body. It's good to have it end happily for all concerned. My daughter is growing up. I have no desire to hold her back or to turn back the clock.

Regardless, I started writing about breastfeeding in the first place because I meant to advocate for the practice in a healthy and balanced way. The whole thing worked out so well for me and for both of my children. Choosing to breastfeed for what my culture considers an extended period made me aware of the gentle but persistent, insistent, and above all, constant pressures to conform to our cultural, contemporary modes of parenting.

Because I chose to breastfeed, I also chose to cosleep. My children never slept in a crib, although both occasionally slept in a bassinet as infants. They slept with me, in my adult sized bed, and continue to sleep in the same room with me, although not always in the same bed. This was a more aggressive challenge to our cultural norms, and I was again pleased at the results. I would like to be an advocate for both of these practices, because they seem right and good to me. I just struggle to define why.

It's not that conforming to cultural norms is always undesirable. I'm not advocating rebellion just for the sake of change. I consider my views to be liberal, but in practice I am fairly conservative in that I generally drift along with the culture and expectations I grew up around and with.

I think I strongly believed in breastfeeding, because I felt that the evidence and the science, what little I had heard of, supported it. But I read the evidence so long ago that I no longer can name the sources or tell you exactly what it was. I'm sure I could go research this topic, and probably will, now that I have run into this wall of forgetting in my own memory. For all I know, I could have been reading on the internet, and I am as skeptical about the quality of that kind of research as anyone could desire. Nevertheless, I must have picked up these ideas somewhere. Something in my past informed me that breastfeeding was "better." Surely this idea is as much a part of our culture as the pervasive imagery of babies and bottles? So why do I feel that the bottle is, in fact, the mainstream, and the breast is at the sideline, property of either the educated wealthy or the poor, who can't afford otherwise?

It's true that my own mother breastfed me, and that she supported my own project to feed my babies the same way. So I could have gotten the idea that the breast was better from my mom. I have to wonder, where did SHE learn? Why did she do it?

I just know that I started out parenting with the belief that breastfeeding was healthy for my children and for me. After four years of living it, I am all the more convinced. I would wish to share this experience with other women who are considering having children. Breastfeeding has not always been a bed of roses. It has the same difficulties that parenting in general has, and the same sort of deep, inexplicable satisfaction.

Throughout all the crazy fog and fatigue that is these early years of parenting, all the mistakes and regrets and agonizingly difficult decisions, breastfeeding has been my sanity. It has been this little island that I could cling to and say, "Well, no matter how badly I screwed up today, at least I am doing THIS right." It made me feel superior to all those people who couldn't, or wouldn't, make it work.

It wasn't easy. It took dedication, trust in my own body and in my judgement, support from key individuals in my life, and active determination to stay informed and educated. It's not very fun sometimes to be tied to your child, literally, by parts of the body. I didn't get a full night's sleep for the last four years, something difficult to explain to anyone who hasn't night nursed (it sounds unpleasant, but it generally wasn't). It takes the kind of dedication that it takes to do any worthwhile endeavor, and had the same kind of payment in increasing confidence, growing knowledge and expertise, and tangible results (my big, beautiful, healthy babies, all grown up and ready to let go of a fraction of their dependence on me).

Do I seem ambivalent instead of impassioned? Just understand that enthusiastic endorsement was my intent, but like many things, the reality is much more complicated. What I have done has required sacrifice, and has not guaranteed anything specific for my children. It was a loving act, but also a profoundly selfish one, since it brought me the psychological anchor I needed to feel connected to my children even as I left them in the care of others while I went out to work.

Now get me started on the subject of natural birth. ~That can come another time!~

Sunday, July 25, 2010

None of My Business: A Friend Considers a Move

I have a close friend who I have dinner with once a week by regular appointment. After we eat, we often have long, sprawling conversations in which I take stock of my life and if we have enough time to talk, I sometimes make interesting discoveries and get put together ideas that have been swirling in the back of my brain, but that I wouldn't otherwise be able to access. I am a highly verbal person and do my best thinking out loud.  It's rare that I find someone patient enough or willing enough to allow the safe space in which to let my brain use its full potential, and I really enjoy these evenings on a deep level. A lot of times for me our conversations are a cross between therapy (in the psychology sense) and personal development. Sometimes they are more ordinary conversations, where we just allow each other to vent about annoyances and catch up on recent events in each others lives. It depends on how much time we have and what mood we are in.

A couple of weeks ago, I brought up a suggestion for my friend in one of our weekly talks. I knew that there was a condo for sale in my complex, and I thought she might want to consider purchasing it. I told her about it and during the course of the evening we both got excited by the idea.

After that conversation, my friend has been coming down and actually looking at condos in the area. Last weekend she viewed and rejected the condo I had suggested, but was interested in a different condo just across the street, which would still have been in the same complex. Today was my daughter's birthday party and my friend came early with her mother and her real estate agent and they looked at some more properties. She found one that she likes and seems to be giving it some consideration. She showed me the general location and described the place and some of the features that make it desirable, and also sketched the general floor plan for me. My friend was obviously excited, and I assumed from her comments that she preferred this last property to the others she has seen.

So, I was woken just now and was lying in bed thinking about this whole moving business, and I am surprised to find myself upset. This whole thing stirs up deep and unexpected feelings. I thought, "Aha, perfect item to practice writing about."

The thing is, I haven't given my friend my true opinion on any of this, with the exception of the first conversation in which I made my suggestion. But, on reflection, I don't think my friend has asked me my opinion directly. Instead she just tells me about her own feelings and observations about the places she is considering, and I just listen and register my general support and approval.

Thus the header. I am thinking that this whole moving thing has now moved over into the category of "None of my business." After all, my friend is an independent adult and has her own thoughts and feelings. She is perfectly capable of reviewing her choices and making an adult decision about where to live and what to buy. She hasn't asked me directly for my opinions.

I just happen to think she is making the wrong decision. I think she has gone off track, and it hurts my heart to see it. I want to say something, because she's my friend. I really care about how this whole thing comes out. I also see it as partly my responsibility, because I set the whole thing in motion. Also, if you hadn't gathered, I'm not the sort of person who is comfortable sitting on my tongue. It doesn't help that in this case that I do have strong feelings and preferences, and that they are complicated by my own decisions about where to live and what to buy. They are colored by feelings about how to live, which is partly where I am upset.

Adding to my frustration is the fact that when a family member recently was considering buying a condo, I caused all sorts of ill will and lasting damage to certain relationships by getting involved when I shouldn't have and offering opinions when they were neither asked for nor wanted. I was told in no uncertain terms that it was none of my business, and I really had no defense in the end except to offer that I had good intentions. I don't want to get into a similar mess with my friend.

I think I will work my feelings out here in writing if I can manage it. I feel my lack of skill at this the most when I feel most strongly about what I want to say.

First of all, the condo that I live in is nearly identical to the first one my friend rejected, so it's hard not to be emotional on some level. My home is a one-bedroom condo measuring a grand total of six hundred and seventy two square feet. It's about as tiny as you can find in our area, so in terms of available property to purchase I assume it will always be at the bottom of everyone's real estate listings here. Just about anything in our area will be bigger or better in some way. I feel the psychological weight of this as I drive around the neighborhood, where giant houses with three car garages dominate the landscape. Even the apartment complexes close by have two and three bedroom apartments, and their monthly rents run higher than my current mortgage payments. So I realize that I am nearly at the bottommost end of the market, and I'm sure that the resale value will suffer as a consequence.

I was only able to purchase this home at all because I saw the listing during what I hope was the absolute bottom of the 2008 real estate crash, and the property was a short sale. Even so, I had to have a lot of financial help from my family to be able to even qualify for the loan, and it was tumultuous seven months between seeing the first listing and actually getting the keys.

So my decision to live in a small condo is driven almost entirely by economic forces, and everyone who knows me probably thinks of it in those terms. I needed to get out of my cockroach infested apartment and to move close to my extended family. The smallness of the condo was reflected in its price, and the low price enabled us to buy in to this crazy housing market. For most of the people I know who have lived in the Bay Area and experience the cost of living problem, this is an adequate explanation for why I would move two adults and two kids into such a "small" living space.

I'm grateful for the economic necessity that forces me to live in a small space. Because of it, I've made some discoveries about the materialistic culture that surrounds me that have surprised me.

I think my friend is making a big mistake in considering getting a bigger place in a condo farther away. She is looking at the benefit of having a two car garage, plenty of storage space, and more room inside her home. She talks about the big kitchen and having people over to entertain. I guess as I list these things, I can see that she simply values different things than I do.

I just really love where I live. I love being able to walk to the coffee shop, the grocery store, and to the elementary school. I love our shared pool and hot tub. I love our beautiful landscaped yard and the mature trees out front.

If I could offer her my real opinion, I would say buy the other one bedroom condo, rip out the whole interior and redo it to her taste with the money she would save between the cost of the two bedroom place and this one. I think she would discover, as I have, that she doesn't really need the extra room. I think she would be better off throwing out half the stuff that weighs her down and having less storage space. I think she would be better off living so close to me and to my children.

But, I have to consider that I might be completely wrong. It wouldn't be the first time I was completely wrong about what would make someone else happy. The thing is, it hurts to hear her reject the condo that is like my own, because I feel that as a rejection of the way I am living and choosing to live. I feel the bite of the subtle criticism and the nagging suspicion that maybe if my friend feels that way, then probably my neighbors think less of me because in their eyes, I have less. I have less stuff. I have less space.

I need to remind myself that this is not about me at all. It's not about how I live or what I choose to do. I am still free to choose whatever I want, regardless of what my friend decides. If I could take something positive out of this, I think it's a defense of my own choice and way of living. I love living simply. There are a few things in my life that I feel like I am doing right. One of them is my home. I'm proud of this. Maybe another night I can explore that thread more fully.

I am finding this whole excercise soothing. I think that it may have saved me from blurting my opinions inappropriately to my friend. I hope I don't undo all the good of it by spilling the beans in this week's conversation!

I definitely have to ask myself if there's more to this story. Why was this keeping me awake at night? I just don't have the skill yet to really tap in to these issues.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


I recently made the decision to practice writing, and I want to write about things that will help other people. As I brainstormed ideas, it occurred to me that the easiest place to start would be with that which is most immediate in my life: the fact that I chose to breastfeed my children.

Ironically, my youngest child is now nearing the cutoff date I and my husband have agreed on for her weaning: her second birthday, which is looming exactly two weeks from today. We are not planning on having any more children, a decision forced on me more by practical realities than choice. It makes my heart feel heavy even though I can think of a million reasons why I shouldn't go on to have the family of ten children I still joke about wanting, if only to see my husband look panicky. But the reality is that my last two weeks of breastfeeding are probably ahead of me, so this is a topic already tinged with bittersweet.

I have been nursing around the clock for almost four solid years now. My parenting has from the beginning been colored by this choice in complicated ways, some straightforward, others subtle. My experience of breastfeeding has also been emotionally colored by the parallel experience of one of my closest friends. While I have spent the last four years growing, birthing, and nursing my children, she was faced with the diagnosis of an aggressive form of breast cancer, the treatment, and the eventual difficult decision to have a double mastectomy. I don't know if there is a way to poignantly capture the experience of that in such a way that anyone other than us can feel it. Maybe if I keep at this writing practice, then eventually I will have the skill I need to express it adequately.

For the last four years, breastfeeding has been the foundation of my parenting. I started this whole parenting game about as overeducated as they come on the benefits of nursing. While I was in college and afterward, during graduate school, I obsessed about babies, about having them and wanting them. I spent plenty of time in bookstores and libraries thumbing through and reading cover-to-cover books on pregnancy and parenting, natural childbirth, and early childhood education. I worked as a nanny in the year immediately after college. I took early childhood education classes at a local community college, and although I ended up dropping out of them, I stayed long enough to create a research project and presentation on the benefits of breastfeeding, complete with cross-section diagram of oversized boob. As I recall, I volunteered to be in that particular group exactly because I wanted to learn more about the benefits of breastfeeding.

Like many college educated, middle-class, white (nominally, in my case) American women living in the left-leaning Bay Area in California, I absorbed the late 1990s, early 2000s cultural undercurrents of anxious zealotry and neo-hippieism that were floating around in the popular have-yourself-a-perfect-baby books that were (and still are) on the market, all apparently targeted at people like me who didn't actually have children yet, but wanted to have them. Eventually. After the degree and the marriage and the fledgling career, and hopefully, in those housing-market-bubble days, after purchasing a home complete with a Martha Stewart-ey, Pottery Barn-ish type custom decorated nursery room, to put the babies in. As I realized later on, a lot of the books I read back then were also subtly aimed at women about ten years older than I, women who had either consciously or of necessity put off having children until they were in their 30s and 40s.

My husband, now a full-time stay at home dad, back then wasn't sure he wanted children at all. So I had a while to think about this. We got married when we were still very young, at least compared to our fellow Bay Area spawned, overachieving, extraeducated, great-expectations peer group. I was twenty-two. Matt was twenty-three. Our son was born just after I finished graduate school, and I was twenty-six; I had already been married for four years. That was plenty of time to figure out exactly how I would do the parenting, based on the information in all those have-a-perfect-baby books. I got ready to use a sling, to cosleep, to feed my child only on organic baby food from Whole Foods market. I researched diaper services in preparation for using cloth diapers. I read up on natural childbirth methods and discussed them at length with a close friend who was also getting ready to have babies.