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!~

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