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.


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