Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Other Side of the Boob

I had an interesting experience last month.  We had a girl over to interview her for a babysitting position for E, who was just over 12 months then.  E was coming down with a cold (or getting over one, or something.  It’s hard to keep track these days.), and she was getting a little grumpy and clingy with me.  So, while we continued the interview, I lifted my shirt, pulled the cup of my non-nursing bra down, and I nursed E.  The nanny-candidate didn’t flinch.  That’s not what was interesting about the experience.

What was interesting was that I felt weird.  I wondered if she thought I was strange, sitting here breastfeeding my baby who, really, was almost a toddler at this point.  I wondered, also, if E was even getting any milk, and I wondered if it mattered.  I wondered if I was messing up our relationship by continuing to breastfeed or if I was making her even clingier or if I was doing the right thing or...  

Well, that was interesting.  Interesting that I’m still nursing (seems more accurate than breastfeeding at this point).  Interesting that I feel weird about it.  Interesting...

If you had asked me a year ago what I thought I’d be doing now, I definitely wouldn’t have said breastfeeding.  Back then I counted every time I breastfed E, expecting it to be the last, waiting for her to reject the breast.  Back then I was crying over spilled 50mL bottles of pumped breastmilk that took painstaking hours to fill.  Back then, I was pretty certain that when E was 1, I’d sit around watching all of my friends continue to breastfeed and strengthen their bonds with their toddlers while E played by herself in the corner...and then went and made her own poison formula bottle and fed it to herself, you know, since we’d have no bond at all.

Back when I felt a little more desperate to nurse *
But, that’s not what happened.  And I feel like I should be elated because of it.  In some ways I am, but in most ways my feelings are much more jumbled than that.

As most of you know, I’ve had my struggles with feeding E.  I wanted so, so desperately to do a good job, to do what was best, to breastfeed my baby.  When she was 3 weeks old, I bought my first can of formula, and her breastfeeding has been supplemented with it ever since.  I just never made enough milk for her, not nearly enough.  And, no matter what you read or what other people say, it can happen.  It’s not a question of doing something wrong or not trying enough or (god, how could I believe these things!) not loving her enough.  Sometimes it just doesn’t work out.  And that’s why formula exists.  It’s not poison.

From 1 month until almost a year, Ebba’s main milk intake was formula in a bottle, with as much breastmilk as she asked for.  After 11 months, her main milk intake was cow’s milk, still with breastmilk thrown in when she wanted, though not nearly as often.

When E was about 11 months old, I thought she had weened herself. And I wasn’t sad.  I congratulated myself on lasting that long.  At 2 months, I thought we’d barely make it to 3.  At 3, I just knew we’d never make it to 4.  But the months kept coming and E kept breastfeeding.  So, when, before her first birthday she just stopped asking for the breast, I didn’t force it.  I let our nursing rituals fade away.  

Less than 2 weeks later, however, E started asking to nurse again, in earnest.  She wanted it all the time, everywhere.  She would pull and tear at my shirt and whine “boob boob boob.”  And I’d blush and wonder why, in all my infinite wisdom, had I ever thought that her learning that word was cute?

I was confused.  Sometimes I was so happy that she still seemed to feel this connection, stronger than ever.  Sometimes I felt manipulated and used. (by a 1 year old.  seriously, I know how absurd that sounds.)  Sometimes I felt embarrassed, or like I’d done something wrong, or like people were staring.  Sometimes I just didn’t want to nurse her and I’d try to distract her.  Sometimes I would nurse, but I’d sigh and say “I thought we were done with this.” As it turns out, extended nursing is as uncomfortable as all those sanctimommy and lactivism blogs say it is.  I see why they fight for breastfeeding rights.  (Or, well, do I feel it’s uncomfortable because they say it is?  I don’t know.)

Things are a bit better now.  I generally nurse E when she asks (which is getting less and less again), and I try not to worry as much how much milk she’s actually getting, because I’ve realized it doesn’t matter.  I don’t begrudge her asking for it (well, not usually), and I nurse her when and where I feel comfortable.  

I think that’s the main thing about extended breastfeeding (scratch that--that’s the main thing about any feeding.)  At this point it’s not so much for nourishment as it is for bonding and comfort.  And that’s okay, as long as the mom feels comfortable too.  It didn’t feel good to me when I would huff about and whip out my boob for E with a discontented sigh.  It probably didn’t feel good to her either.  So, then, what was the point of the whole exercise?  That’s why I do set limits now on where and when I nurse.  I’ll say things like “wait till we get home,” or “I’ll nurse you over here instead.”

Why would I want a bottle when I can have this!?
Whatever circumstances you’ve gone through as a mum and whatever choices you’ve made, those are the right ones.  If you didn’t breastfeed past 4 months, kudos to you (it was probably much easier to ween then, hah!).  If you’re breastfeeding your 3 year old, wow!  I doubt I’ll be joining you for that.  If you’ve had to formula feed since birth, rock on.  You are amazing and doing what’s best for your baby.  If you’re a single dad bottle feeding.  If you’re a mom tandem nursing twins.  If you’re introducing formula to go back to work.  If you’re exclusively pumping.  If your tits just hurt too damn much to breastfeed past a month.  All of you.  Kudos to you.  It ain’t easy!!  Feeding a baby isn’t easy, no matter how you do it.  It’s also extremely rewarding and builds that bond no matter how you do it.

I see now more than ever the importance of us all supporting each other.  Because all sides are hard.  People do need to support breastfeeding, which is something I never realized before.  But now I get it.  It is hard.  It’s uncomfortable.  Some people do stare.  Sometimes you don’t want to.  It’s not easy.  

But all of those other mums out there feeding their babies how they’ve had to, or how they feel comfortable, well, we all need support.  Feeding a baby his hard.  Fighting about it makes it harder.  The most important thing is building that bond with the baby--well, okay, the most important thing is making sure the baby gets food and survives of course, but after that, it’s building that bond.  And the only way to do that is to feel comfortable and feed with love.  If we’re fighting about whether someone gave up to easily and switched to the bottle too soon or whether someone should cover up their boobs in public or whether someone’s feeding their kid when he’s too old...well, then no one is comfortable.

I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to see so many sides of this issue.  I don’t know how long I’ll continue to nurse for or how I’m going to go about weening.  I’m sure I’ll probably need support to sort out my feelings about nursing my 1 year old.  I know everyone out there feeding a baby needs support, I know it more than ever now.

So, I support you.  I support ALL of you because what we’re doing is just freaking amazing and hard, but we’re still doing it.  Feed on!

Big and Strong and Well-fed!

* A little note about the pictures:  I really wanted to include one of me bottle-feeding Ebba, but I couldn't find one!  I'm not actually surprised.  I have been so ashamed of having to formula-feed my baby that I must never have consented to a photo of it in action.  I should have.  It's adorable and cozy-looking.  Bottle-feeders out there, I'm not forgetting you!  This just goes to show how much we need to shed the stigma.