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Breastfeeding is like five whole minutes of your life, to speak


I'm speaking from the position of a person with two kids. Not babies, kids. And trust me, that makes a difference.

While they still need us on a daily basis in many ways, our kids don't need us on a minute basis.

In general, that means things such as
  • if a kid is thirsty, I can say, "Hey you know where the cups and water are..."
  • if a kid is hungry, I can say, "Hey, grab a cheese stick or apple."
  • if a kid wakes up before sunrise on a Saturday I can say, "Hey, go play in the playroom."
  • if a kid is bored I can say, "Hey, go knock next door and see if your friend can play."
Do you see a theme? I have more space, more choice. My kids are fairly independent, and I can baby them, or not. But they do still need me, and parent is still my number one job.

Recently, there has been some hoopla about a couple of articles that were semi to very critical about breastfeeding and its antifeminist yoke. I've read several bloggy responses, comments to those, and the original articles in question (Judith Warner's latest blog post at the New York Times talking about banning the breast pump and Hanna Rosin's Atlantic article about the case against breast feeding).

Do you want to know what I think? I think it's much ado.

When I first had my first baby, I joined a great mom's support group. People razz Massachusetts but seriously, it's a great state. It gets an awful lot right, including healthcare, which I still miss. Part of the service to new moms was a free, nurse-lead support group once a week. For the entire first year of your child's life.

I can't possibly express how very valuable that was, but I expect you can guess.

I promise it made all of our lives that much better. Every single place should offer that exact program.

But the very best thing about that group is the timeline the nurse drew.

One day all of us new moms were having a good, old-fashioned feel sorry for ourselves vent. We felt overwhelmed, we felt too taxed. We felt touched out, exhausted, done in. Our bodies felt off-kilter, our backs ached from carrying big diaper bags and babies. We felt drowned.

"Of course you feel that way," the kindly nurse said understandingly, "This is taxing, it's exhausting. You are done in. But let me show you this."

After agreeing that the average age of the group was about 32, she drew a line, marking off certain life highlights---first day of school (A), high school graduation (B), becoming a mother (I).

"Here's what you don't know yet," the nurse said, "But I do, because my kids are grown and I have grandchildren now." She added two lines like this:


and in between those two close together lines (I) that? That is how long your baby is a needy little baby.

J marks the spot when you----rather than your baby---are begging for your offspring's attention and affection. The rest? is the rest of your life (God willing).

Do you see much space between the two Is? That's right---not much; it's a blip.

Do you see how quickly J comes? That's right: fast.

It can feel like forever, at the time. You can think it's going to kill you, at the time. You can think you'll never be a real person with a real life again.

I lived through that baby period (I), twice. I know how it kicks your rear end. I know how it takes all of you, physically, mentally and emotionally, and then demands more. I know you cry Uncle (or just cry period) and wish for your own Mommy.

I also now know that nurse was right: it's a blip.

My kids have no round left on them; they are all length and angles. Cribs, sippy cups, toddler beds, four outfits a day, bottles, special baby food, and all the accouterments of infancy and early toddlerhood are finished and gone.

But guess what?

I'm still a mom.

I still have to work out how to work, live and play without shirking my parental duties, which, for the record, are in play for the remainder of our lives.

So while these moms sit and kvetch about the "unnatural antifeminist oppression" that breastfeeding is, I will pause and wonder just how oppressive they find the rest of parenting---and if that doesn't trouble them, then I will wonder just what it is about using one's body to nourish one's child that is so deeply, inherently submersive and subversive for them.

I'm going to guess it's a matter of perspective. Or possibly lack thereof.

The timeline is a tough concept when you are mired in the midst of the Is, but keeping it in mind can help, does help, as does a sort of Zen acceptance of, "This is now, and this too shall pass."

Breastfeeding is a matter of months, literally. I know very few people who go past 36 months, and let's be honest, we all count in months until after 3, don't we? So months. Breastfeeding is a matter of months.

If these women feel oppressed and tied-down and suppressed as strong women from the few months dedicated to breastfeeding---then how in the world will they ever reconcile the lifetime duty and obligation we take on for our children when we become mothers? The compromise, the sacrifice we are obligated to make at times, sometimes too frequently for our comfort?

And that's what it is really about, you know?

When we engage in a lifetime partnership with another person, to some degree, we begin living our lives for that person. When we become parents, to an even larger degree, we begin living for those people, these people, our children.

And, somehow, we must balance that with living for ourselves. It's a condition of humanity. It really, really is. Whether you ever become a parent (or not), unless you are an absolute hermit, in some way you must balance living for yourselves with living for and with others.

If you do become a parent, that doesn't end when we wean a nursing infant, whether it's done from the breast or from a bottle.

I breastfed, a number of my mom friends did too, and a number did not. It seemed split fairly down the middle, to the best of my recollection. I could not have cared less what the other mothers did; I was too busy trying to do my own thing. But, it seems that there were freedoms and limitations to both breastfeeding and formula feeding.

For example, you know how mindless you can be when you are sleep-deprived and a new mom. If I left the house with just me and my baby? We were fine for the short period of time we could be out, you know, diaper and nap time and good humor span considered (all of which factors are relevant regardless of feeding method). If my friends did the same, they had to go back home to get the bottle, formula and water.

If my friends wanted to get away by themselves for a while, it was no problem usually; they could leave the baby with a sitter and a bottle of formula. That is, if the baby would eat from another person other than mom. And guess what? Sometimes? A baby won't.

I could do the same, but only for as long as my pain point of engorgement could stand it. I left bottles behind, too. So usually my baby and whoever cared for her was fine; it was just me.

But I found, when out for Mom's night out with fellow moms---and I did go out; I appreciated, courtesy no doubt of our support class, a culture that encouraged us moms to nurture ourselves, too--- we all had a sort of "time limit" out and it seemed to be about the same length, regardless of whether we were engorged or just tired or simply ready to be home with our babies.

What I'm really saying, I guess, is that the obligation to the baby really wasn't due to or freed from based on whether we breastfed or bottle fed. I did not personally notice a big difference in lifestyle.

Maybe it's mental---and that's a fair qualifier for deciding between breast or formula, because an okay mom is a better mom.

Me? I consider myself a slacker sort of person, in a way. I like to achieve maximum efficacy with minimum effort. For me, that was breastfeeding. It spoke to all of my needs and wants. For other moms, it's better to formula feed.

It is what it is.

At McDonalds today, half a dozen four year olds ran like wolves. I couldn't say who got breast and who got Similac. I also couldn't say who co-slept, who did not, who was sleep trained, who was not, who had a pacifier, who did not, and so forth. The children appeared happy, healthy and nurtured and I doubt a single one of them had the exact same infancy as another.

At the elementary school today, fifty seven year olds ran like wolves. I can't tell you what sort of infancy any of them had, either.

I stood to the side with the teachers, also moms. Although I can't tell you what their early days with their babies was like, in terms of specifically what they chose to do or not do. However, I'm sure I could tell you in general what the experience was like: simultaneously empowering and take you down to your knees like. That seems to be universal.

But today, the kids ran madly and happily, and the women, all of us working, stood on the side and had intelligent cogent conversation about things.

Breastfeeding, bottle feeding, pacifiers, sleep training and all the weighty decisions of infancy are a phase for you and your baby.

Those will give way to other weighty matters, such as "my kid is six and not reading yet, is this an issue?" and "oh no Mean Girls!" and "Gifted and Talented: to test or not to test" and "ballet and soccer, just enough extracurricular activity or too much?" and "holy crap are we saving for college yet?" and so forth.

If you feel so oppressed by the charge of feeding your child that you make it a Big Fat Political Issue on Par with Lack of Fair Pay and Piss Poor Family Leave protection...let me assure you that the ONE THING that never changes is hungry offspring demanding food and weighty parenting challenges. The issues change and kids get more independent...but they will always demand nourishment in some way.

If nourishing a child is oppressive to the level of being felt as anti-feminist to you, then I don't know...maybe it's not for you.

And that's fine.

That's what feminism is: choice for us as women, freedom to choose.

Yeah, there is the common choice, the popular choice, the choice generally regarded as ideal and bucking that method is sometimes tough, but if you're happy with the choice you made you should sit within satisfaction in that, okay?

The rest of us are probably way too self-absorbed and mired in our own choices to be spending much time judging you and yours.

And if not? Oh well.

It truly, truly is like the the quote from Hamlet that I used in my last post says:
"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
William Shakespeare, "Hamlet", Act 2 scene 2
Oh yes, easier said than done, trust me, I know.

But how much wiser we can be in our reconciliation if we know and accept that, I truly believe.


Anonymous said…
I really like this! very well put and puts into words many things I've been thinking since I became a mother!
Anonymous said…
I don't think we give young women the honest evaluation of motherhood that they deserve to hear before succumbing (or not) to the biological tug that none of us are immune to.

There is nothing anti-feminist about being a mother and how you choose to do it is a reflection of who you are as an individual which goes beyond are gender assignment, I think.

I understand not wanting "mother" to be one's primary identity and perhaps that is what this is really all about. Men are not saddled with "father" first, so why should we be?
Meghan said…
This is exactly how I've felt since reading the mentioned articles. Why does it matter? As long as your child is getting what they need, it doesn't matter. I myself chose to breastfeed both mine, and being a slacker was the biggest reason. It just made life easier for me! Thanks for the great reminder that as women we need to brush off the lame battles such as whether to breastfeed or bottlefeed, and focus together as a group on the issues that we really need to work on.
Julie Pippert said…

Good point and also I think you hit on the major cultural dichotomy we face right now: personal identification versus cultural identification.

I would say that my husband identifies himself as father at about the same priority level that I identify myself as mother.

In other words, I think it is for him as much his identity as it is for me.


The culture at large doesn't seem to allow for that for him as much.

We are sort of suspended: I am supposed to downplay my motherhood to compensate for my professional and feminist identities (which, in a way is freeing), and he is not able to indulge in his identity as father as much (which is sort of oppressive).

It's a bit ironic, right?

But, we are maintaining fairly traditional roles, with him working and me mostly at home largely responsible for the kids. At least during the day. At least on the surface.

It's more complicated than that, though.

And an identity challenge for both us from personal to cultural.
Julie Pippert said…
Meghan, your last line is key for me.

Anonymous, I am so glad, thanks.
Yolanda said…
While I haven't read Warner's piece, I did read Rosen's a few weeks ago. Interestingly, I posted a link to the article on the message board for my playgroup. Only one person (out of 25) responded to it. No one was willing to touch the issue with a ten foot pole.

And that, I think, was Rosen's point. Why does feeding a child warrant sanctimonious debate and righteous indignation? I didn't interpret her article as suggesting that breastfeeding was anti-feminist, rather I felt her argument was against the "The Breast Is Best" culture of affluent motherhood, which she suggested is perpetuated by the non-nourishment claims as to the benefits of breastfeeding.

In other words, I think she agrees with you. When it comes to nourishment, there are two (arguably) equal choices for mothers. However, choosing one method over another each has genuine tradeoffs. Some of these are concrete (choosing formula makes it easy to trade off night time feedings), while others are not (an inanimate, plastic bottle will never create that rush of hormones or allow you to feel the prickly sensation of a letdown). It would benefit all mothers to have these options presented as neutrally as possible, so that maybe (just maybe) we take one more battleground off the competimommy war map.
Anonymous said…
When I had my first, my MIL kept saying how breastfeeding was tying me down (ironic, b/c she breastfed, but her kids took a bottle). And a friend of mine said "I didn't have kids so I could not be tied down." Yeah, breastfeeding and being pregnant and TTC have taken up the last six years of my life, but in September, when this last one becomes a toddler, I will mourn those six short years.

That said, I did not just breastfeed because it was easier. I try to avoid putting processed foods into my kids for as long as possible. I try to keep things as natural as I can. That is not anti-feminist. That is parenting the way I see fit.
Anonymous said…
Also, pumping is not that bad. I use a manual, which I like a lot more than an electric. And I pump every morning to keep my supply up. Plus, the pump frees women who are breastfeeding to have a drink if they want (I don't, but a lot of women pump and dump). Really, I think it was a very stupid article.

Your post, however, was fantastic.
Magpie said…
Thank you, Julie, for very level-headedly saying what I've been thinking. It is much ado about nothing, and certain not the fight we need to be fighting.
Amanda said…
My third, and last, will turn a year old on the 30th of this month. She is breastfeeding, as her sisters did before her. I am aware of how the end to this end looms near, your description of the blip reduced me to tears. I am so grateful for what I have had, the way I have been able to give. I don't cross judgement on how anyone approaches this part of parenting, rather I am grateful for my complete satisfaction and no-regrets attitude toward my own.
I doubt I'll be able to tell the histories of other kids five years from now, but as I draw my last breath, I'll be grateful for the history I will know my girls had in these early years.

Thanks for such a thoughtful post.
Amy in Ohio said…
Just in response to one of the other commentors, let me say I'm extremely proud to list "mother" as my first identifier. I have no problem with that, and I label myself with that freely with or without society.

This is not to say that I cast aside the other facets of me in order to be the Mommy. I feel lucky, more days than not, I think I have pretty good balance.

All that said, this post is fantastic. I try hard not to get too riled by breastfeeding articles, but these latest ones were hard to miss. I was lucky to breastfeed for thirteen months and sure pumping at the office was isolating and tiresome, but it was all worth it and it worked for me.

If it doesn't work for you, great, cheers to you and cheers to choices. We're all lucky to be able to make them. But sometimes it seems, years later some moms are still searching for a pass from society, from themselves? We just need to forgive ourselves and celebrate our great kids and ultimately our mothering - no matter how we do it.

Great post.
MARY G said…
You should see what that blip looks like from my 67 year old vantage. But I find I still define myself as a mother. Part of a list of things I am, but there.
For me, the string never quite broke. I may not hear from the daughters for weeks at a time, but who they are and what they are doing to some extend defines me.
There are several posts around the place on this theme (wrote one myself a few weeks ago) but this one is pure Julie - rational, thorough, organized and fascinating to read. Lovely.
MARY G said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
alejna said…
Thanks for this fabulous and fabulously thought-provoking post. I only wish I could have read something like it when I was beating myself up over my breastfeeding troubles when my daughter was a baby. Now with my second baby, it is all too clear to me how fast this time goes. I understand the blipness of it.

Whenever I read your posts, Julie, I always find myself lamenting that I don't have more time to write responses. If only you could read some of the posts I've had in mind to write! (By the way, are you ever going to have the Hump Day Hmm again? I really did enjoy thinking about the questions you posed, even though I never managed to actually write a post in response.)
Lady M said…
Thought-provoking post, as usual. Thanks, Julie.

My younger son turns one tomorrow, and I'm both thrilled at his growing independence and sad to no longer be the only thing he needs in the world.
Heather said…
So absolutely on the mark. It is all perspective.
Mad said…
I was going to say what Yolanda said.

I found it interesting just how quick people were to slam that Atlantic article and damn the author as a second-rate mother. I thought the writer made extremely valid points even if she did have too much of a "me against the world" tone.

Maybe if breastfeeding had worked for me rather than sending me into the worst spiral of despair and depression in my life, I would see things differently, but I can't help but be frustrated at how, whenever anyone is at all critical of the current cultural framework that props up breastfeeding, they get analyzed and judged to death. Something just ain't right in the world when that kind of thing happens.
Julie Pippert said…

I'm feeling challenged how to respond to you and Yolanda because (a) I'm in a hurry and (b) I thought my POV on both choices was clear (i.e., not judgmental of choices).

Mary wrote a GREAT post on it:

I'm not judging any discussion of choice.

I'm analyzing and judging the framework that writer used to defend---and oh it was so very defensive and attacking simultaneously---her choice. To be clear, also, I'm not exclusively referring to one or the other articles, but to the discussion at large on many sites on the Internet.

My criticism is of knocking down others who made different choices in order to justify one's own decision.

That will NEVER be good by me.

I'm also not good to agree with the idea that I am buying into anti-feminism and oppression by my choices.

By choosing, I am benefiting from feminist freedom.

In general zealotry and extremism on any side of any issue is counterproductive.

And just as some mothers might feel crushed by a zealot who props up breastfeeding as the ONLY good way to mother, I will debate the opposite extreme that asserts that breastfeeding is anti-feminist.

My point in my post here is there is a happy middle and we should aim for that. Do what you can. do your best, and in the end, it works out.

You could put your gorgeous M alongside my P2 and nobody could say how either was fed as an infant.

This doesn't need to be a battle with sides or attacks.

I didn't think it when I sat alongside my two friends who used formula while I nursed, and I don't think it now.
Mad said…
Hey sweet Julie,
Apologies for any kind of misunderstanding. I wasn't saying that _you_ were bashing the woman who wrote the Atlantic piece. What I am saying is that I was shocked at how swift and numerous the responses were in the blogosphere to contain and counter her point of view right after that article came out. It was a little overwhelming and in many places seemed mean-spirited and it also seemed to take her intent out of context.

The author of the piece in the Atlantic, to my mind, never said that breastfeeding was anti-feminist. She argued that creating a societal culture wherein women feel obligated to breastfeed at all costs is anti-feminist. In short, she also supports choice and then questions how our choices have been compromised.

The article wasn't perfect but it was a small breath of fresh air in a climate where few dare to challenge the pressure that's placed upon women to be uber-milk-spouting-mothers.
jeanie said…
I feel sad that motherhood, while being a fantastic option in life, also makes us a target for every choice that is made during this "blip".

You put it well. Thanks Julie.
Julie Pippert said…
Awww, Mad, am so glad to hear you say this---both for your message and for you taking the time to say it. Thank you.

I do sincerely wish the Atlantic writer had been less offensive (not as in "grievously offended" but as in "on the offense") in her position. She made it too political and polarizing to be quite a breath of fresh air for me---not to mention, as you said, the swift responses from both fronts (word choice intentional).

So ITA: there does need to be a breath of fresh air.

I am perhaps very sensitive to this because I know women become mothers in many different ways---not all of them with breastfeeding as an option.

All (good, omitting implication of any of those harmful mothers, which do unfortunately exist, but presuming we are talking loving mothers KWIM?) mothers nurture and nourish, regardless of method.

I said in my piece "nourish from one's body" but that is a word choice I wish I could edit.

I wish I'd said "nourish from one's self" because that's my real point.
True that!

I would say a lack of desire to nourish one's child is more masculine than feminist. But, hey - like you I already crossed that hurdle and got to the other side.

Glad to have the girls back all to myself, but you're right - the kids still need to be fed and there's a family leave policy in this country that is actually a real problem.
Stephanie said…
My baby is nearing his first birthday, and I couldn't be happier. The expectation is that I will be nostalgic and start gearing up for another pregnancy. Instead, I'm mostly just relieved.

He has needed so much from me - me specifically, me only, regardless of being bottlefed since birth. He slept only on me for weeks. He would only go to sleep if I (not his dad) rocked him for months (until recently, actually) ... he has screamed his way through his first year, and though that's not his fault, it will only get better as he gets older. Bring on the sippee cups! Walk already! Let's put the tiny baby phase behind us.

I see my peers finding their identity in whether or not they use cloth diapers or slings or co-sleep or sleep-train. I am guilty of it, too. So who will they (and I) be in four years, when all of those decisions are obsolete?

My neighbor and I encourage one another all the time by saying, "There's no fourteen year old boy in the world who still takes a bottle (or is rocked to sleep, or wakes up to eat in the middle of the night, or wakes up calling for his mom every morning at 5 am, or ...)

Thanks for the reminder though. It really does help to keep perspective, in the moments when I'm eating dinner with one hand while trying to soothe the baby with another and cutting up chicken into little squares for the toddler.
Kyla said…
We had that same little co-sleeper. Was it called a SnuggleNest?

I honestly, honestly think the the whole breastfeeding/formula feeding thing is getting a little pushy lately. It is a choice. If you breastfeed, GREAT! If you give your baby formula, GREAT! We need to be mindful of allowing women to make their own choice, in either direction.
HomeGrownLife said…
I've been mulling over that article from The Atlantic for weeks now. There's so many issues brought up. I feel badly that motherhood in America is often a continuous series of attempts to one-up the other. Breastfeeding just happens to often be one of those ribbons to add to the "good mother" category. For me, bf was a no-brainer for all 3 of my kids. It really is a blip on the radar screen of life...
Hip Mom's Guide said…
Now THAT is using your words. I love this, Julie. Having an infant is hard, hard work. No doubt about it. I often tell people with babies that the days seem so very long but the years go so very fast. It doesn't always (or often) seem that way when we're in the thick of it, but suddenly here they are, almost as tall as we are, with iPods and cell phones and girls texting too often. Thanks for adding your voice and perspective.
What on my mind said…
I am in the closing phases of breastfeeding my last baby ever. she is 20 months, I am 48, and my older girls are aged from 22 to 26 YEARS.

so breastfeeding for me this time around is really poignant, because i know how all too well how fast they get to be adults, and how very quickly the baby years fly.

although she has been the most demanding baby of all of them i have been stashing every memory away somewhere safe - menopause is fast approaching, and then old age will gallop in with all its flags and bells waving, and this phase, this precious innocent exhausting challenging magical age will be over. i have loved every moment - even the toughest. having the chance to revisit mothering with a wiser head and more stable marriage, and so many more life skills - oh - a once-in-a-lifetime gift. how can i measure that against the tiny amount of real time that breastfeeding her takes?

when i am on my death bed at some ripe old age, i sure as hell am not going to be regretting the moments in time that were devoted to nourishing my babies. those life chances are fleeting and transient, and they only come once.

enjoy your choices whatever they are, and allow other women theirs. that is after all what the liberation was all about. freedom of choice and no judgement.
Veronica said…
Wonderfully written. We're deep in the trenches with baby #2 at the moment and SURE it's hard and SURE it's exhausting, but I also have a 2 1/2 yo and I know how fast things go.

To be honest, I think I'm enjoying #2's infancy more, because I'm not constantly looking forward for the next milestone.
surcey said…
Very well written. Thanks for sharing the timeline idea. I really enjoyed this post.
Sukhaloka said…
I <3 this post, even though I'm not a mom(and had better not be any time in the near future!)

Militant feminism has always got my goat, and when feminists try to protest against something that is a natural bodily function which actually GIVES life, aren't they basically putting themselves down by denying their lifegiving power, as well as trying to put themselves above nature?

"That's what feminism is: choice for us as women, freedom to choose." - my thoughts exactly.
Anonymous said…
Feminism is the freedom to choose what WE want for ourselves. I choose to stay home full time with my 2 boys. I do not feel that I am wasting my university education. I will get back to my career when the time is right. But right now, my kids are little, and I will never get that back. My degree will always be waiting for me, but my babies will grow faster than I can imagine and I will be wishing them back into babies.

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