Thursday, September 18, 2008

Confessions of an Ambivalent Breastfeeder

Before I was actually a mom, I was an avid crusader for breastfeeding. I inwardly cringed when a pregnant friend of mine dismissed it out of hand, saying "I know I'll get lots of bad-mommy grief, but I have just never wanted to breastfeed." I couldn't help advising her to at least nurse for the first few days, at least give the baby the benefit of colostrum. She did neither, and I was certain that her baby would turn out to be colicky, needy, allergy-ridden, and illness-prone. He was and is none of these. 

During those first excruciatingly painful weeks of breastfeeding, I held on to my convictions like a wounded soldier slugging through the trenches. I remember one particular night, sitting cross-legged on the bed with my Avery in my lap, crying hot, fat tears because every little squeeze of her suckling felt like hot lava coming out of my nipples. Steve, feeling desperate and helpless, pleaded with me to just buy an electric breast pump, no matter what it cost. Anything to give me a break from this. 

I did buy the breast pump (and got a great deal on ebay), but by the time it arrived, the worst of the physical pain had subsided. However, the emotional toll was just beginning to take shape, and the breast pump did little to allay that. As Susan Maushart puts it in her book "The Mask of Motherhood," breastfeeding completely messes with one's sense of time and space. If you were any kind of ambitious, productive, or god-forbid, perfectionist type of woman before breastfeeding, you are in for a rude shock when your hours suddenly become langorous waves of not much going on; when it all becomes a matter of "hurry up and do nothing." Tasks are interrupted, thoughts go unfinished, conversation floats away, and yet nothing seems to be happening. When your days seem blank and empty on one-hand, but you can't seem to get anything done on the other.

Steve asked me once why I didn't just spend my time catching up on movies I'd always wanted to see. I was hard-put to explain how it would be impossible to do so. The urgency of my baby's need to nurse, punctuated by cries which scoured my insides raw and filled me with panic, gave me little time to prepare even the simple task of watching a movie. I nearly always had a line-up of other basic priorities in the way, things like brushing my teeth, showering, making lunch, eating, even using the toilet, that needed to be planned in advance and taken care of first, and simply getting through any of those tasks seemed to take up most of my free time. And if I did sit down with her in front of the TV, it was inevitable that I would find myself out of easy reach of the proper remote control, or the magazine that I was in the middle of reading, or that glass of water I suddenly, desperately needed as my milk let down. And getting up to retrieve these things, disturbing the calm that felt like a reprieve, was exhausting just to think about. Plus, knowing that the movies would be interrupted every 15 minutes by cries or diaper changes made the whole idea less palatable. It was far less stressful just to not start things, to not want things. 

And then there were also the hours I needed just to look at my baby girl, whose little mouth puckered up like a rosebud when she slept, and wonder at how much love it would actually take to make my heart explode, because I couldn't imagine it being filled up any more. Let me tell you, this alone takes up a heck of a lot of your day.

All of it together: the emotional roller coaster, the constant feeling of disorganization and chaos, the sleep-deprivation, the empty stretch of "unproductive" days, began to take a toll on my mental state and I developed insomnia and went through my days in a heightened state of anxiety, agitation and worry.  One horrible night when she was 8 weeks old, after nursing for hours and not being able to calm Avery or even lay her down for a second, I looked at the ceiling and screamed in frustration. Which of course scared her to death and broke my heart in two. I called Steve at work, hysterically crying, and demanded that he come home immediately, for what kind of mother screams with an 8-week old child in her lap? 

A mother who needs a break is who. A mother who was overly idealistic in her views on "attachment parenting" and breastfeeding, who believed implicitly that one must subvert one's whole self to the needs of the infant. A mother who had spent her entire life learning to be autonomous, independent, and productive, and who was shocked to realize that motherhood insists you let go of all of these.

I needed a break from her. I needed a break to feel like myself again. But it was me and only me who could give her the sustenance she needed. She refused the bottle, only the breast would do. There were solutions to this, but lost in the fog of my idealism, I couldn't see through to those.

I looked in vain for assurance, validation, help in all the parenting books I had, but the only answer to be found there was that if it hurt, I must be doing it wrong. If I had ambivalent feelings, I must be depressed. Noone mentioned how hard it truly was. In short, if I wasn't the blissed-out earth mother selflessly giving everything over to my child, I must be a failure. Over time, I gave up reading the standard child-rearing manuals, and turned to books on the reality of mothering written by real mothers. Narratives which told the truth about child-rearing without the prescriptive, idealistic advice of the manuals. This was when I started to forgive myself for having complicated emotions about the whole thing. When I started letting go of some of the idealism and guilt. 

I finally started to supplement her diet with soy formula when she was about 6 months old. It began with a bottle before bedtime to help her sleep, and by 8 months, she was having 20-30 ounces a day, (an amount I still felt I had to apologize for if anyone asked.)

Now, reading this, it sounds as if I was a total masochist for several months, but the reality is complicated. In truth, once the physical pain of breastfeeding went away, there was something dreamy and exquisite about those hours I spent rocking, holding and nursing Avery. I felt we existed in a small, charmed circle, curled together for hours on the bed, on the couch, tucked into the overstuffed chair. But I sometimes think that Hell is being forced to do something you love 24 hours a day, 8 days a week. When I needed to get away, and couldn't, nursing could also be tortuous.

Avery is a happy, healthy little girl now. But she is no healthier or happier, that I can tell, than any of her formula-fed peers. Once, when Avery was five months old and we were visiting friends in Houston, she came down with a cold that she picked up from my friend's pre-school son. She cried inconsolably all through the 40th birthday party I had flown from Atlanta to attend. One of the mothers there asked me if she was breastfed exclusively, and I said yes. She looked at me sideways, as if I must be lying. "That's strange that she got sick, then!" she said. 

We have to remind ourselves that, although breast milk is certainly superior on many levels, it does not immunize your children against all illness. Children catch colds. They do. Formula wasn't invented until the late 19th century. Children were breastfed for millenia before that, and guess what, a good percentage of them didn't make it to their 5th birthday! 

Breast milk does not guarantee your child an illness-free existence. It does not guard against allergies or autism if those are in her genes. It will not get your child an Ivy league education. It has benefits, but having a happy mother also has its benefits.

So when women sheepishly admit that they gave up breastfeeding early, I can only look at them with understanding, not pity, and certainly not judgment. Nursing Avery was one of the hardest things I've ever done. And I gave up portions of my sanity to pull it off. If I had to do it again, I would still breastfeed, but I would also give myself breaks, and introduce the bottle much earlier if needed and hopefully without so much guilt. I would ask for, and accept, more help.

And I while I would encourage new moms to breastfeed, I will also tell the truth about it. That it is both more rewarding and more frustrating than you will ever think possible. That it's okay to not like it sometimes. That it's okay to give yourself a break. That formula is not the end of the world. I no longer cringe inside at the mention of bottle-feeding. Instead, I commiserate.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What worries me about Sarah Palin

I have been trying to put into words what worries me about Sarah Palin (besides the fact that she's a religious extremist who wants to charge raped women for their rape kits.) I felt like a "bad feminist" for questioning how she could possibly do all she does with 5 children, and I felt secretly horrified, though also afraid to admit it to my feminist brain, when I heard that she went back to work 3 days after her special needs child was born. But this article by Emily Bazelon and Dahlia Lithwick in Slate Magazine spelled out my fears for me. The whole article is here, but these are the paragraphs that made me sit back and say "Exactly!" 

"We don't begrudge Sarah Palin her decision to run for vice president, or her decision to have a baby with Down Syndrome, or even the act of doing both at the same time. Under most circumstances, that kind of ceiling-cracking would have us burning our nursing bras in solidarity. But oh how we wish she didn't have to hear about her pulling off all these feats without household help--and without, or so she's determined to make it appear, breaking a sweat or gaining a pound. Most of us mommies wish we could tote our kids to the office and work uninterrupted as they macrame quietly in their Pack-n-Plays. It never worked for us, though. Does this woman sleep? Do conservative feminists really have to be the kind of larger-than-life working mothers, who make every pro-family policy or job-based concession the rest of us require, and have finally demanded, seem like self-indulgence?

Think of the family-friendly policies Palin's example would seem to brush aside. No need for child care subsidies or universal preschool if a mother of five can run the state without a babysitter. Who really needs family leave laws that protect women's jobs if a governor can go back to work a few days after giving birth? And no need, it would seem, for employers to make any kind of concession to the complications that working parents bring with them to the workplace. Feminism, to the GOP, appears to mean never having to say you're exhausted."


Friday, July 18, 2008

Our mothering life

"What, exactly, are the circumstances of our lives as mothers? Studies of both "normally" and "abnormally" depressed women indicate three broad areas of concern. The first is the fact that mothering young children is carried out in isolation from what most of us have come to consider "the real world." This isolation is physical--entailing a virtual entrapment in one's own home--as well as emotional and intellectual. Its result is to render motherhood a socially invisible enterprise. The second condition of contemporary mothering is closely related to the first. The majority of women who mother young children, regardless of their marital status, function primarily as sole parents, assuming full charge of the demanding, continuous physical tasks associated with childcare and domestic duties. Several decades of feminist rhetoric notwithstanding, in most families the "help" that fathers provide remains exactly that: occasional assistance provided on request and often under sufferance. This is particularly so in the early years of a child's life, when its physical demands are most insistent. Third, because few women in our society have the opportunity for practical, hands-on preparation for motherhood, our knowledge base tends to be hopelessly abstract and theoretical. As a consequence, new mothers face a steep learning curve as they struggle to reconcile expectations with practical realities. For many women, the result is a lethal cocktail of loneliness, chronic fatigue and panic. Under the circumstances, it would be amazing if we didn't freak out."

From "The Mask of Motherhood" by Susan Maushart

Postpartum Depression?

"Public recognition of Postpartum depression--indeed, the very existence of the diagnostic label--has proven to be a two-edged sword for women. At the same time as this has bestowed legitimacy on the more acute forms of suffering, it has tended to pathologize the full range of baby-shock experiences. By elevating such experiences into a bona fide "disorder," we take them out of the realm of the everyday, encouraging the misguided belief that baby-shock is something other women have (and therefore, given our drive to get it right, something every woman fears). To this extent, the very existence of the diagnostic label has tended to drive the normal abnormalcy of early motherhood even farther underground. So that we cling ever more tightly to the mask, insisting to each other--and even to ourselves--that we've got it all under control, and that this awesome developmental drama, this tumultuous rite of passage toward female adulthood that we call early motherhood, is for us (though possibly not some "depressed" other) a mere hiccup in the smooth progression "from here to maternity."

"I can remember only too well wanting to throw my first baby out of the window," confessed one woman to researcher Carol Dix. Research suggests that such destructive impulses are probably as universal among new mothers as shapeless days and sleepless nights. Yet to admit as much publicly remains a deeply subversive social actively. Indeed, even admitting to such feelings privately is more than many us can manage.

We have seen that, in our society at the present moment, the transition to motherhood is for most women a demanding developmental stage, punctuated by disturbing episodes of "normal abnormal" impulses and behaviors. The sooner we accept this truth, and the more willing we are to share honestly what we experience, the less vulnerable we will be. Our only protection, in other words, is to stop trying to maintain our invincibility. At the same time, however, it is necessary to examine the issue of what is normal and what is not from a wider perspective. We can say with certitude that there is nothing "wrong" with women who find the transition to motherhood a frustrating and difficult experience. We can absolve ourselves absolutely of individual guilt. But what of our collective responsibilities? Can it be "right" or " normal" that, as a society, we have constructed the mothering role in a way that quite literally makes women sick?

From this point of view, the enormous stress suffered by women in the transition to motherhood, while it may be statistically "normal," is in fact a form of acute cultural deviance. The lack of fit between expectations and realities of mothering may be experienced as a personal crisis, but it is ultimately a social tragedy."

From "The Mask of Motherhood" by Susan Maushart

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Welcome to Motherhood

"When she becomes a mother, it is as if a woman must go deep in the bowels of the earth, back to the elemental emotions and the power which makes life possible, losing herself in the darkness. She is like Eurydice in the Underworld. She is pulled away from a world of choices, plans and schedules, where time is kept, spaces cleared, commitments made, and goals attained , to the warm chaos of love, confusion, longing, anger, self-surrender and intense pleasure that motherhood entails."

--Sheila Kitzinger