Not Just the Two of Us
By Alexis Harley
Brooklyn NY USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 18 No. 1, January-February 2001, pp. 9-10
The March-April, 1999, issue of NEW BEGINNINGS began with a discussion of one of the most important benefits LLL has to offer: company. As a single, working, nursing mother of a 17-month-old, I can't stress enough how often the company, insight, and advice of other nursing mothers have preserved my sanity. With the exception of articles specifically dealing with the topics of divorce, death, or marital discord, most quality parenting publications address issues from within the context of the traditional family. They assume the existence of a father and other siblings who are willing and able to participate and help. Discussions of whether or not to stay at home obviously assume a second income; testimonials from nursing mothers who do work outside the home praise the understanding and support of spouses. So what's a single mother of an infant to do when she is quite literally the only one who can soothe her child? In part, the answer for me has been to seek the company of other breastfeeding mothers and to listen to their experiences. What they have to share is often applicable even to a nontraditional home life.
I was four months pregnant when I became single. With the limitless encouragement and support of my mother (to whom I could never express enough gratitude), I made it through pregnancy and birth. I knew all along that I wanted to breastfeed, and when I put my minutes-old daughter, Nikki, to my breast, she latched on and sucked instantly. We had no major obstacles in our breastfeeding relationship except for the fact that Nikki refused to take any fluids except my milk-and only directly from me. When she was five months old and I had used up all maternity leave time available to me, I returned to work. My company's policies support flexible schedules and it was agreed that I would work two three days from home. On the days I was at work, my mother watched my daughter and I pumped my milk. Although she had taken bottles of pumped breast milk before, Nikki now refused them completely. My mother and I tried everything to get her to drink from a bottle, but we never succeeded. I fought for and successfully transformed my flexible schedule into a very rigid one. I agreed to come into the office every morning if I could then leave and work from home for the rest of the afternoon so I would be able to breastfeed. I'd like to say that this action was entirely motivated by my commitment to breastfeeding. But I must admit that I feared Nikki would starve rather than drink from a bottle. I learned that I would do whatever was necessary to provide for my daughter's well-being. That's one of the most amazing things I've learned from being a mother.
This very stressful situation drove me to find a local LLL Group in my neighborhood. A family friend told me about LLL. She still praises LLL for the, support she received twenty years ago when financial circumstances made breastfeeding critical to her children's survival. I attended my first LLL meeting looking for a solution to the problem I was facing. Over a year later I am still attending because of the continuing support I receive by listening to the experiences of the other working (and non-working) mothers.
Although it sometimes makes me sad, and even a little jealous, to chat with mothers who have involved spouses or who have had the privilege to be able to choose to stay at home, I am consistently surprised by how uplifted and encouraged I feel after I attend a meeting. There are so many times when I attend feeling anxious and overwhelmed by my life. Perhaps I am feeling the pressure of my coworkers' desire for me to get back on a "normal" schedule, the skepticism my boss has for my need to rush home and nurse my "older" baby, or the double-sided guilt that results when neither your child nor your work seems to be getting your full attention. I walk into the LLL meetings unfocused and drained, but as I listen to the conversations around me, I am likely to recognize some very familiar laments. I notice such phrases as: "she is starting to breastfeed through the night again," "he somehow seems to know exactly what time I'm supposed to be home," and "My baby holds out for me." I am amazed to discover that one mother's child exhibits behaviors similar to my daughter's during the time we are at work. And I secretly breathe a sigh of relief when I learn that even her husband can't seem to compensate for her absence in the mind of her child. It reminds me of the universality of the mother-child bond. The act of empathizing with another mother who, like me, has to work and wishes she didn't seems to soothe us both.
LLL meetings first exposed me to extended breastfeeding and gradually strengthened my belief in it. I give credit to the Leaders and mothers of LLL for influencing my decision to nurse according to my daughter's needs. There are times I would like to be able to have someone else put my daughter to sleep so I can try to get my personal life back in order and go out on a date at night. However, my resolve to continue breastfeeding is renewed when I meet with LLL members and observe from an outside perspective the relationship between a mother and her nursing toddler. I share the awe of the power of breastfeeding to calm, soothe, and maintain a deep channel of mother-child communication. And it's funny how joking with the mothers of other nighttime nursers about our long-term sleep deprivation can provide some relief, even if it does not provide a solution. It seems that whenever I have felt pushed to my limits and wanted to try to wean out of desperation for space, privacy, and possibly sleep, LLL meetings and publications have helped me to recognize that my breastfeeding relationship with my daughter is probably the smoothest aspect of our single-parent lifestyle. When I reconsider the issues, I find that the influences I cannot control frustrate me. Breastfeeding does not contribute to the chaos of my life. On the contrary, it often helps to restore the peace.
Reflecting on my experiences of the past year and a half, I would like to offer this summary as advice to other single, working, nursing mothers (and married, non-working mothers too). First, there really are a million stories out there. If you are feeling overwhelmed, ask around-or just listen-because you really are bound to find one that applies to your situation. Next, even if you are committed to nursing, you may experience some reluctance or moments when you feel burdened, just as you would with any other aspect of parenthood. Try to evaluate whether nursing is the real problem. Remember to ask yourself whether stopping nursing would truly provide the relief you seek. Finally, nobody's family life is perfect. Everyone just does the best they can in the life they are given and we all have company for the journey.