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More than Milk

By Betsy Liotus
Schaumburg, Illinois, USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 13 No. 2, March-April 1996, pp. 36-9

Lisa Johanson, a mother of three who now lives in Plymouth, Minnesota, had no doubt that she wanted to breastfeed. During her first pregnancy, she read all she could find on the subject and queried friends, family, and even strangers about whether or not they had breastfed.

"When I noticed a woman nursing discreetly under a tree at a company picnic," Lisa confessed, "I lowered myself and my bulging belly down beside her on the blanket and bombarded her with every hope and concern I had about breastfeeding. She graciously listened and answered all my questions. Her enthusiasm was so contagious that I couldn't wait to breastfeed."

A short time later, Lisa gave birth to a son, Kyle. Her preparation for breastfeeding paid off and Kyle thrived on his mother's milk. Yet within weeks Lisa discovered something about breastfeeding that no one had talked about: breastfeeding as a style of mothering as well as a method of feeding. The art within the act helped Lisa both nurture and nourish her new baby.

"The first thing I did when Kyle cried or fussed for any reason was to put him to my breast," Lisa explained. "It made mothering so much easier than I ever thought it could be. If the breast was not what Kyle wanted then my husband or I would try something else to make him happy."

But as a mother-to-be living in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, Pam Barr wasn't so sure she wanted to breastfeed. "It seemed like a lot of trouble for what I thought were comparatively few advantages," Pam said. However, the unexpected cesarean birth of her son, Zachary, changed her mind.

"Everything about Zachary's birth felt so unnatural," recalled Pam. "Breastfeeding was one way to salvage my self-esteem. It helped me to know there was something about this mothering business that I could do 'right.'"

Like many women who have had a cesarean birth, Pam relived over and over again the hours leading up to her child's delivery and wrestled with the possibility that it could have been different. "Fortunately," she reported, "every time I looked down at my healthy, growing infant being completely sustained on breast milk alone, my fears about having another baby diminished. When Zachary was two years old, I got pregnant again. Although Matthew was born vaginally, breastfeeding had restored enough of my faith in my self and my body that, had his birth been another cesarean, I could have handled it."

What do mothers such as Lisa and Pam have in common? Both have discovered that there is more to breastfeeding than learning how to properly position a baby at the breast, how often to nurse, and whether or not their babies are getting enough milk. While mastering these mechanics can, indeed, mean the difference between success and failure, many mothers come to recognize breastfeeding as greater than the sum of its "parts."

This is the emotional side of breastfeeding, often minimized or even ignored in favor of an important, but more functional focus on the particulars. But feelings play a significant role not only in a woman's initial decision to breastfeed, but how long she continues and how much satisfaction she derives from doing it.

A Language of Love

Experts estimate that nearly 90% of the communication that takes place between people is nonverbal. Breastfeeding is an excellent example. The act of breastfeeding "speaks" volumes to a baby in a language he or she most readily understands. The sensory stimulation that's part of the close, skin-to-skin contact that breastfeeding requires translates into a feeling of acceptance that is a baby's first lesson in self-esteem. As an LLL co-Leader once said, "Breastfeeding enabled me to tell my babies things with my body that they wouldn't understand with words for a long time to come."

Pam Barr, now an at-home mother of four, put it this way: "With three older brothers involved in school, sports, and Scouts, the baby, Dylan, rarely has me all to himself. But though my attention is often divided, Dylan clearly understands that there's a part of me that he doesn't have to share."

This communication is also valuable to women who return to work soon after their babies are born. The mother who utilizes breastfeeding to say "goodbye" to her infant when she leaves, and "hello" when she returns, nourishes a meaningful and much-needed sense of involvement with her baby. This is further enhanced if she can arrange time together at lunch breaks or leave a part of herself, her milk, for her baby while she's away.

Non-work hours, often evenings and weekends, provide another opportunity for employed mothers to "converse" with their breastfed babies. When this time is spent nursing exclusively and bringing baby into bed at night, some of the intimacy that could not be enjoyed while mother was away can be regained. Snuggled tightly into mother's breast in a way that no caretaker can emulate, baby's heart, mind, and soul hear the message that may or may not be spoken aloud: "There, there now, baby, here I am, here's Mama...and I love you."

The Gift of Clarity

Whether at home or away, busy women of the 90s often come to appreciate breastfeeding as a gift not just to their babies, but to themselves as well, one that builds into their lives opportunities to reflect on their values, priorities, and goals, both professional and personal. Such reflection is an invitation to mother deeply. This adds purpose and perspective to anything else a woman may choose to pursue while helping her pace her time and energies accordingly.

"As I sat quietly nursing," said one mother of three, "I would think about all kinds of things--my childhood, my marriage, my dreams for the future. Sharing some of these thoughts with others led me to believe that I'd make a good teacher. Eventually, I went back to school and earned my bachelor's degree in education. I now work as a reading specialist at a local grade school just minutes from home, and I love it!"

As a first-time mother back in 1987, Lisa Johanson recalls a more personal experience. "One day as I looked down at Kyle nursing contentedly at my breast, I suddenly was seized with the knowledge that I would do anything for this child, absolutely anything. It was a moment I will remember forever, because I realized that, in addition to my milk, I was giving my son a part of myself that I had never given to anyone."

The Spirituality of Breastfeeding

Other women report that breastfeeding helped them grow spiritually. Though La Leche League is non-sectarian, that does not mean we cannot acknowledge the inherently divine dimension of breastfeeding. It is part of a reproductive process that even the most earth-bound skeptics concede to be miraculous. To deny the sanctity of one part of that process is to greatly diminish the power and potential of all the other parts.

For me, breastfeeding produced a kind of cosmic commonality that sounds corny to talk about but which was really quite intense. Not only did I experience a strong sense of connectedness with the women I met at La Leche League meetings, workshops, and conferences, but also with women from past and future generations all over the world. This was a taste of life in community that I wanted my family to know. Becoming a La Leche League Leader satisfied a personal desire to serve others. Later, I learned that this ministerial element was something that many Leaders both recognize and relish.

Thus I believe that LLL has been given what many perceive as a moral, if not sacred, obligation to celebrate the profoundly spiritual nature of mothering at the breast. When we do this in an inclusive, respectful, and discerning manner, we will neither jeopardize our non-profit legal status nor compromise the diversity of religious practices among us in any way.

Sex and the Breastfeeding Mother

Yet a spiritual awakening initiated by breastfeeding does not preclude other types of awakenings--in the bedroom, for example. Throughout my years in La Leche League, many women have revealed that they experienced the same sexual freedom that I discovered through the powerful new sense of femininity that breastfeeding invited me to explore.

It seems that for many of us, the psychological pleasure derived from the growing lack of inhibition about using our breasts to feed our babies carries with it some comparable pleasures and lack of inhibition in every area of our lives, including our sex lives.

Mother Nature herself appears delightedly determined to lend assistance in this regard; oxytocin, the hormone that stimulates the milk ejection reflex as well as uterine contractions, is also released during orgasm. Nipple stimulation, a key component of the breastfeeding relationship, is sexually arousing to many women, although the degree to which this is experienced varies widely from one woman to another. Even vaginal dryness, which some breastfeeding mothers experience due to the lower level of estrogen in their system, can encourage more creativity in lovemaking.

Perhaps one woman's comment at a session entitled "Breastfeeding and Sexuality" at LLLI's 14th Conference in Chicago last July says it best: "It was the funniest thing," she said smiling. "When our youngest child weaned, it was my husband who started catching more colds!"

Such comments can be helpful to those in need of more candid discussions about the joys and the challenges that a baby brings to a couple's sexual relationship. Only then will these "new" benefits of breastfeeding become better understood and more widely embraced. This is important, because the sometimes overwhelming task of raising children is fraught with factors that are more likely to tear down a relationship with a spouse than build it up.

Healing Childhood Trauma

But one woman's passion is another's pain. A very emotional issue for some women is breastfeeding's role in facilitating the recognition of, as well as the recovery from, past sexual abuse. Not long ago, a friend revealed that the growing list of good reasons to breastfeed forced her to examine an unreasonable, and at that point unexplainable, disgust with the idea of putting a baby to her breast to nurse. While for some women this reaction is produced by living in a culture that generally does not support breastfeeding, this friend suspected something more. Looking back, she now marks this period as the beginning of a long journey toward recovery from the sexual advances of her stepbrother many years before.

"I was lucky," she confided, "I'm a fighter. When I was able to acknowledge to myself and to others the full extent of what these experiences had cost me in terms of feeling good about my body, I was determined to overcome what I could. Breastfeeding turned out to be not only the means by which I discovered the truth, but the catalyst for moving beyond it."

But as Ann Medhus-Westbrooks from Rolla, Missouri, can attest, painful childhood memories are not limited to those that involve sexual abuse.

"My mother was an alcoholic. This made my growing up years very difficult, and I decided never to have children of my own. I did not believe I was capable of loving and caring for a baby.

"But what I did not learn from living with my mother, I learned as she died. Caring for her during this time convinced me that there was a nurturing side that I didn't know I had. It was then that I changed my mind about becoming a mother.

"Now breastfeeding is helping me learn to trust the instincts that I long believed were absent. Thanks to LLL and my supportive husband, Greg, I am so proud of the loving relationships I have with my sons."

The Personal Becomes the Political

Breastfeeding confirms a woman's right to control her own body and challenges the male-dominated medical model and business interests that promote artificial feeding. Breastfeeding requires a new definition of woman's work, one that more realistically integrates women's productive and reproductive activities. Many breastfeeding mothers enjoy the self-sufficiency that results from relinquishing an economic dependence on a product that their bodies produce free. And most appreciate the opportunity to challenge society's view of the breast as a sexual object only.

All this and more make breastfeeding one of the purest forms of feminism that there is. But, as Rosemary Gordon, a Leader in New Zealand, said, "Breastfeeding can't empower women until women are empowered to breastfeed." La Leche League International's presence at the Fourth Annual Woman's Conference in Beijing, China last year was a step toward integrating breastfeeding into the plethora of important women's issues being discussed, especially world hunger and disease.

Fortunately, many who once failed to recognize breastfeeding's unique contribution to the empowerment of women have begun to re-examine their viewpoint. As a result, a growing number of women have begun to consider that by relinquishing the task of nourishing and nurturing their infants with their own bodies, they lost more than they gained. "The confidence and conviction that breastfeeding generates are as empowering as any career coup," one woman said proudly.

These insights depend upon the full range and free expression of all women's experiences, both at home and in the workplace. Only then will the vibrant, multi-colored tapestry of empowerment that true feminism represents be one that all women, everywhere, can claim as their own.

The Heart of the Matter

So, while there are many benefits of breastfeeding, the heart has a few all its own. Like a good book that has challenged, encouraged, or otherwise changed us, when breastfeeding comes to an end, most of us have learned something about ourselves that we didn't know at the start. What may have begun as an obligatory or tentative decision to breastfeed often evolves into something much more: a holistic new commitment to living and loving well and a sense of accomplishment that makes it all worthwhile.

References

WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING. La Leche League, Int'l. Schaumburg IL USA, 1991.

WABA leaflet, Breastfeeding, Empowering Women, 1995.

NEW BEGINNINGS/NZ. Vol. 11 No. 4; 87.

LLLI Reprint No. 82, Breastfeeding and Sexuality, 1985

About the author: Betsy Liotus is a La Leche League Leader and was previously a Managing Editor of NEW BEGINNINGS. She and her husband, Nick, live in Schaumburg, Illinois with their two children Michael (15) and Melissa (12).

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