My Quiet Revolution
From New Beginnings, Vol. 25 No. 6, 2008-09, pp. 9-10
"What are you looking forward to the most?" chirped the young woman leading our prenatal class. It was nearing the end of our session and we were chatting with the instructor and another couple, also first time parents. "Nursing," the word bolted from my lips. I didn't need a moment to consider my answer. It was instinctive and definitive. There was a pause however. My husband and I both knew my next thought before it even made its way to the surface, "I hope I can."
I was almost 38 years old and nearing the due date for my first baby. I had wanted a baby of my own since the day, years earlier, our next door neighbor had placed her new baby girl in my arms. It was only a matter of time. Years later, after marrying my long time love on the shores of the Aran Islands in Ireland, we returned home with the best souvenir in the world: a wee baby to be born nine months hence.
I grew up surrounded by women -- aunts and cousins and family friends. I was the youngest of them all and I watched as these excellent women and mothers, formula fed each and every baby that arrived. To my recollection, I never saw a baby being breastfed until I was in my late teens and even then it was not a member of my family or even anyone I knew. And yet, as important things tend to do, breastfeeding somehow crept into my consciousness and by the time I was ready to carry, birth, and feed my own child, there was no question that she would be nourished at my breast.
But I had my doubts.
While I do not remember ever speaking directly to any of these new mothers about their breastfeeding experience, I would, from time to time, overhear the same hushed chatter that accompanied the arrival of a new baby. While the details were unique to each new mother, the refrain was always the same. "You know," one woman would say to another, "she tried, but she just wasn't able to do it." The "it" was breastfeeding and long before I stood in my own prenatal class, discussing my hopes and dreams for my new baby, the doubt and fear that I would not be able to breastfeed my child settled in my brain and tugged at my heart.
It sure seemed simple. One baby, two breasts, lots of milk and a hungry tummy. Insert tab A into slot B and press "On." Presto! A happy union. And yet, if all these young mothers strolling in and out of my life holding a baby in one hand and a bottle in the other were not able to breastfeed, what chance did I have? Clearly there was something physically wrong with the breasts in my family. We must all be defective in some way. Perhaps we didn't produce milk. Perhaps we were lacking nipples that properly expressed the milk. Perhaps we made babies who could not suck. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
I began staring at my swelling, tender breasts in the mirror and gently encouraging them. "You can do it." I wasn't very convincing. My husband reassured me. Friends who seemed able to breastfeed while standing on their heads also reassured me. My doubts lingered. What if, what if, what if?
Then two things happened. The first happened while responding to an innocent question from our prenatal teacher. The words "I hope I can" slipped from my lips as if I were whispering a dirty little secret that I was embarrassed to tell. Then, smiling sweetly, she looked me straight in the eye and asked a question that turned me on my head, "Why wouldn't you be able to?" The first thing that raced through my head was, "Don't you know? I come from a long line of defective breastfeeders." The next thought was more along the lines of "Hmmm, well, why not indeed?" During the weeks that followed, and as my baby's arrival grew closer, I felt increasingly optimistic about my ability (and that of my much maligned defective breasts) to nurse a baby. Then the second thing happened. My sister-in-law, also pregnant with her first baby, suggested we go to a La Leche League Series Meeting and I jumped at the chance. That chilly March evening, I walked into a room full of mothers breastfeeding newborns, babies, and toddlers and I never looked back.
Today I continue to nurse my two-year-old daughter. "Milk of Mummy" (her expression) is an important part of our relationship. It has not been without its difficulties. Our first three months were filled with tears, compresses, potions, pumps, desperate phone calls, and more tears. The learning curve was steep. Who knew there was so much to know! I give thanks for shadowy memories of the hard times. We are fine now. I tried once and I can nurse while standing on my head! In the beginning there were plenty of times when I wanted to quit; but I knew I wouldn't. We endured. It got better. A good life lesson. I am sad for the ones who, for a lack of information and support, did quit.
Interestingly, all the babies that I watched being formula fed when I was little are now growing up, some starting to have their own babies. I don't want them to doubt the process and themselves as I did. I want them to see that although there may be lost knowledge on the art of breastfeeding in our family, it is not lost to the greater population. I want them to see it and wonder about it and internalize a positive attitude about breastfeeding while they are still young. I have attended many family events since my daughter's birth very conscious of the fact that we are an anomaly. We stand out! I am not one for yelling from the hill tops but sitting among the crowd, with my baby nestled in my arms, nursing as needed and smiling at one another, sends a pretty loud message...it is possible, it is normal, and it is beautiful. This is my quiet revolution.