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On Not Nursing at the Teat of Maternal Guilt

I like this new article by former Forward “East Village Mamele” Marjorie Ingall over at Tablet magazine, in an issue this week focusing on the body.

I had struggles myself with nursing each of my three children, and naturally the first time was the most difficult to deal with.

When my son as born, 15 years ago, the morning after the Friday night C-section I put him on to nurse and thought I was doing just that for a couple of days. Then he spiked a fever and when they ran his labs they found he was seriously dehydrated and put him in the NICU. There was my bruiser of an overdue, wouldn’t-come-out-the-usual-way of a 10½ pound son in with the premature, frailest babies in the hospital.

Why was he dehydrated? Because he wasn’t getting anything from the mama milk bar. I stepped out of the converted broom closet in the NICU where I had been tethered to an industrial-strength breast pump they wheeled in, but where I’d produced just a fraction of an ounce of milk in 30 minutes.

The NICU nurse asked what formula she should give him – regular or soy. Rarely have I felt so helpless and at a loss for what to do. I’d never considered not nursing, at least for a while. But my body was failing us both. I’d failed to go into labor spontaneously, failed an induced attempt to labor him out, and now I was failing to provide him with the only thing he needed. Maternal Jewish guilt had kicked in full-force.

My boychik is now closing in on 6 feet but is still singing (beautifully) in the upper registers and hasn’t yet sprouted facial hair. A couple of years ago I read about a study of Japanese men whose high intake of soy led to suppressed testosterone – and naturally made the jump to my boy, who drank only soy milk for a couple of years even after he was weaned from the bottle. Thankfully other studies now seem to contradict the link, slightly abating my guilty feelings.

Not nursing was totally against the cultural norm in my progressive corner of Brooklyn, where the Family Bed and Attachment Parenting are part of the local lexicon.

Marjorie links it to some Jewish compulsion to achieve, but I disagree – it definitely isn’t particular to my fellow Jewesses, but rather part of the larger culture. When boychick first came home, I went to a neighborhood La Leche League meeting and felt quickly shot down when I talked about my milk mess. Then I went home and opened the copy of Dr. Spock my mother had given me, where I saw this declarative statement: “Every woman can nurse.”

Still trying to do the best for the baby, we hired a pricey lactation consultant, who recommended oxytocin nasal spray, which wasn’t covered by insurance and had to be special ordered through a special pharmacy. We had to rent another hospital-grade breast pump, plus a supplemental nursing system, which made me feel positively bovine, plus all the other equipment we needed to pay for.

The lactation consultant asked me to stick with it for at least two weeks before giving up (about a month into my son’s life).

After 10 days and many tears of exhausted frustration dealing with this while I tried to recover from a c-section and learn to mother, I said “enough.” Getting my son that first bottle, which felt like a declaration of personal independence from the weight of cultural expectations that just weren’t working for me, was the first moment that I felt like a real mother.

We sent back the rented equipment and stocked up on soy formula.

When A’s sisters were born, I nursed them a little for the physical intimacy, that lovely skin-to-skin connection with these new beings who had for so long been literally part of me. Of course they got most of their sustenance from formula, and gave up nursing after a couple of weeks.

And wouldn’t you know it, my babies got sick less than their breast-fed friends. Epidemiologically speaking breast-feeding has huge benefits at relatively low economic cost compared with formula, but it doesn’t work out for all of us, and I’m happy to see the issue get some exposure (ahem).

I like Marjorie’s linking of our modern obsession with nursing and Jewish models of lactating femininity, the Ur-mothers in Jewish text and tradition.

At the time of my own struggle, the only Jewish link I made was to being a Marrano. When I first talked about my difficulty, at boychik’s bris, suddenly many friends mentioned knowing someone with a similar problem. I’d never heard of it before – nobody talked about it. It was like some secret life.

Pieces like Marjorie’s help lift that veil of secrecy and its attendant feelings of shame for those of us who couldn’t nurse. I give it five (store-bought) nipples.

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