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Nursing Babies, Anxiety Too

The subject of breast-feeding turns people into sputtering loons. At one end of the spectrum, there are the militant nursing activists (unfortunately known in mom circles as “breast-feeding Nazis”), who insist that women who choose not to nurse are selfish, lazy, weak and ignorant. They pooh-pooh stories about plugged ducts, pain and bleeding. They claim that the women who do have problems, or who claim they don’t make enough milk to satisfy their babies, simply need to get the right lactation consultant and try harder. Sometimes, they helpfully add that infant formula is full of poison. They trot out statistics that imply that a bottle-fed baby will turn into an asthmatic, sniffling, cancer-ridden, short-bus-riding pea-brain with bad teeth.

At the new mom’s support group I attended at the Elizabeth Seton Childbearing Center, there wasn’t one exclusively bottle-fed baby. Some new moms came in with tubes taped to their fingers and milk-filled pouches hung on their chests, desperately trying to noodge their own milk to come in or to teach their babies to suckle. One woman interrupted a session by pulling out a bottle and yelping, “It’s breast milk! Really!” She then laughed shrilly at her own anxiety. The women with the contraptions generally came for only one or two meetings. After they’d disappeared, I imagined them at home, triumphantly nursing. But I found it more likely that they’d given up, switched to formula and were too ashamed to come back to group.

Contrast that shame with the boobular pride of the hipster nursers. My homegirls love to feel like outlaws for nursing in public, which is terribly challenging when everyone approves of what you’re doing. Here in the East Village, you see moms on Tompkins Square park benches, lifting their punk-rock T-shirts and looking around hopefully for someone to glance at them askance. Pretty much never happens. It’s so hard to be a rebel when no one gives a hoot.

I am aware, though, that a park on Avenue A is not a microcosm of the city. Though New York is the state with the oldest law on the books guaranteeing a woman’s right to breast-feed in public, it’s not always tolerance central. Back in October, a woman was kicked out of the New York Public Library for nursing. And at the women’s TV network where I used to work (its tagline back then: “A media revolution led by women and kids”), there was nowhere for women to nurse. At the network’s offices, only the top executives had doors. A nursing mom who was a producer on my show ducked into bathrooms and storage closets to pump. One day, a lighting technician walked in on her, which the rest of the staff found icky, yet very funny. On the air, an associate producer commemorated the moment by surprising the producer with a trophy made out of a breast pump. The producer had to laugh, because the show was live and the cameras were on her. Ho, ho. Several months earlier, the company founder had stood on a chair, revival-style, promising the faithful that soon there would be on-site day care. (This didn’t happen, but they did build a flashy computer lab. It sat empty as the dot-com revolution stopped revolving.)

And of course, New York is not a microcosm of the country. Two weeks ago, the Dallas Observer reported the story of Jacqueline Mercado, a Texas mom who was indicted because of the film she dropped off at a photo booth at an Eckerd drugstore. Taken by her husband, one of the photos showed Mercado nursing their one-year-old. The charges (“sexual performance of a child”) were ultimately dropped, but the state took away the couple’s baby and four-year-old. Five months later, the children were still in foster care, despite the children’s own family-court-appointed lawyer saying they should be returned. (CPS feels that despite the district attorney’s decision not to prosecute, other photos the couple had, showing Mercado topless while bathing her children, were enough cause to consider her an unfit parent.)

The photo of Mercado that started all the trouble is more graphic than the one of me that illustrates this column. She’s topless, while I am arty. I am also white and upper-middle class, and I speak excellent English, despite some Forward readers’ belief to the contrary. Even if I were shirtless in my photo, I don’t think the Texas cops and social service bureaucrats would mess with me, were I to live in Richardson, Texas, which I would not because the bagel situation is problematic. I may be a Jew, but at least I’m not a newly arrived Peruvian immigrant who cleans the local Wal-Mart. Or so, I imagine, think local authorities.

Of course, breast-feeding fanatics aren’t immune to class issues either. When I got plugged ducts and mastitis, I paid $160 for a visit from a lactation consultant. Actually I paid for five visits, because I got an infection and I’m allergic to penicillin and none of the other drugs worked, though they worked great at giving Josie diarrhea and making me so queasy all I could do was lie on the couch. But where was I? Oh yes, I ponied up $800, then fought for a year to get reimbursed. (And hey, I was lucky enough to have insurance.) I’m great at dealing with bureaucracy, and I had time to unravel it, because I could take time off after having a kid. Some women can’t. They can’t quit their jobs, the way my TV co-worker ultimately did. And the world of unskilled laborers can, golly, be even less pump-friendly than a TV studio. People who insist that everyone can breast-feed exclusively for six months need to ponder this fact.

In short, the world is full of nuance, and neither the “You’re killing your baby!” contingent nor the “Breasts belong in high-budget Hollywood movies, not babies’ mouths!” contingent has a monopoly on narrow-mindedness.

But here’s a question. Couched in a dependent clause up there was a hint of my own tale of nursing despite spiking 102-degree fevers and getting malted-milk-ball-sized lumps in my breast for four months. Why did I soldier on? Yes, I knew that breast-fed babies have less chance of getting ear infections, pneumonia, lymphoma and tooth decay. I knew nursing provides protection against allergies, asthma and eczema, the big three of neurotic Jewish ailments. I even knew that nursing moms have a decreased risk of breast cancer. But that’s not why I did it. In my heart of hearts, I felt that nursing was about winning. I’d failed to have the drug-free, hippie childbirth I wanted; dammit, I was going to do this right. I was as rigid and doctrinaire as the folks I condemn. When it comes to human bodies and human frailties, we can all get a little crazy.

Write to Marjorie at [email protected].

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