When I was in college, I apprenticed at a summer stock theatre at the New Jersey Shore. I worked six and a half days a week (Sundays were Children’s Theatre days); shows were at night and rehearsals for the next show during the day. I was an Assistant Stage Manager; it was physically demanding and emotionally draining. I lived in a big flophouse (the “Cast House”) ten blocks from the theatre with a bunch of degenerate actors who slept with each other and stole each other’s food. A lot of my time was spent at things like keeping them away from the cigarettes on the prop table. A child actor in Annie 2 antagonized the big Golden Retriever playing Sandy, then wiped her slobbery hands on my pants. “Well, you don’t have to go onstage,” she sniffed at my shocked look. I was in love for the first time but my boyfriend lived in Connecticut and I didn’t have any time off to see him. I left the island twice that summer: once to attend my grandfather’s funeral, and once to accompany the Props Mistress to Wal-Mart. When I returned from the latter, the other Assistant Stage Manager looked at me dreamily. “How was it?” she asked, without irony. “Was it like a dream?” And it was.
The first time I went to the grocery store after my son’s birth was like that.
In all my Internet research I come across an article in The Atlantic called “The Case Against Breastfeeding.” It posits that in a surprise twist, formula feeding has become the more feminist choice, since it allows for more equally shared childcare duties between partners. It points out that breastfeeding is “free” only if you consider women’s time to be worth nothing. I read about the shifting class divide in breastfeeding: something that used to be primarily for the poor has become a marker of privilege. I read elsewhere that Dr. Sears, the guru behind the current upper middle class fixation with “attachment parenting,” started out as a fundamentalist, who has since disavowed those roots but still has a chapter in his popular baby book about going back to work which essentially says: is there any way you can stay home?
I finally seek counseling. The first woman is kind and repeats everything I say after me, but it feels good to talk and I cry anyway. She says, “Why do you think you’re crying?” She doesn’t take insurance so I go to another woman, who says she thinks I have “baby blues,” not post-partum depression. She says she always felt embarrassed to nurse in public. Still, I report to her and my son sleeps peacefully in his stroller. After two months of supplementing, I announce to this woman that I am not going to breastfeed anymore. My son and I go home and sit on the couch and he nurses, truly nurses, for the first time in weeks. He doesn’t fall asleep and I don’t use the shield and I think for a few golden minutes, ‘maybe it could work,’ and then I let it go.
Now, four years later, I am starting to wean his little sister after 15 months of nursing. There were so many things that were different this time: she wasn’t so sleepy when she was born and nursed right away after delivery. She stayed with me in our hospital room (cuddled next to me most of the time) for our whole stay. My final lactation consultant was on staff at the hospital and came to visit on the first day, while the official LC for the ward was still making rounds and wouldn’t see us until right before we left. I was more educated, calmer, had more perspective. My husband was home to support me. My daughter just liked it more.
I’m so glad, so lucky that I got to have two different experiences: the difficult feeder, the low supply, the nightmare of power pumping, tongue tie, NICU, supplementing, and, finally, switching to formula… and also the exclusive breastfeeder. I now have two very different children who are both healthy, strong, smart, and loving. And I have deep compassion for women on all parts of the baby-feeding spectrum. I’ve learned that breastfeeding is simpler, but that doesn’t mean it is easier.