Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Guest Blog: Generations of Breastfeeding

One of my first memories is right after my brother was born. I was two years old in March of 1975 and he was born the following July. He was born early in the morning, at home. I remember walking down the hall, through a doorway and seeing my mother propped up in bed with him. The doorway is hazy in my memory – my mother looks like I’m seeing her through wavy glass. According to my mother (I don’t remember this), when I walked up to the bed and started talking to Matt, he unlatched himself from her breast and turned towards my voice. This was about 15 minutes after he was born. Then, in two-year-old fashion, I ran up and down the hall, saying over and over again, “It’s a baby! It’s a baby! It’s a baby!” I was just a little excited, apparently.

I also remember nursing. I nursed until just a few months before my third birthday. Matt was closer to three and a half when he weaned. My few memories of nursing are like the memory after Matt’s birth – hazy and dreamlike. I remember my mother asking me if I wanted ‘na’ after I had been upset about something and walking across the room towards her. I remember the feeling of being cradled in her arms. When I think about these memories, when I call them up in my mind, there is a warmth in my being that I had not experienced in my life until I had my own children.

My mother was a La Leche League leader and a homebirther when both of these things were much less common than they are now (although as a midwife, I must say that we help a dismally small percentage of women, even now!). I remember going to La Leche meetings with her and hiding under the plastic stacking seats in the back of the room while she was showing a childbirth videos. She tells me that I would go home, pretend like I was giving birth to my dolls on the couch and then nurse them.

I know that these early experiences shaped who I am today, just as my mother’s early experiences shaped her expectations and ideas of what is normal in parenting. My grandmother, in 1948, nursed my mother until she was one. I am still amazed by this. Can you imagine? My grandfather was in the Marines when my mother was born, so my grandmother had my mother in a military hospital. My grandmother told me that when she would breastfeed my mother, the nurses would pull curtains around her bed, because “nobody wants to see that.” My grandmother had no support, no direction from nurses or doctors. She is one of my breastfeeding heroes.

I feel fortunate to have grown up in a family where extended nursing was the norm. I never questioned that when I had children, I would nurse them for at least a couple of years. That’s just what you did, right?
Now I have two nurslings of my own - a beautiful girl who will be three in about a month and another daughter
who just turned six months. They are the light and greatest loves of my life. They are the sun that my husband and I dance around every day. They dictate my schedule, my sleeping and waking, my playing and cleaning. The three year old is just learning to use a butter knife and loves to help me get dinner ready. This evening, she pulled a package of mushrooms (one of the things I let her cut up) out of the refrigerator and said, “My cut mushrooms, Mom. My big girl.” The baby is often riding on my back while we cook together, either soft and curled up against me, asleep – or cooing and trying to look around me to see what is happening. It is a magical time. They are both changing and learning so much every day. I try desperately to be present with them as much as I am able – to really and truly give them my attention so that I can savor every moment. Some days I do a good job, some days, not as much.

One of the ways I do feel that I can give them both my attention is by breastfeeding. My job as a midwife allows me to be with them most of the time. The oldest went with me to prenatals until she was mobile, and my youngest is doing the same. I do not take them to births, but I average around one or two births a month, so while I may be gone for a long time when I am at a birth, I am able to pump, have someone bring me the baby, or a combination of both. I feel very fortunate that this is the case for me. I know many moms who have to work regular full-time schedules and it makes it very challenging to breastfeed. Don’t get me started about paid maternity leave!

So far, I haven’t felt the need to wean my oldest, although I do understand completely how someone would. Nursing two children can be overwhelming, and even though my oldest doesn’t nurse a lot these days, I still often tell her no if she asks to nurse during the day or she wants to nurse while the baby is nursing. I understand that our nursing relationship is a two-way street, and if I am not enjoying it, that my feelings will affect her experience as well. That being said, I don’t feel the need to completely wean her. I feel very strongly that meeting a child’s early needs for attachment leads to greater independence later in life. Forcing independence before they are ready rarely ever works. The ‘sacrifices’ I make to continue nursing my oldest do not seem like sacrifices to me at all. My children are young only once, and their need for me will only be this great for a relatively short amount of time. It is okay if my wants get pushed to the side for a while.

Breastfeeding was easy for us from the beginning. They both latched on within minutes of being born and went from there. In this, I also feel very fortunate. I know through my job as a midwife and through friends that this is not always the case. I also have no doubts that my early exposures to breastfeeding with my brother and other children in La Leche formed the ideas in my mind about what is normal. Seeing a baby bottle feeding is odd to me. Seeing my own babies eat out of a bottle is disturbing on a gut level, even though I know it is sometimes necessary and that it’s my own milk.

Recently, my oldest has taken to “wearing” her dolls and teddy bears. She either puts them down the front of her shirt or has me put them down the back. A few times she has asked me to make her a backpack out of a scarf so she can wear them on her back without them falling down. Sometimes when she does this, she will walk around the living room, making little bouncing motions with each step and saying, “sh sh sh sh” as she walks. She is calming her babies, just like she sees me doing with her little sister.

The first time I saw her do this, the feeling I had was something akin to de ja vue. I felt a moment of stillness and depth and awareness of connections. I could see and sense the connections between the parenting choices of my grandmother, my mother, myself, and some day, my daughters. I wished for someone else to see what I was seeing, just so I could grab their arm and ask, “Do you SEE this?”

My oldest also nurses her dolls when she says they are sad. When she hears a baby crying in public she will let me know that the baby needs to nurse. Just as my ideas about what is normal were formed at an early age, my daughters are learning the same things. They are learning that it is normal to respond to your children’s needs, not ignore them. They are learning that it is normal to breastfeed – even in public! They are learning that holding your baby close is the best way to calm them. That sometimes a cuddle and a little bit of nursing is all you need.

I am a Licensed Midwife in Arkansas and a Certified Professional Midwife, working at Birthroot Midwifery in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I am also a student and breastfeeding advocate. I am married to the best hubby I could ever want. In response to being asked to cover up in public while I was nursing my youngest (which I did not do, by the way), I have started an organization called Breastfeeding Friendly Arkansas. Our mission is to normalize breastfeeding through education, support and empowerment. I feel tremendously lucky to have the support I do in terms of breastfeeding. Many women do not. Our organization is working to change that! You can find us on Facebook and at BreastfeedingFriendlyArkansas.