Friday, April 27, 2012

How I Became "That Weird Breastfeeding Mom"

When I was pregnant with Sassy, I was a scared young college student. Worried about what this unexpected blessing would do to my life, but even MORE worried about what I would do to her life. I mean, I don't have the best relationship with my parents. Although this is not the time or place to get into that. Suffice it to say that my childhood gave me many examples of how I did NOT want to parent. So suddenly realizing that I was about to become a parent was scary.

There were many things I was unsure of, but I focused much more on the end result of having the baby instead of the journey of pregnancy and birth. I made many choiices because it was just "the thing that people do." I willingly followed every recommendation and request of all the medical professionals I met during my pregnancy because I knew very little about how birth really worked. To sum it up, I did a LOT of things that I would have done differently if I had bothered to educate myself.

But do you know the one thing that I did "right?" I decided to breastfeed. So many people in my life said that it was pointless to try because I could just use formula. They said it was "ok for other people, but I think it's gross to have a baby sucking on your boob." They said it would be too hard and I should not bother putting myself through the heartache. But I decided that women had fed babies by breastfeeding for generations, therefore I would give it a try. Worse case scenario? My baby would have formula.

I took the hospital lactation class, which back then basically told me the following:
  1. After giving birth, you can breastfeed, use formula, or both.
  2. The first milk is called colostrum, which yellowish and what you have before real milk comes in.
  3. The real milk will come in a few days later. You will probably get engorged. Cabbage leaves in your bra or warm/cold compresses will help discomfort.
  4. You can hold baby in several ways to nurse. Namely, they demonstrated the cradle and football hold with a baby doll. No mention of other holds.
  5. You can use a pump if you like to bottle feed your baby breastmilk instead of formula.
Yep. An entire lactation class compressed into 5 small points. No mention about latch, nipple types, typical nursing session lengths or volume, growth spurts and their ability to make you feel like you have a low supply, other nursing positions, ways to boost supply, donor milk, supplemental nursing systems, etc.

Since this was my primary (ok, ONLY) education about breastfeeding, it is no surprise to me now that I was supplementing with formula at 2 weeks and had completely weaned by 3.5 months. I didn't bother to further my knowledge while pregnant with Diva, but did slightly better, making it to 4 weeks before supplementing and weaning at 4.5 months. When I breastfed my girls, I was unaware of anyone in my life that had breastfed except for one longtime friend that had a similar experience with her first child, supplementing early and weaning within a few months.

Although I LOVED the closeness and bond I felt while breastfeeding my squishy newborns, I could not fathom breastfeeding an older baby. I mean, even the revolving door of pediatricians we saw with Sassy at the university clinic said that it is recommended to breastfeed for 6 months, so that is the number that stuck in my head.

Breastfeeding after 6 months?
Breastfeeding a baby with teeth? OUCH! No way, Jose!
Breastfeeding a baby that is squirming and crawling? Eww.
Breastfeeding a baby that is walking? Double Eww.
Breastfeeding a baby that can ask for it? GaaaRoss.
Breastfeeding a baby older than 1 year? Are you freaking kidding me?

So yeah, I had some hang-ups. I was all for breastfeeding being natural, biological, beautiful.....just don't feed a baby over 6 months, that has teeth, that is mobile, or that can ask for it. That's not judgy, right?!

I was in for quite a rude awakening after we found out we were expecting Monkey. My one friend that had nursed a baby before I had Sassy? We were reconnecting during my pregnancy with Monkey and she shared that she had finally found true breastfeeding success thanks to fantastic perinatal education (think of a hospital childbirth class, but BETTER) and a great support system that included a monthly "Breastfeeding Cafe" hosted by the perinatal educator. My friend invited me to attend one, so I jumped at the chance. I would LOVE to breastfeed to 6 months this time!!

That first Breastfeeding Cafe was such a great experience. Lots of information, handouts, discussion about childbirth (which jumpstarted me on my journey to an unmedicated birth), ladies sharing personal experiences, and more people than I had ever seen breastfeeding in public EVER. In fact, I honestly don't think I'd ever witnessed another soul nursing in public other than myself until this meeting. It was AMAZING!

Well, all except the part where we went around and introduced ourselves. A few people went through their intro, stating their name, how far along they were if they were currently pregnant, how many children they had, how long they had successfully breastfed, etc. When it came to me, I gave my own summary and said that I was there to learn and gain support so I could have a more successful experience this time around. They moved on to a few more people. Then the last person that introduced herself said her name, that she had X number of children, had breastfed them all, and was still breastfeeding her 31 month old.


31 months? That is almost 3 years old! I quickly glanced around the room and saw that most of the ladies were smiling, nodding their heads, and acting like what she said was perfectly normal. No one was shocked. No one was stunned. No one asked her if she was weaning, why she had nursed for so long, etc.

So clearly, I seemed to be the only one that was flabbergasted. So I just turned away and tried to not make eye contact with "that weird breastfeeding mom" so she couldn't feel my disapproval. I enjoyed the rest of the Breastfeeding Cafe, gathered some informational sheets, and talked to my friend and the perinatal educator after the meeting ended.

I was determined to breastfeed to 6 months and learn everything I needed to in order to make that happen. I bought books, found online resources that they recommended, and went to the next month's Breastfeeding Cafe with a long list of questions to ask. During my conversation with the perinatal educator at the end of the meeting, I mentioned that my goal was 6 months and she asked me why my goal was 6 months when the AAP recommends 12 months and the WHO recommends 2 years. So I explained that I just couldn't picture nursing a baby once they could crawl, walk, had teeth, etc.

She looked at me and asked if I thought her daughter (who was not quite 2 at the time) was too old to breastfeed.

CRAP! She put me on the spot. You know, that awkward spot where no matter what answer you give, chances are that you still might offend the person asking the question.

I mean, her daughter met all of *my* requirements for being too old to nurse. She was over 1 year, had teeth, could walk, and could ask to nurse. But at the same time, I had spent a few hours in a room with this woman, watching her sweet daughter cuddle her and nurse occasionally during the Breastfeeding Cafe. It seemed natural. It didn't seem icky or gross.

I am SO thankful that she asked me that question and put me on the spot because it forced me to reevaluate everything that I thought about breastfeeding. I mean, if her almost 2 year old didn't seem too old to nurse to me, would I really feel like I needed to stop breastfeeding my own baby at 6 months?

Sometimes it is the tough questions that bring forth the light to shine on the truth.

So I went through the entire second half of my pregnancy thirsty for knowledge that started with my desire to breastfeed to 6 months. After Monkey's birth, I decided that my goal would be to get to 6 months, then I would see what the next step would be. I was afraid of saying "I want to nurse ____ many months/years" based on my past experience; I didn't want to set myself up for failure or set the bar high and end up with tons of the dreaded Mommy Guilt.

But you know what? When we hit around 4 months, I decided that it was going so well that I would try for 1 year. We introduced solids around 6 months through a few purees and mostly table foods, but I didn't feel the need to wean. Monkey started crawling, but I didn't feel like I needed to wean.

We made it to around 9 months and I thought, "Huh, this is going pretty well. Weaning at 1 year would put us in the middle of flu season and at risk for all those nasty illnesses that are so common during winter, maybe I'll wean in April. Yeah, April will be 15 months, that is my new plan." Monkey popped his first tooth at 10 months, but I didn't feel the need to wean. Monkey started walking and turned one year old, but I didn't feel the need to wean. Monkey learned to "ask" to nurse by fiddling with the snap on my nursing tank and eventually making the sign for "milk," but I didn't feel the need to wean.

All during this time, I surrounded myself with a great support system. I attended the monthly Breastfeeding Cafe. I read books. I researched the benefits of breastfeeding past 6 months. Along with the Facebook group created by ladies I met on an online parenting forum, we created a spin-off group just for those of us breastfeeding, although it has slowly grown as we had more people that are looking for support, advice, and education. I "liked" pages on Facebook, such as Respect the Breast, Ask the Lactation Consultant, and The Leaky B@@b.

All of these things helped me to feel more comfortable with breastfeeding as I analyzed my personal preconceptions. All of these things should be credited for normalizing breastfeeding for me.

That's right.

Breastfeeding is normalized for me.


Now, that's not to say that I don't have hang-ups still. I am currently nursing an almost 16 month old. I don't have a real "goal" anymore, but I can't say that it would be bad if we made it to the recommended 2 year mark. Right now it is mostly a nursing session at wake-up, a nursing session between dinner & bedtime, and occasional other sessions thrown in depending on illness or other factors.

That being said, I can't imagine nursing an older toddler, even though I know that research suggests the natural age for weaning (if not influenced by our pesky modernization and cultural changes) is between 2.5 to 7 years. Now, we cannot say for sure when the right time to wean is because breastfeeding is a biological mechanism meant to sustain and further our species, therefore I can see where there was probably a time that breastfeeding to the age of 7 was necessary for survival. Do I plan on doing it? I can't imagine nursing a 2 year old, remember? But you can read more about the elusive natural age of weaning here so that you can see that nursing to 2 years or *shudder* beyond is actually pretty damn normal.

Not too long ago, I was at an event talking to an expectant mother. She said that she was hoping to breastfeed, so I made sure to let her know about the resources in my area that helped me so much during my breastfeeding journey with Monkey. I let her know that expectant parents, parents to current breastfeeding children, past breastfeeders, and those just wanting to learn were all welcome at the Breastfeeding Cafe and that I rarely miss a meeting. This is how the conversation ended:

Her: "Oh, so you have a baby that you are nursing again?"
Me: "Yeah, he's right there." *pointing to Monkey*
Her: "Oh. Um, how old is he?"
Me: "15 months."
Her: "Oh. That's, um, nice."

And I saw the look in her eyes. The look of "OMG, how can she STILL be nursing!" The look of "Ewwww, that's too long." The look of "Oh, she is one of those weird breastfeeding moms!"

But, that's ok. I don't mind being "That Weird Breastfeeding Mom." Because I completely OWN that. I am proud to be that weird breastfeeding mom, still nursing her baby that is too old to nurse in the eyes of others. Still nursing that baby after they started getting teeth (it doesn't hurt, I actually don't even feel them). Still nursing that baby that can walk and run. Still nursing that baby that can ask to nurse. Ok, let's be honest, technically I am nursing a toddler now.

Do you know WHY I am ok being labeled "That Weird Breastfeeding Mom?" Because if someone thinks that I am that weird breastfeeding mom, it forces them to realize that normal women can and do breastfeed past the first few weeks or months. It forces them to reevaluate their preconceptions about breastfeeding. It might make them interested enough to do a little research and stumble across many of the benefits of nursing past one year.

And it just may be one step towards normalizing breastfeeding for them.
So you may call me "That Weird Breastfeeding Mom."
But I know that I am a Lactivist, normalizing breastfeeding one conversation at a time. 

P.S. The beginning of my breastfeeding and childbirth journey with Monkey began with Esali Birth. Although I did not take her perinatal series, I learned SO MUCH thanks to her sparking the fire for knowledge. She offers online classes, so even if you are not in my area you can still check her out and benefit from her knowledge and resources. Education is the first step to making informed decisions and is vital to achieve the best outcome possible after making those choices. And even though my baby factory has closed its doors, I still sometimes think about taking her class just to expand my knowledge. I'm such a birth junkie.

1 comment:

  1. another great post!! I wish I could have made it longer with Sophia! I'm proud of you!!