Bye-bye, breast pump

Going back to school/work after Christmas is always hard, but there was one definite positive this week: I’m not pumping milk anymore!  We dropped the last middle-of-the-day nursing session over the holidays, when the excitement of travel and new toys made it relatively easy to coax Little Boy into changing his routine.  He’s still nursing, but only once a day, when he first wakes up in the morning.

It’s so nice to be done.  I didn’t particularly dislike pumping—it wasn’t terribly difficult for me, and my office on campus turned out to be nearly ideal as a lactation space.  But it was always a thing to do, a thing that I had to remember to do, a thing that took time to set up and put away.  It meant hauling another hefty bag to school every. single. day. and washing a bunch of tiny fiddly pieces every. single. day.  It came with a bunch of extra little tasks, like remembering to grab the milk from the mini-fridge at the end of the day, that made my mental load just a little bit larger.  Being done means that mental weight has lifted, along with the physical weight of that big ol’ bag.  It feels good.

Ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch and useless advice

Having my first experience with a clogged milk duct this week.  Ow.  The achy soreness seems to have subsided, but the spot where the blockage was still stings like a &^%!*&#^% at times.

Of course, I did a Google search for tips on how to treat it.  One of the first hits was this page from La Leche League, which helpfully begins its advice with,

Your best move is to take your baby to bed and stay there for as long as possible.

.

.

.

BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!  (That’s the sound of maniacal laughter, in case you can’t tell.)

Leaving aside any commitments that I myself might have that might preclude me from hanging out in bed all day, Little Boy would not stand for this.  He would lie still next to me in bed for exactly 30 seconds before gleefully wiggling away to play.  Maybe, if it were nap time, I could convince him to doze off nursing for a bit.

To be fair, there’s nothing strictly wrong with this advice.  It probably will help, if you can do it.  It’s just so… unrealistic.

Don’t be like this obnoxious breastfeeding advocate

On Friday, I came across science journalist Tara Haelle’s latest piece in Forbes, titled “How Toxic Is Your Breastmilk?”  The headline is pure clickbait, but the article itself is a well-written discussion of a recent medical study.  Breastfeeding mothers need not worry: the “toxin” in question has no known major effects on humans, and the study was conducted on a small, isolated population and may not be widely applicable.

Besides the well-researched reporting, what I really liked about this piece was its overall attitude toward breastfeeding, namely, that it’s good and has known healthy benefits, but it won’t make your child into Superman or Wonder Woman.  The article starts with this:

Contrary to popular belief in some circles, breastmilk is not the pure and magical serum of the Earth goddess which ensures an eternal life of prosperity and good health to all who partake. That’s unicorn milk — it doesn’t exist.

And ends by affirming:

The real take-away, it would seem, is that there is no perfect, “right” way to feed a baby. […] But breastfed and formula-fed children all across the world are all leading happy, productive lives. So carry on. Feed your baby.

Absolutely.  Ab-so-fricking-lutely.  I want to write this on a sign and shout it from the rooftops.

I’ve written before about how the media and zealous breastfeeding advocates tend to over-exaggerate the benefits of breast milk.  It was so nice to see a balanced, positive take on this frequently guilt-inducing issue that I shared the article, first on Twitter (where I am pseudonymous), and then on Facebook (where I am not).

“Don’t panic, your breast milk is probably fine,” my Facebook post began, followed by a brief note about the way the advantages of breastfeeding tend to be over-hyped.  The first few comments I received were normal conversational stuff.  Some friends and I commiserated about how the study referenced in the article was woefully limited, yet the article itself described it well.

Then stuff got weird.

Specifically, a trio of my husband’s relatives started commenting, led by a woman I’ll call J.  All three of them work in health care.  J is the mother of a toddler, whom she breastfed throughout his infancy.  Like many women, she struggled with latch and other issues early on.

J et al. COULD NOT DEAL with the idea that breast milk might be anything less than 100% perfect baby food for 100% of children.  Over the course of a number of comments, they took it upon themselves to inform me that:

Breast milk contains hundreds of compounds that we don’t know how to synthesize and so aren’t in formula.

Yeah, I know, that was the third slide in breastfeeding class.

Breast milk transfers mom’s antibodies to baby, so baby is less likely to get sick.

Uh-huh, that was mentioned in the article, and, you know, everywhere else.

Breast milk has evolved to be the perfect nutrition for babies. 

OK, but you realize this article was about man-made contaminants, right?

The article and specifically my “Don’t panic, your breast milk is probably fine” comment are “scaremongering.”

I see where you’re coming from on the article title, but are we working off of different definitions of “don’t panic”?

Breastfeeding reduces postpartum depression because it promotes “connection and bonding.”

Wait, are you trying to imply that mothers who bottle-feed have trouble bonding with their babies?  The research is also more complicated than that: if you try to breastfeed but fail, your risk for postpartum depression is much higher than if you formula-feed from birth.

The man-made chemicals in formula and the potentially-contaminated water it’s mixed with are way more risky.

I’m not sure the best response to “don’t freak out about chemicals” is “freak out way more about these OTHER chemicals.”  Also, everyone involved in this conversation lives in developed countries with safe water supplies…

Also, opened cans of formula can be contaminated with bacteria.

Uh, guys, you’re turning this into a hate-on-formula party and I’m not OK with that.

And parents mess up formula mixing all the time.

I’m starting to really not be OK with this conversation.

They are offended by the last paragraph of the article.

Uh, you mean the paragraph that says formula-fed children are leading happy and productive lives and feeding your baby is the most important thing? Um…

This article and/or study might’ve been funded by formula companies.

(Actually, they wouldn’t come right out and accuse the study of this, but just kept trying to passive-aggressively imply it.)

Mothers who “can but won’t” breastfeed are “selfish.”

Oh.  No.  You.  Didn’t.  You did NOT just say that.

Did I mention that J not only works in health care, she cares for newborn babies in the hospital?  That’s right, she’s looking after infants while judging the snot out of how their mothers choose to feed them.

Needless to say, the rest of the conversation did not go well.  I did learn what had set J off so intensely, though.  In the course of an increasingly angry back-and-forth, she brought up her own struggles with breastfeeding, telling me that she found it “very insulting” to be told that she “could have saved all that trouble and just formula fed him and he would be just as well off.”

Way to insult everyone who’s ever given their baby formula, J.  Good on you for persevering, but you do not get to make yourself a martyr and decide that everyone who makes different choices is “selfish.”  Because you know what?  Formula-fed babies ARE perfectly fine.  Sibling studies show that pretty clearly.

So yeah, it’s been an emotionally exhausting weekend.

Lessons from a year of breastfeeding

Little Boy’s first birthday is coming up, which means that my husband and I have survived 12 whole months of parenthood (!) and that we’re about to be the parents of a toddler (!!).  It also means that I (with significant help from my husband) have achieved my goal of breastfeeding for the 12-month minimum recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.  Here are a few of things that I’ve learned from those 12 months:

Breastfeeding can be easy

This isn’t to say that it will be easy, but it can be.  Every breastfeeding reference that I’ve encountered, whether in baby care books or online, emphasizes how difficult it can be in the beginning.  There are pages dedicated to resolving clogged ducts, soothing cracked nipples, boosting a low milk supply, and fixing a painful latch.  These resources are really, really important—it’s critical that new moms know that these issues can be resolved—but they do tend to give the impression that the first few weeks of breastfeeding are awful.  It’s enough to make you think twice about whether this is something you really want to do.

What I’m saying is: don’t be scared.  Sometimes your baby gets the latch figured out right away, you produce plenty of milk, and things generally go well.  That’s what happened for me.  There was a short period when Little Boy was about two weeks old when I had to be extra careful about how he latched on, but otherwise there was no pain, no cracks, no gritting of teeth.

An important corollary here is that the difficulty level of breastfeeding is mostly out of your control.  I’m not an über-mom who figured out the secret to easy nursing—I was just lucky.  My mom tells me that nursing went smoothly for her, too, so maybe there’s a genetic component.

…but it is a big commitment. 

A big commitment on top of the already huge commitment of being a parent.  All parents face the sleep deprivation of the early weeks, but for nursing moms, there is no reprieve.  You have to wake up for every feeding; even if your spouse gives a bottle, you still have to pump.

With a one-year-old, sleep deprivation is no longer an issue, but my life still revolves around Little Boy’s four-hour meal plan.  If I go anywhere without Little Boy for longer than that, I have to bring my breast pump.  It’s constraining in other subtle ways, too.  For instance, I can’t go for a run until after Little Boy’s first nursing session of the day, because the engorgement is too uncomfortable.  So when I go running in the summer, it’s in the hot hot heat.

Some parts are wonderful.

Some women like to gush about how perfect and natural and amazing breastfeeding is; I’m not one of those women.  The oxytocin rush tends to make me sleepy and light-headed, not blissfully happy.  Still, when Little Boy snuggles into my lap for his breakfast, it’s pretty darn nice.

Some parts suck.

One word: teeth.

We’ve mostly moved past the biting stage, thankfully.

You don’t have to sterilize your breast pump parts every day.

The manual that comes with your breast pump will say that you have to boil or steam the flanges, valves, etc. every single day that you use them.  For weeks, I dutifully washed my pump parts with soap and water, then popped them in a Medela microwave bag to steam clean.  Ugh.  So much work.

But you don’t have to sterilize baby bottles every day, so why should breast pumps be any different?  (And it’s not like I sterilize my nipples…)  Eventually, I decided to just do the steam-cleaning thing on the weekends.  These days, I mostly forget to do it at all.  Fortunately, the Food and Drug Administration assures me that this is completely OK.

On a related note: you can store pump parts in the refrigerator between pumping sessions!  I would go even more crazy if I had to wash my pump parts thrice a day at school, especially since my building lacks running water.  Breast milk stays good for several days in the fridge; the drops of milk on your flanges are no different.  I store everything in a quart-size Ziploc bag between pumping sessions, then wash it all at home that night.

You can breastfeed on a schedule.

Not right away, of course.  Newborn babies need to be fed on demand, both for their sake and to establish a good milk supply.  However, once breastfeeding is well-established and your baby is steadily gaining weight, it’s OK to introduce a routine.

I think a lot of people hear the words “baby schedule” and think that it means strictly applying time constraints without regard to their child’s desires.  “Sorry kid, I know you’re hungry, but your next meal’s not until 10 a.m. and it’s only 9:45 now.”  Yeah, don’t be a jerk.  (Also, surely that approach is bad for formula-fed babies as well…?)  But there’s a middle ground, one in which you guide your baby into a schedule that works for everybody.

For us, that meant waking Little Boy up at a consistent time every day and offering food every three hours during the day (and then as needed at night).  Between 4 and 5 months old, he started taking more consistent naps, and his mealtimes likewise became more consistent.  Today, his eating habits are very predictable, within ±30 minutes depending on naps and hunger.  Only once in recent memory has he asked* to nurse between regular meals, and that was when I was recovering from food poisoning and knew I was dehydrated and low on milk.

*How does Little Boy ask for milk, you ask?  He pulls down my shirt and demands, “Ma ma ma ma ma.”

It’s easier to nurse in front of strangers than in front of friends.

Obviously, this depends a lot on your personality.  Me, I’m not too worried if someone at a gas station catches a glimpse of something while we’re on a road trip—they can get over it.  But when friends (or worse, family) are around, I get nervous about whipping out the boob.  I worry about their comfort level with my usually-covered body parts.  The only exception is my mom, because she’s awesome.
 

Where do we go from here?  I’m getting awfully darn tired of pumping, so once we hit that 12-month mark, I’ll start weaning Little Boy off his mid-day feedings.  We’ll stick with breakfast and bedtime as long as it works, assuming my milk supply holds up.

Tell me about your baby-feeding experiences (breast or otherwise) in the comments!

In which I am not really surprised by statistics

On Friday, the New York Times described the results of a Harvard Business School study about the effect of working mothers: across the developed world, the grown daughters of working moms are more likely to work themselves, and the grown sons of working moms spend more time on child care and housework.  No one should be shocked by this – after all, parents are their children’s greatest role models.

I don’t want to harp on this particular study.  I’m secure in the knowledge that my own choice to work outside the home is the right choice for my family, and I don’t want to imply that stay-at-home parents can’t be strong models of gender equity as well.  (This particular study didn’t differentiate between working full-time, part-time, long-term, short-term, at home, or out of the home.  It counted as a “working mother” any mom who “ever work[ed] for pay” before her kids were 14.  That includes everyone from high-powered attorneys to stay-at-home moms who babysit.)

No, what I want to talk about is the third sentence of that New York Times article.

… 41 percent of adults say the increase in working mothers is bad for society, while just 22 percent say it is good, according to the Pew Research Center.

Uh, what?

I clicked on the link and spent some time reading the Pew study, which was conducted in 2007.  Yup, turns out if you’re a working mother in the U.S., that disapproval you think you’re feeling from society isn’t all in your head.  Interestingly, there’s no statistical difference in the opinions of men and women on this subject, and there was very little change in attitudes from 1997-2007.

It also turns out that almost nobody (men, women, stay-at-home moms, or working moms) thinks that mothers working full-time is best for the children, although 41% say that a mother working part-time is ideal.  They didn’t ask the “what’s best for the kids” question about fathers, because of course not.

On the plus side, 36% of the respondents said that “more fathers staying home with children so their wives can work full-time” was good for society, with just 21% saying that was bad.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to make this distinction?  If longer and PAID maternity and paternity leaves were readily available in the U.S.?  If we didn’t have a working culture that assumes long hours = more dedicated = better employee, so that moms and dads (and people without kids) didn’t have to choose between “work” and “life outside work” but could have some of both instead?

While we’re working on that, we need to get over the idea that working moms are bad for society.  Seriously, America.  You’re better than that.

Thanks to the mothers

This Mother’s Day, I’d like to say thank you to a group of moms who’ve meant a great deal to me this year: the mothers in my postpartum support group.  (For newer readers, you can read about my family’s struggle with postpartum depression here and here.)

Mothers who showed me that I wasn’t alone.

Mothers who promised me, when I first showed up, exhausted and miserable and feeling like I’d made a terrible mistake with my life, that it gets better.

Mothers whose words meant something because they’d lived through it and made it to the other side.

Mothers who encouraged me to make the phone calls I needed to make to see mental health professionals.

Mothers who breastfeed, and mothers who don’t.  Mothers who’ve also made the decision, after careful discussions with their doctors and pharmacists, to take antidepressants and continue nursing.

Mothers who gave me the last little push to start blogging after years of thinking about it, and who didn’t laugh as my enthusiasm grew.

Mothers who have been through so much more heartache than I can possibly imagine, and yet still listen to my tearful career angst with support and compassion.

Mothers with fantastic jobs and mothers who stay home; mothers of many children and mothers of just one.

Mothers who don’t judge.

Good mothers.

Strong mothers.

Thank you.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

A wonderful thing happened on the first day Little Boy spent at daycare: I missed him.

Of course you missed your baby, you might be thinking.  Every time you talk about daycare, you talk about how much you’re going to miss him.

What I didn’t realize was how strong that missing would be.

It’s a visceral emotion, this missing.  An overwhelming desire to see my Little Boy’s expressions, hear his voice, pick him up and shower him with hugs and kisses.  I want to hold him to my heart and feel the solid warmth of him in my arms.  When we all got home that first evening, my husband and I were competing for who got to change Little Boy’s diaper.  Not who had to, who got to.  That’s how much we missed him.

I’m so relieved.

So this is what parental love feels like.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved my kid.  But as a culture, we present motherhood as a magic, all-consuming love like nothing you’ve ever felt before.  In consequence, it’s hard not to feel like there isn’t something just a little bit wrong with you when you want to take breaks from your baby.

It turns out I really, really need that time to be me.  Because in the freedom to do my own thing, knowing that my child is safe and happy and having fun without me, I realize just how much he means to me.  And I’m reassured that I am, in fact, capable of that kind of emotional connection.

Thanks, daycare.

A Mother’s Day wish

To the stores advertising on the radio:

I frankly couldn’t care less that your overpriced beaded bracelets and heart-shaped necklaces are on sale for Mother’s Day.  Do you know what I really wish was on sale this Mother’s Day?  Pampers.

Sincerely,

Me


I originally wrote this to be snarkily humorous, but in all seriousness, there are mothers out there (thankfully not me) who would greatly benefit from the gift of diapers this Mother’s Day.  If you’re still looking for the perfect gift for the mom(s) in your life, consider making a donation in her honor to the National Diaper Bank Network, Help a Mother Out, or a local shelter.


Addendum:

When my husband read this post, he jokingly asked me, “So, you want Pampers, huh?”

“No, I want Pampers to be ON SALE.”

Weird mommy guilt

On the way home from taking our son to meet the teachers at his new daycare, my husband said, “It’s going to be really hard to drop him off that first day.”

I was silent for a moment before responding.

“Sometimes I secretly wonder if I’m a bad mother, because I don’t feel guilty about this at all.  I’m going to walk in and go, ‘Here, take my kid, thanks, bye.’ ”

He laughed.

There are some important caveats to that sentiment.  I don’t entrust our baby’s care to just anyone – only close and competent family members, carefully-screened babysitters, and a thoughtfully-selected and widely-recommended daycare.  I will miss my son after a while, for sure; he is adorable and I love his little habits.  And my comfort level with handing him over to anyone who’s not his father has definitely increased significantly as Little Boy has gotten older.  It wasn’t until he was about four months old that I felt confident giving a caregiver a basic schedule rather than a long list of “if he cries, try this and this and this and that.”

Oddly though, much of my difficulty in leaving Little Boy in the early days was not concern for him, but concern for the person taking care of him.  In the beginning, when you’re nursing completely on demand – especially before your baby is old enough to take a bottle – mom’s absence means removing the easiest and most reliable soothing method.  Even later, I felt awful heading to school knowing that my husband’s postpartum depression was going to get worse with every minute that he had to take care of a baby who wasn’t perfectly happy.  Somehow, I’d internalized the idea that an unhappy baby was my fault even when I wasn’t there.

Now, however, I don’t feel guilty that Little Boy will be spending much of his time with “strangers.”  I’m a better, calmer, and more engaging mother if I get real breaks, and my husband will hopefully be a much-less-stressed father when he can stop having to try to get work done during nap time.  Plus (weirdly capitalistic as this may sound), we’re paying the daycare providers; I don’t have to feel like I’m taking advantage of their goodwill on those days when my son becomes a Purple Minion.

My brain, however, is not so easily settled.  Does my lack of guilt about daycare make me a bad parent?  Aren’t I supposed to feel guilty about this?

Pirohi are too much work

One of the Writing 101 directives this week was to start with a memory of your favorite childhood meal and run with it.  There were also some instructions about writing in your own voice. My writing voice, so far as I can tell, tends toward mild sarcasm with excessive use of semicolons and parentheses.

And one-sentence paragraphs.


I don’t cook very often.  I can cook – although I lack the intuition of an experienced kitchen denizen, I can follow The Joy of Cooking to produce something decently edible – I just don’t.  In large part, this is because my husband both enjoys cooking and is good at it.  It’s also because I’m incredibly lazy when it comes to food.  Left to my own devices, I will happily eat Cheerios and peanut butter for dinner.  (Or popcorn and frozen yogurt.  True story.)

All this is to say that I haven’t yet made Christmas dinner.  Thanksgiving dinner, yes – my family came to visit when husband had to be away for work, and I learned that roasting a turkey is not nearly as hard as it’s hyped up to be.  Also, in my defense, my husband and I have spent 80% of our married Christmases at the homes of relatives who have been more than happy to feed us their own traditional dinners.

Christmas dinner (actually Christmas Eve dinner) is a big production in my family.  My mom must really love my father, because she took on his family’s Slovak tradition of making pirohi by hand.  You have to make the dough, make the fillings, roll out the dough, cut the dough into precise little squares, put a spoonful of filling on each square, pinch each square into a tightly-sealed dumpling, boil them all in batches, and finally, brown butter to go on top.  (They are delicious, in case you were wondering.)  All this is done while simultaneously making several other traditional components of the meal.

The production level goes up a few notches when the whole extended family is involved.  Everyone is required to help with the sealing and pinching.  My grandpa “supervises,” beer in hand.  Anyone else who’s old enough to drink grabs an adult beverage of their own and prays that my grandma will stop talking before she says anything truly cringe-worthy.  In other words, it’s your standard traditional family activity.

This past Christmas was my son’s first, but even though my family was in town, I didn’t make anything special for Christmas Eve.  Laziness won out, for sure.  Also lingering exhaustion and the tail end of postpartum depression.  My Little Boy had no idea what was going on, of course, but eventually he will, and it would be nice to establish some family traditions of our own.  So maybe I’ll find the energy next year.  After all, it would be a shame for him to miss out on the cheesy-potato-dumpling goodness of pirohi.

Readers, what does your family eat for Christmas?  How have you adapted your childhood traditions to your adult life?