Before I became a mother, I didn’t give breastfeeding much thought, except to assume that I’d do it and to think that it seemed a little weird. Breastfeeding is now, however, my favorite thing about mothering a baby, and it’s not because it is good for me or the baby, although those things are true. I love it because it is enjoyable.
I assumed I would breastfeed because I was raised steeped in breastfeeding culture, if there is such a thing. My mother breastfed me in the 70s, which was not always as common, and my father is a pediatrician. We once had a costume party at our house where one of my parents’ friends came dressed as a breast. (Incidentally, lest you become hot and bothered at the idea of this, or conversely, become scandalized, I can assure you this was not a sexy costume. This was no sexy pizza. This was a giant, puffy, flesh-colored suit, with a dyed knot in the middle to represent the nipple. Was her face supposed to be a second nipple? These were the things that preoccupied me in middle school. But I digress.) Another good friend of my parents’ was and is a lactation consultant. Breastfeeding, specifically the importance of doing so for the health of the baby and mother, was drummed into my psyche from an early age.
Even though I knew breastfeeding was important and assumed I would do it, it still seemed a little weird to me before I had children. It seemed so primitive. I’d milked cows before at camp, which didn’t exactly endear me to the idea. Not to mention, the idea of a creature literally feeding off you just seems crazy.
So when Big Boy was born, I struggled–and I mean struggled, crying every day, working with a lactation consultant for hours and weeks to get him to latch on when he was sluggish from jaundice and had to be fed from a syringe–to make breastfeeding work. Between all three of my children, I think we’ve had every nursing issue there is. So it hasn’t always been easy for me.
But once each of my children figured out how to nurse, it became my favorite part of mothering them as babies. Why?
1. It is profoundly sensual.
I feel that our culture tends to equate the sensual with the sexual, but these are two distinct things. And we often neglect the sensual for the sexual. (This observation is based on nothing but my own humble opinion. But it seems right, doesn’t it?)
Nursing a baby is one of the most profoundly sensual experiences I’ve ever had, for nearly all the senses. (Not taste. That would just be strange. Although eating a snack while nursing is not a bad idea. Especially Junior Mints. They are not healthy but they are minty and delicious. Perfect for the movies or nursing. You don’t want anything messy that will fall all over the baby. See Chips and Salsa.)
The baby, in her velour sleeper, is a warm, soft weight on your lap. Her tiny hand scratches up and down my arm, alternately clutching onto my bra strap or my hand, or patting my face as she nurses.
Her skin smells like the divinely scented (and divinely expensive) Mustela baby shampoo that I can’t resist buying, and her clothes smell like the Dreft that will always smell like babies to me. (Dreft is the closest thing to Proust’s madeline I’ve ever encountered.)
Sometimes she will take breaks from eating to coo and babble up at me, delighted that we have this one-on-one time together. Baby Girl is the third child– this is about the only one-on-one time she gets! Other times all I can hear is her soft breathing as she nurses herself to sleep.
Nursing also provides the ideal vantage point to stare at those tiny, precious features– is that my nose, are those Grandmother’s ears, is her hair finally long enough for a bow? (We’ve been on “bow watch” since Baby Girl was born. I’ve been putting them in the peach fuzz for a while. Nothing will stop me after having the boys!)
These sensations are, to me, simply lovely.
2. Time to read or watch TV
Let’s get shallow here. I love my media. I love TV, I love newspapers, I love magazines, I love blogs, I love books. (Me and Thomas Jefferson: “I love books.”) Nursing provides a perfect chance to catch up on all these things. Now, you’re probably not going to want to crack open Ulysses or something similarly taxing. Unless your baby nurses for hours in a row. My choices were more. . . pedestrian. After Big Boy was born, I read Charlaine Harris’ entire Sookie Stackhouse series. (This was pre-True Blood, y’all.) Fine literature, it was not. But rednecks, sex, and vampires seemed to be just the thing to dip into for twenty or so minutes at a time.
3. Rest time your child doesn’t hate
Motherhood is exhausting! Big Boy was not a particularly active child, but as he got closer to his first birthday, one of the only times I was able to sit still and hold him was when he nursed. This was such a welcome relief. This was even more true when James was born, as I was tired from chasing Big Boy around and nursing was a nice opportunity for all of us to have a quiet moment.
I can’t pretend I figured out how to get Big Boy to always cooperate with those quiet moments–there may have been TV involved–but it was nice to have time to focus on James, and now Baby Girl after him. It was also lovely to have a special rest time with each of my children after I got home from work, when I was tired and missed the kids, but wasn’t in the mood for a vigorous block tower building session.
Now, Husband has gone so far as to accusing me of strategically choosing to nurse the baby when things need to be done around the house, such as putting the other kids to bed or cleaning up the kitchen. I have no comment on those allegations.
4. Hits of Oxytocin!*
Legal drugs, y’all. Forget a runner’s high. After about five minutes of nursing, I can feel the oxytocin hit, and it is good. Warm and relaxing. So good that I become a nursing junkie, especially in the early months when the baby is very young and nursing frequently. If I am away from the baby for more than an hour or two, I start to feel jittery and anxious, and it is not just because I miss the little cabbage! Husband actually called me on this recently and said I was getting the “nursing shakes” when we were away from Baby Girl.
Okay, so being addicted to your baby doesn’t sound great, but seriously– oxytocin is no joke. And for me, pumping does not provide nearly the same feeling.
5. Mutual belonging
Perhaps my favorite aspect of nursing is that it reinforces the sense that you and the baby belong to each other in a way that is different from anyone else in your life. This is all too brief of a sensation, as the baby inevitably “hatches” and turns away from you into the world. I love this awakening as well, but I cherish the time with my babies when nursing is the center of their universe.
To Baby Girl right now, I am hers exclusively. As she nurses, her hand is a plump, possessive starfish that clutches at my hand or shirt, as if to keep me forever tied to her. This is primal, and it is not subtle.
For this brief period, she belongs to me uniquely. If not exclusively, she belongs to me in a way that is different from the way she belongs to Husband or Big Boy or her grandparents or anyone else. She is my baby.
So, there you have it. Why does it feel like I’m coming out of some kind of closet to admit that I love nursing? Is it radical to say that I do not merely endure breastfeeding, but that I actually love it and will miss it when this stage is over?
I know there are many women that wish they could have nursed their babies, or women that tried to nurse and did not find it enjoyable. I don’t pretend to understand anyone else’s experience but my own and understand that others feel differently. I am not passing judgment on those that choose not to nurse.
In our frenzy to focus on the health benefits of breastfeeding or to support women that choose not to nurse, however, I feel like the fact that this can be an incredibly enjoyable, relaxing, and delicious part of motherhood has been lost from the conversation. It feels as if we are told: “Breastfeeding is good for your baby, so grit your teeth and take your medicine. Endure this for at least six months.” It becomes simply one more thing we must check off the list in our race to become the ideal mother.
For me, however, breastfeeding is a place where I find total acceptance and peace. I am not worrying about whether I am a good enough mother. While she is nursing, I am hers and I am all she needs and wants. This is happiness.
*I am not, in any way, advocating taking drugs. Just say no.
Addendum: One of my friends mentioned that I forgot a key reason why breastfeeding is awesome– no bottles to clean and ultimate portability! This is the lazy woman’s friend, and as you well know, dear reader, no housework is the best kind of housework around here.