I was proud of myself. And then I was ashamed of myself for being proud of myself. You see, the very thing of which I was so proud was something over which I had no control – a complete coincidence, to be sure. No one deserves to be proud of themselves for something they didn’t do on purpose – like being tall, or not needing glasses.
Why was I proud? I had just dropped off a couple hundred ounces of frozen breast milk packed in dry ice at a UPS distribution center for overnight delivery to a milk bank in Indiana.
Why was I ashamed? Because given the circumstances donating the milk was the only decent thing to do. It wasn’t heroic. It was the very least I could do. Anything else would have been borderline despicable. So being proud of myself for donating it felt awfully self-serving.
What are the circumstances I refer to? Well, the fact that I had a few hundred ounces of frozen breast milk to give in the first place. For reasons that are unknown to me and completely out of my control, I produce a lot of milk. (I joke that I’m part Holstein.) It was this way when IEP was a baby, and now with SSP we’re right back there. I make more milk than any one baby needs and it piles up in our freezer. When this happens I have two choices – let it go to waste, or ship it off to a milk bank for babies who need it. Seriously, there’s only one right answer here.
As I got to thinking about this I was reminded of a passage in the book I’m currently reading, Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman. It’s a charming and insightful book; one that I’m quite glad my mother pushed on me. Amidst the author’s commentary about all that American parents do wrong she does call out the French for quite shamelessly ignoring the benefits of breast milk. As a culture they turn, almost unilaterally, to formula. It was one of the few parenting decisions she made that ran counter to her fellow Parisians. However, in her discussion of this topic she also calls out American mothers for turning nursing into a competition. She writes:
After the baby is born, the first obvious difference between French and American moms is breastfeeding. For us Anglophone mothers, the length of time that we breast-feed – like the size of a Wall Street bonus – is a measure of performance. One former businesswoman in my Anglophone playgroup regularly sidles up to me and asks, faux innocently, “Oh, are you still nursing?”
It’s faux because we all know that our breastfeeding “number” is a concrete way to compete with one another. A mother’s score is reduced if she mixes in formula, relies too heavily on a breast-milk pump, or actually breast-feeds for too long (at which point she starts to seem like a crazed hippie.)
In middle-class circles in the United States, many mothers treat infant formula as practically a form of child abuse. The fact that breast-feeding requires endurance, inconvenience, and in some cases physical suffering only increases its status.
It is a passage that stuck with me. Reading it made me realize afresh how absolutely ridiculous it is to associate any amount of status with nursing. Yes, I’m all for promoting the health benefits to both the mother and baby. I’m all for eliminating any negative stigmas attached to nursing. And I would certainly advocate for anyone who has the ability to nurse her baby for at least six months (and up to a year if possible) to do so. Nevertheless, many of the circumstances that add up to that kind of success are often out of our control. A woman’s milk supply can be affected by her diet, level of hydration, and how frequently she nurses or pumps. But by and large it’s a part of her biology that was determined long ago and in which she had no hand. The second major factor in successful nursing is the ability to nurse regularly. Granted pumping greatly increases the freedom and flexibility that a nursing mother has. Nevertheless, many working women have jobs that don’t afford them the opportunity to stop working for 20 to 30 minutes every three hours so they can pump.
Some women do deserve to be proud for going the distance with nursing. Women who struggle with supply and pump between feedings just to produce enough milk for the baby to thrive. Women who battle thrush, and mastitis, and clogged ducts. Women whose jobs are not at all conducive to pumping and who finagle a way to make it work in spite of crappy logistics. These women should be proud of what they’ve accomplished if they manage to nurse their babies for longer periods of time because they’ve overcome some major obstacles to do so. (Which isn’t at all to say that they should be ashamed if they switch to formula instead of doing battle with their breasts each day. These are highly personal decisions.)
As for me, I am lucky. I have a good milk supply and a desk job with an office door that locks. Given this stacked deck nearly any woman could easily nurse her baby to a year. But the fact remains that not all women are dealt this hand. And every time we judge or condemn a woman who weans her baby earlier than that we undermine the community and fellowship that all mothers should share.
For a woman in my position, donating the milk was the only decent thing to do. Being proud of it would be like being proud that my kids are up to date on their shots; or being proud that I gave a seat on a bus to a 95-year-old woman. When it’s the only reasonable option it’s nothing to be proud of.