Friday, August 31, 2007

Tryst with the Breastfeeding Nazis

You can never really be prepared for things like this. 3rd day after Chip was born, BigGeek and I were required to take a class about taking care of new babies before they allowed me to go home that afternoon. As I sat on my donut cushion, surveying the windowless hospital room full of tired looking moms and dads not really wanting to sit through an hour of wisdom aimed at the slightly dense – always hold your baby while giving her a bath, lest she slip and drown. Or don’t shake your baby or drop it on its head (really, I am not making this up), don’t drink because you will be breastfeeding (what you can’t feed a good single malt to the baby? There go our plans) and suchlike. The Euro-looking instructor was a registered nurse and a certified lactation consultant and most importantly a mother herself. She dourly introduced herself as such from the head of the conference table and handed us thick folders filled with information. After the presentation, she asked if anybody had any questions. I did. It was regarding breast feeding. “It’s the best for your baby. You should not even think otherwise” she snapped even before I had a chance to ask my question. “I am worried I may not produce enough milk.” I ventured. “Everybody has that worry. But true milk insufficiency is rare. The more you feed, the more your body produces. Don’t formula feed your baby other wise you will never produce enough milk.” She warned me. “But I have a family history.” This is true. My mother had very little milk just like own her mother and both had resorted to using diluted cows milk and milk powder. The instructor was clearly exasperated with me. “In the 50s, 60s and 70s nobody breastfed. Formula was thought to be better. As many studies have shown, you should breastfeed. True milk insufficiency is very rare.” I am from India, you twerp. I felt like yelling. We could not afford formula in the 50s, 60s and 70s. And why could I not be that rare case with true milk insufficiency?

BigGeek sensing that my eyes were welling up, got up, shook hands with the instructor and thanked her. She gave him a sheet. “This is a list of lactation consultants. I think she should see one.” Thus started my battle. The milk, as I had half-expected was insufficient. I nursed every hour, but five times out of ten, Chip would howl, sucking at a breast that would yield no milk. Those were stressful times. I bought a pump and pumped. Still no luck. My mother understood my distress and tried pointing out the brighter side. My brother and I were doing fine without breast milk. She and her brother did fine too. Plus she was truly impressed with the new formulas and the choices that I had (my brother is lactose intolerant and she had to mix arrowroot powder with water to make his milk)

BigGeek sympathized with me, but simply would not understand my torment. What he did not know that the torment was being fuelled everyday by many people and many things. By relatives who were asking me if I had enough milk, friends who wondered why I was buying formula in bulk at four weeks post partum, the nurses at the pediatrician’s office who wanted to know so they could write it down in Chip’s charts. By the celebrity moms who gave rave interviews about the glories of motherhood in general and breastfeeding in particular. And on demand too. Lactation consultants that I met free of charge (my place of work provides them) who were unsympathetic to my milk insufficiency line. I was taking the easy way out, they told me. By doing what, again? Co-workers who confessed their first was still breastfeeding and it was time to wean because they were expecting their second. Moms on my parenting message boards who asked questions about what to do with excess milk- could they donate it? And strangers I met at office parties who told me their secrets to relieve engorged breasts.

And the media. Oh! The media. Every parenting and baby magazine I picked up had at least two articles about the glories of breast feeding. How not breastfeeding was certain to give your baby cancers, hyperacidity, depression, ear infections, diabetes, ADD/ADHD and what ever other ailment du jour they could think of. And of course there were benefits to the mother too. Not breastfeeding meant I was at high risk for breast cancer and other complications I don’t even remember now. Even the cans of formula had a warning label about breastfeeding being best for babies. Always reminded me of the statutory warning on packs of cigarettes. Not Breast feeding was a few inches away from being turned into a crime. There were lactation Gestapo every where I turned.

I took all this to heart. After all the messages came from veteran mothers. They had raised happy, well adjusted, bright and successful kids. They had uncovered the secrets of motherhood and adroitly employed them while raising their kids and were glowing in their resounding success. What did a first time mother like me know? She was still trying to navigate her way. If the vets said breastfeed she would breastfeed. It was a classic case of Pascal’s wager, but of motherhood.

At my six week checkup, I finally confessed it to my (wonderful) ob-gyn. I had told her of my family history while I was pregnant; she had warned me of the breastfeeding nazi and the immense hate I would encounter. She was telling me that she had been formula fed and she went to John Hopkins to study medicine. It’s a trend, she told me off the record. Just like formula feeding had been 3 decades ago. I wasn’t sure of how my mom-in-law would react, I told her. BigGeek told me she had breastfed all her three kids until they turned one. That’s what I was up against. I had read about drugs that would help. She would not recommend them. Formula was fine. Chip was happy, healthy and thriving. Could she still write a prescription, please? I promised to think about it with a calm head, talk it over with BigGeek before filling it in.

So a few weeks before my mom-in-law arrived, I filled the prescription. BigGeek was livid that I was flooding my body unnecessarily with chemicals. What’s wrong with formula? He yelled one night. The drug wasn’t working as expected either. I refused to listen to him or my mother. He threatened to tell his mother. I dared him to call and he did. My mother in law patiently heard the whole story. She agreed that I should stop talking the medication. It was not a big deal that I was unable to breastfeed. Such things happen she said gently. I almost cried with relief. I had heard horror stories from my best friend whose mother in law would not stop cursing her (literally) because she was unable to breastfeed. She told me she had exclusively breast fed for 5-6 months, but the supply had waned and she breast fed only once until the kids turned one. So BigGeek had forgotten to tell me the “once a day” part.

By the time he was about 6 months old, Chip was on formula. 100%. No more mother’s milk. I still felt guilty, but there was nothing more to be done. So when a few days ago, a message was posted on the mommy message boards about lactation issues by a first time mom, I was amazed to see the responses. There were just the usual suspects- milk insufficiency is rare, how she was taking the easy way out, how her child would suffer., how she would regret. No one told her it was alright and formula was good enough. Not one. That it was better to have a happy mother than a distressed one. These days breastfeeding has gone from its original intentions to something much larger. It is politically correct, hip, green, the latest must-do after getting those Jimmy Choo’s and buying the antique spindle cribs. I wrote to this mom, telling her my story. But of course my son is only two. I don’t have a neurosurgeon or a lawyer to prove that formula works just fine.


ggop said...

I really liked your post having had friends with lactation issues. I'm sure you were made to feel guilty and perhaps your MIL was the only sane voice around you.

Having said that I think your ob/gyn's statement that it(breastfeeding) is a trend comes off sounding irresponsible. Was she just trying to make you feel better because of all the assvice doled out to you?

You do know companies like Nestle gave a aid with strings attached to organizations like CARE. These people tried to miseducate women in Africa and rural India about the benefits of formula in the 70s while conveniently not mentioning that breast milk first if possible, formula second. It is specially insidious of them to do that in environments where immunity is of paramount importance given the infant mortality stats.

Sahithi's Mom... said...

I am sooo with you on this.
I breastfed Sahithi only for 2 months, not out of choice but because I did not Lactate..

And I still beat myself about it. But then like you said a happy mom is better than a distressed one. So, I opted to become selectivly deaf and blind, just to retain my sanity at that point. :):)

DotMom said...

ggop: I am not defending the formula companies. I am simply commenting on the trend that exists these days and the sheer rabidness of it. Just as all formula, no breast milk was wrong, so is just breastmilk, no formula. Because women like me are left feeling terrible about themselves. Concerning the obgyn's statement, I was surprised that two other doctors voiced the same opinion (one was my son's pediatrician and the other an uncle). There is nothing better for the baby than being well-fed and having a happy mother to nurture it. There was a case in 1999, I think about such a rabid breastfeeder who did not have enough milk, refused formula as a result of which the baby died. As for formula companies, I am glad they are here and the choices they offer me. sure beats mixing arrowroot in water.

sathithi's mom: May be we should start a support group :)

Sue said...

I demand fed, egged on by all those articles and aunts, but my mother and husband were pretty understanding of the exhaustion I faced from all those hours of slumping over a feeding baby.

It was they who forced me to resort to formula now and then, to go out and never mind if I hadn't pumped enough. In the end, by his 7th month I realised that the feeding continues because of the emotional comfort (my son's take) and the health factor (my take). The milk does not satisfy his hunger, so he's basically weaned himself, even though I do feed him in the morning each day.

My point is, the nazis are probably so because breastfeeding can be pretty hellish even when all goes well (I had no lactation problems) and they need to justify having gone through it!


Never defend your choice. It was yours to make.

Gauri said...

Oh I've been thru this too. With my first child - and just as it happened with you - no one would believe me. The ped kept insisting that the baby was to be given nothing other than breastmilk for atleast 6 mths. And unfortunately for me, a new mom, the other senior females in the family were not understanding either.

With the second baby, there was ample but I could not breastfeed him cos he was born during the peak of the SARS epidemic. He had neonatal jaundice and was whisked away to the neonatal wing while I was discharged. I used to express milk and take it over to the hospital but that stopped too cos I came down with a UTI which required antibio - so no breastfeeding.

Nature does work in mysterious ways !!

DotMom said...

sue: I am glad it worked out for you in the end... I don't understand the nazis. They should be proud, but defensive??

Gauri: Wow. Can't believe how stressful it would have been with the SARS around. Chip also had neonatal jaundice...and I agree..nature does work in mysterious ways...

Something to Say said...

I sooo feel for you dotmom. My hubby drove me bananas each time I breast fed - he believed my son was going hungry. At 4 months, sonny refused to be breast fed - refused as in plain loud yelling and crying and I began giving him formula. And he's healthy and fine. But as a mother - I just cant shake off this fact - each time he's down wih something - I keep wondering - if its coz I didnt bf enuff. And i agree with your ob-gyn - the just want to shove it down your throat - this bf issue - just so that you dont resort to formula - what they dont realise is - for asian woman formula is just that - last resort... and the blitzkreig is crazy..I'm glad we got thru that.

Pixie said...

Wow!! What an experience...
My first time here too and I really like the way you write and express yourself :-)

Oh, and keep visiting! :-)

DotMom said...

something to say: I am with you!

pixie: Thanks!

Tharini said...

I feel for you on this post. I have been there too...tho with Winkie nursing worked for abt 5 mos after which I just ran out and the guilt and agony of letting go was really bad. I think I am going the same way with Sathya now. :(

Mystic Margarita said...

I know what you must have gone through. I had lactation problems myself. Mine is a heriditary thing, too. But I'm glad you didn't take medication - I did and it brought on such major depression that I was literally walking the thin line between sanity and hopelessness - looking back, I don't think if it was worth it to put myself through such a harrowing time. Hugs

DotMom said...

Tharini: I am sure Thambi is going to be just fine.. like Winkie.
Mystic: Oh.. I did take medication.. am wiser now though.. won't do it again

Kodi's Mom said...

I read this post down to the last word just now and I totally feel for what you went through. I wonder if it is only in the US you are bombarded with this kind of guilt, as if it is a breastfeed or die situation. I faced the opposite pressure, my grandma and aunt insisted that I feed him fomula from month 3, while he was thriving just fine. I think it is the trend, like you said. the AAP wants to promote breastfeeding, and what do they do? they campaign to the point of threatening. either go all out one way or the other, never a balance, never a customized solution.
I bet you ten years from now, the trend will reverse and everyone will find a 100 reasons why you should not breastfeed.
I personally think there's no reason to feel guilty. you did your best, and then some. and Chip seems to be hale, healthy and smart. take heart in how your advice must have been to that new mom. like a much needed breath of fresh air, just like your MIL's was, to you.

Anonymous said...

I can't stand breastfeeding nazis. They are nothing more than a group of angry women who are out to judge other women as being "bad moms". They will lie and make up all kinds of stories about how brestmilk is a "miracle cure". They will even claim that breastmilk can cure cancer and AIDS.Someone needs to put a muzzle on these mad dog angry women. They tell women who can't breastfeed, that they are poisoning their children. They are sickening!

Anonymous said...

To the Anonymous above:

The breastfeeding Nazis are doing a GREAT disservice to breastfeeding.It just drives women who are in two minda about breast feeding farther away from it.

It's a fact that breast milk is THE BEST for your baby and while formula is NOT poison, lets face it, its only second best.It's a very personal choice to breastfeed or not and there is no need to get judgemental about EITHER forms of feeding.Breastfeeding is only one part of mothering,and no one needs to feel guilty about doing/not doing it. But what is important is that people make INFORMED decisions.

To all the women who said they had problems -please can I ask a few really genuine questions -have you sought help from the RIGHT quarters? I mean -qualified and emphathetic lacatation consultants?Did you read up about breast feeding and common (and avoidable) problems? Did you contact La Leache League? (They are really very good at this)

Most women have a rough start, but with correct help and guidance , these problems can be solved.And those who have successfully breastfed their children will vouch for the fact that it is indeed very rewarding.

I only hope that the people who read this post and the comments above do understand the importance of breastfeeding and do not just brush it off as a "trend" or "just as good as formula".

Kate said...

Thank you for writing this! I found this while googling "breastfeeding nazis" and it has helped me a lot! We had a very traumatic birth and my milk didn't come in for a week, so obviously I had to supplement with the baby. Then she wouldn't latch, so I am pumping and bottle feeding...Arrrgghhh the stigma is just so ridiculous. I wish people would mind their own business!