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June 7, 2012

Growing up in the 70s, before the women’s health movement caught hold and breastfeeding made a comeback, I knew very few women who nursed their children. As adopted infants, my sister and I were bottle fed, and my mother eventually called it quits, with no regrets, after a concerted effort to nurse our little brother, born when my sister and I were just 22 months old. In fact, I remember only once during my younger years witnessing a woman breastfeed her baby. One day, while playing at the home of a childhood friend, I came upon Mrs. Smith, nursing her infant son at the kitchen table. My friend later explained to me what her mom was doing in the same matter-of-fact way that she had previously told me there was no Santa Claus. I received the news of breastfeeding far better than I did the news about Santa, tucking it away and promising myself that one day, I would do what Mrs. Smith did and feed my baby with my own body.

It took almost three decades before I got the chance. At the time, I was a graduate student working on her dissertation, so I approached the situation as a practical scholar. I researched it from all sides, registered for a Boppy and a nursing stool (neither of which I ever used for nursing), and bought an industrial grade breast pump disguised inside a sleek black backpack. I was committed to success but vowed that my experience as a mother would not be defined by my ability to breastfeed my child for whatever time period I was able to do so (three months? maybe six?)

A few days after I gave birth to my first son, my milk came in, and the pain rivaled childbirth. One of the advantages of being a small-chested woman is that my breasts never got in the way. I savored my ability to slide head-first into second base during high school and college softball games. I never suffered from back aches while running. Until I had my sons, no male, or female, ever drooled over my front. But when my milk came in, my breasts went from being footnotes to stand-alone chapters in my existence. I was miserable. The night my milk arrived, I grabbed two bags of frozen corn from the freezer and took myself to bed to deal with my new reality.

Three months passed. Six months passed. Nursing hurt like hell until my son was nine months old. Everyone I talked to told me if it hurt that bad for so long, I was doing it wrong. Eventually, though, my nipples just went numb, and, right or wrong, my son and I carried along in bliss until he was 22 months old. A graduate school colleague from Tennessee drawled, “If they’re old enough to ask for it, they’re too old to have it.” Like their older brother, my next two sons, who weaned at 25 and 33 months respectively, not only nursed until they were old enough to ask for it but until they were able to do so politely, punctuating their requests with please’s and thank you’s.

When I say it is a point of pride that I managed to nurse three children into toddlerhood without a drop of formula, I don’t mean that as a commentary on anyone else’s choices or abilities. I’m grateful I could. At times it was ridiculously hard to keep going. My friends and I–children of hippies not included–are part of a predominantly bottle-fed generation that likes to joke, “If breast milk makes you smarter, just think what more we could have accomplished.” When it came to feeding my sister and me, my mother had no choice. Neither did my birth mother. And perhaps that’s why it was so important to me to nurse my sons. Perhaps that’s why I persevered. Because I had a choice, and they didn’t. There’s a larger cultural and political debate about breastfeeding taking place in the United States right now, and I’m acutely tuned into it, but my struggle and determination to nurse my sons was a personal one. The minute my breasts swelled with milk, I thought of my birth mother. I thought, “Oh, my God, did this happen to her?” I felt the ache that never found relief. I felt the body that could not hide its secret.

A week ago, just before she arrived in the United States with her new son, my sister asked me if I had any breast milk left in my freezer.

Not for a year or more, I told her. I had planned to turn the last of it into cheese, or soap, just for the fun of it, but our refrigerator died, and my friends and family were spared a round of one-of-a-kind holiday gifts that year.

“Do you think you could get any out?” she asked.

My youngest child just turned three. I weaned him, after an epic struggle, a few months before his birthday. I had no idea what might still be in there, but when your twin asks you for something, you do your best to make it happen.

“I can try,” I offered.

“I only need a drop,” she said.

She wanted the milk for her child, born in a place where milk bonds are on par with biological ones.

The next day I set up shop in a dark corner of the basement where I thought my three-year-old wouldn’t find me.

He caught me bent over a Tupperware container, wringing the life out of his favorite side.

Immediately, he began to cry.

“Good milks!” he sobbed. “I want some.” He paused. “Please.”

I thought of all the therapy he would need if I told him this milk was for another baby, especially after I had been praising him for months for being such a good, strong boy and drinking it all up.

“Just a tiny bit,” I said.

He stuck his tongue into the container and licked. I capped the rest and put it in the freezer for his milk-brother.

There are so many ways to to make a child your own.

This here is one of mine, poured from my whole being, every last drop, now offered to my twin’s son in a common communion cup of family and love.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Becky permalink
    December 10, 2012 7:02 pm

    How do you do that, my friend? How do you write a lovely essay about breastfeeding that I can relate to, that never judges me, despite my (active) decision not to breastfeed my kids? The answer is clearly this: you are brilliant.

  2. June 16, 2012 2:16 pm

    Did you know about adoptive breastfeeding? I know a mom who fully breastfed her two adopted boys into toddlerhood and is planning to do so again. Amazing! She said that her agency really encourages adoptive breastfeeding. My mom says she wishes she knew that was an option back when she adopted. It would have been even easier for her since she had already breastfed a biological child.

    • twinprint permalink*
      June 16, 2012 2:29 pm

      Thanks for your comment! Yes, I do know and I’m so glad it’s another option for women/families for whom it is desirable/possible!

  3. Helen permalink
    June 11, 2012 6:17 am

    Jenny, can I “relate” about the PAIN! We had to REALLY want to nurse them to overcome the swelling and sheer pain. I remember gripping the arms of the rocking chair, but thankfully the worst pain was over after a few weeks. I actually cracked and bled with my 2nd child and used a shield till it healed and I would question, “Is this worth it?” It evidently was as I nursed the 3rd & 4th! I had hemhhroids to boot, so you know how much I wanted our children. My Mom was a “wet nurse” for a good friend’s baby. I admire you, both for your writing and your perserverence!

    • twinprint permalink*
      June 17, 2012 5:10 pm

      Wow, what a wonderful story about your mom! I’ve only met wet nurses in Victorian novels. 🙂 And I agree: totally worth it. (P.S. So you were another woman in my life who was breastfeeding when I was a child; I just didn’t know it!)

  4. cynthia smith permalink
    June 7, 2012 10:34 pm

    Good for you Jenny. So glad that I was a good example. As I recall we also used baby Michael for show and tell in Miss Rapp’s class.
    He now has 3 children and all have been breast fed.

    • twinprint permalink*
      June 17, 2012 5:11 pm

      Just goes to show that you have no idea the impact you have on people in big and small ways, doing big and small deeds. Thanks for having an impact on me! 🙂

  5. Judy permalink
    June 7, 2012 3:38 pm

    Oh, Jenny, what a perfectly wonderful story. I am so happy that you were able to give milk to Jackie’s baby. I breastfed all my children well past the usual year(s) and those times are fond memories. Thanks so much for your open sharing of this!

    • twinprint permalink*
      June 17, 2012 5:12 pm

      Judy, you are a kindred spirit in more and more ways. Thanks for your comment!

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