A woman’s pregnancy is estimated to last 40 weeks, and if she follows her child’s instincts, she will likely nurse past 1 year, sometimes even 2 or 3. Nursing is hard work, particularly when you don’t have the support or knowledge of experienced mothers who can help guide you in your new role. For my first experience I had to consult with over a dozen lactation consultants (Thank you La Leche League!) so that I could breastfeed successfully. By the time my second child came along I had gotten the hang of it, and she was able to latch on within seconds of being born.
When I first informed my family I planned to nurse, the response was overwhelmingly negative. My mother shared with us a horror story of a woman in the Bronx whose baby died of malnutrition because she was not producing enough milk. Other family members asked how I would know whether the baby was indeed eating enough, why I didn’t make it easier on myself and just use formula, and how weird it was that I would have a baby feed from me.
I can’t say I blame their reaction. My mother had us in Puerto Rico in the 1970s. It was a time where medical intervention was the preferred choice, any different resulted in harsh judgment stemming from socioeconomic biases. Babies were taken away by nurses who immediately gave them a bottle, and a mother’s breasts were tightly bound to make the milk dry up. After the mother recovered from all the drugs she was given, she was sent home with her baby and several batches of infant formula. That was the status quo and no one challenged it. To do otherwise would be to be considered ignorant, of an inferior status, and not open to enlightened ways. There was no rage against the machine, you either could afford to birth in a hospital or you birthed under a tin roof, you either gave your baby formula or were deemed unaware of progress in modern civilization. In a colonial society, dealing with issues of race, class, and gender, the majority of people wanted to absorb the dominant culture emanating from the U.S., without fanfare or revolution. And for imperialism to be complete, a cultural transformation of childbirth and childrearing must occur.
My family got to meet my daughter when she was around 6 months, and they were amazed at how healthy she looked, how her skin glowed, how alert she was, and in a culture that especially prized chubby children how robust her thighs were. Though I had not set out to prove a point, it was nice to have some validation that there were other ways to do things, other ways to raise babies.
Their amazement reverted back to shock and mild aversion when I followed a child led leaning and my daughter continued to nurse past 2. They soon became accustomed to it, with only a few jokes and comments being made around the holiday dinner table.
I am now following a child led weaning with my youngest; who at 3 1/2 needed gentle limits and encouragements to give up her beloved milk. We came to a crossroads in which I noticed we were both ready to finish our breastfeeding relationship. She didn’t seem to need it as much anymore, and I was definitely ready to have my body back. While she was fine the first night of weaning, she wanted to talk about it on the second, third, fourth, and fifth day. After a week of wondering whether she could have “just a little bit”, we finally reached an evening where she did not ask whether there was any milk left. She was fine with her bedtime story, a hug, a kiss, and a cuddle to sleep.
Sometimes I feel sad that it has ended. I wonder whether it was truly a mutual agreement, though by the time I marveled, listening to her thought process about it, several days had gone by that it seemed pointless to go back. Now I am left pondering my body, my breasts, and my role as a mother to two big girls.
That’s the thing about breasts isn’t it? Whose are they really? As women, we often use them to display our sexuality, and many of us undergo dangerous risks to slice them, inject them, lift them, and boost them up a size or two. Many women decide never to breastfeed precisely because of how it will affect their sexuality, how it will alter their breasts, and how much they’ve soaked in of society’s definition of feminine appeal. There is no denying that breastfeeding changes your sex life, their appearance, and your feelings about them related to sex. When your milk comes in, it is literally gushing forth to the point of feeling as if you are carrying hot stones within; even the gentlest touch can cause intense pain. God forbid someone tried to grab them in a moment of passion.
Now, almost 10 years after birthing 2 daughters, my breasts are mine again. But do they become displays of my womanhood once more; do I have any reason to prove my sexual prowess with them? Do I feel a need to go out and spend a ridiculous amount of money so that I could feel sexy again? I don’t think so. Birthing and feeding two human beings is pretty powerful stuff. A woman’s body is capable of supersonic strength whether she has huge, perky breasts or not. A woman is capable of supersonic strength even if she doesn’t birth or breastfeed. We must learn to define our own sexuality, without society’s constraints or definitions, and love ourselves in the process. That’s one of the biggest gifts you can give to yourself, and to your children. Our bodies are powerful no matter what they look like.