The Language Of Nurturing: Bottle And Breast

Today was my last day nursing Little H, and also my 368th day.  I nursed Em for five months, and Jax not at all.  What made me decide to change how we parent, how I nourished our children?  What made me change as a person, as a woman, as a mother, to help commit to a year of breastfeeding when I found the idea more than disagreeable with my first?  Because, as with all things, I grew and evolved as a mother, and I hope that in more than just this way I am a different person and parent than I was five and a half years ago when I began.

When you have your first baby, so many of the decisions you make are based on how you were raised.  I cannot remember ever seeing a woman nurse a baby in front of me before I had Jax, never remember a baby in my life who did not come equipped with a caseload of bottles and cans of formula in tow.  All I knew is that I am a bit squeamish with all things physiological–to this day, I have never taken a rectal temperature–and the idea of breastfeeding was as foreign to me as speaking Mandarin.  In order to survive motherhood, I needed my mother to help me, and my mother-in-law, and all my girlfriends with babies, and not one of them had a successful breastfeeding story, if they had tried it at all.  Those who had attempted it said things like, Oh I hated it and I was determined to make it to 12 weeks but I couldn’t wait to stop.  I had friends who dreaded every feeding, who were in such physical pain that the first few months of motherhood were a blur of exhaustion and misery.  I didn’t want anything to do with that mess, and considering I didn’t have a good role model who I could call in the middle of the night, or who could tell me whether something was normal or not, to reassure me that this is worth it and keep going, it’s no surprise it was never an option for me.  So I happily busted out the little baby registry zapper when JDubbs and I went to Babies R Us and registered for 22 bottles, some big and some small, with a bottle brush and a drying rack, and never gave nursing another thought.

I was convinced, however, by a woman whose parenting style I admired, that I needed to look into the benefits of colostrum and all the goodness that liquid gold contained.  Baby Jax deserved all those antibodies and white blood cells and wholesome perfection straight from Mother Nature, so I agreed to pump the colostrum while in the hospital with him, as she had.  My ob/gyn tried to convince me that I should just nurse him, but I insisted No, no, I don’t want to breastfeed.  I just want him to have the best start he can have.  I should have realized right then that I was wavering in my breastfeeding/bottlefeeding mentality, but instead I booted out my visitors to strap on a hospital-grade double pump to get my son the colostrum he deserved.  Needless to say, both JDubbs and I were sufficiently horrified by both the look of the pump and the sound it made (which still makes my skin crawl) to praise the Lord that after my brief stay in the hospital, we would never have to reenter the world of nursing again.

12 months of Enfamil later, Jax is still my healthiest baby.  He has never had a stomach flu (knock on wood), even when everyone in our house vomits around him.  He has had only one ear infection and (double knock on wood) has had only one cold since entering public school this year.  JDubbs and I were equally on duty in the middle of the night and I was able to go away with girlfriends for three nights when Jax was only 13 weeks old.  For anyone who thinks that breast is best and a woman should endure all sorts of cracked and bleeding tortures to continue nursing even when she hates it, I give you exhibit A: my son who could read at age 3, who is as healthy as a horse and who taught my husband how to be a Dad by sharing the middle-of-the-night load.  Bottle feeding is just as snuggly and I bonded with Jax just as well as I did with the girls.  There is nothing like when a baby hooks your finger when he’s eating, grasping your pinkie with his whole fist as he drains a bottle to his heart’s content.  It doesn’t matter if you’re nursing or bottle feeding–that moment is heaven to all parents, no matter what language they’re speaking or how their baby is eating.

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Daddy and Jax, 2 days old

So why did I decide to breast feed Em?

Well, for starters, I live in Vermont, people!  The land of tree-huggers, co-sleepers, and women who nurse in public.  If breast feeding is a language here, people learn it by complete immersion.  When Jax was 10 weeks old I started going to Mommy and Me yoga, and I was definitely the only woman there who didn’t breastfeed; that is when I realized that bottle feeding may not be the norm.  At first I was horrifically embarrassed and didn’t know where to look or how these women could just pull out their boobs in a crowded room and feed their kids of (gasp!) various ages, some of whom could even (gasp!) walk, in front of complete strangers!  That was an eye-opening experience to be sure, and one I am forever grateful for because first of all, I realized that no one parenting style is right or wrong and also, I met one of my dearest friends, who is a breast feeding lover and advocate.  Through that group of ladies and another parenting group, I slowly became desensitized to the strangeness of women nursing in public until somewhere along the lines, I didn’t think it was strange at all.  I stopped secretly judging and started learning the language.  When I got pregnant with Em just seven months later, I had a whole new support system of fabulous friends, all of whom were around for late night phone calls, texts, or emails, who promised to be my own personal lactation consultants and who, most importantly, made me consider, what did I have to lose?  I already knew the health benefits for both the baby and myself, and was obviously completely comfortable giving a baby formula, as I had just done with Jax.  It seemed like a win/win situation and it couldn’t hurt to try.

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Mommy and Em, 2 days old, loving that skin-to-skin snuggle

The operative phrase above was “wouldn’t hurt.”  I had heard a fair share of breast feeding horror stories and was very upfront with everyone involved that if this didn’t go well from the beginning, I was not going to martyr myself.  Luckily for me, though, it never did hurt, and I never had anything go wrong that required shields, cream, or antibiotics.  Em and I were perfectly paired and other than an initial freak out as to why she wasn’t nursing round the clock at one day old (because she was traumatized and needed to sleep it off, duh), it was a wonderful time for us both.

Well, if it was so wonderful, why did I stop?  Remember when I said I would do it, but only if it was easy?  Unfortunately, at four months it became less easy.  For one, she became nosy and acquired that annoying habit of popping off whenever she felt like it to observe the world around her or inquire about an interesting noise, leaving me aggravated and exposed to the world.  Secondly, I went back on the pill, and with the influx of new hormones came a huge decrease in my supply.  Basically, I was going to have to jump through some serious hoops to keep my milk supply in good standing, and since the whole thing has lost its luster, I was ready to jump ship.  Oh, and did I mention, I never got her on any sort of schedule and was not only feeding her on demand, I was basically co-sleeping with her in the rocker in her bedroom, and since that is not the kind of parent I was capable of surviving with a 22-month-old waking me up at 6 in the morning, for me it was time to quit.  I made it another month or so and by five months she was 100% on the bottle, and to be honest, I was ready to have my body back.  Two babies in 18 months plus breastfeeding makes a girl ready for some air.

An unexpected benefit of that is that anyone could feed her, including this guy.

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That was a wonderful day, which I will never forget.  Truly, with Em, it was the best of both worlds.

Baby H went very much the same way.  Nursing wasn’t foreign to me anymore, and since–as a good friend put it–nobody was going to babysit three kids under 5, I knew H and I were never going to be apart for more than a few hours at most until she was much older.  I also knew that she was going to be my last baby, so although 12 months of nursing may have sounded like a huge commitment to me a few years before, it, like everything, just flew by.

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Mommy and Baby H, hours old

So what do I think of my transition from bottle to breast?  I think it is unremarkable, other than the fact that I have grown a lot in the past five and a half years to a (hopefully) more open-minded person who sees the beauty in all parenting styles.  These past few months even found me slightly annoyed to have to pull out my nursing cover in certain situations–Little H and I are a well-oiled machine, and there is practically zero exposure when I feed her now.  I laughed to myself the other day while nursing without a cover in a mall, in a chair directly in front of a Victoria’s Secret store, with women’s breasts literally on display for the world to see.  If anyone had given me any grief then, I certainly could have justified my right to feed my baby when there were more offensive sights to be had.  I am glad that nursing has made me aware of the beauty in all ways to nurture a child, in the sweetness of my son’s hand holding mine around his bottle as well as the closeness between me and my girls while nursing in the middle of the night.  I still find women who have to work at nursing amazing, and those who pump while at work utterly impressive.  I chose this lifestyle because it suited me and was the easiest (and least expensive!) option, and surprisingly, I really loved it.  There were many days this summer when I was grateful I didn’t have to remember to bring a bottle and formula with me when I could barely remember my purse.  The flexibility, the solitude, the health benefits of nursing made it an easy choice for me this time, but I look back on the mother that I was five years ago and think she was pretty great, too.  She barely knew how to speak the language of parenthood, and here I am now, fluent in Mandarin.

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I never would have thought.

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