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Of Love and Milk: Facing Our Breastfeeding Ambivalence

Written by Marcy Axness, PhD   
Saturday, 01 September 2007 00:00
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Mother’s milk. The term is synonymous with everything tender, nourishing, and loving. The best. Indeed, a slogan-writer bottom-lined it succinctly: Breast is best. So why do we have so much ambivalence about breastfeeding? Why do we wrestle with the choice of will I or won’t I breastfeed? Why are nursing mothers still asked to leave restaurants or harassed by requests to “be more discreet”? Why the myriad of cultural messages undermining breastfeeding?

Henri Nestlé’s invention of formula in 1869 initially saved countless babies in foundling homes, but the later widespread use of formula as a “new and improved” system greatly undermined breastfeeding. Before Nestlé, there had been wet-nurses, called “angel-makers” in England, so risky (yet popular) was the choice not to breastfeed. Indeed, ambivalence about breastfeeding is ancient: a Greek myth tells that Zeus wanted his bastard son Hercules to nurse from his wife, the goddess Hera, and thus become immortal. He slipped the baby to Hera’s breast while she slept, but when she awoke, Hera shoved the baby away. The force of the baby’s Herculean suck sent a spray of gala (Greek for “milk”) into the heavens. Thus our galaxy was christened— a term, appropriately enough, derived from mother’s milk.

Rather than the amount of bare breast revealed (usually not much), it is the startling intimacy of breastfeeding that can stir discomfort when a mother nurses in public (even when that “public” is family and friends within a home!) Mother and baby respond to each other physically and emotionally while in direct skin-to-skin contact, which in the minds of many, is unconsciously associated with sexual activity—something that should happen in total privacy.

I suffered no such ambivalence. You see, early motherhood brought me to my knees. Daily I was beset by vague but persistent fears of incompetence, and I was trying, always trying, to do better. Do what better, I couldn’t quite name. But breastfeeding provided respite from that humming postpartum anxiety. It was the one mothering thing I could do perfectly, requiring no effort, no angst, no quiet panic over, “Oh, God, what do I need to do now, what does he want?” No way to be wrong.

Of course I knew it was the best thing for my baby, but it was many years before I knew how really miraculous the biochemistry of breastmilk is. Nature has prepared it as a most exquisite elixir, to perfect our journey from cell to human being. To not participate in this natural continuum that Life has devised seems somehow awkward, an abrupt interruption of an elegantly choreographed process.

True, the seemingly incessant demands by an infant for his or her mother’s milk can sometimes feel like a kind of assault. Our sleep suffers, our capacity to function normally suffers, and our ability to accomplish even the most basic tasks suffers! This is when we have the opportunity to develop what people seek at the feet of spiritual masters: the power to respond to what Life is asking of us, in this moment, right now. Poet Andrea Potos sums it up in the opening of her poem “Instructions for the New Mother”: Give up your calendar and clock, start flowing with milk time.

If sometimes you find the day-in and day-out tasks of mothering to be tedious, you needn’t feel guilty—join the club! For some of us it helps to enliven our minds if we learn more about the subtle complexities and extraordinary implications of what we do everyday as mothers. This is certainly true with breastfeeding. Understanding more about the power of breastfeeding can kindle your imagination and inspiration toward embracing breastfeeding with extra delight.