Last week, I went back to work, with something of a heavy heart. It’s true my hours are flexible. I’m a journalist and I’m not expected to be in the office all day, every day. But still, it’s time away from my baby girl, who’s a little over four months old, and that’s just hard. In addition, I started teaching an eight-week creative writing workshop.
When I mentioned my plans to an older colleague, she reacted with shock.
“But how can you – your baby’s only, what?”
“Four months old.”
“And so you’re planning to stop breastfeeding?
“No, no, of course not,” I replied. “I have my own office, so I can close the door and pump.”
“Oh, but I just don’t see how you can really continue, and it’s so important to establish breastfeeding now,” she lectured, oblivious to the fact that it had already been well-established in the week following my daughter’s birth in February. And then she continued to offer the following from her own Joan of Arc school of mothering. “When I breastfed that’s all I did. I was just 100 percent there for the baby for at least the first year, and even beyond. I didn’t even read a book while breastfeeding - I could never understand how women can do that.”
Well, some of us can. And I’m not sure if by wondering how women “can do that” you’re wondering if it’s really possible to lactate and cogitate at the same time, or if you’re suggesting that, well, shame on me for engaging my intellectual capacities while my body is busy doing what it was put on this earth to do – make and feed babies.
If I had the guts, I’d have told her she was being a breastfeeding bully. Given that she’s not a good friend, it was none of her business to ask what my breastfeeding plans were and whether my daughter would continue to be EBF – or exclusively breastfed, initials that dot the mommy blogosphere. As if that weren’t enough, this woman went on to suggest that I really should take the rest of the year off to be at home with my baby.
I suppose what got me so angry was not just this woman’s patronizing tone, but the assumption that every mother who wants to can afford to stay home for an indefinite amount of time. I point out that she is of a different generation only because I find myself theorizing that 30 years ago, women wanted to work but most still weren’t expected to; it was assumed that they could take several years off for childrearing and be dependent on their husbands’ income. Today’s economy is different. When they invented the terms DINKS (dual income no kids), they never told us that once you have those kids, you’ll still need the dual incomes in order to survive – and probably even more so. Though there is an image that women who have kids later are more financially secure, the reality is that even “successful” people like me cannot afford to hop off the career track indefinitely, or even for a full year.
The truth is that I needed to write this piece not only to rail against this particular guilt-peddler – who may have been oblivious to the inappropriate nature of her “advice” – but to admit to something. I too have been a breastfeeding bully. It was, I swear, unintentional. Last year, I gave someone a “my breast friend” nursing pillow as a gift after she gave birth, assuming she’d love it. But breastfeeding wound up bringing her nothing but frustration and a hungry baby who wasn’t getting enough milk; she quickly moved to formula and has had to endure a ridiculous number of nosy questions. Before I realized that I, too, might find myself a victim of the breastfeeding bullies, I often took tabs on women around me who were not breastfeeding. I admit to having harbored a sense of superiority over random women – in my baby music class, at the playground, on the airplane – who were younger than I but shaking up a bottle of formula instead of reaching into their shirts.
Most recently, I accidentally started to unload some advice on a friend about to give birth; she said that because she’d had a breast reduction, she didn’t expect to be able to breastfeed. I offered that I have a friend who had reduction surgery and still succeeded in breastfeeding and has a great book on the subject…and there I was again, being the bully – or perhaps proselytizer – I never intended to be.
We have Dr. William Sears, now of Time magazine fame, to thank and to blame for the revival of breastfeeding, baby-wearing and co-sleeping – all part of attachment parenting. I’m part of the trend because I do all of these – in moderation. (What’s moderate? A friend who would have me wear the baby all day long and who would ban the bouncy chair from my living room is not moderate.) I have one foot in and one foot out – trying to maintain my career while making time for my children. With a little help from family and friends, it seems to be working so far. That is, as long as I banish the bullies who would have me borrow money if necessary – as Sears suggests – over returning to work.
Would I like to stay home with my baby longer, and spend all day every day feeding her, playing with her, watching her grow? Yes, a part of me would. And part of me will always need more than that, and cannot nullify the woman I was before I had two babies.
I’m not sure what I would do if my role as a family wage-earner weren’t pivotal. I’m grateful that I have two sweet children and a supportive husband – and that my opportunities and options have grown, thanks to the battles waged by the men and women who came before me. I’ll find a way to be the best mother I can be and still have a role to play as a writer, journalist and teacher. So am I still nursing full-time? Why yes, in fact I am. But before you ask me or any other new mother, consider how loaded the question is, and try to stop yourself before you become a breastfeeding bully.