I had tea yesterday with a lovely friend who is a novelist and songwriter and a young mother of two. She told me that in a class she attended on breastfeeding, a new mother admitted in a timid, guilty voice that she had to stop breastfeeding after several weeks because her nipples were cracked and bleeding and she could not produce enough milk. The “teacher/expert,” some breast-feeding Brunhilde, callously replied, “Hey, you can’t be a wimp about it.”
Coincidentally, yesterday morning, I’d also struck up a conversation with a bedraggled-looking working mom who said that she wanted to give her six month old baby formula at night so that both she and the child could get some sleep but her breast-feeding friends shamed her into feeling that she would harm the child.
I hear more and more of these stories from my younger friends, who feel guilty if they cannot manage to breastfeed until the day the kid can drive herself to the store to buy a pint of milk. This, after a pregnancy replete with stringent rules of behavior for the expectant mother, who must monitor down to a quark level everything that goes inside or onto her body, and then bear guilt and shame for deviation.
My daughter is now in her early twenties, so I am free from the new tyranny, but I just freakin’ hate it that the more liberated women get, the more society finds a way to control our behavior and make us feel guilty for any deviation from perfection. As if perfection is achievable, and as if our children’s “outcome” is in our control.
When my mother was pregnant, her doctor advised her to eat little. “You don’t want to end up fat!” he said, and prescribed a terrific new medication that would allow her to keep her lovely figure—speed. She asked if she could at least pig out at her birthday dinner. “If you want to celebrate your birthday, have a few drinks,” the doctor advised. “You don’t need to gain weight!”
Wishing to do the best thing for her unborn child, my mother followed her doctor’s precise regimen. She drank moderate amounts of alcohol and caffeine (it was New Orleans, after all!), she smoked, albeit lightly, though she lived with my father who chain-smoked, and she took her amphetamines. When it came time to give birth, at the first sign of a contraction, she was given general anesthesia. When she woke up many, many hours later, voila moi! My mother tried to breastfeed me but it was too difficult. After three weeks, the doctor put me on formula.
She followed this same healthful pre- and post- natal regime a few years later with my brother.
Leap forward a quarter of a century to the late 80s, when I discovered I was pregnant. I immediately gave up caffeine and alcohol (I’d given up smoking years earlier). I found an obstetrician whose nurse/partner was a midwife so that I could have my baby at home in a quiet and soothing environment and without any medication. This was the least I thought I could do to give my baby the sort of inner calm that would make her road easier. I took a regimen of vitamins and other supplements and exercised according to the guidelines of the day. I counted my protein grams to give my baby the nutrients she needed to develop. I meditated, I played soft classical music for my fetus, and my husband and I whispered to my tummy every night, assuring its tenant that we could not wait to meet her. After she was born, despite that I was running a bi-coastal entertainment company, I lugged around a breast pump and baby bottles, fighting the good fight for six months, at which time, my daughter slapped my breast away, refusing it evermore. I felt hurt, rejected, and afraid, as I’d been told that it was vital to breastfeed at least a year. But I’d still gotten in that all-important six months!
How did all this end up? Well, my brother and I enjoy extreme good health, the never-sick individuals you love to hate. We are youthful for our ages, and we have impeccable dental records. Despite that my mother didn’t count protein grams or breastfeed, we both have high IQs and were very facile students.
What about my daughter, the former hothouse orchid fetus, raised on a steady diet of high-consciousness cuisine and new-age relaxation techniques? She’s very high strung (she would not dispute this statement), has a boatload of cavities, and, though essentially healthy through childhood, was diagnosed at twenty-one with osteosarcoma. I am grateful to report that three years later, she is a bone-cancer survivor. She’s now enrolled in college courses, which she is enjoying, but prior to this—and though she has more street-smarts than her mother—she’d never met a classroom she did not hate.
I know my argument is circumstantial, but I always mark its irony when I hear another story of helpful citizens calling the police if they see a pregnant woman having a glass of wine, or of another woman made to feel shame if she can’t juggle breastfeeding a baby, caring for her other children and her home, and working a 40-hour week. I mean, just how many things are we supposed to do to perfection? How many roles must we assume to be a “good” woman and a “good” mother? Back in the good old 80s, Roseanne Barr used to say, “Honey, if they’re alive at the end of the day, I’ve done my job.”
I don’t condone going back to mid-century, Mad Men-style health habits, but I believe that we have to stand up to anyone who dictates to us how we must behave as women, wives, and mothers, even if the mouths from which the dictums emanate are female.