One day it occurred to me that mammals are called mammals because of mammary glands.
There are other traits of mammals beyond nourishing young with milk--but the name suggests that nursing is the most important trait of all mammals, more significant than having hair or babies born alive or complex brains.
Looked at this way, it seemed to me that the folks who name things were making a statement: that women are pretty damn important in the scheme of things. I mean, we aren’t called by a name that refers to sperm or upper body strength. Breasts are our defining features.
I admit it: I thought the mammals/mammary glands connection was thrilling. I felt I was onto something important—and subversive. A notion that undercuts the Patriarchy. A compelling addition to feminist thinking.
And I let myself savor the idea, and it was an idea I lovingly conveyed to my daughter—like a gift. I also raved to her about the practical convenience of nursing-- of not having to schlep around bottles and formula. And I probably waxed sentimental over the intense closeness one feels to your baby and—during particularly blissful moments-- to all living creatures.
So it was no wonder that my daughter was determined to nurse her newborn son even when it was clear that her baby didn’t like it and even though he was really hungry.
His crying was heartbreaking. Pretty early on, I apologized to my daughter for having been so gung-ho about something that was not going to work for her and her baby. There are lots of bottle-fed babies, I insisted—including myself—and they do just fine! I urged her—begged her—to forget about nursing and make everyone’s life easier. But I was too late.
She had been swept up by a whole community of advisors devoted to nursing—armies of people who called themselves lactation consultants, who, for a fee, felt competent to advise and encourage a new mother--so many people that, after a while, it began to feel that my daughter was being carried along by some ecstatic mosh inspired by a one-size-fits all, group-think picture of motherhood. The consensus seemed to be that if she stopped nursing, she would be failing her baby in some crucial way, and failing to be the mother she should be. Meanwhile, the kid was really hungry and crying inconsolably.
Recurring bouts of mastitis. Relentless pain. Fevers. Inflammations. Whacky remedies like cabbage compresses and wrapping herself in bedsheets. Nipple abrasions to the point of …never mind. It’s too disturbing to say aloud.
One bit of advice was so medieval the doctor refused to do it. Speaking of doctors, they were surprisingly unhelpful throughout this ordeal. One doctor was so stumped by my daughter’s symptoms that she said she had to go Google it. No wonder the Lactation Ladies had so much traction—there was nowhere else to turn.
“What your baby needs is…” was the phrase of choice of the lactation police—triggering my daughter’s sense of duty, and keeping her toeing their line.
What this baby needed was a mother who was healthy enough to mother. Shame on them for not releasing her sooner. Thank goodness that after 5 months my daughter’s common sense kicked in and my grandson was given a bottle and did just fine!
I’m not against nursing. Remember me? I’m the one who extols nursing as the defining activity of all mammals!
I’m not against nursing; but I am against fanaticism. I’m writing this because I think somebody’s got to shine a light on the militancy that has grown up around nursing. Like any absolutist stance, it can become dangerous!