Breastfeeding as an Exercise of Privilege

In covering breastfeeding topics I’m speaking from my own experience as a nursing mother. This is my second round of nursing, and it wasn’t an idyllic start either time. With my first, tongue-tied baby, it was horrible and I’m still surprised that I kept nursing him. I will be forever grateful to the lactation consultants that I saw in the hospital where I delivered and the LC on staff at the pediatrician’s office. Those calm women with their sensible shoes and endless patience helped me when I wanted to quit.

While I’m pro-breastfeeding I want to be clear that I’m not anti-forumla. I believe that what has to come first is feeding the baby however that happens, and protecting mom’s sanity. If one of those priorities get in the way of the other than something has to change. I’m not going to extol the benefits of breastfeeding for babies, though they exist. Likewise, there are benefits to mom’s health, which are also documented though some are a little fuzzier than others. It turns out I’m one of the woman that doesn’t get super skinny nursing, so the weight loss benefit doesn’t apply to me. There is the possibility that some of the  benefits to babies have been overstated in studies when socio-economic factors are controlled. Basically, when siblings – one breastfed and one formula fed – are compared, there may not be a huge difference in the health of the babies. I know that my older brother and I were nursed and my little brother was a formula baby. We all turned out to be fairly good-at-adulting adults. I think we’re all intelligent, funny, good looking (obvi), loving people, but the formula-fed baby does speak multiple languages, is the best dressed of the bunch and is also fabulously gay. So do what you want with that.

Whatever you choose to do, you do you.

I hate to say this as it’s not crunchy at all, but one of the biggest benefits of breastfeeding is that it’s cheaper when a mother is able to either nurse her baby or have the opportunity to pump. Formula is expensive. Yes, there are coupons, but it’s still something else to pay for in the first year. If you have a baby with food allergies, hypoallergenic formula is crazy expensive and you have to fight insurance companies to see if they’ll help defray the cost.

Both of my boys have milk protein allergies. My older one has outgrown his, but when I was planning ahead for a work trip his allergist recommended we try Elecare, a hypoallergenic elemental formula that is neither milk nor soy based, in case he needed formula while I was away. It costs $44.97 for a can that’s less than a pound. That comes out to $3.19 an ounce, compared to a regular milk-based formula which costs somewhere between $.77-1.10 an ounce.

The choice of whether to go breast or bottle can get heated, but even as I write about my experience I am acutely aware of the privilege in my situation.

I gave birth in a hospital covered on private insurance that serves a Medicaid population as well as private paying patients. There we all had the same footing, but when we walked out the door, that’s where the differences that made it possible for me to choose to breastfeed started.

When I needed additional lactation support, I was able to get it. Had I need to privately pay for it, we could have afforded to do so. When my son needed to have his tongue-tie evaluated and clipped, we made it happen and covered a high out-of-pocket amount until he was added to our insurance.

We have to be a two-income family. With my first son, I worked for an employer that gave me eight paid weeks of leave and allowed me to use all of my vacation and sick time to stay out until my son was 14 weeks old. When it was time for me to go back to work I wanted nothing more than to stay home with my baby, to not leave him with anyone else, but I had to go back. I pumped at work when I was away from him and I was able to continue our nursing relationship.

I changed jobs between my babies and I took a full three months after my second baby. This was about 75% paid leave, and we were able to take the hit on my income for me to be home, recuperating from having a baby, getting to know that baby and taking care of him through his vulnerable “fourth trimester.”

The fact that I had any paid leave is amazing; I know that I should be grateful and I am. But I’m also so frustrated that this is the way it is in the United States.

It’s absolute bullshit that had I only taken the paid leave of my first job – 8 weeks – I would have had to go back to work while my baby was too little to go to the daycares around me. It’s even more heartbreaking to think of the mothers that don’t get any leave, that have to go back to work within days of their child’s birth.

Taking maternity leave isn’t just about caring for a baby.

There’s no easy way to have a baby, and no matter how that baby gets out, mom needs time to physically recover. Then there’s the necessary bonding time, as well as the time needed to establish nursing.

I’ve come to realize more that being able to continue nursing my babies has been a privileged stance. One in four women go back to work within two weeks of having a baby. If I was a shift worker that had to go back to work without paid time off, I wouldn’t have been able to nurse. My supply wasn’t established and I was in the hardest, most painful part of early breastfeeding.

Then there are those that can take some time off but can’t get the time to pump milk at work. That’s another log on my why we need better paid family leave policies fire. My nanny’s sister, who cleans office buildings late at night, doesn’t nurse her baby who is a month older than my youngest. I haven’t asked her why, but I’m sure that even if all things were equal, she wouldn’t be able to take the time to both clean and pump as much as her baby may want during that night shift.



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