Nearly a year ago, when I was still nursing my then-newborn son, I bumped into a woman I know in my neighborhood, Hell’s Kitchen, who was also still breast-feeding-an 18-month-old daughter. She asked me how it was going. I was actually in the process of weaning him, hoping to get him completely on formula within a few weeks. “I hate breast-feeding,” I said. “Well, I love it,” she told me defiantly. Really? I wondered. She looked so tired. I knew that she is a writer who had been working on a book before her daughter was born, but that she had had to put it aside. I knew that every time I saw her she was with her daughter, folding or unfolding the stroller as they prepared to embark on the M104, that she couldn’t afford more than several hours a week of baby-sitting, that her husband was an old-school type who considered child-rearing women’s work. Did she really love nursing, or was she erasing her ambivalence like I was? Did she really love nursing, or was she, knowingly or unknowingly, participating in the game of nursing one-upwomanship now wildly popular among Manhattan moms?
Just a few weeks ago, a West Side mother of a 5-month-old baby told me that she had begun supplementing two bottles a day of formula. “But I feel so guilty,” she whimpered, as if she were leaving him unattended with matches and knives. A corporate-lawyer friend who lives in the Village suffered from postpartum depression and detested breast-feeding (which may have contributed to her depression), but felt compelled to continue an extra month. She explained to me that she felt she was failing as a mother and wanted to get at least this done right.
Somehow, this supposed nurturing and personal activity has been transformed by insecure urban moms into a fierce competition. Whether we breast-feed for over a year or for two weeks or not at all, we’re constantly on the defensive, feeling the need to judge and compare ourselves with others. Breast-feeding is a perfect arena of competition because it’s a measurable task easily quantified for comparison. (“I pumped 12 ounces today.” “I nursed exclusively for 10 months.” “I supplemented only one bottle of formula a day, for when I was busy volunteering at my older child’s P.T.A., the New York Cares Coat Drive and the U.J.A. fund-raiser.”) And who wins from this useless competition? Fathers!
My own experience was more complicated than I cared to explain to my Hell’s Kitchen neighbor. With my first child, nursing had been a failed experiment: The pain never went away, even though everyone said it would after a few weeks. Plus, my son never seemed to really get the concept: He was slow to “latch on” at each feeding and screamed pitifully out of hunger and frustration. Giving him a bottle was the merciful thing to do. With the second child, though, my relationship with nursing held equal parts love and hate. When it went well-when the pain lasted only a minute or two, and he sunk into an adorable state of bliss and put one impossibly tiny, curled-up hand on the other breast, and I could relax my neck and shoulder muscles and get all dreamy, the way nursing mothers are supposed to according to the What To Expect … series and 1970′s-influenced “women’s bodies are amazing forces of nature” feminists-then it was one of the greatest experiences known to womankind. But when it went horribly (when my nipples bled; when he needed to be nursed again, even though his last feeding had just ended a half-hour ago and it was already noon and I was still in my bathrobe and hadn’t looked at the headlines; when his older brother decided enough was enough and ran into the room and started screaming into the baby’s ear), I tried to fathom how mothers without wet nurses managed before the creation of formula.
Breast-feeding always involves sacrifice. Even in the best circumstances, the experience is imprisoning. And New York City-with its claustrophobic apartments-hardly presents the best circumstances. There’s not much a woman can do here-or many places she can go-with a baby tethered to her breast. She has to wear button-down or loose-fitting, unfashionable nursing shirts. And newborns need to be fed around the clock, as often as 10 to 12 times a day. If a mother pumps breast milk, either to allow someone else to feed her baby or to avoid the pain, the experience isn’t much less onerous: Pumping takes as much time as nursing! If she pumps and feeds the baby herself, she has approximately, oh, 45 collective minutes each day left to shower, brush her teeth, eat three meals and interact with other family members and society at large.
Yet 70 percent of American mothers-the greatest number ever, according to a national survey published recently in Pediatrics -choose to nurse. I don’t know the statistic for New York City moms, but every one of them I know has nursed for some period, unless she or her baby faced a medical complication. True, in the first few weeks of the baby’s life, the motivation is almost always to give the baby the best nutritional start possible. But many long-term nursers mainly feel the need to prove a point. If you don’t breast-feed, other Manhattan mothers are quick to tell you-beneath a polite veneer of concern-that you’re ruining your child for good. “You should do what’s right for you,” one friend with an infant daughter told me during my first pregnancy. “But Sarah hasn’t gotten sick once, while my friends who don’t breast-feed have all seen their babies get sick.” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being a die-hard nurser who is either attached to her child 24/7 or who has a bulky mechanical double-pump stashed under her desk at work. More power to her! The trouble comes when one woman’s decision to breast-feed becomes translated into the self-righteous belief that every mother needs to do it.
The current conventional wisdom in recession-plagued Manhattan-where we perhaps crave the familiar comfort of women super-invested in the domestic sphere-is that formula-feeding mom is too career-oriented and selfish. (The irony is that until we relinquished or slowed down our own careers, as so many of us are forced to do, we were as career-driven as Senator Hillary Clinton.) The “good” mother grins and bears the teeth-rattling pain and inconvenience of breast-feeding because that is what “good” mothers are supposed to do.
In the end, I nursed my two children six weeks and 12 weeks, respectively. When I reveal these numbers to mothers who have nursed longer than I (i.e., every mom in my peer group), I do so apologetically. But I now feel some solace with the realization that the longer a woman nurses, the harder it becomes to stop. Once she has established a routine that makes her baby happy, it can be frightening to disrupt it-what if the baby wails and chokes and gags when denied breast milk? Fear, rather than self-sacrifice, prompts many nursing mothers to just keep on unbuttoning that shirt.
Leora Tanenbaum is the author of Catfight: Women and Competition .