As with all the previous guest posts, I befriended the lovely “lactivist” Cassaundra on Twitter (@RadicaLactivist). After experiencing breastfeeding with my second child, I have become an advocate for nursing in public, or NIP as it is rather amusingly abbreviated. (Mind you, I’m not saying that I am an advocate for acting like a drunk college girl at Mardi Gras.) Anyway, I have rather enjoyed the opportunity to watch someone advocate what is best for babies, and defend a woman’s right to NIP both voraciously and eloquently. I am honored that she shared her story with me just days before giving birth. (I hope writing this didn’t send you into early labor, Cassaundra!)
I have a rather unique perspective on breastfeeding, because I first nursed a baby back in 1992 and yet I am also currently nursing one. I am also expecting again, in only a couple of weeks and in the nearly two years since I last birthed I have become very active in communicating with other Moms, from all around the world. There have been changes in the Motherhood world in the last nearly twenty years. Big Changes! When I think back to preparing for birth and breastfeeding with my first daughter, when I was only 20 yrs old, even very basic things about how we all lived our lives were very different. We had no internet back then, although because I was partnered to a techie, we were “online” in a way, as members of a BBS system that we would access with a dial-up modem. The kind of online social networking that is available to current Moms certainly wasn’t available back then. Because I was the first person in our circle of friends to have a child, I didn’t have any offline networking either. I am so blessed now, to have such a range of wisdom, experience and research available to me that I couldn’t have imagined when I had my first baby. I have changed, I have grown, I have learned SO MUCH! The biggest difference though, is the way Motherhood is marketed. Certainly, we had products and services available for Moms and babies back in 1992, but NOTHING like we do now. I have been astounded, since having my second child in 2002, with a gap of almost ten years between kids, at the immense difference in how Motherhood happens nowadays compared to my first time. The galaxy of products that have now become available, that are considered “must-haves” even though they didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago, truly boggles my mind.
A layette, when I first acquired one, was a collection of baby clothes, diapers, Penaten cream, blankets and a car seat. A stroller or carriage and possibly a crank-up swing were it for contraptions and a crib, change table and high chair the only furniture required. Since I come from a country family, where no-one had EVER bottlefed, bottles were not on my radar. Because my stepmother had bottlefed my younger sister, I had seen how much paraphernalia was out there for bottles and it seemed like a giant waste of time and money. There were no diaper genies, there were no travel systems, no belly bands, even baby monitors were brand new and not commonly used. It didn’t seem like you needed all that much gear for a baby and to be honest, you really don’t! Back then, the only thing to buy for breastfeeding was nursing bras, that’s it. There were no pillows, I had never heard of a breast pump, special covers hadn’t been invented, there were no electronic gadgets to track feedings, no herbal teas or cookies, no tests for milk, the only specialty breastfeeding clothing available was a rare nursing nightgown and apparently the only book on the topic was The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding from the La Leche league which I picked up used at a library sale. The only reason that I had even heard of that book was because my Mother had always been, without any of us having a word for it, a Lactivist. I realise now that I was lucky to be raised in a milieu where breastfeeding was the assumed norm. Even in 1992 I knew that many women did not breastfeed, what neither I nor my Mother realised, was how very fraught the system was for most women with barriers to breastfeeding. It seems to me now, with my unique perspective and experience, that the proliferation of products, for Motherhood in general, and for breastfeeding in particular has actually added to those obstacles over the last 18 years..
In order to explain why I feel this way, I will start with my own experience with nursing bras. I bought two, back in 1992. There was only one style available at the time. I had to order them from the Sears catalogue because they were a specialty item and not available in stores. They may have been available in a high-end lingerie store in Toronto, but certainly not in my price range. So, I ordered the soft-cup plain, and frankly downright ugly bras that were available. I bought them after I had delivered my daughter and I ordered the largest size they made, a 38 DD. To really understand my experience with THESE bras, let me tell you a bit about my experience with bras in general. First of all, I started wearing bras when I was nine years old. YES. Nine years old. I was in a C-cup by the age of twelve and began wearing underwires then, despite my Mother’s protestations otherwise, because those were the only bras I felt comfortable in. Since my breasts were fairly heavy the support made me feel better with a bra on than without one. After the birth of my daughter, I increased in size, literally overnight, by three cup sizes.(imagine my shock when I woke up in the morning!) My usual bras had fit all through my pregnancy but I couldn’t get one on to go home from the hospital. I was forced for the first time in years to go braless. I was miserable. Since I was breastfeeding, I assumed I MUST have nursing bras so I ordered the ones that I have just described. When they arrived I was very glad to see them because a week with no bra for me was NOT fun. I very quickly discovered that they were not worth the wait. In retrospect, I now know that they were too small. I had managed to get them on so I thought they were okay, but soft cups fit differently than a proper underwired bra and need excess fabric to do their job. These bras were a DD from a company that has smaller than average sizes, so they were essentially a D cup and I was (I now realise) an F cup at the time. It never occurred to me that the largest size available wasn’t acceptable. I hadn’t developed an awareness of how the fashion industry limits and shames women at that time. Size was not the only problem though.
The very principle of design for a nursing bra is that it will hold together while open on one side. In order to do this, it has to be completely open for access, but still completely intact structurally. It must support itself entirely but without recourse to the fabric of the cup. Either a strap or ribbon or cord or panel with a cut-out are required to hold the bra together while exposing the breast. If a bra is being worn simply to cover a breast then this is possible. However it is an engineering nightmare if the bra is actually providing support to the breasts. All the weight of the breast normally carried by the cup, is focused on the thin area of the internal straps. This causes the strap to actually CUT into the flesh of the breast. Every time I undid the cup of my bra to feed my baby, it was like a hot knife through butter, slicing into my breast. OUCH! Of course, it didn’t occur to me to blame the bra! I blamed my boobs! There was something very wrong with my boobs! I tried cutting the ribbon/straps out of the bra, so that I would at least be comfortable, after all these were the ONLY bras I owned! This meant that I couldn’t get the bra back together after nursing! I was forced to remove all my upper clothing to put myself back together after every feeding! This was bad enough at home, it was a nightmare when I went out. I had wrestled with a knit shawl/blanket to try and nurse in public without exposing myself, but my baby would rip it off and I was also TERRIFIED I would smother her. That and how was I supposed to latch her on? I will never forget the one time I used this shawl in a restaurant, I ended up with it draped over my own head to try and get her latched and then fighting to keep it over her face while she ate. It was a disaster, and then afterwards I had to go to the bathroom, clutching the blanket round my shoulders to take my blouse and bra off, and put them back on intact. Try doing that once an hour every hour when the baby is little! My nursing bra convinced me that I was an incompetent Mother. I was unable to go out until after the baby weaned. If I went to visit family, I would go in another room to nurse so that I could strip topless. I had been raised in a family where women openly nursed in front of everyone, normally petted and pampered in a comfy chair with drinks brought to them but I was unable to do this. I still blamed ME, not the bras. I assumed, since nursing bras were a “MUST-HAVE” that the fault must be with me and I was just less skilled, less capable than other women who managed to nurse in public. Since I loved breastfeeding it was easier for me to give up going out than to give up breastfeeding. So that’s what I did. I breastfed my daughter till 15 months, which back in 1992 I thought was a VERY long time to breastfeed! And I did it without nursing in front of anyone because I had been brainwashed by a bra to believe that I was somehow “broken”.
Nearly ten years later, I was pregnant with my second child, in my second marriage and also in a very different world. I had successfully graduated from University while raising my first daughter alone. I had a completely different circle of friends, a supportive Faith community and a new husband who actually WANTED the child we were expecting. I had two fears about the impending birth, one was the birth itself, which is a whole other story, but the biggest concern aside from that was my fear that I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed because I couldn’t use nursing bras. A dear friend searched all over the internet for me, but the selection of nursing bras in Canada still did not include my size. AT ALL. I have heard that this has changed, but in 2001 when I was pregnant, there was not a single nursing bra available in Canada that would fit me. It was hard to find them even in The United States and they were VERY expensive and required cross-border shipping. I was stuck, I WAS SCARED! I thought, how can I breastfeed without a bra? Am I going to be stuck at home for a whole year? I had a life now, friends, weekly faith services to attend. What was I going to do!!!!???
When my son was born, I was determined NOT to go braless so I just kept wearing my usual bras. I simply refused to suffer the pain. And one day, out of desperation, not long after he was born, I wrestled the strap down my arm, pulled my arm out of my sleeve then back in, pulled the cup down and let him have my breast. EUREKA! It was so easy! I always wear button front or lower neck tops or dresses anyways because I have a phobia about anything round my neck. So it was simple, to just slide the strap out of my sleeve, nurse, and slide it back in. It was much less of a spectacle than putting a shawl over my head like a human circus tent and then running to hide away and put my clothes back on. All of a sudden I was a CAPABLE Mom! I was NOT the loser, the nursing bras were the loser! In retrospect, I feel like an idiot for letting a product, a fashion product make me feel this way. I let a product trap me in my home for over a year. I let a product make me question my ability to parent! Stupid huh?
Well, no, not really. We rely on the world around us to give us cues about how to do things. It is now accepted that if we have never seen breastfeeding, we will have a much harder time figuring out how to do it. If everyone you know uses bottles, then you will believe that is normal and use bottles. If everyone you know gets a baby monitor and a diaper genie at their baby shower, you will expect to receive and use them too. If everyone says you “MUST-HAVE” a nursing bra to breastfeed, then you will believe that you MUST-HAVE one to breastfeed too! And, like me, if you find the product to be less than useful, you may very well assume, as I did, that YOU are the problem, not the product. So this is where my concern comes from. I hate to think of other Moms blaming themselves if the products don’t work for them, even quitting breastfeeding because they don’t fit the marketing mould! And this is the really scary part. The products change us, Force certain patterns of behaviour to be accepted as the norm. Nursing pillows may be great, but do you have to carry a PILLOW everywhere with you in order to feed your baby? Pumps are wonderful because they allow women to provide breastmilk when they are not available, but many people expect that they will only pump for their child or that they will use bottles when in public thus making breastfeeding even LESS normal or common. I am very concerned by the covers that are now on the market. Like nursing bras, for some Moms they work wonderfully and make their lives easier. But like nursing bras for me, for many Moms they create an expectation, a mould that they won’t fit into and which will take away their freedom. I had never heard Moms called so many names until these became common. Moms are now regularly called classless hussies, trashy sluts and any number of names if they don’t use these contraptions. I long ago gave up on the shawl or blanket because I realised, like almost every other Mother that they are NOT practical. But you can’t explain that to someone who says “that’s what they make covers for! Cover that nasty shit up! I’m trying to eat!” These are now “MUST-HAVES” because you will be attacked if you don’t use them.
Women assume that supply issues are normal because they see teas and cookies and powders and supplements everywhere. They assume that their bodies are not good enough to feed their babies and that it’s more normal to fail at breastfeeding than to succeed. Marketing a product is a process where people are convinced that they NEED a product that they didn’t need before. Great for profits, but what about people? The reality is, we don’t need these things. I found freedom and confidence and success when I realised that I did NOT need a nursing bra. Other Moms have their confidence sabotaged by free formula samples, or by pacifiers or “just-one bottle can’t hurt”. It’s normal! They expect to pump and when they only get a half-ounce assume they aren’t making milk and give up! I feel so lucky that all I had to fight was my bra! It could have been so much worse! For many women, it really is much worse. So this is my message. This is what I’ve learned after 18 years, after nursing four kids so far and preparing now for the first time to tandem nurse. After making huge mistakes, after blaming my boobs rather than the bra, after FINALLY connecting to truth and community and other Moms.
When it comes to breastfeeding there are NO “must-haves”. Really, honestly, ALL YOU NEED IS BOOBS