I recently inherited the kitchen table that used to take up 80% of my grandparents’ kitchen in Stanton, Michigan. It used to remind me of a large wooden bus with its curved U-shaped grooved windows in the front and back between the legs, its circular foot rest in the center on the floor, and its seemingly massive size and length. I used to sleep on the foot rest underneath as a child when I lost the battle for the pull out couch bed to my older and cooler cousins (or if my parents had slacked and brought us there too late, when everyone else had already chosen a sleeping space). You see, I’m from a very large family: a huge, Polish, Catholic, everyone-gets-together-at-once-in-the-tiny-ranch-style-three-bedroom-house kind of family, where my mom is one of eleven children: eight girls and three boys, and pretty much everyone got married and had children.
As you can probably imagine, get-togethers were “go big or go home.” Everybody had to eat in shifts; the shower ran from morning until late in the afternoon, and there were always more than two children in the tub at once during bath time. Evenings were filled with huge games of Scrabble and Pass the Ace and Spoons around that humongous bus of a table, all the kids slathered in Skin-So-Soft or smelling like Ivory soap crammed along the bench on the backside between the table and the wall and window that looked out into the screened in porch to watch the grown-ups or learn how to play. I have countless memories of the foods I enjoyed at that table: Grandma’s chicken noodle soup or biscuits and gravy, birthday cakes, bowls of cereal at 10 o’clock at night, and especially pancake breakfasts slathered in my grandpa’s homemade maple syrup. We helped make that syrup every year by collecting cold, heavy buckets of sap for boiling into sugary sweetness, which eventually ended up all over our hands and faces and especially that table.
So, when that table became available for the taking, I leapt at the chance. It didn’t matter that I was 6 and a half hours away from it; I found a way. You see, there is a comfort in that table: a series of memories tied to love and warmth and laughter and especially to my sense of family and love of food. Those bonds run deep. Yet, while most of America would read this story and nod along, agreeing with everything I’ve said so far about that deeply rooted connection and love for that feeling of comfort and food, there’s a huge disconnect between understanding the feelings I have for a table and the feelings a baby has for his mother in the same way through breastfeeding.
Why is that? Is it the over-sexualization of breasts in the media? Is it the after-effects of a brainwashing campaign by formula companies that synthetic science is better than what YOU can provide? Is it overly prudish social norms pressed upon any woman who doesn’t look like a supermodel? Is it because breastfeeding doesn’t help churn the economic gears of society? I have no idea. Maybe it’s all of it. Maybe it’s none of it. Maybe it’s more.
What I do know is that if everyone could authentically understand that my child feels about me and my breasts the way that I feel about that table, we wouldn’t have gotten so many raised eyebrows when he was still nursing at 18 months and 2 years old and a little after he turned 2 when he self-weaned. If everyone understood that, I wouldn’t have had to struggle to learn that normal term nursing is not defined by a number but a child’s needs, and that despite what most people are comfortable sharing with others, a lot of moms nurse beyond the first year. I decided I wasn’t going to let everyone else’s agenda affect what I felt was right and needed for us, and thank God I didn’t. We made it 25 months in our nursing relationship, and I’m very proud of that because it was a LOT of work.
Now, I never EVER thought I would nurse that long. I used to think (like the majority of others) that it was weird and wrong and even a little crazy if moms nursed beyond a year. I may have a gazillion family members, but I can’t recall even one of them nursing their baby in front of me when I was younger: not my aunts and not my cousins. I’m one of three children. My mother had c-sections with all of us and tried but did not successfully nurse any of us for very long. She battled low milk supply and no professional support from a lactation consultant (which rarely existed in hospitals in the U.S. when I was born). Until I was a married adult and saw my sister-in-law nursing my nephews, babies were fed by bottles, and that was all I knew.
So, when I was preparing for the birth of my son, I was terrified. I had done my research (as I do with most things in life) and determined that I wanted to breastfeed. However, the fact that my mom had not been able to nurse me due to low milk supply led me to believe that I would also fail to breastfeed my child. I worried about this constantly. I read lots of lactation books. I took a class. I examined myself to see if I somehow had defective breasts, doomed to obliterate my chances of giving my child what was considered the best nutrition for him. I found a few online Facebook groups dedicated to supporting nursing mothers (La Leche League, Breastfeeding USA) and joined them and pestered everyone with questions. I made a list of all the nursing support groups in the area (LLL, Breastfeeding USA, three local hospitals) and where and when their meetings were. I bought all of the things I was told I might need (breast pads, burp cloths, nipple butter/lanolin, a Boppy, bottles of water, small snacks) to make sure I had nursing stations set up where I felt it would be most convenient to nurse around the house. I had armed myself with all of the information I could possibly find, and that helped tremendously when everything I’d tried to learn through a book went out the window when he was born, and I had to apply it all firsthand.
He couldn’t latch because I did have defective breasts; I had flat nipples. He had nothing to latch onto! I had fantastic and very available lactation consultants who taught me how to use a nipple shield, how to pump, how to spoon feed my tiny 6 lb 2 oz squishy newborn my gorgeously gold colostrum from a spoon, making him look like a crusty, sugary mess (almost as if he’d been indulging in my grandpa’s maple syrup).
I also had my former neighbor (and friend, who had also been my labor and delivery nurse) visit me on the postpartum floor the night after he was born to see how things were going. When she heard what I was having to do, she immediately brought me these incredible Medela Soft Shells to wear in my nursing bras to help bring out my nipples so that he would have an easier time latching. By the middle of the next day, we didn’t need the nipple shields to nurse, thanks to those shells and my friend.
I had raging temperatures of 104 and higher when my milk came in, leaving me a violently shaking and freezing mess, feeling like a victim from the Titanic every time a wave of fever hit. I remember being covered in layer after layer of blankets and my husband or mother actually laying over top of me a little to help me stop shivering so aggressively. They thought it might be an infection, but I didn’t want to take the antibiotics in case they gave me thrush. I was fine the next day.
I battled blebs, cracking, bleeding, unbelievable rawness and soreness and tenderness and all the other awful “nesses” you can imagine as he and I learned together how to get this nursing thing done. His latch eventually widened as he learned to stretch his jaw a little to compensate for my defective nipples that were slowly changing shape. What was once the most painful experience every hour became what I looked forward to most within just a week or so. What used to take me several minutes to set up and get him situated for, I was soon able to accomplish in the dark of the middle of the night with my eyes closed and my mind and body half asleep. I could even pump and nurse at the same time! Not only that, but my fears of not being able to produce enough were demolished when I was able to pump enough not only for my child but for other children as well.
I became a milk donor through Eats on Feets Indiana (wordplay on the name Meals on Wheels) and donated milk to a few different mommas who struggled with production due to various health issues. It was the best feeling to provide something so life sustaining for someone else- to do something for someone else that is priceless. And when I started a part time job and my supply dropped a little and I stopped responding to the pump, one of my closest friends stepped in and became a milk donor for me! She offered me her excess pumped milk for my baby for bottles when I was working. The donor became the receiver and the circle of milk sharing was complete!
It was a lot of pain in the very beginning for me (it isn’t that way for everyone) and once the physical pain was gone, I had the social barriers to conquer: nursing in public, nursing in front of friends and family, pumping and nursing, nursing on demand, nursing at night, nursing for comfort, nursing at all.
It was a long, uphill battle for a while, but I was extremely lucky to have a lot of support, even from those who didn’t understand it firsthand. Those who didn’t understand so quickly had a hard time understanding that I wasn’t just feeding my baby physically; I was nourishing him emotionally and mentally too. Nursing was his comfort when he was scared (thunderstorms, strange or overwhelming places/people, his first boat ride) or hurt/sick (scraped knee, getting shots, feeling dehydrated from throwing up or having a fever) or feeling crummy (like having a hard time waking up after nap or bed).
It was a connection I didn’t have with anyone else. It was a sweetness and a closeness and a way to show him I loved him enough to share myself with him every day for as long as he needed me, even when I was exhausted or sick or cranky or touched out or just plain over it. We did what worked well for us, and I didn’t succumb to the pressures of society to “be normal” when it came to what I felt was best for us. That was a huge victory for me as a person, let alone as a mother.
I’m thankful for the online groups and people who have dedicated their time and energy to normalizing breastfeeding in the public eye and gave me the courage to do the same: for my friend and labor and delivery nurse (Casey) and my lactation consultants at St. Francis, the IBLCs at Breastfeeding USA, the admins who run Eats on Feets Indiana for providing me with an opportunity to help others in their time of need, for my supportive friends who have nursed alongside me or before me, leading the way to making me feel comfortable caring for my child without feeling like I had to hide, for Lucas’ “milk momma” Emily, for donating hundreds of ounces to my baby over the course of a few months so that I could work and make sure my baby was still fed what I felt was best for him, and most of all, my husband. Without his support and encouragement, especially in the beginning, we never would have made it as far as we did.
I said, “For what?”
“For working so hard to give our son the best nutrition you can. I’m so proud of you. I know this isn’t easy. I know you’re in a lot of pain. So, thank you.”
Having someone recognize me and appreciate me in that way made all the difference in continuing on despite the challenges we faced in the beginning. Since then, I have been striving to do the same for others- thanking them for nursing in public and helping to normalize breastfeeding in the public eye. I am always nervous before I go up to a stranger and thank them, but I have not yet received a negative response from being brave enough to do so.
“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” ~ Aesop
I challenge you to be that person for someone else, not just this week because it’s World Breastfeeding Week, but any day that someone may need your support. Love your fellow mommas and show them the kind of support you would want to receive no matter how you choose to feed your baby, for love conquers fear fully and swiftly, even when it comes from a stranger.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” ~John 4:18
Feed all the babies, no matter how you do so, whether it be at the breast or a SNS or from a bottle as you sit at a giant wooden table that reminds you of the warmth and love associated with good food and close family. I support you.
Tune in next week for courageous stories from other mommas as we continue our series of “For the Love of Food & Family” during National Breastfeeding Month.
Much love and happy feeding,