Thursday, July 8, 2010

Nursing is Normal

You know that thing that babies sometimes do where they are perfectly delighted to be sitting on their grandma's lap until they spy their mommy across the room and then their bottom lip starts to tremble and soon they are full out wailing, because their mommy has been in the same room with them for thirty whole seconds but has, outrageously, not yet gathered her precious baby in her arms and pulled her to her bosom there to sup?

When that happens chez nous my mother-in-law can be counted on to say something along these lines:

"Oh, you've spied the old milk cart, have you?"


"Uh oh. Grandma's not good enough now that you see the chuck wagon creaking 'round the corner."

Or, my personal all time favourite: "You've heard those old tin milk cans rattling around over there, making a din, have you?"


She's got a million and one ways of putting this. Her analogies always conjure creakiness and hard-scrabble utilitarianism. They reek of unpleasantry, necessity, lopsidedness, antiquity and inelegance.

Whenever she doles out one of these gems, my husband and I laugh raucously about it in the car on the way home. I love my mother-in-law dearly. I know she wished she could have breastfed her kids and she supports me fully. But her lack of experience with breastfeeding and the cultural milieu she is a part of makes the whole business seem kind of bestial, antiquarian, and unseemly to her. I get that. She's doing her best to put up with something that makes her uncomfortable. And so the way she talks about breastfeeding is very practical and mildly offensive. But just mildly so. I'm not offended, though. Her zingers, in fact, bring me great joy.

There are two reasons for this:

Firstly, the way she describes my baby's breastfeeding relationships with me, their mother, is so diametrically opposed to the way I know my babies would if they could that it kind of draws attention to how wonderful breastfeeding is.

See, anyone who has met the adoring gaze of a breastfeeding baby would use other adjectives. It's obvious to me that to my babies I'm less like an "old milk cart", pulled by a faltering horse, then, say, a whee-zippy ice cream truck playing Beethoven's Ode to Joy. And I'm quite certain they would describe my breasts not so much as "old" as fulsome and abundant. Neither, I believe, would they say my bosoms tend to "rattle around" so much as they nurture and sustain. And I'm less like a chuck wagon, catering to a bunch of scurvy-plagued prospectors with some gopher-chili and pickled goose eggs, as I am a beautiful life-giving goddess with a halo of radiant love and sweet milk flowing from my very body into their gorgeous little cherubic bellies. Her excessively prosaic language draws attention to how emphatically poetic breastfeeding is. And it makes me laugh.

The other reason her zingers bring me joy is because they remind me how normal and easy breastfeeding has become. It wasn't always this way. I started out as anxious, sore, and hang-uppy as any new mom.
I remember forever ago when my firstborn was brand new and breastfeeding wasn't normal to me. I was tentative and nervous and modest and sensitive about it all. I was upstairs with my newborn when I heard my husband field a knock on our front door. It was the Smiths, a family of five. Mama Smith had, at that point, been nursing for about four and a half years.

"Where's the new baby?" they asked.

"Oh," said Hubby. "She's upstairs with Betsy. She's nursing."

I could hear the meaningful glance he gave them all the way up the stairs. It meant that me and the baby were doing something intimate and private and perhaps sacred, but certainly not normal. It meant they should probably sit down, hush, and be solemn until I came down the stairs. But they didn't pick up on the meaningfulness of that glance at all. They didn't notice that he said nursing in italics. And they joyfully clambered, all five of them, up right into my bedroom where they, all five of them, crawled onto the bed with me to coo an sigh over my nursing infant. Because nursing was so normal to them, they wouldn't have dreamed of waiting for me to be "done nursing." A mother and her new baby are attached, mouth to breast, and don't much come apart. It's true.

My beautiful son at the breast

Now I've been breastfeeding for 4 and a half years and I've got the family of five who just expects a new mom to be nursing. We wouldn't dream of being timid and hushed and respectful around someone just because they are breastfeeding. We are our boisterous selves and we offer water and encouragement and food you can eat with one hand.

My mother-in-law reminds me how lucky I am to have had such great support and luck with my breastfeeding. She reminds me how awesome and normal breastfeeding is. Being called a creaky old milk cart makes makes me think about how gorgeous breastfeeding really is. It makes me think about how important the way I feed my babies is and how it's no big deal all at the same time. I'm reminded of how it has become such a pure pleasure to pick up that crying baby on grandma's lap and to calm and nourish her. There's just no extra weight attached to the act at all. There's only the weight of that baby in my arms.


  1. Beee-you-tee-ful! My dad is mildly to moderately offensive in his support of my breastfeeding too, only he calls my breasts "tits," and after I've vomited in my mouth a little, I prefer to leave the room. Because I just can't stand to hear my dad talk like he's in a locker room with his buddies around me and my cherubic nursling. Ugh.

  2. @ Melodie:

    Eeeek! I must admit, my father is the one human on Earth who I am always squeamish about breastfeeding around. I would really hate to have a conversation about it with him. Eeesh. I don't even know what his word for breasts is... lucky me!

  3. Betsy i LOVE this! i'm still in the learning part, i'm you four years ago and it warms my heart to think that in a few years nursing will be ho-hum daily norm to me. so awesome. i want to be that family too.

    i'm glad you're able to see the humor in your mother-in-laws comments. my own mom is a big fan of the, "grandma is going to steal you away, but she can't because you're still doing THAT." i don't quite find it funny yet.

    basically, i need a little dose of you hanging around with me. :)

  4. Betsy, This is beautiful! I love it! We've been nursing over here for 18 months, and you're right--I'm sure little halos circle around their sweet heads when they nurse.

    And it's funny...I'll nurse around my dad any day, but my FIL? Not so much, and his wife had 8 kids and nursed them all! He is totally for nursing, and I'll nurse if I need to, it's just kinda weird.

  5. My mother didn't nurse and wasn't particularly supportive about it but she didn't say anything to me she thought things at me and I understood them in the silence. Whatever, the babes needed to eat.

    I love this post of yours today. I really hope that there's a time in the future when there doesn't need to be posts like this because pretty much everyone will breastfeed their kids (unless they can't) and no one thinks anything of it.

  6. I love that you can laugh at those comments now. I'm at that point myself, almost 5 1/2 years into this parenting and breastfeeding gig. What would have been upsetting years ago is now just plain funny. And sort of sad, too, because you know that often the comments come from a place of hurt at not having that. I'm so glad that I got the support I needed, so that I can be the one laughing now.

  7. You do such lovely things with words. =)

  8. LOVE. Especially the story about the family of five crawling into bed with you. Once when we were visiting friends with our first baby (they had an older child), I went into the living room to nurse, and they didn't follow us. After a minute, my husband realized they weren't following us because they thought I was hiding, and called into the kitchen 'she just wanted a comfortable seat', and they burst out laughing and the husband said 'oh, so you mean we can watch?' Nursing may be the thing I miss most about having babies.

  9. Nursing is so much fun. I am very lucky that I found you’re this very special blog. I love the topic. It is very informative. I will be visiting your blog more often.

  10. I love the image of the family of five clambering into bed with you, and how your husband spoke of nursing in italics. I remember those days! And now it's just…what it is. It's much more comfortable this way, isn't it? I hope I can pass some of that comfort on.

  11. What a lovely post! My boys are 6 and 4, I can't believe it has been 1 and 1/2 years since I had a little nursling child. I still start to pull up my shirt when my "baby" needs comfort. Thanks for reminding me of this special (normal) time.

  12. I guess I'm you four years ago. When I first started nursing, I could not wait for it to be over. My mum told me it is the best thing ever and I barely restrained myself from gagging...come to think of it, I'm pretty sure I did gag! It was just so awful. Well now, I just love feeding her! It is natural and it is wonderful and you are so right; I love looking at her adoring gaze while she's feeding.

    The picture of your son feeding is adorable.

  13. what a great post....and the picture is beautiful!


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