Active Duty and Double Duty

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

My mother was a U.S. Army colonel who wrote her big paper in nursing school on breastfeeding and donated to La Leche League every year, so this viral photo really resonated with me:

I posted this on here last night at 11:59pm. It has since disappeared from my feed and my wall. So we are posting this...

Posted by Tara Ruby Photography on Friday, September 11, 2015

Go here for a thorough outline of the benefits of breastfeeding. On the other hand, my colleague Hanna’s provocative piece from 2009, “The Case Against Breastfeeding,” is really worth reading as well. From a reader at the time:

I love this article! I attempted to breastfeed both of my children but was unable. With the first child, I was ridden with guilt over it and just a complete mess for the first eight weeks as I tried and tried, but could never successfully feed my child. I truly felt the pressure from the “lactivist” movement out there. The message was not just that “breast is best”; it was that I was somehow less of a mother, less caring, less bonded, less whole, than those who were able to breastfeed.

It was so very interesting to read the timeline and to see that the breastfeeding awareness campaign from HHS seemed to peak with those outrageous TV ads in 2004. No wonder I was such a mess in 2005 after having my first child. I don’t dispute that whole “breast is best” message, but I completely agree with Hanna Rosin that it is only marginally best and I think we need to stop tearing down those mothers who are unable to or choose not to breastfeed. Unless you are in an underdeveloped country where clean water in a problem and gastrointestinal infections could prove deadly, formula is a safe, healthy choice.

Another reader at the time:

I, too, had my baby in the Year 2004. And I, too, couldn’t breastfeed him (no problem with #2, by the way).

And boy was I given “support” up the wazoo. My husband was a young resident family medicine doctor. All our friends were family medicine doctors. I got extra help from every single lactation specialist at the hospital. I got home visits. I got hooked up to a hospital-grade breast pump for two months. And when I wasn’t hooked up to that, I was trying to breast-feed with a container of formula hanging from my neck and a tube going from it to my breast and taped to my nipple (so the baby would actually get nutrition while trying to breastfeed). This was not easy. Trying to maneuver the baby, the tube, and the breast and get a really hungry, frustrated baby fed was a nightmare. My husband also stripped down to his bare chest and taped a tube onto his finger so the baby could get more skin to skin contact and practice. My sister-in-law sent me every La Leche League magazine she had (the stack was several inches thick).

Let me tell you, the more “help” I got the more of a failure I was made to feel. I was demoralized. I was depressed. And if you think you were sleep deprived during the first weeks of your baby? Well, when you’re unsuccessfully trying to breastfeed, and pumping on top of it, there is no sleep. Really, basically no sleep at all. If only someone had handed me this article back then!

And here’s an interesting thing. After weeks of trying so hard and it still not working, I’m in tears on the phone with my mom telling her I just don’t know if I can do it. And there’s a pause on the other end of the line, and then she drops a bombshell: She was never able to breastfeed me, either.

She had tried and tried. She hadn’t had any problems with my older brother, but it just didn’t work with me. And she had always felt so guilty about that. And she never wanted me to feel like I was less loved, so she lied to me and had always told me I was breast-fed too.

Wow. And for nine months, here I’d been, whenever I was asked that question “Are you going to breastfeed?” I’d answer an emphatic “Yes! I was always really healthy as a kid. I’ve never had any allergies and my mom breastfed me. So I’m definitely going to breastfeed too.” Ha! Take that all you ladies out there who think formula-fed kids aren’t going to be as healthy. My two boys are both really healthy. And neither of them have allergies. You’d never be able to guess which one I was able to breastfeed and which one I wasn’t.

For much more recent coverage of breastfeeding, check out this contrarian note from my colleague Molly on lactation pods in airports.