Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Milk People: Another Affirmation That I am Not a "Real" Woman

As part of my requirements for certification with Bradley as a birth instructor, I am to attend two La Leche League meetings. My first one was last week, and yesterday was my next (and presumably last) one.

The form I am to fill out after attending these meetings asks a question: "How can you encourage your students to attend these meetings?" I'm not really sure how to answer that question. I don't think I really "get" why they are important to attend or if the average person would find them beneficial.

It isn't that I think nursing is a breeze by any means. That it is so "natural" that any woman should take to it like a duck to water. Like birth, I believe a woman should read up, take informative class(es) and be prepared for the common challenges of breastfeeding. Education can provide the determination to continue in providing the best thing for baby. Most women I know who have struggled a great deal or stopped before the minimum recommended age have not really been prepared for what to expect and how to overcome difficulties. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about nursing, some of which I believe cause the most "dropouts" in its regard.

I can see a need for education and preparation. I also acknowledge the importance of a support system. Many women who struggle to breastfeed were not breastfed themselves and do not know any women for whom it has been "successful." This provides a challenge, to be sure. So I think I would recommend that a woman in this situation attend a LLL meeting, even if just to feel more comfortable calling the leader, should questions and concerns arise.

Part of why I don't really get the whole idea of becoming a member of LLL or attending meetings regularly adds to the sneaking suspicion that I am not a "real" woman. There are many things about which I feel this way. I don't enjoy shopping, am not crafty and creative (decorating has never been high-priority in my home), and am "not into makeup and looking my best" (a "compliment" I received in my late teens from a young man as to why he wanted to date me--still cracks me up). Unlike many women who do it as long as I do (which I don't claim to be a long time, especially by LLL standards), I do not love breastfeeding. For me, breastfeeding is a sacrifice I am willing to make in order to give my babies the best start nutritionally.

At these two meetings in the last few days, as well as in reading LLL's book, "The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding," (which, I would readily recommend as a resource for any woman who intends to breastfeed, by the way), I have been struck once again by the thought that I don't fall into the "normal woman" category.

I cannot relate to the woman who touts exclusive breastfeeding's wonderful benefit of a postponed cycle, as the longest I've ever gone without a period after pregnancy has been 4 months, and that I'm guessing had a great deal to do with the fact that Haley was literally attached to me almost all night every night for at least the first couple of those months (not that a postponed cycle was my reason for such nonsense. A not-screaming baby was the real inducement.). Not sure I'd consider it "worth it" enough to do that again. Sleep is just about as wonderful as a postponed cycle, I think. . . possibly better.

Nor do I consider breastfeeding "easy" or "relaxing." There are many times during the first year that I will come away from it feeling abused and exhausted (the "straight-arm" treatment, the kicking, biting, acrobatics, scratching and slapping that is common for at least some of that year). A great deal of training happens while baby is at the breast. And I don't find training peaceful and relaxing.

Unlike many proponents, I don't consider nursing all that convenient. Sure, it has its benefits. (Most of which I probably don't notice since I have never bottle fed.) But there are some drawbacks, too (one cannot exactly nurse while traveling by car, for instance) and there is that responsibility that goes along with the blessing of being the only one that can feed the baby. Since I can't/don't/won't pump (excruciatingly painful, takes forever, barely get anything, and then baby doesn't like the bottle), for the first 4-6 months, I won't leave my baby for more than an hour or so, and logistically, it isn't usually worth the trouble to leave at all. Toward the latter months, that can feel pretty smothering.

The usual challenges I encounter aren't solved by the customary fixes, and in a place like a LLL meeting, I am very alone in feeling the way I do. Like with many "rules" in life, there are always exceptions. I feel like something must be wrong with me since it seems I am the exception to a half-dozen rules in womanhood (pregnancy, labor, breastfeeding). A place like a LLL meeting re-opens all the ways in which I do not feel like a "real" woman, because I cannot relate to the idea that every problem has a simple solution and if there is a difficulty, it is always due to a wrong application.

I still remember being in the hospital the day after I had Ruby, and asking the lactation consultant to please tell me what I was doing wrong, since I found it quite painful to nurse. She observed us for a few minutes and said I wasn't doing anything wrong. As anyone who has taken a breastfeeding class or read a book will remember, the pat answer to the problem of pain in breastfeeding is that you're doing something wrong (improper latch-on, etc.). Yet I was doing it "right" and still experiencing pain. "No," she said. "It's not pain you should be feeling. Just a strong pulling sensation." Well, for her what was pulling was pain to me. And I had it from the horse's mouth: I was doing it right, yet still felt this way. The way you're assured you will not feel if you're doing it right.

And this is what I encounter many times in regard to womanhood. So a question creeps up: if the application isn't wrong, is something wrong with me? Why do I have a hard time telling if I'm in labor or not? Why is (was) it painful to nurse? Why is let-down such an intensely burning sensation, not just a "tingling?" Why do I feel more tender and sensitive, not "leathery" like women describe themselves during the months of nursing? (These three things have generally subsided since the first baby, causing me to think that one day I might know what it's like to be a "real" woman, but they were pretty pronounced that first year.) Why is pumping even that much more painful than nursing? Why does breastfeeding not help me "return quickly to my pre-pregnancy weight"? (If I were to rely on nursing alone, I'd easily have an extra fifty pounds on me with three pregnancies in such a short time.) How did Haley and I get thrush even when none of the contributing factors to its development were true for us? Why does my cycle return so soon when I'm doing the same (and oftentimes more) as women who don't get it for years?

I'm not bitter about these things, just confused. What is the deal? These idiosincracies make me feel like a weirdo woman, but surely there are other women who do not fit into the "normal" box either.

I just don't think they attend La Leche League meetings.


Amy said...

I can relate to a lot of what you have shared here. I don't think I'd fit in well at LLL meetings either!! I got SO tired of nursing...I felt like a cow most of the time. But, I will say that I am sad to have missed that experience with Moriah. Probably most women who are honest would say that they don't feel like a "real" woman in one way or another. We all perceive what "womanhood" should be, and don't measure up. God made us just the way we are, though, LLL material or not!

ann said...

Hey Sarah!! I always appreciate your gut honest feelings about all these things. I don't know too much about LLL. But I'm pretty sure I would feel very out of place. Breastfeeding is a HUGE sacrifice. There are certainly times that I enjoy it, but so many times that I have to remind myself why I am still doing it. Andrew's experience has been the best so far. Things were NOT simple with the other two. I started my cycle at 4 months with Ellie and Luke as well. Are you still breastfeeding Haley?

Carletta said...

I share many of your feelings about breastfeeding & LLL. I usually breastfeed my children for about a year, and by the time I wean them it is because I am having the feeling - ENOUGH!