Monday, November 22, 2010

Three Generations of Breastfeeding

Welcome to November's Carnival of Breastfeeding! This month we're all writing about the history of breastfeeding in our families. Please be sure to click through to the other posts linked to at the end of mine.

I was raised by my mother as a single mom with help from her mother and aunt. I know very little about my father's side of the family and that includes any breastfeeding history. I can assume that as the descendant of Africans brought to South Carolina during the slave trade that there is probably a rich history of breastfeeding and some very interesting information to be shared. Unfortunately I don't know any of it, but I do think the history on my mother's side is as fascinating.

My maternal grandmother was born and raised in Lithuania. She and my grandfather (who I am named after) were Holocaust survivors, and my aunt was born shortly after the camps were liberated and the war was over, in West Germany. My grandmother breastfed my aunt until about age two, which would have been very typical for Jews at that time and place. My grandmother also probably had very little choice in this matter. My guess is that infant formula probably wasn't available there, and if it was, it would've been too expensive. The only options available to a woman who was unable to breastfeed were either to mix your own concoction of cow's milk and Karo syrup or hope there was another woman around to cross-nurse your baby. Thankfully my grandmother had plenty of milk. In fact, she used to hand express milk for a neighbor who was unable to breastfeed. She would express milk every day and bring it in to the woman to feed to her baby in glass jars. My mother isn't sure how long this arrangement went on, but her guess is that it was for at least 6 months, at which time solid food could have been safely introduced to the baby.

My mother is first generation born in America in my family. When my grandparents and aunt made the trek to America in the 50s, like many Jewish immigrants they ended up in New York, where my mother was born. In the hospital they were able to convince my grandmother that Similac infant formula was better than breastmilk and so she decided to bottle feed my mother. It seems strange in some ways that a new immigrant family would be willing to spend so much money on a product they could barely afford when breastmilk was available for free, but it was a different time, when modern medicine was saving and improving lives, medicine and doctors had become gods, and it was easier to believe that science could produce something better than nature.

When my mother became pregnant with me in the late 70s, she knew she was going to breastfeed from the start. She was reading books and going to Lamaze and wanted a natural birth. She was a hippie so none of this is surprising to me. My mom says she just instinctually knew that the milk her body would made had to be better than cow's milk for her baby. After a fairly quick and easy birth, she nursed me immediately. I was surprised to learn that in those days there was no rooming in at the hospital, so I was brought to her every 4 hours or so, around-the-clock so she could nurse me. This seems like just barely enough to create an adequate milk supply, but my mom says I was greedy and latched on and nursed like a champ. Because I was jaundiced we stayed in the hospital for 5 days. There were no lactation consultants and the nurses had zero knowledge of breastfeeding and no help, information or support was offered. No wonder only about 30% of women were breastfeeding!

Although my mom suffered from some sore nipples, she said after a few weeks everything seemed to have worked itself out and she never had any problems with supply. She says my father had no opinion on whether or not she breastfed but my grandmother thought she was crazy and backwards for wanting to breastfeed. She said bottle-feeding was easier, but my mom said she thought the idea of having to sterilize bottles and nipples, buy milk and mix and prepare it sounded like a lot more work so she continued to nurse. She did get strange looks and cause folks to whisper and point when she nursed in public, even with a blanket. She said it was a very bold thing to do in those days and something people were definitely not accustomed to seeing. She decided to wean me when I was about 18 months because she had returned to school and was working part-time and it became too much work. She weaned me by telling me there was no milk left and I never asked again and she was amazed at how easy it was to stop. By that point, friends and neighbors had been expressing their disgust for months that she was still breastfeeding me, but she said that didn't factor into her decision, she just had a lot on her plate and breastfeeding had become more of a chore.

Interestingly enough, I remember thinking that everyone always seemed very positive about the fact that my mother nursed me into toddlerhood. For me, it was always a source of pride. In fact, when I had my son, my goal was to "beat" my mom's record and nurse him until at least the age of two. Growing up I had heard so many wonderful stories about breastfeeding that I always thought it was normal and natural, even though I never really saw it around me. There was never a doubt in my mind that I would breastfeed.

I am curious about what breastfeeding will be like in 30 years or so when my generation's kids are having kids. My son is being raised in a bottle-feeding culture and has told me before that babies drink "baby milk" from bottles and that "milkies" are for big boys. When he hears a baby cry in the store he will say, "Mommy, he needs a bottle!" He is in daycare and it's what he sees. I'm hopeful that he will have some memories of our nursing relationship and will remember me breastfeeding any subsequent children we may have. I hope that breastfeeding will be the norm if and when he decides to have children and that he will be supportive of his partner if she decides to do it. It's difficult to think of him having a child and that child not being breastfed but of course that is out of my hands. I do know that my children will grow up knowing about the legacy of breastfeeding in our family and my hope is that it continues on for many generations to come.

Check out the other fantastic posts from this month's Carnival participants.

Christine @ Christine's ContemplationsCarnival of Breastfeeding- My Family History of Nursing 
Judy @ Mommy News Blog: My Family History of Breastfeeding
Jona @ Breastfeeding Twins: Beer & Bottles (and other motherly advice)
Jake Aryeh Marcus: Breastfeeding? Not in My Family
Mama Mo @ Attached at the Nip: How Women in My Family Feed Babies
Alicia @ Lactation Narration: Only the Hippies Were Breastfeeding
Dr. Sarah: Breastfeeding, Circa 1950s
Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog: An Unbroken Chain

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