Saturday, May 12, 2012

Did they really just ask, "Are You Mom Enough?"?

I wish I could say that I don't care about TIME Magazine's "Are You Mom Enough?" cover for their May 11, 2012 edition.


I don't want to care about the photograph. I don't want to care about the headline. I don't want to care about the latest shot in the various battles of the mommy-wars.

But I do care.

To be honest, the cover and the furor it has caused makes me so emotional that I don't know if I can even write about it.

Sad. Angry. Defensive. Wounded. Frustrated. Furious. Disappointed. Attacked. Heartbroken. Inferior. Insecure. Put upon. Judged. Annoyed. Embarrassed. Exhausted.

I don't want to feel any of those things. I'm embarrassed to be reacting at all to what is none of my business. (What other people think of me is none of my business, I've been told.) I know that the article isn't even about me. The analysis on various blogs and news agency articles are not about me. Even the comments by friends of friends' Facebook posts linking to that analysis is not about me.

But I am worn out.

It may take a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to make a woman feel like the village idiot.

And that work, that begins before said child is even conceived.

I was listening to a charming and insightful journalist with a British accent on NPR discussing the first anniversary of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and the peppering that poor woman is enduring over the question of when they will have children. He said something along the lines of, "It must be so embarrassing for a woman to constantly be asked about when she'll get pregnant."

I mean really. Might as well go Rush Limbaugh on people and ask to watch their sex tapes.

Are you trying to conceive? (TTC to those in the fertility-shorthand know.) How long has it been? What methods are you using? Are you taking your temperature? Using an ovulation kit? Getting him tested? Counting the days? Seeing a specialist? Have fun trying! Wink wink.

Then, once a woman discovers she is pregnant, she can torture herself with the books and the websites feeding her a steady diet of contradictory advice. When she finally does decide to go public, there's even more. In person. What are you eating? You can eat that? Are you sure? I never drank that when I was pregnant. Or that. Or that. I heard it can cause birth defects/miscarriage/heartburn. And look at me! I'm great and so is my perfect little angel!

Don't forget the debate over how that child is going to emerge from the mother's body. Dare she want an epidural? Will she still be a good mother if her child isn't born in a tub in her home while candles flicker and gentle music plays? Or. You know. If it isn't a silent birth?

I've actually heard this conversation, at a friend's baby shower, no less, with the soon-to-be-father explaining the Bradley Method, and their birthing center options, and their birth plan. "Of course, the worst thing that can happen is you have a C-section." God bless his friend's quick response, "Well, that's not the worst thing that could happen."

Here I thought the main goal was to have a healthy, living baby and a healthy, living mama.

I was eight or so months pregnant at that point, and already I was doing it wrong.

Even before Ella was born, even before she was past her first trimester in utero, I was asking doctors if I could breastfeed. The question flowed naturally with the "can I stay on all these medications while I'm pregnant?" inquiry.

The OB said she didn't know. That I'd have to ask my pediatrician. The perinatologist (high risk specialist) said he thought so, but that I should ask my pediatrician.

Just so you know: You don't actually have a pediatrician until you have a pediatric patient, and a child has to be born for that to happen.

Also, as soon as that child is born, you're supposed to breastfeed.

Like, at that very moment.

While we (of course) had interviewed and selected our pediatrician, she wouldn't start treating us as patients until she had a pediatric patient.

We loved her, and if someone is going to tell me now that her logic on that matter was self-serving or just plain wrong, well, there's really nothing we can do about it now, is there?

I started having contractions on Thursday, went to the hospital in the middle of the night on Friday, and gave birth to Ella on Saturday night.

Or should I say I had her cut out of me by doctors while I just lay there, doing nothing? Did I really give birth?
I had to lie with my arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross while I waited for Ella to be born.
My favorite picture of Ella is one of the very first ones that Justin ever took of her, while I still couldn't even see her because of the blue sterile drape hanging between us. She has her arms outstretched and her legs curled up the way babies do, and the doctor is holding her up, and she is still attached to me. You can see her body and just enough of her face to know that she is squalling. I'm not posting it here.

Justin held Ella's hand before I did. I'm fine with that. Look how happy his eyes are.

They let me see her and then they cleaned her up while the doctors sewed me up. I could hear her crying and feel the tug of the needle and thread as my body got put back together. I tried not to cry for joy and relief that I had a healthy, living baby girl, because I worried that the sobs I felt welling up might disturb the stitching process. She was laid swaddled on my chest and I was staring in disbelief until a nurse said, "You can kiss her." And so I did.

Our first family photo.
I can kiss her.
I was sent to recovery. She was sent to wherever it is they send babies while their mommies get whatever it is done to them that has to be done. Justin went with her and then came back to me, and I missed them both so much, and then we missed her together. But we'd also been in labor and delivery for almost 24 hours, so what did we know?

I remember trying to breastfeed. It wasn't going that well. I was a little surprised, despite all my reading, because you wouldn't think learning to eat would be so difficult for a baby (they really don't know anything?!?!) and a mama (I really can't figure out how to do this?!?!) I had very sweet and patient postpartum nurses who helped us learn. The whole time, I kept asking about the medicines (partly because it's a bit of a hassle to get a hospital to sort out how to get and when to give so many different pills--even though we did fill out the forms way in advance). The nurses kept asking doctors. The answers varied. We just kept trying. And, well, sucking.

It really wasn't going very well. 

Except for that one time when it did, and Justin and I cheered ever so slightly, and I started to cry quiet, happy tears.

On Monday, I finally saw our real pediatrician, not the one on-call from her group.

She said there was no way I should breastfeed my baby while taking all those medications and that she also didn't think I should stop taking my medications so that I could breastfeed my baby.

I cried.

I really, really cried.

There's nothing I wanted more than to breastfeed my healthy, living baby girl. How could I not? I was made to feed my child.

Put aside all the reading I'd done about the nutritional value and immune system boosting merits of breast milk--there's just something primal about a mother's need to nourish her child.


Plus, we had no money and I was really counting on breastfeeding. Seriously. One of my first thoughts upon the bad news was, "But... oh my God. We can't afford formula! What are we going to do?"

Already I was a failure. (Again, you know, since I already A) was of an advanced maternal age, B) drank alcohol and caffeine while pregnant before knowing I was pregnant, C) had a tuna fish sandwich just days after the positive pregnancy test, D) ate french fries, cheeseburgers, milkshakes and ice cream to keep from throwing up and/or starving during my pregnancy, E) took a Lamaze instead of a Bradley class because of Justin's schedule, F) got an epidural (which I had always known I would do, ever since I was a "kid" and found out what they were), G) had Pitocin, H) "let them do" a C-section.)

When people ask me about whether Ella was breastfed, I quickly reply, "No. I couldn't because of all the medicine I take."

I think I might even sound a little cavalier. Matter of fact. Like someone asked me if I wanted fries with that, and I just said, "No, thank you."

I don't think I give the impression that it was a big deal.

Now you know.

It was.

I remember once I was in the park with a bunch of other mothers of babies Ella's age, and we were talking about how our baby's feeding habits had changed. I said, "I know. Ella used to just eat straight through, but now she keeps taking breaks and playing with the nipple."

Literally every single woman paused in motion, looked at me, and then quickly looked away.

I didn't know why they reacted that way, but a few minutes later in the conversation I realized that they must have been thinking I was talking about my nipples. Scandalous!

No, she's bottle fed.

There were advantages to bottle feeding--during those first couple of weeks when Justin was available to help before going back to his ER residency, we were both getting up with her because we wanted to be together while she fed. After just a few nights, we realized someone needed to sleep, so we split the night. I'm a morning person, so I got to sleep for the first five hours of the night while he watched TV or did whatever and fed her when she was ready. After 1 (or was it 2?) a.m., it was my turn to get up with her and let him sleep.

We both got the bonding experience of feeding her, and I got to rest a bit more than a solely breastfeeding mom might rest.

There were disadvantages. Formula is really expensive. It also doesn't travel as discretely as, say, a breast. So, I had to always remember to bring bottles, and formula, and water, and bibs, even if I was just running a quick errand. If Ella got hungry, I couldn't feed on demand without packing the right equipment and supplies. I had envisioned being one of those moms who just did the "natural" thing and fed her baby whenever necessary, without making a big production out of it. Yes, I wanted to be a milk machine.

The biggest disadvantage, though, continues to be a problem. It's having the wound of breastfeeding failure picked open when I'm least expecting it.

The cult of breastfeeding is more of a mainstream, fundamentalist, evangelical church.

Those of us who aren't members will never achieve nirvana.

I know most of the women who wax poetic about breastfeeding do not mean any harm. I know they are not all self-righteous and judgmental.

But when a magazine cover shouts, "Are you mom enough?" and in the flurry of response I hear a pissing contest of "I breastfed for these many months/years." Or "I love the bonding and wouldn't give it up despite inconclusive or even negative studies" about the true value of breastfeeding. (See this article in The Atlantic by Hanna Rosin, "The Case Against Breastfeeding," for a detailed assessment of the various medical journal articles on the matter and the history and evolution of the breastfeeding movement.) Or "formula is so much less than breast milk in terms of nutrition and immunity and so many other things" (see again actual scientific data that says otherwise).

It's hard not to feel vulnerable. 

Of course, I want to be "mom enough." 

Of course, I wanted to breastfeed for at least six months, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. In case you're wondering, weaning Ella tore at my heart, too, even though it was "just" from the bottle. I didn't want to give up that cuddling time, those minutes and hours of looking into her eyes and just being close, the special bond of feeding my baby girl that way. And, in case your wondering, my milk did come in when she was born, and I did have to bind myself tightly, and it did physically and emotionally hurt to let it dry up.

Of course, I think that last comment is actually self-righteous and judgmental. 

These last few days since that TIME cover came out on Thursday have been a little hard for me. I want to just look away and remove myself from the conversation, but I was a journalist and I am a mom. It's not in my nature not to read or write about the issues of the day. That said, some of the reading is making me want to throw my computer across the room.

I breathe. 
The problem is, I want so much to be a part of the breastfeeding club. I know that I have a legitimate reason for bottle feeding instead, but I don't like that I need an excuse. 

Obviously, it's not that I mind disclosing information. Ever the teacher, I believe that if I share my experience, it might be useful for someone else. That's why I'm telling these stories. Maybe another bottle-feeder will relate and feel less lonely. 

Maybe some of my breastfeeding friends will realize the sensitivity of the topic and be more considerate of the manner in which they talk about breastfeeding. 

Maybe I will learn that I am mom enough.

Maybe we all just need a little perspective.


Ms. Torres said...

I'm not a mother, and do not plan on become one naturally, so I always have to catch myself before before being judgmental about people's choices regarding parenting. I've read various blogs in response to this cover, and this was the most personal, raw and inspiring response I've read to date. thank you for sharing.

Janine Q said...

Everyone has their own trials and I am truly amazed at your candor on this very personal subject. You are not alone. There is another girl, very close to me, who was told she could breastfeed, but couldn't make enough due to the meds she takes (cancer related) and had to formula feed as well. It was heartbreaking to watch it play out with her that I can only imagine what you went through. The thing to remember is that Ella now thrives because of the choices you've made as her mother.

B. Wilson said...

This post (and that damned Time magazine cover) has been looming around in my head for days now.

I'm not in the least bit bothered to see a 3 year old on his mother's breast (though I bet in 10 years he sure will be). I'm all for breastfeeding (or not).

I'm angry at the comment as well. This brings me to wondering why parents and people in general are so self-righteous and judgmental about something that is absolutely none of their business. The only business other parents should have to meddle and comment is if a child is in harm's way or the parent is acting in a super unsafe manner (drunk driving, smoking around kids... etc). Whether or not they choose to breastfeed? Or whether they even can? Because not all parents can. We all know that. What about the parent who adopts? They can't breastfeed and the world is somehow okay with that. They're given a pat on the back actually. But if you have a biological child all your own and you aren't? Assumptions are made.

How dare people.

I hope you feel MORE than mom enough. Shame on Time magazine (and that mother for embarrassing her child).

Anonymous said...

I love you, friend! You are one of the most dedicated mommies that I know, and Ella is super lucky to have you as a mommy.

Also, despite the annoying (at best!) cover, some of the stories inside do bring a critical eye towards the cult of motherhood. (I only just started to realize that I was buying into it after I started getting some implicit flak at work... from other moms, no less!) I think the question on the cover is meant to be a particularly sharp statement of the implicit mantra of this movement -- and I do appreciate others making it explicit. It helps those of us who secretly ask ourselves the question to be aware that it's an illegitimate one, and that OF COURSE we are "mom enough", for ourselves and our kids.