Saturday, February 7

Mother's Milk

In November or December I noticed my sadness at images of bottle-fed babies. A photo that used to appear on the home page for Skype (and which has since disappeared, thank goodness) particularly disturbed me. It showed a family gathered in a living room: two young parents, their baby girl, and (presumably) her grandparents. The smiling mother leaned against the sofa as the grandfather bottle fed her daughter. The image was doubtless intended to be heartwarming; I found it creepy to see the gray-haired old man sitting in the mother's place.

And then came Christmas, when among my gifts was a photograph of me as a baby, lying on my mother's lap and wearing my christening bonnet and gown. At once, I realized the source of my sadness: I was a bottle-fed baby. Since then, many questions have welled up in me. Why was I bottle-fed? Did some dumb doctor (whom I imagine looking like the creepy Skype grandfather) tell my mother that formula was at least just as good, or better, than breast milk? Did my mother even consider breast-feeding? How did my mother feel when her milk came in and she did not give it to me?

My questions will never be answered, because my mother died about thirteen years ago. I know only one thing: my mother told me, "When you have children, breast-feed them." She died of breast cancer, and even then it was known that breast-feeding decreases the risk of breast cancer, including the aggressive, hormone-negative kind that my mother had.

For a few weeks, I was angry that my mother gave me formula and a plastic nipple instead of her own milk. My father thinks that my grandmother (not some dumb doctor) might have advised her daughter to bottle-feed, and not for the first time I wished that my mother had done her own thing instead of listening to her parents. Then my local La Leche League leader loaned me her copy of Milk, Money, and Madness: The Culture and Politics of Breastfeeding, a fascinating book from which I have learned, among other things, that in the 1980s the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons sent a memo to the FDA claiming that those "deformities," small breasts, "are really a disease," and that in China and Japan women sometimes nursed their aged parents or parents-in-law. The book, of course, does not answer any of my unanswerable questions. And so I see the sadness beneath the sadness that I was bottle-fed, my sadness simply that my mother is gone. Now a mother myself, I am mourning again.


beck said...

I'm no expert in any of this, but it might help to keep in mind that we were born at the tail end of an era when science (including baby formula) was considered better than nature. Your mother, like mine, was probably doing what she thought was the very best for her children. And now, in a new era, that's exactly what you are doing by breastfeeding.

raerae said...

I agree: my mom was probably doing what she thought was the very best. For me, though, the key word is "probably." I've realized that my sadness about this topic has much less to do with whether I was bottle-fed or breast-fed than it does with the big blob of unknowing when it comes to my mother's experience of mothering. Now that I'm a mom, I would love to hear her stories about being a mom. All the stuff I wouldn't have thought to ask when I was a kid or a teen or in my early twenties. And now all I can do is wonder.