Can Feminism and Breastfeeding Coexist, Take 2

September 11, 2012. Despite my best efforts to give birth on any day other than 9/11, a squalling Babygirl enters the world at noon and almost immediately settles down to breastfeed. I have two black eyes from labor and can’t see too well. Is she doing this weird getting-sustenance-from-my-body thing okay? No one tells me and I can’t tell. Later, once I’ve been transferred upstairs, a lactation consultant gives me some tips.

Late September. Babygirl is growing like a weed, tough and stringy and unstoppable, so I guess it’s going okay. Over my six weeks of (unpaid) maternity leave, I become an All-You-Can-Eat Breastaurant. Thank god for smartphones. I play a lot of Words with Friends while she nurses. At night, Ben reads to me. We make it through the first few books of Harry Potter and Babygirl absorbs Rowling with her mother’s milk. I think it improves her digestion.

October. In preparation for going back to work, I buy three pumps and use only one:

My pick is the light, user-friendly, tube-less, and affordable Ameda Purely Yours Electronic Pump ($160), which attaches nicely to the Simple Wishes Hands Free Bra ($25). Voila! You can express milk and write for the Billfold at the same time.

Besides the pumps, I have not spent any money on feeding the child beyond $5 for a used Boppy. My boobs, which I have lugged around for nearly twenty years, are finally pulling their weight. Thanks, ladies! Once I start pumping, I invest in storage bags and bottles. The costs are still minor. Back at work, I share an office with a 4o-year-old beatnik, so when it’s pumping time, I have to ask him for privacy. Early on, he cheerfully mansplains to me, “Don’t worry, someday your breasts will be fun again and not just functional.”

November. THRUSH. Burning pain, searing stabbing fire-type pain at every feeding. I grit my teeth in agony for weeks, including while traveling to see in-laws in North Carolina over Thanksgiving, because a) I expect it to go away on its own, and b) I have been indoctrinated into the cult of Exclusive Breastfeeding for Six Months No Matter What. Sure, French mommies have all switched to formula by this point, meaning their kids sleep through the night while the ladies get svelte and have their pelvic floors massaged for free by the state, but as we’ve established the French are quitters. I am determined to stay the course.

En route home from Thanksgiving, I have a massive anxiety attack. I throw up before getting to the airport and again after getting on the plane. At last, when we make it home, I diagnose Babygirl with thrush, paint her mouth purple ($13), and gradually heal.

I don’t quit work or breastfeeding. I consider quitting my in-laws but I don’t do that either. The pointless, useless lady hired in my absence gets fired and I get my own sweet private blessed office back. Eventually the beatnik gets fired too. My boss likes firing people. I keep my head down, pump several times a day, store bags of milk in the kitchen freezer, race home to relieve the babysitter, occasionally forget the pump at home or the milk at work, but everything largely goes fine. Once I make a mistake and my boss screams about baby brain. Mostly though she comes to rely on me more. I am leaning in! It is working! I negotiate myself a raise.

January. Babygirl is four months old. I buy my first can of powdered formula from a small pharmacy in Guatemala and bottled water to mix it with. I’m in Antigua for my father-in-law’s destination wedding, and after a couple of days I’m tired of being tethered to the hotel instead of out doing fun exciting stuff with the other guests. The last field trip sounds amazing: climbing a volcano! Unfortunately the excursion lasts all afternoon and there’s no way I can pump enough to provide the hotel babysitter with sufficient sustenance for Babygirl.

After wrestling with guilt demons for way too long, I let my mother, who’s there too, persuade me. She had three small children in the ’80s and worked full time; we were all Formula One race cars and we ended up mostly okay. It’s not heroin, it’s canned help. It’s also expensive, which feels appropriate, like penance.

Climbing the volcano is fun, though I am out of shape and have to do much of it on horseback, but I am so nervous the entire bus ride home I almost throw up again, sure I’m going to be punished for putting my own wants ahead of the child’s needs. Instead, when I arrive, I find Babygirl sleeping soundly.

We both make it back to the States in one piece.

March. Hurrah, hurrah! Six months! I cut back on the pumping at work and start supplementing breastmilk with real food and, at last, formula. I would probably do more except I am so cheap frugal and Simulac is like liquid plutonium or something, ridiculously expensive even in big bulk cans of powder. I google “when can i give my baby real milk dammit” and the answer is when your child is one year old. This advice is, no doubt, brought to you by Nestle.

May. It’s clear from snatches of phone calls and the occasional misdirected email that, despite everyone’s best efforts, my office is going to go under. Criss? Or opportunity?

July. I quit my day job in order to try DWYL for a year, starting with some crazy overseas travel. A coworker condescendingly tells me to enjoy my time with Babygirl. “I’m not leaving to be a SAHM,” I tell her. “I’m going to write.” “Sure you are,” she says, patting me on the arm.

My little family hits the road, buying Lithuanian formula in Lithuania, English formula in England, and Spanish formula in Spain, but it’s all really the same formula labeled differently and even more expensive for being in Euros. The child supplements that blandness with more adventurous forays into restaurant food: herring, hummus, paella. She’s healthy. I’m calmer.

On the plane back to the States in August, I breastfeed her one last time. I feel sad and nostalgic and full of love and gratitude that she and I have been able to share this experience. Then I say “goodbye to all that” and start gleefully stockpiling whole cow’s milk by the gallon.

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