Sunday, November 21, 2010

November's Carnival of Breastfeeding: How Women in my Family Feed Babies

Welcome, Carnival of Breastfeeding readers!  November's theme is Your Family History.  

My mom’s side of the family is Irish.  As in Gramma- and- Grampa- came- over- on- a- boat Irish.  Tradition is important to us, everything from holidays to vacations.  Children are valued in our family; they are cherished by the men and women equally.  I can trace the child-rearing wisdom of my family’s women in a direct line, from my great-grandmother to my grandmother, to my mother, to me.  “Burp baby high up on your shoulder to help the gas bubble out.”  “If baby is straining to move his bowels, let him push his legs against your hands.”  “When baby is very agitated, tuck him up under dad’s chin so he can hear and feel the deep calming voice.” 

But there is a significant hiccup in the infant feeding practices of the women of my family.  My grandmother formula fed all six of her children.  I’ve wondered:  why on earth would she do that?  Great-Gramma breastfed her children because that was the only way to feed infants in rural Ireland in the early 1900s.  Why didn’t Gramma do the same?  Because she raised her children in the United States, starting in the mid-fifties.  Formula was promoted as the norm.  Doctors pushed it.  New mothers were given charts and schedules and samples.  Women were led to believe that there was no need for breast milk.  Science has a much better alternative, here in this shiny tin.  Have a few free weeks’ worth to get you started, just until your milk dries up and you become dependent on our product. 

            (And now the side note:  I have absolutely nothing against mothers who use formula.  I understand that it is sometimes necessary, and even life saving.  I am not here to judge other mothers.  I am, however, enraged at the underhanded practices of the formula companies, practices that perpetuate myths about infant feeding and take away fully informed choice.)

It’s slightly amazing to me that not much has changed from then until now.  However, there was one event in my personal history that very much matters.  Somewhere along the line, my own mother decided to breastfeed her children.  She didn’t make a big deal about it, there were no agonizing discussions long into the night, or lists of pros and cons.  There were no arguments with Gramma, either.  Gramma didn’t necessarily know how to support Mom when there were questions, but she respected her daughter’s choices, different though they were.  Luckily, Mom knew where to find the answers she needed, and joined Le Leche League. 

I remember those meetings.  I remember going to the leader’s house and eating carrot sticks and applesauce-bran muffins.  I remember drinking unfiltered apple juice.  I remember seeing women nurse their babies, just like Mom nursed me and my sister.  Honestly, those muffins fazed me more than the breastfeeding.  Some things were normal and natural.  Bran muffins were not. 
By the time my brother was born, ten years after me, I was a staunch lactivist.  I began boycotting Nestle at the ripe old age of 13.  I had no idea what “counter-culture” meant, nor did I care.  My normal was what I saw and lived every day.  And I saw mothers nursing babies. 
Now, I am a mother myself.  I nurse my twin boys.  Before they were born, I had nice mental images, soft-focus and gentle smiles, of breastfeeding.  But all softness and calm were blasted out of my post-partum self by two premature, colicky babies.  It was an arduous journey, those early months, but ultimately breast feeding saved me.  It was the one mothering behavior that I could do, and do well.  So I did.  I nursed my boys because that’s how women in my family feed their babies, one or two at a time. 
My sister plans on breastfeeding her future children.  I hope my sister-in-law does, too.  In fact, I hope all my cousins do, too.  I have made it a point to normalize breastfeeding in my extended family by just doing it, in front of anybody and everybody.  I want them to see babies being nursed.  I want it to become commonplace, yet special.  I hope that in my generation, nursing becomes another tradition that everyone loves and cherishes, just like the babies themselves.   

For more of the Carnival of Breastfeeding, please visit:

Christine @ Christine's Contemplations: Carnival 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)
Alicia @ Lactation Narration: Only the Hippies Were Breastfeeding
Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog: An Unbroken Chain


  1. This is such a great post! My grandmother too was a new immigrant to America who the doctors convinced that formula was better than breastmilk. My mom was a very picky eater as a child and so my grandma let her drink bottles until she was 5 and would hide things in there, often raw eggs or cereal. When relatives came to visit and a cousin said my mom was too old to still be drinking from a bottle, she quickly gave it up and my grandma was pissed because she no longer had a way to sneak extra food into my mom :)

  2. It is so wonderful that you are breastfeeding twins! I have a good friend who breastfed her twins for 3.5 years. Before I had my son, I thought she was crazy, but after having my son and realizing how "easily" extended breastfeeding just sneaks up on you - and that there is nothing magical about the age of 1 - I learned to admire her and I especially admire anyone who breastfeeds multiples!!

  3. Breastfeeding twins is an awesome commitment.

  4. I think many immigrants associate breastfeeding with poverty and the life they fled to come to the United States. I think for many, sadly, formula is a sign of coming up in the world.

  5. Great post!! Thank you :) You voicing this helps promote positive thoughts on breastfeeding. I made up my mind that I was going to nurse my daughter and I didn't let anyone's opinions stop me! I had a lot of support from my husband and my mom which helped a lot. I have heard a lot of women say they didn't get proper support from their families, which is really hard and so strange because babies were meant to breastfeed. Why wouldn't anyone support it?

  6. @Elita, funny how it took another child's observation to get your mom to quit her bottles. Peer pressure is powerful among all age groups!

    @Judy, I agree that there's nothing magical about the age of 1, and I'll keep nursing my boys until they're done!

    @Christine, thanks! I always knew I would breastfeed my babies, then when I found out my first two were coming at the same time, it just made sense to me to make it work.

    @Jake, I wonder if that holds true today. Sadly, I think that is the mindset in developing countries where companies like Nestle promote and market formula to the moms who can least afford to use it.

    @Heather, I feel ya... why wouldn't anyone support what's normal and natural? And yet here we are, in a culture where it's seen as "obscene" or "gross" to nurse. Congratulations on doing what's best for your daughter no matter what anyone else says!

  7. Ahh, I remember those soft-focus breastfeeding images. The reality is so much richer and sharper, though, isn't it? Not birds chirping and soft music playing, but hands grabbing you and each other. Sigh. I miss it!

  8. I think that's so awesome that you are boycotting Nestle at such a young age. I thought I was so up and coming with my environmentalism in the early 1990's when I was in high school but your Nestle boycott trumps that!