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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Big Letdown

How Medicine, Big Business, and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding

Kimberly Seals Allers

St. Martin's Press




The beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing.


I am driving—correction: speeding—down the Grand Central Parkway in Queens, New York, wearing only a black T-shirt and some brightly colored pajama pants tucked into my Uggs. There’s a screaming baby in the back seat. Don’t worry, she’s mine. Thirteen miles at an unmentionable speed later, I arrive at Long Island Jewish Hospital, where, about six weeks earlier, I delivered my eight-pound, six-ounce daughter by Cesarean section. After fumbling with the car seat, I grab the striped cooler bag from the trunk and move quickly through the lobby, past the gift shop and to the elevator bank, refusing to make eye contact, just in case any of those judgmental “please shut your baby up” types are in the vicinity. At least at the hospital, they may just assume that all the crying is related to a medical problem, not my personal failure. I press the DOOR CLOSE and the floor 3 button simultaneously and so rapidly, I’m sure I’ve sprained a finger, all the while silently begging God that nobody else gets on. For the ride up, I switch to a swinging, bouncing, and kind of demi-twirling of the car seat combination, hoping this may soothe my child. It doesn’t. Just as the elevator doors slowly part, I see my target and make my move, bolting toward my goal: a large door. I turn the doorknob to the left many times and then to the right. I bang and bang on the door. No answer. This is it. My last ditch, desperate attempt for help, quickly followed by the grim realization that there is none to be found. I press my back against the door with all my might and slide slowly to the floor. The feeling of failure is heavy. I pull up my shirt as my braless breast hangs floppily, and make one more, desperate attempt to feed her. She refuses. Her mouth howls. Tears pour down my face. My breasts are engorged and dripping. Nurses, strangers, and hospital personnel step over us. I look around—baby crying, dripping breast exposed and dangling, and me, overwhelmed by failure—and all I see are shoes. Loafers. Heels. Sneakers. It is the visual confirmation that I have hit bottom. And I have milk stains on my shirt.

That door. Behind that blasted door is the place where every other week the breastfeeding support group happens. And even though it is not the day or the time, I was hopeful that someone, anyone would be there and able to help me figure out why I am suddenly and unexplainably failing at breastfeeding. Instead, it is locked and there is not one lacto-friendly-looking person in sight. I reach for the cooler bag. It was given to me when I was discharged from the hospital. There is infant formula in it. Yesterday, it was the devil. Today, it looks like my messiah in plastic packaging. In the days of my breastfeeding zealousness, I refused to even bring it in the house. But a part of me could not, would not throw it away. Just toss it, I said to myself. “It’s a subversive tool of the infant formula companies to undermine your breastfeeding success,” I ranted to my then husband, who has never been known to turn away any sort of freebie—even a subversive one. But the nice nurse at the hospital had said to take it, “just in case.” And perhaps this is my “just in case.” How did she know?

I sit there, fumbling to make a bottle of formula with one hand, while my breast continues to leak. My baby needs to eat. I am literally oozing food. Something clearly has gone awry here. And all of it feels like an act of biological treason. My first job as a mother is to feed my baby, and I am failing miserably already, a mere forty-something days in. I educated myself (read all the books and blogs), prepared myself (even toughened up my nipples prebirth by rubbing them with a towel), motivated myself (Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman,” on repeat), attended the support group, and still these actions aren’t enough. At the moment, the experience of breastfeeding just feels absurd and pointless and ridiculously difficult and far more than I expected it to be, and I am profoundly unprepared for all of these emotions. The feeling tumbled me end over end.

Make the bottle. Feed your baby, I say to myself. It’s no big deal. Just as I’m ripping off the packaging, I hear someone asking me if I need some help. It’s a blurry visage, but the voice is of an older woman, and when I look up I see she is wearing a hospital volunteer smock and pin. I blurt out a two-minute run-on sentence about how my baby won’t nurse and she’s been crying for hours and I desperately hoped someone from the breastfeeding support group would be here but no one is and I don’t know what to do.

In the midst of my rambling and sobbing, she says, “Wait here. I’ll be right back.” No mention of the dangling breast or about-to-be-poured formula setup station. She returned with the woman who led our support group.

I was rescued that day, by a kindly older woman. Her name, I learned, was Alice, and while the lactation consultant helps me hand express some milk and get baby Kayla settled and fed, Alice gets me a cup of water, rubs my back, and tells me her own daughter had a similar experience.

In the end, a stranger saves me. Not the pediatrician who is technically responsible for my baby’s health and nutrition. Not the ob-gyn who apparently only cares about the contents of my uterus until it is emptied but not thirty minutes more. Not the budget-busting $100-an-hour lactation consultant I paid last week, who was unable to accommodate me on short notice this week. For the next hour, watching Kayla finally calm, suckling on my breast, looking at me, eyes brown and blazing, I can’t help thinking about the past three hours and wonder if this is what the experience of feeding our young according to our biological norm is supposed to be like. If breastfeeding is “natural” and “best,” then why is it so difficult? Yes, it brings unparalleled moments of joy, but why does it also often include so much emotional anguish and suffering for so many women?

Let’s be clear, I am your classic type A superachiever, and I have the stress-induced ulcers to prove it. I eat “difficult” for lunch. I have a master’s degree from Columbia University and have worked in some of the world’s toughest newsrooms. But everything I ever imagined about myself as a mother slowly disappeared into the cracks of the hospital floor that day. Certainly, doing something that has kept humanity alive since the beginning of the species should not be such a struggle. And it’s not just an early-days struggle to learn to breastfeed, but an ongoing social one. Women struggle with nursing in public, being shamed out of retail stores, on airplanes, and even, in one case, out of a lingerie store of all places. Returning to work, we struggle to pump milk for our babies, often being expected to do so in a bathroom stall or other inappropriate place. Employers use terms like “accommodating” nursing mothers, which makes women feel as if they are being done a special favor for being biologically different from men. We battle against social stigma; if we dare to breastfeed beyond twelve months, we are quickly typecast as some alternative parenting weirdo, even though the World Health Organization and UNICEF recommend breastfeeding for two years and the worldwide average age for weaning is close to three years old.

Meanwhile, the messages we receive about breastfeeding are completely disconnected from the actual experience millions of women are having. I mean, let’s face it, me sitting braless and crying on a hospital floor does not jibe with any photo you have ever seen in any breastfeeding magazine article or advertisement. Ever. In the images we are shown, there are green meadows. There are colorful flowers and blissfully calm women. Nobody is crying. Or cursing. Or dripping milk on their $250 sheepskin boots. No women on the verge of breakdowns, making over-the-speed-limit dashes for help. But this was me. And, I soon learned, there are millions more like me.

*   *   *

It’s no wonder that, according to the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control, while 74 percent of U.S. infants are ever breastfed, only 23 percent are exclusively breastfed at three months and 14.6 percent exclusively breastfed at six months. In the states of Louisiana and West Virginia, the percentage of infants ever breastfed is 56 percent and 59 percent, respectively, with six-month exclusivity rates at a paltry 13 percent and 12 percent. Compare that to Sweden, where the exclusive breastfeeding rate is slightly above 75 percent at three months and around 37 percent at six months. Why in the land where we boast of American exceptionalism do we suck at breastfeeding? And if there is some collective failure among women, is it biological or psychological? Or biological because of a psychological trigger? I found this particularly frustrating because, like many modern parents, I aim for perfection. I was the pregnant woman who sat in my office at Fortune magazine with headphones on my belly pumping Mozart into my uterus for the chance that it would improve my child’s brain development and intellect. During my pregnancy, I studiously read every fact-filled weekly e-mail from (you know those e-mails never stop) alerting me to what was growing and developing during that period, and then I researched what to eat and did it. Need copper for forming of the heart and skeletal and nervous systems? Pass the canned crab meat and raw cashews, please. Big phase of cell development? Bring on the DHA-enriched eggs. And once when I read that talking to your unborn child in operatic tones would enhance brain development, I studied everyone from Elisabeth Schwarzkopf to Leontyne Price and sang arias (badly) for two weeks. Yes, I am that mother. And in some circles, where parenting is viewed as a project to be organized and managed, breastfeeding has become a part of any modern child-maximizing plan. I was guilty of placing myself into this sphere. In many ways breastfeeding has become the measure of the mother, even across socioeconomic lines.

So, of course, I was going to breastfeed. It is best, the doctors say. Breast milk provides unparalleled immunological properties. It is composed of nutrients; enzymes; hormones; growth factors; host defense agents; vitamins A, C, B complex; binding proteins; lysozyme and antibodies; and many other ingredients that build a strong, healthy human being. Unlike any other body fluid, breast milk is actually live. It’s not a consistent body fluid such as blood. A secretion of the mammary gland, it constantly changes its composition, dependent on the interaction with the baby and a woman’s own body. Breastfed babies have lower risks of stomach viruses and lower respiratory illness, ear infections, and meningitis. Several studies show breastfed babies to be intellectually superior. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends it. So do the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and Angelina Jolie. And as a sort of healthy-eating enthusiast, it just made sense to me that what nature has provided remains superior to any artificial milk product made in a factory.

But creating a map of those years of breastfeeding, not just with my first child but also four years later nursing my second child, would show a confusing array of lines running in all sorts of directions like the streams of light after a firework explodes. Yet all of those lines could never ever tell the whole story. The map could highlight the warmth and the joy of breastfeeding and that magical connection between me and my child that centered me beyond words. It could possibly pinpoint all the obstacles I ran into at the hospital or at work, but not all of the invisible cultural forces causing them. It certainly wouldn’t show my agony as I breastfed despite everything. Despite the pain and the cracked nipples. Despite the emotional exhaustion and the sleep deprivation, the monotony and the resentment, the glory and the ghosts of anxiety-ridden mothers past that haunted me for my first fourteen months of breastfeeding. And then again for the twelve months that I nursed my second-born.

Women deserve to know why we are angry, confused, and struggling for clear answers. We should really dig deep into the why. Why breastfeeding has become such a polarizing issue. Why women are in an information maelstrom when it comes to their infant feeding choices. Why a generation of women who are collectively breaking new barriers in business, science, and the arts also battle feelings of inadequacy about their ability to perform their biological imperative. Why profit motive and other conflicts of interest often cloud what is best for mother and baby. And why the policy changes, scientific innovation, and cultural forces that once aided in our collective advancement as women now seem to be spinning in a powerful and dangerous orbit around us, trapping us inward.

Truth is, the experience of how we feed our young has fundamentally changed in recent history. Somehow our natural instincts to nurse have gone askew, and our views about feeding our children are now more socially and culturally constructed. We no longer rear generations around a single fire or accumulate and share knowledge about how to suckle our young. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the impact on public health and female consciousness must be thoughtfully considered. We want convenience and choice and freedom and the best nutrition and the most advanced brain development and bragging rights for motherhood—and maybe that is all too much to ask of a milky composition of proteins, lipids, and oligosaccharides or its artificial substitute. Yes, breastfeeding is only one in a spectrum of motherhood experiences, but examining it provides a powerful lens with which to peer into the conflicts shaping and dividing women’s lives. The breastfeeding narrative, both historical and present-day, is a cautionary tale about maternal bodies, good or bad mothers, and how our bodies are measured and assessed. Breastfeeding shows us all the ways, as women, that we have been imagined, constructed, created, and controlled by economics, science, the media, and other so-called authoritative sources. And since, according to some estimates, 80 percent of women will become mothers by age forty-four, we are all affected, childless or not. The breastfeeding narrative is also shaped by the history of the United States from the impact of the Industrial Revolution on women’s work patterns to a hypersexualized breast culture and a plastic surgery boom that makes boob jobs as commonplace as tattoos. Evolving feminist ideals and new expectations for marriage based less on economics and procreation and more on love, companionship, and shared parenting also play a part. Not to mention an increasingly industrialized and profit-focused food system where companies like Mead Johnson (maker of Enfamil) target infants from day one and then companies like Monsanto (largest maker of genetically engineered food) pick up the baton not long after. A system where the chairman of multinational food conglomerate Nestlé, the world’s largest seller of bottled water as a status symbol for handsome profits, actually appeared several years ago in a video seeming to suggest that treating water as a universal human right was “extreme.” Breast milk, like clean water, is a natural resource that should be available and equitably accessible to all. And, like clean water, it should be meticulously protected and preserved for the public good.

For the past five years, I have been on a quest for answers. In the medical world, “letdown” refers to the letdown reflex, triggered by the hormone oxytocin, which causes tiny muscle cells within the breasts to contract and squeeze milk down the milk ducts toward the nipples. For a breastfeeding mother, the letdown is a highly anticipated moment. It is a tingly feeling, possibly painful or even arousing in some women, but it is also a comforting body signal that your milk is flowing to your baby. It is the confirmation that you are fulfilling your biological norm.

For the purposes of this book, it refers to the unseen commercial and social underpinnings that leave women frustrated and confused from the early days of motherhood, battling in so-called “mommy wars” and caught between science wars. Falling back on my journalistic training, I’ve delved into fields as varied as pediatrics, sociology, history, feminism, economics, and pop culture to better understand the social history and modern influences—some subtle, some blatant—that affect women as infant-feeding decision makers every day. I have visited doctors’ offices, hospitals, childbirth educators, and corporate offices. I am less interested in the mechanics of letdown within us—I am not a physician or lactation specialist—than I am with the letdown around us. The mother-child dyad is the most basic yet significant biological unit of humankind, and if something is occurring to contaminate that relationship, on either side, whether that is by well-meaning activists or deep-pocketed drug companies, then it must be thoroughly examined. The outcome has a profound effect on the whole world from the economics of squandering an irreplaceable resource to the personal and societal costs of compromised infant and maternal health outcomes.

Most important, I wanted to know what we can do structurally as a society and collectively as womankind to ensure that fewer and fewer of us find ourselves speeding down that highway in the years to come.

This is what I learned.


Copyright © 2017 by Kimberly Seals Allers