Sisterhood Blog

On Not Nursing at the Teat of Maternal Guilt

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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I like this new article by former Forward “East Village Mamele” Marjorie Ingall over at Tablet magazine, in an issue this week focusing on the body.

I had struggles myself with nursing each of my three children, and naturally the first time was the most difficult to deal with.

When my son as born, 15 years ago, the morning after the Friday night C-section I put him on to nurse and thought I was doing just that for a couple of days. Then he spiked a fever and when they ran his labs they found he was seriously dehydrated and put him in the NICU. There was my bruiser of an overdue, wouldn’t-come-out-the-usual-way of a 10½ pound son in with the premature, frailest babies in the hospital.

Why was he dehydrated? Because he wasn’t getting anything from the mama milk bar. I stepped out of the converted broom closet in the NICU where I had been tethered to an industrial-strength breast pump they wheeled in, but where I’d produced just a fraction of an ounce of milk in 30 minutes.

The NICU nurse asked what formula she should give him – regular or soy. Rarely have I felt so helpless and at a loss for what to do. I’d never considered not nursing, at least for a while. But my body was failing us both. I’d failed to go into labor spontaneously, failed an induced attempt to labor him out, and now I was failing to provide him with the only thing he needed. Maternal Jewish guilt had kicked in full-force.

My boychik is now closing in on 6 feet but is still singing (beautifully) in the upper registers and hasn’t yet sprouted facial hair. A couple of years ago I read about a study of Japanese men whose high intake of soy led to suppressed testosterone – and naturally made the jump to my boy, who drank only soy milk for a couple of years even after he was weaned from the bottle. Thankfully other studies now seem to contradict the link, slightly abating my guilty feelings.

Not nursing was totally against the cultural norm in my progressive corner of Brooklyn, where the Family Bed and Attachment Parenting are part of the local lexicon.

Marjorie links it to some Jewish compulsion to achieve, but I disagree – it definitely isn’t particular to my fellow Jewesses, but rather part of the larger culture. When boychick first came home, I went to a neighborhood La Leche League meeting and felt quickly shot down when I talked about my milk mess. Then I went home and opened the copy of Dr. Spock my mother had given me, where I saw this declarative statement: “Every woman can nurse.”

Still trying to do the best for the baby, we hired a pricey lactation consultant, who recommended oxytocin nasal spray, which wasn’t covered by insurance and had to be special ordered through a special pharmacy. We had to rent another hospital-grade breast pump, plus a supplemental nursing system, which made me feel positively bovine, plus all the other equipment we needed to pay for.

The lactation consultant asked me to stick with it for at least two weeks before giving up (about a month into my son’s life).

After 10 days and many tears of exhausted frustration dealing with this while I tried to recover from a c-section and learn to mother, I said “enough.” Getting my son that first bottle, which felt like a declaration of personal independence from the weight of cultural expectations that just weren’t working for me, was the first moment that I felt like a real mother.

We sent back the rented equipment and stocked up on soy formula.

When A’s sisters were born, I nursed them a little for the physical intimacy, that lovely skin-to-skin connection with these new beings who had for so long been literally part of me. Of course they got most of their sustenance from formula, and gave up nursing after a couple of weeks.

And wouldn’t you know it, my babies got sick less than their breast-fed friends. Epidemiologically speaking breast-feeding has huge benefits at relatively low economic cost compared with formula, but it doesn’t work out for all of us, and I’m happy to see the issue get some exposure (ahem).

I like Marjorie’s linking of our modern obsession with nursing and Jewish models of lactating femininity, the Ur-mothers in Jewish text and tradition.

At the time of my own struggle, the only Jewish link I made was to being a Marrano. When I first talked about my difficulty, at boychik’s bris, suddenly many friends mentioned knowing someone with a similar problem. I’d never heard of it before – nobody talked about it. It was like some secret life.

Pieces like Marjorie’s help lift that veil of secrecy and its attendant feelings of shame for those of us who couldn’t nurse. I give it five (store-bought) nipples.

Elisheva Urbas Tue. Oct 20, 2009


Lotta different things going on in both those pieces. To Marjorie's point -- there are a lot of stupid, bitchy, and tactless people interspersed among the rest of us, and they come in both pro-and anti-breastfeeding varieties. The bf zealots go in the same bucket as the "your nipples are obscene" zealots -- jerks, in short. Not nice; but not so much about bf as about generally bad societal attitudes toward mothering.

As she also points out, there are a bunch of known reasons some women have trouble making enough milk, with history of breast surgery (reduction or obviously removal) and hormonal complications like polycystic ovaries leading the lists.

But the corollary to this second point is that if the medical folks are at the point of saying, "Your baby is starving because you're not making milk," then I"d want to know why not. Do you have a pituitary or thyroid problem nobody knew about? Is your baby unable to sustain suction or unable to empty her stomach for some reason? what the hell, in short??? Nobody ever says about the failure of any other gland to function physiologically, "Well, you're not making urine, but there's no sense gettiing a nephrology work up to understand why not when we have dialysis to offer as a replacement -- you need to stop worrying so much, honey!"

The last time I read the research on this the thinking was that primary lactation failure was under 5% of births - maybe under 2%. Most moms, if helped well enough and early enough, can breastfeed. So if we can't, it's likely that there's either some health-care-provider sabotage, intentional or inadvertent, or some medical complication; and either one demands some clarification. For docs blandly to tell large numbers of new moms, "Your choices are to suffer or to quit" is a grossly inadequate provision of care; and we need to stop reinforcing that bad advice by retailing it.

Women who want to do the best by their kids, who have trouble nursing, and whose health providers have not helped them figure out why and whether there's anything that makes sense for them to do about it should not be harassed, and they should not feel guilt. But they should feel pissed off.

Jill Hamburg Coplan Tue. Oct 20, 2009

I was part of a wonderful anthology of essays published this past Mother's Day in which writers who could and couldn't, wanted to and didn't want to, embraced and refused breastfeeding shared their stories with a level of detail & honesty I don't think has appeared anywhere before. I recommend it to new mothers, those struggling with the complications, or anyone interested in this important stage of motherhood. Unbuttoned: Women Open Up About the Pleasures, Pains and Politics of Breastfeeding. Edited by Dana Sullivan and Maureen Connolly, from the Harvard Common Press (

Elana Tue. Oct 20, 2009

I think the point here is less about breastfeeding and more about just letting women be. I applaud your ability to let go of the guilt and social expectations and do what was best for you and "boychick" at that particular moment.

And BTW I wouldn't pay too much attention to his voice or facial hairs. It'll happen when it happens. Our lesson from all this is multiplied -- we should let our kids be as well.

B'vracha, Elana

Beth @ Upper West Side Mom Tue. Oct 20, 2009

I could write a novel about this subject but I will instead write a paragraph or two. I agree completely with Elisheva Urbus' comments, the biggest obstacle facing women who are trying to breastfeed are their health care practitoners (and this includes some lactation consultants too.) The medical world is in the dark ages when it comes to their knowledge of breastfeeding.

I nursed my son for an excruciating 3 months. The OB, the Pediatricians, the Breast Surgeon (I had an abscess that would not go away) and the Lactation Consultant all had no idea how to help me. I was devastated when I ended up weaning him. Fast forward to baby number 2. I had a new OB, a new Pediatrician who was really pro breastfeeding and not just giving lip service to that fact, a new Lactation Consultant and most importantly the mother to mother support of my local La Leche League group. I had all the same problems I had with my son but now I had people who could actually help me. I went on to nurse number two and three until they were both four and am still nursing number four.

A few years ago I was helping a friend of mine who was a medical resident at the time. She was absolutely shocked at her lack of knowledge regarding breastfeeding. She told me that they spent only one class learning about it medical school. Until the medical community enters the modern age with regard to breastfeeding, we will continue to have a too high level of breastfeeding failure.

The Fearless Formula Feeder Fri. Oct 23, 2009

I have been kvelling all week about Ingall's article. As a Jewish woman living in Los Angeles (which is about as progressive as you can get) who had every nursing issue under the sun, I tapped into so many different pools of guilt during my first months as a mom.

Your experience resonates with me, as well, and I thank you for writing this blog post. I am THRILLED that more people are talking about this. I have seen an influx of chatter about the pressure to breastfeed and the problems women are encountering under this umbrella of guilt... and while it saddens me that so many of us have been affected, it gives me hope for future generations of moms. Infant feeding attitudes have acted like a pendulum - breastfeeding was in, then out; now in again... I think it is so sad that we can't find a way to support breastfeeding AND formula feeding and call it a day.

I could go on for hours about this - which is why I started a blog about it: Ironically, I got called a "milk zionist" the other day by one commenter... I didn't even know where to start with that one! :)

Anyway- thanks again. You rock.

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