Confessions of a Booby Know-Nothing

At age 24, I was a disgrace to womankind. I knew absolutely nothing about breastfeeding. And couldn’t have cared less.

Far removed from the oozy, drippy world of babies – having vowed at age 16 never to have any – I believed human breasts were vestigial organs, like the appendix, which Darwin suggests may have been used to digest foliage.

Besides, being only a 32-A, I tried to ignore them. My breasts, that is. All though high school and college, the tiny mounds had done little for my sweaters, except create a couple of bunny slopes.

I can’t tell you how depressing it can be, trying on band-aid size bras in a department store fitting room. When the foundations lady asked, “How’s that one working out for you, honey?” I wanted to cry.

The bras were all so…pointy, as though custom-made for Nurse Diesel, the crazy nurse from High Anxiety.

And then –  without ever having witnessed a baby at the breast, or having read anything in my biology books about breastfeeding (at least not in humans), and certainly never having been lectured by a single female family member about the value of mother’s milk – I got pregnant.

Before long – and quite out of the blue – my husband hit me a question. “How are you going to feed the baby?”

I was stunned. I couldn’t think. “Bottles,” I told him. “That’s what my mother used.”

After all, hadn’t women evolved? Didn’t we have Ms. magazine?

Blessed with preternatural patience, my husband calmly told me that his mother had breastfed all three children. Him for nine months – and then he suggested I visit the public  library. The library!

Resentment nibbled away at my ego. It was clear my husband knew more about breastfeeding than I did.  Meg nursing

But then, my mother had breastfed only one of her six children. Me. For a total of four weeks. Still, I couldn’t accept the fact that I knew zip, nil, nada, about breastfeeding. The Carnegie library sat at the center a large grassy square, a single story of red bricks and tall windows topped by a squat dome. One Saturday afternoon I found myself quite alone in one of its many nooks and crannies, hoping to find something, anything, that would give me the advantage over this…this… breastfed man I married.

The dark blue hardback I pulled from the shelf was The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. Womanly Art of Breastfeeding

Lying on the double bed in our apartment, a small two-room affair at the back of a sprawling ranch house, I read the book cover to cover.

And as I read, a gaping hole seemed to sew itself closed. The words fed my soul.

Not only did the founding mothers’ collective knowledge teach me why breast milk is the ideal food for infants; it taught me why babies belong with their mothers.

But time was running short. I only had a few months to learn all this stuff: positions, engorgement, colostrum, alternating breasts. There was so much to know. And not a La Leche League group within sixty-miles. Where was I going to find a breastfeeding mother?

Not a nursing mother.

Nurse Diesel. Not a nursing mother.

I had another problem. The Womanly Art said eating a natural diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding was the way to introduce one’s child to healthy, lifelong eating habits.

Yikes. I had grown up on foods like Rice-a-Roni, Nestle’s Quik, white bread and bologna sandwiches. I had never even tasted fresh spinach.

The cafeteria at the rural New Mexico preschool where I worked – my first job right out of college – served government-commodity canned vegetables, often combined with pinto beans and greasy Mex.

I started bringing my own lunch.

Meanwhile, a “health food” store came to town, taking up residence in a row of dilapidated buildings. The hole-in-the-wall was run by a couple of California transplants barely out of their teens.

The wholesome, earthy smell of herbs and grains put me at ease  the second I opened the  door. I was on a mission. The book had said to eat natural foods. And I wanted  an A in the course.

Behind the counter a freckle-faced girl in a flowing skirt and combat boots checked out a customer, all the while balancing a toddler on her hip, his mouth latched to an exposed breast.

My heart pounded. I had found my breastfeeding mother. But how could I talk to her? What would I say?

I walked up and down the aisles, feigning interest in Ak Mak crackers, Deaf Smith peanut butter and Celestial Seasonings teas while nonchalantly snatching glimpses of this unreal phenomenon. I felt as though I had stepped into a different dimension.

Watching Jane at the cash register, I thought, I’m can do this.

I went on maternity leave just before my teaching contract expired at the end of the summer. After the birth, I never went back.
Kara breastfeeding

My biggest breastfeeding fear wasn’t that I couldn’t succeed at breastfeeding: I had learned a lot by that time.

I worried that I would be reduced to a red-faced glob in front of family members.

I worried about leaky boobs, nursing pads, all the drippy stuff.

And I worried that my parents or in-laws might say, “Why don’t you take the baby in the other room?”

So I conspired with my husband – my staunchest supporter –  to issue what amounted to rain checks. We told our families to give us one month. I needed time to figure out how to be a mom, to be comfortable breastfeeding, and to feel sure of myself.

I applied to become a La Leche League leader via correspondence. At the time, leader-applicants were required to have stayed at home with their children for three-years. But I’d only been a mother for 15 months. I didn’t care. I was determined to help other mothers breastfeed, so I ordered the books on their reading list and wrote more than a few letters.  Snail mail.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and continued breastfeeding through the first year. The World Health Organization recommends two years.

I exceeded both expectations.

My favorite breastfeeding perk was being able take my babies anywhere.

Economically, breastfeeding makes sense: A study done over a decade ago showed that a mom who breastfeeds for one year saves her family between $1,200 and $1,500. Formula is even more expensive now.

I know breastfeeding saved our family bundles.

If 90 percent of U.S. families followed guidelines to breastfeed exclusively for six months, the country would save $13 billion annually in health care and related costs.

My babies rarely got sick. I can count the number of ear infections between them on one hand. As adults, they’re all physically fit. (Did you know that it’s impossible to over-feed a breastfed baby?

Most mothers can breastfeed if they want to. Today, the science on breast milk’s nutritional superiority is indisputable and widely-known, and the stigma over public breastfeeding quickly slipping into history. In fact, moms can now breastfeed anywhere they are allowed to be.

But changing the cultural tide requires more than facts. It’s something all of us in this country must get behind – families, neighbors, business owners, friends. Because breastfeeding is part of what it means to be a mom. Maybe what we really need is a “no mom left behind” campaign. Because no mom should ever be a booby know-nothing.    FFG 


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