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March 25, 2011

Breastfeeding, part II

At this point, Breastfeeding, part I was a laughably long time ago.  But since I wrote most of this post in mid-February, I thought it was time to finish it up.  Gotta git ‘er done, you know.

I thought my part two was going to be more reflective about my personal experiences, kind of a summation to the journey that was breastfeeding for me.  But I find that my emotions are running very high as I approach total weaning, and those emotions are not adequately translating into words yet.  This no doubt ensures that there will be a part three somewhere down the line.

But in the meantime, there was a recent [February, remember] firestorm related to breastfeeding and I don’t mind saying that I got a wee bit ticked over it.  It started with the IRS announcing that breastfeeding expenses (pumps, storage containers, etc.) would now be tax-deductible because they are considered a medical expense.  I liked this article discussing the issue for two reasons.  First, I totally agree that “cheap and easy” is not the most appropriate way to describe breastfeeding — and anyone who uses “easy” in particular has either never done it, doesn’t remember what those first two or three months (at least) are like, or is one of the lucky few to have a MIRACULOUSLY smooth run with it.  Second, I like the note that it ends on: even if I fully support every mom’s right to make that choice for herself and her baby (and I do), I still think that breastfeeding is a public health issue and should be treated as such.

Within days of the IRS announcement, Michelle Obama was flamed for saying that she supports making it easier for mothers to breastfeed their babies.  I’m not a die-hard Obama fan and I didn’t vote for her husband, but it really, really annoys me to see politicians turning breastfeeding into something highly politicized.  But even that I could live with it, if the attacks were at least factually based.  But oh-my-freaking-goodness, I cannot stand political rhetoric that is completely based in fiction, which is exactly what Michele Bachmann of the Tea Party was spreading after the IRS changes came down:

To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump for my babies? You want to talk about the nanny state? I think you just got a new definition of the nanny state.

Now, I’m not a careful observer of Michele Bachmann, so I’m not making statements about her beyond this issue.  But I was seriously disturbed by her statement because it indicates to me that either 1) she has no idea what a tax deduction actually is (in which case, she doesn’t belong in the House of Representatives where she might actually have some influence over tax policy — if you don’t get Taxes 101, you don’t belong in the upper division) or 2) she is far too willing to distort the truth for political gain (if you want to read a more detailed fact-check of her statement, or learn what a tax deduction is — and then share that critical info with Ms. Bachmann — you can check out this Politifact article).

Another aspect of this whole back-and-forth about the IRS changes that annoyed me was a comment from a legal fellow at the Family Research Council (referenced in the same Washington Post article).  She said:

Giving tax breaks for breast pumps helps only those moms who are working outside the home and does nothing for us stay-at-home moms.

This comment I just find perplexing.  It makes me wonder how many stay-at-home breastfeeding moms she knows.  Because I’m one, and I bought a breast pump (and it wasn’t cheap, although I got a smoking hot deal on it — ask me about it if you live in Utah and are in the market for one!) and indeed, it was my daily companion for more than a year even though I never worked outside the home for more than an hour or two at a time.  And I know I’m not alone because virtually every breastfeeding mom I know also bought, rented, or otherwise used a breast pump at some point.  To me, a breast pump tax deduction in no way benefits only those working outside the home.  And even if it did, I would not be bothered by that.  Being a mom is hard stuff in any configuration, and I’m supportive of measures that make that just a little bit easier for moms as well as supporting the health of infants.

Oh guys, can you tell I get all angsty and worked-up about these issues?  It’s more than a month later and I still get annoyed re-reading these comments (although when I was first talking to people about this, I recall repeatedly using the word asinine so you’ve at least been spared that by a month-long delay).  It is a delicate thing to simultaneously say, I respect other mothers’ breastfeeding/formula-feeding choices AND I think breastfeeding is an important public health issue that deserves respect and support in the public sphere.  But that is exactly where I stand: I don’t want to make the decision for every mother and child in their own unique circumstances, but I also want to shout-out far and wide that our nation’s babies will be healthier (indeed, at least one well-regarded study estimates that 900 babies per year would be saved if 90% of American women breastfeed for the first six months of life) if we encourage and support breastfeeding in every way we can.

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February 14, 2011

Breastfeeding, part I

Filed under: Motherhood, Personal — Tags: , , , , — llcall @ 5:00 pm

Last week I got together with some friends who have also become mothers in the last year or two.  Not surprisingly, the topic turned to how hard that first stretch of motherhood is.  How much unsolicited advice you get, how many times people criticize your parenting either implicitly or explicitly, how freaking tired you are!

We also talked about that sometimes contentious and emotionally-charged issue in the “mommy wars” — breastfeeding.  We’re four women who made different choices about breastfeeding: yea or nay, how long, how often, etc.  But I think, I hope no one felt judged for the choices they made.  Instead of bagging on each other, we bagged on all the dumb/insensitive/cruel things other people have said to us.  That’s better, right?

Later this week, perhaps tomorrow if the babe cooperates, I plan to record some of my thoughts about my breastfeeding experience.  As I get close to weaning, I want to remember how I’m feeling as I conclude this chapter of motherhood.  There’s no question that I am very pro-breastfeeding; I felt strongly enough about it that I even became a milk donor for other babies.  But it made me very sad to hear some of the comments that my friends who chose not to breastfeed received.  Indeed, some of the comments are based on distortions of the breastfeeding research that I want to, in my own small way, try to dispel.

So here goes, in brief.  When you look at physical issues, there definitely appears to be one group that breastmilk can be critical for: preemies and “fragile” infants.  They are often facing an uphill battle as it is, and formula tends to be harder to digest and lead to more gastrointestinal problems.  This is exactly why human milk banks are so important because these babies really need it.

But perhaps one of the more difficult things to be told is that breastfed babies are smarter than formula-fed babies, and thus a formula-fed baby will not be as smart as s/he could have been.  Do people really say things like this to a new mom who is in a fragile emotional state as it is?  Sadly, yes.  But here’s the thing about that: it is not actually supported by the research.  At this point, it seems to be a classic case of confusing correlation with causation (if you have found a random-assignment study that could get at causation, I’d be very interested).  This article I found from a quick google search sums up nicely what I have found from my own review of the literature: moms who breastfeed are different than moms who don’t.  On average, they have more education and higher IQs.  On average, they spend more time interacting with their babies, thus stimulating their development.  So breastfeeding is confounded with a number of other factors that we know are highly correlated with intelligence.

I think that this distortion is perpetuated by at least two things: media oversimplification and breastfeeding zealots.  In every research article, there is a discussion of limitations where an author will in some manner caution, correlation does not prove causation.  But does that caveat make for an exciting headline?  No; so if it’s mentioned at all, it’s usually buried somewhere at the end of the article.  As for the breastfeeding zealots, most people have probably met one.  Breastfed babies never get sick!  They’ll live to be 100!  Someday, breastfeeding will lead to world peace!

Now like I said, I’m a huge proponent of breastfeeding and I better be since my world has revolved around it for the past year.  But let’s be realistic about its benefits and costs — because it sure as heck is not easy — and for heaven’s sake, let’s not use it as a way to make new mothers feel like less than they are.

October 25, 2010

Unfinished business

Filed under: Motherhood, Personal — Tags: , , , — llcall @ 6:01 pm

Now that I’m back on my home turf, some people have pointed out to me that I kind of left the blogosphere hanging on a couple of issues.  For those who read “Across the Catwalk” and guessed that I was “Em” or the first-person narrator, you’re correct.  When I first wrote it, I thought that would be self-evident, but initial readers told me all kinds of compelling reasons why they thought I was “Julia.”  That’s quite a compliment, as you’ll soon learn.

But, of course, since it’s a true story, I could only really be one of them.  This story also has a happy ending, although I wasn’t certain of that when I wrote it.  “Julia” and I resumed our college careers after a couple of very long years.  She received BS, MS, and MD degrees; did humanitarian medical work in India and China; and beat cancer three times, all before we turned 30.  I can safely say there is no one in the world quite like “Julia.”  You don’t know joie de vivre until you’ve met her.  Someday, when I’m a better person, I will be a little more like her and little less like me.

***

And from even further back, I promised to tell you about my completed “project” when I had time.  So here goes:

Once upon a time, I decided to pump enough milk so that Neal could feed the baby a bottle at night and I could get some much-needed sleep (or rather, Neal and my midwife decided this was the plan, and they were so so brilliant!).  And then I thought it would be a good idea to pump enough to stave off infection because it quickly became clear that I was producing far more milk than baby girl was consuming.  While I was at it, I planned to store a little extra for date nights . . . you know, because we would magically get better at going on dates after we had a baby.

So I pumped twice a day, until one day Neal said the milk in the freezer was getting a little out of control.  I estimated that there was roughly one hundred ounces in my reserve, but as I started to count and organize, I realized I was a little off . . . by like 350 ounces.

Without even realizing it, I had pumped and stored 450 ounces.  Neal wanted to get rid of it because the baby would never drink it all, but anyone who has ever tried breastfeeding or pumping knows that the very idea is simply blasphemous (I would’ve made him sleep on the couch for the very suggestion, but well, if you don’t sleep in the same room to begin with, that has very little meaning).  That stuff ain’t easy to come by and it is precious!  Luckily, my mom mentioned that there were human milk banks to serve needy infants, which makes sense to me now but I had never heard of before.

It’s a long process to become a milk donor, and rightfully so, since it’s particularly for fragile preemies (many preemies can’t digest formula very well).  I started the process with the San Jose milk bank (there isn’t one in Utah) in July with a phone interview, then a 15-page written application, sign-offs from my midwife and the pediatrician, and finally, blood tests (it turns out Mormons make awesome donors because of our “clean” living ways).  In the meantime, I was also able to donate milk to a local infant whose mother was unable to breastfeed, but desperately wanted to.

I finally sent the milk donation to San Jose in late September, and it felt so worth all the effort.  Seven hundred ounces later, I like to think that I helped some little preemie develop a nice pair of Popeye arms and thunder thighs.

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