Breastfeeding As Profession

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Still working my way through The Sum of Small Things. In the chapter on motherhood as a form of conspicuous consumption, I was struck by her discussion on breastfeeding:

As the journalist Hannah Rosen calculates, “Let’s say a baby feeds seven times a day and then a couple more times at night. That’s nine times for about a half hour each, which adds up to more than half of a working day, every day, for at least six months. This is why, when people say that breast-feeding is ‘free,’ I want to hit them with a two-by-four. It’s only free if a woman’s time is worth nothing.”

This resonates with me. Our calculus was slightly unusual: Matt made just enough money to cover our living expenses (with a little wiggle room because we’d carefully chosen a cheap apartment and I did my best to save on groceries) and had good health insurance through the university.

If I had gotten a job after Claudia was born, we would require paid care because we had no family nearby. Sure, we might have come out ahead in terms of money, but what if she got sick and couldn’t stay at daycare? Matt couldn’t ditch class, and with so little social capital in a new city, missing a day or string of days could have been the end of my job.

So, breastfeeding became my job. I had read the books, scoured the forums, watched the videos. I prayed that nursing would be easy and enough to nourish my baby. And, thankfully, it was. Easy peasy from day one–which, I have since learned, is not the norm.

Women who work in white-collar professions are able to increase their breastfeeding tenure through pumps and dedicated pumping rooms, but what about women who punch the clock and hardly have a lunch break?

We make much about the benefits of breastfeeding in mommy circles, but here’s another nugget from page 86:

A 2014 study of breast-feeding focused on ‘discordant siblings’–those where one child was breast-fed and the other not. The sample, some 1,773 sibling pairs, enabled a wide-scale analysis to tease out the extent to which breast-feeding (rather than other hidden variables) bight explain the health, achievement, and other metrics of success over formula-fed babies. Turns out, at least according to this study, breastfeeding confounds a more basic explanation: socioeconomic class. Those siblings born to wealthier (and healthier) mothers thrived regardless of being formula or breast-fed. (emphasis added)

I’m glad I was able to breastfeed my babies. I don’t think it imparted magic powers to them or gave them some mystical advantage over their peers. But nursing them rather than working gave me–us–time.

In economics, this is called an opportunity cost: where I sacrificed an opportunity to make money and change our financial situation at the time, I gained time. I had time to bond with each of my babies. Time to shape them and mold them. Time to read (and eventually work to recoup some of that lost income) while they napped.

It’s funny to look back and see so much privilege in that choice. At the time, it seemed like our only option because of our unique set of circumstances. And the rest of my life didn’t feel “privileged”: I couponed like it was my job and put off every purchase I possibly could, finding a way to make do or do without, if I could.

For some women and families, breastfeeding doesn’t make any economical sense; it’s completely out of the realm of possibility. For others, it doesn’t work out, despite their efforts. Still others simply do not desire to do so when a safe alternative (formula) exists.

There is no right answer, but the original quote in this piece definitely made me remember just how much time I spent holding babies as they suckled. Some moments were sweet, some sour, and some simply passed by.

For us, it worked beautifully and changed our family trajectory. It was a privilege in every sense of the word, and I don’t want to forget that or ever pass judgement on someone else’s best choice.

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