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The following is an excerpt from the book Spilled Milk:
Breastfeeding Adventures and Advice from Less-Than-Perfect Moms
by Andy Steiner
Published by Rodale; September 2005;$12.95US/$17.95CAN; 1-59486-040-8
Copyright © 2005 Spilled Milk

Birth of a Lactivist

Back when she was pregnant, Marta, a 34-year-old stay-at-home mother from Austin, Texas, knew intellectually that breastfeeding was the best thing for her child, but she wasn't sure that she would actually be able to stick with it once her baby was born. She was adopted as an infant and had no siblings. Her mother-in-law didn't breastfeed. Neither did her grandmother. None of her close friends had babies yet, so she had no experience seeing other mothers succeed at nursing. She wasn't sure if she could, either.

"I had read all the books about how good breast milk is for babies, and I wanted to nurse my child, but I felt a little strange about it," Marta says shyly. "To be honest, I never had any experience like that before, so I didn't know what it would be like to have this little person sucking on my breast almost twenty-four hours a day. The idea of being exposed to the world like that felt unnerving."

By the time her son was born, Marta was still on the fence about nursing. "I was almost wishing deep down that formula was better for babies," she admits. "Then, after the birth and when we were in the hospital and started trying to breastfeed, I had a total change in attitude. I was like, 'This isn't as weird as I thought it would be. This is a bonding thing.'" She left the hospital a new mother -- and a committed breastfeeder.

As many babies do -- nobody ever warns us about this, do they? -- Marta's son had a difficult time latching on to her breast. After several unsuccessful attempts at teaching the pair different holds and latch tricks, a nurse at the hospital set Marta up with a nipple shield, a nipple-shaped silicone device designed to protect the nipple and help babies latch correctly. The little plastic hat worked right away, and soon her son was nursing like a champ. The nurse warned Marta that she would have to wean her son off the shield or her milk supply could dwindle, but the baby had other ideas.

"I just couldn't wean him off of it," Marta says. "He would scream every time I tried, and I didn't have the backbone to put up with it. I was like, 'This seems to be working.' So I kept using the shield."

When Marta went for a postpartum checkup with her ob-gyn, she agreed to get a shot of Depo-Provera. It seemed like an effortless method of birth control, and even though her doctor mentioned that there was a slight chance her milk supply could be adversely affected by the drug, Marta didn't really worry about it. Just a few weeks into new motherhood, she felt like her life was settling into a comfortable order. Maybe she'd be good at this mommy thing after all.

Then Marta took the baby in for his two-month checkup. When the pediatrician announced in a concerned tone that the baby had lost too much weight since his last visit, Marta felt like the rug had been pulled out from underneath her. When the doctor said Marta would have to take immediate action to keep her child healthy, Marta felt like a failure.

"I felt like a horrible mom," she confesses in a hushed, tearful tone. "He'd been unhealthy and losing weight all this time and I never knew it. I was thinking that we were doing great, but he was starving. How could I not have noticed that something was wrong?

"I don't know anything about babies," Marta continues. "I never babysat and I didn't have any brothers or sisters. I felt just horrible and guilty that he'd lost weight. My pediatrician sent me to a lactation consultant that day."

It turns out that Marta's breast milk had all but dried up. The baby was losing weight because he wasn't getting enough to eat. At their very first meeting, the lactation consultant helped Marta devise a program to get her milk supply up to speed. It was a complicated regime that included pumping as many as six times a day, taking the herbal supplement fenugreek and one prescription medicine, and feeding the baby formula at the breast with a supplemental nursing system (SNS).

"Every time he wanted to nurse, I had to make a bottle, connect it to the supplementer, and then tape these tubes to my breasts," Marta says, explaining that the tubes carry the formula to the baby, who feeds at the nipple, allowing for natural breast stimulation. "Then I needed to pump after each nursing, too, so I'd put him down and I'd pump as much as I could."

Day by day, Marta's supply began to increase. After a month of "pump, pump, pump -- plus nine pills a day," her milk supply increased enough that she was able to feed the baby without the SNS. (Along the way, he'd let go of his nipple shield addiction.) By this time, her son was sleeping through the night, but Marta still set her alarm to get up and pump. "I didn't want to jinx it," she says. "By now, I was totally committed to getting it right. I wasn't going to screw up again."

When she says she screwed up, Marta is referring to what she saw as a series of early parenting missteps, including the struggle weaning her boy off the nipple shield, the decision to get the Depo shot, and her inability to notice her son's dramatic weight loss.

"I'm tall and skinny, so I just figured he was taking after me," Marta sighs. "Believe me, I felt so guilty about him losing weight that I was determined to make the breastfeeding work. I knew I'd do anything to make it right. I just had to make up for it."

Dr. Swigart, for one, believes that Marta's brand of motherguilt is an unfortunate by-product of our dog-eat-dog Western society. "We live in a competitive world. Women are trained from an early age to be competitive with one another," she says. "When it comes to mothering, things get out of hand. First, there's the way you give birth -- do you do a natural, drug-free labor? Or do you have lots of drugs or -- god forbid -- a Cesarean? And once the baby's born, there's the Apgar scale, and the kind of diapers you use, and whether or not you're going to go back to work again -- and then to top it all off, there's breastfeeding, which comes with its own set of assumptions and load of guilt."

In the face of this pressure, sometimes women don't support one another. "Instead, we find ways to cut each other down," says Beth. "It sucks."

Marta definitely felt the sting of criticism. She'd spent enough time beating herself up for not noticing her son's weight loss. And she'd spent even more time trying to make up for the mistake. She didn't want anyone else to tell her that she wasn't being a good enough mother.

One day, Marta took her nursling to visit her friends at the bookshop where she'd worked part-time before his birth. She was reaching the end of her breastfeeding ordeal, using the SNS only occasionally and giving the baby a bottle of expressed breast milk once or twice a day. "I was talking to a bunch of people when my son got hungry and fussy," she recalls. "So I took out the bottle I had with me. One of the women said to me, 'Oh, you should be breastfeeding.'

"My first reaction was defensive, 'But this is breast milk! I express.' I felt I had to redeem myself, to explain what I was doing. Then I was angry -- after all I was going through -- pumping, tubes taped to my breasts, money spent, pills taken -- and she was going to lecture me about breastfeeding? Then I realized that if I were formulafeeding, and my son was nearing four months old, what good would lectures about breastfeeding do?"

The experience -- and her own reaction to it -- made Marta take her own silent pledge that from here on out, she'd never judge another mother's actions before she knew the whole story. That's what she hopes other people will do for her, too.

"I don't make judgments about women and bottles anymore," she says firmly. "Mothering is hard enough."

Well put, Marta.

 If we could all be a little easier on ourselves -- and on other mothers -- our lives would be so much better. If we could just dump all the stinky mamaguilt and celebrate our own little successes (She stopped biting! He slept through the night!), think of how much time we'd have left over for the really important stuff, like reading a good book or taking a walk or laughing with a friend. Of course, as mothers (or as women, for that matter), we'll never be totally free from guilt or worry -- that's not the point here -- but how about trying for a little less?

If everything about raising your baby worked exactly the way some books tell you it's supposed to, you wouldn't have very interesting stories to tell your girlfriends, would you? A perfect life may be guilt-free, but it's also boring. Imperfections are what make us interesting. I'd rather be interesting than boring any day.

Copyright © 2005 Andy Steiner

Reprinted from: Spilled Milk: Breastfeeding Adventures and Advice from Less-Than-Perfect Moms by Andy Steiner. Copyright © 2005 Andy Steiner. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 848-4735 or visit their website at