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Is Breast Best?

No easy decisions when it come to feeding baby.

These days, it seems every mother — regardless of whether she breastfed a child — has strong feelings on the subject of breastfeeding. Unbuttoned: Women Open up About the Pleasure, Pains and Politics of Breastfeeding (Harvard Common Press, $14) is an anthology of essays that sets out to capture those emotions. The editors, Dana Sullivan and Maureen Connolly, enlisted 25 accomplished writers to share deeply personal, often poignant, accounts of the varied experiences they had while feeding their babies. Most of the contributors, though not all, breastfed their children.

The book begins with descriptions about the first latch-ons and end with weaning stories. Many mothers will undoubtedly find echoes of their own journeys on one page or another. But the subtitle of the book seems to promise a more complete picture than the one presented here. The essays are peppered with a litany of complaints: sore nipples, lost libido, useless lactation consultants, sleep deprivation and halted careers, to name a few. So many of these writers seem motivated, at least in part, by “breast is best” guilt; they do not speak of finding true joy in choosing to nurture their babies this way. Almost completely absent are voices of women who find breastfeeding to be a transformative experience, empowering and guiding them though the early days of motherhood. That’s unfortunate given that the book is being marketed as a great gift for expectant and new moms.

Though most of the writers at least allude to some positive aspects of breastfeeding, a mother-to-be may not see past the negative comments that seem to crop up in so many entries. Novelist Julia Glass recalls a friend’s comment on breastfeeding, “Oh God, I hated every minute… I decided three months would be enough. I counted the days.” Suzanne Schlosberg describes how boring she became as she spent countless hours nursing her twins. “I don’t really think of myself as a mother,” she writes. “I think of myself as a breastfeeder.” Pamela Kruger asserts that “many scientists vigorously dispute” that there are health benefits to breastfeeding. She quotes an August 2007 article in a health journal stating that pro-breastfeeding research is inconsistent and flawed. That’s a pretty strong statement of “fact” to print unchallenged in a book that’s being promoted as great baby shower gift.

One entry captures the challenges of working while breastfeeding. Nancy M. Williams describes her decision to trade her position as a powerful executive for a slowerpaced job that’s more compatible with breastfeeding. A few months later, she is unexpectedly handed a tantalizing new position, but after struggling for a few days to maintain her pumping schedule and get home in time to nurse her daughter, she reluctantly passes up the opportunity. “As much as returning to my insignificant, diminished work self pained me, the possibility of Gracie’s weaning hurt more,” she concludes.

Ironically, some of the most thoughtprovoking material comes from the mothers who did not nurse. These women describe a constant barrage of “breast is best” reports from friends, family and media, that often leaves them feeling like inferior mothers, embarrassed to bottlefeed their babies in public. Years later, some still feel the need to justify their decisions. Their stories are a reminder of how quickly — and sometimes unfairly — we judge ourselves and each other as mothers.

Still, some mothers who did breastfeed may wish the writers had penned a few more meaningful insights, such as Heidi Raykeil’s beautiful description of a moment when the baby latches on and is totally at peace: “It is the surprise of direct connection, ultimate intimacy, the trust and ability to go back, if even for a 15-minute feeding, to a time when two separate beings were one.”

Heidi Gralla, a freelance writer, is a member of the Lilith board. She is a breastfeeding advocate and the mother of three breastfed children.