Why I Think Breastfeeding Should be on My Resume

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Love After Baby

by Holly Keich

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© Hollis Healy

Raising a baby is hard work. Harder than you can ever imagine before arriving home with your beautiful, new bundle. It’s a significant life change that requires 24/7 vigilance, love, understanding, compassion, and patience on just a few hours of interrupted sleep a day.  I don’t know about you, but that’s a tall order for me.  In fact, it’s a tall order for many parents and in turn directly effects couples relationships with each other as well.  In fact, 67% of couples become very unhappy with each other during the first 3 years of life. (1)

The relationship between parents can become the first thing to take a hiatus when baby arrives.  But studies show that the best thing you can give your baby is a happy and strong relationship.  So how do you do that when you’re feeling overwhelmed and what used to be disagreements between the two of you turn into destructive fights?

Babies offer new things to fight over and before you know it you’re even arguing over things you agree on. How does this happen?  Disagreements become less about the content or what the real issues are and become arguments about how you fight. For example, you disagree about where the bottles should be placed in the dishwasher.  It’s an extension of your usual disagreement about the proper placement of dishes in the dishwasher.  You think bottom shelf, he says top shelf. Instead of discussing the real issue, that you feel overwhelmed by this whole parenting thing and just want to do right by your child, you dig in and say he’s wrong and here’s why. He feels attacked when he was just trying to help and defends himself with a quick, snarky comeback.

And Baby Makes ThreeAll couples have arguments and disagree, it’s part of life. That won’t change, but how you relate to each other when there are conflicts could be significantly improved with just a few healthy conflict management skills.  And Baby Makes Three by John Gottman, PhD and Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD is a wonderful book that offer us guideposts for maintaining a relationship while parenting based on years of work with couples and a 13 year study that looked in detail at couples interactions after baby.  Let’s take a look at what they identified as healthy conflict management skills.

1. Soften  How You Start the Discussion

As soon as the first word is said, you know there’s a going to be trouble. Take a breath, check in with yourself.  What are you feeling? How can we express what we need if we don’t even know how we feel. Once you’re clear with yourself, state how you feel, neutrally. Describe the situation and state what you do need, not what you don’t need.

2. Accept Influence by Recognizing There are Two Valid Viewpoints

We’ve all heard there are two sides to every story, but in the midst of an argument, we’re convinced that ours is the right side. Regardless, postpone your attempts to persuade your partner about how correct you are.  Listen to your partners’ story, ask questions and restate them so they know you were listening. Get communication flowing before adding in your side of the story.  Remember you’re in this together. If the boat sinks, your both going down and now the baby’s coming with you.

3. Calm Down by Self Soothing

When we’re in the midst of a fight it’s likely that we’re experiencing a heightened arousal state. And whether we realize it or not we become flooded. We move into a fight or flight state and our lower brain centers take control. It’s hard if not impossible to be rational when in this state. So take a mommy and daddy time out for at least a 1/2 an hour. Reduce the adrenaline and cortisol release flooding your body. Don’t sit and ruminate about the fight, unless you’re focusing on your contribution, how you feel and what you need. If you’re feeling completely beyond rational thought do something that is a soothing activity. Then schedule a time to get back together and reconvene the discussion.

4. Compromise

It can be hard to consider, but compromise is a daily staple of a healthy relationship. It’s helpful to identify your core areas of need, things in which you can’t yield. Then consider what areas have greater flexibility? Then discuss how you can come together on a solution.

5. The Aftermath of a Fight: Process and Understand It

Sometimes this needs to be a scheduled event. Find a time where you have the time to  sit and discuss your feelings and point of view without blame. Realize that you have an active role in the argument as much as your partner. Take turns confessing the part you played in the drama. Then take a look at how you could make it better next time?

6. Figure Out the Conversation You Needed to Have Instead of the Fight

As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, often we end up arguing about superficial things when the real heart of the issue is much, much deeper. Each of us have our triggers, some we may not even realize until we’re standing in the dust and debris after the smoke clears. Take a look at what triggers you more closely. Discuss your triggers with your partner so that they know these are the things that set you off and flood your brain with stress hormones. Delve into why these specific items are triggering. Where do they arise from – is it related to past experiences? How could you handle them differently? Make sure you each take time to listen to each other with compassion and avoid delving back into the argument.  If that happens, take another parent time out and reconvene at another time.

7. Move From Gridlock to Dialogue When You Have Unsolvable Problems

Do you ever feel like you’re having the same argument over and over.  It’s because you are.  69% of problems in the couples the Gottmans studied were repeats of the same issue. (2) Perpetual problems arise from fundamental differences in your personalities and lifestyle needs.  In these scenarios, the Gottmans found that values, dreams, and personal philosophies also underlie our gridlocked positions. In order to gain a better understanding of ourselves and each other, we must become “dream detectives”.  You’ll find more info here about what steps to take to undo the gridlock and make dialogue possible about these perpetual issues.

While these steps are extremely useful in cooling down heated situations in your relationship, there are many additional considerations to creating a healthy relationship after baby.  Come join Marriage and Family Therapist, Lynn Brooks to take a deeper look at what makes a loving, connected relationship in We Become Three at Om Baby.  We’ll look at additional strategies and techniques to help you face this major life transition while turning towards each other for closeness and bonding, finding joy in your new family.


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Holly Keich is the owner of Om Baby Pregnancy & Parenting Center in Camp Hill.  She is a Licensed Social Worker, Yoga Instructor, Certified Infant Massage Instructor, Parent, Wife and adamant student in the school of life.

Beginning Again

by Holly Keich, LSW

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My cup was empty. Imagine the large soup bowl type coffee cup that you can wrap both hands around to warm yourself on a chilly day.  Imagine it EMPTY.  That’s how I envisioned it anyway. I’d never stopped to fill it. Constantly trying to fill everyone else’s cup and keep things running smoothly. It’s as if I believed perfection could fill it up.

I’d bring my cup, even quite literally once, to communal events expecting others to fill it. But even if I left with my heart filled to the brim, I’d find it empty again soon. It seemed as if the cup was broken and the love would slowly slip away through the cracks leaving me again…EMPTY.

Over time it became obvious that maybe the cup needed to be fixed. Rather than continuing to reach for outside solutions, maybe this needed to be an inside job. And maybe, just maybe, when I doused the cup with attention, caring, and self-love I’d actually uncover an amazing vessel, not transformed by corrections but beautifully revealed anew. A vessel that could not only be filled with love until overflowing, but was actually itself constructed of love and compassion. For self-love is not merely the patch of a spa visit or the band-aid indulgence of a chocolate treat on a difficult day, it’s knowing yourself from within with a clarity like no other and honoring who you see.

In the past, I’d scoured the outside world for an answer to fill my cup, reading passages from Marianne Williamson, books by Brené Brown, listening to interviews and talks by Pema Chödrön and other guests on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday.* I was seeking a deeper understanding of true happiness from a variety of sources. They all pointed me in a similar direction. To sit in the stillness of the moment with a curious eye and an open heart.

All the signs were there continually pointing me in the same direction, but yet instead, with a cautious heart, I chose to read about meditation, contemplate it, study it, listen to others experiences of it, but not actually sit still, relax, get comfortable and do it. In 2018, I resolve that will change. So the question now is, as a busy mom of two, with a full life on the side, how do I start a regular meditation practice and keep it going?

Well, the first tip I found was to “Just Breathe.”  Lucky for me, I can do that.  Wherever I am, my breath is there as a tool for mindfulness.  Breathe in peace and find space.  Exhale that sensation down throughout the body, checking in with a spirit of curiosity. How am I feeling in this moment physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually? Each breath is another opportunity to see myself more clearly, who I truly am here in this moment, without judgment.

While meditation conjures up thoughts of sitting in lotus on a cushion for hours, it luckily does not always have to mean complete stillness because we all know that’s not always possible. Incorporating mindful movement, where we move through an activity with focused attention in this moment, counts. It might be walking, yoga, folding laundry, showering, or even lying with my child until they drift off to sleep. The point is to stay focused on this moment, then this moment, now this moment. Focus on the twitter of birds in the distance; a drishti (or gazing point) in each pose; the feel of the material as it’s creased and folded from a mountain into neat, tidy piles of clean clothing; the temperature of the water as it rolls down the skin; and the smell of my child’s hair as I feel their chest begin to rise and fall more slowly under the warm glow of the nightlight.  Paying full attention to the task at hand is something we all have the time to incorporate into our busy day.

In line with keeping it simple, I plan to develop a mantra. It might be one for each meditation, but maybe one that’s longer-lasting and more enduring with a broader purpose for each day, week, month or maybe even all of 2018. To help keep the habit, I’ll create reminders of the mantra tucked it into my current book, pasted on my bathroom mirror, folded into a note to keep in my purse, on a screen saver across my computer. It’s time to get creative. I’ll need to repeat the mantra as often as I can, consider it a prescription for my health to be provided in regular doses. Open. Warmth. Peace. Love.

Hakini Mudra

Equipped with these new tools, I thought I’d start my New Year’s resolution promptly onNew Year’s Day. Best to start right away or else I might find myself at the end of the day with excuses at every turn. No need to roll out of bed. I’ll give it a go even before anyone knows I’m awake, best to have an undisturbed practice that way. So I tuned into my breath, placed my hands in hakini mudra, focused on my mantra of “open” and settled in to begin.

First I noticed the sounds in the house, my husband in the shower, the muffled sounds of my children watching TV in the living room. Wait, back to the breath. Open. Breathe. I wonder what there is for breakfast. There are leftovers still from Christmas breakfast. Those should probably get tossed. Guess no one liked them. Wait. Thinking. Watch the thoughts pass by as if on a cloud without attachment as I gently and lovingly I bring myself back to this moment, to this breath. With my arm around my inner self’s shoulders, I imagine leading myself back to my center and my mantra.

Scratching. I didn’t even know I had an itch. How did I get here? Pay attention. Wait, be loving. Open. Curious. Breathe again, here now.  …  Coming back to the conscious moment… I have no recollection of the past several minutes. I must have fallen asleep. Oh great. Well, lesson learned. Maybe there is something to that first tip about finding a meditation space in your house. Then I can leave the bed for it’s intended purpose, sleeping. Thinking mind. Back to the breath with a loving heart.

 

This is the practice of meditation. It was not a failure, I am not a failure for thinking, for wandering, for getting lost for that is part of the practice of meditation. It’s the coming back to the breath, to the mantra, to this moment here, now, again and again, that is the practice of meditation. So, tomorrow, I start with a fresh mind and a curious heart.  As Sharon Salzberg says in “Real Happiness” “It’s completely possible to start over.  Wherever we’ve gone, we can begin again.”  

When we are open to change, teachers will arise from many directions. Along with Sharon Salzberg, here are some I hope to explore more in the new year ahead.

Sounds True: A Year of Mindfulness
Real Happiness Meditation Challenge / Sharon Salzberg
Tara Brach
Self-Compassion / Dr. Kristin Neff

Perhaps you’re interested in joining me or maybe you’re already on the path and have suggestions or words of encouragement to keep it going.  Feel free to leave them in the comments below.

May you have a blessed and peaceful New Year!

*Well, to be honest, this is still a regular practice. 😉

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Holly Keich is the owner of Om Baby Pregnancy & Parenting Center in Camp Hill.  She is a Licensed Social Worker, Yoga Instructor, Certified Infant Massage Instructor, Parent, Wife and adamant student in the school of life.

There’s No Place Like Om

by Holly Keich

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Om: /ōm/ (noun)  the term that I thought everyone understood when I named my business.  I get a wide range of confused calls, letters or bills from people looking for O.M. Baby, Ohm (think learning about electricity in 6th grade science class) Baby, Om (pronounced ah-m) Baby and the list goes on.  So apparently I was wrong.  How could that be?  *insert sarcasm*  Not everyone knows about Om.

For those of you that have taken a yoga class, there’s a chance that you may have more knowledge of the term, but that’s not guaranteed in our westernized yoga fitness culture.  Om as I describe it in my classes (to keep it short and to the point) means One.  It’s the sound of the universe, the sound that was created before time and can still be heard today if you listen closely enough.**  It unites us all and brings the realization that we have all come from the same place.  We are all one.

We often chant Om at the end of classes as a reminder of that connection before we traverse out into the world that seems so disconnected and fragmented.  Traditionally it is chanted 3 times.  If you break down the sound of Om itself, it is made up of 3 distinctly different sounds that when unified will rhyme with the word “home”;  A “aaah”, U “oooh”, M “mmm.”  The trinity of the sound can be represented by a variety of things, but most often in yogic terms it is translated into the alignment of mind, body, & spirit.  But, the chanting of Om is deeper than seeking the oneness within ourselves alone. It’s about connecting with the oneness in all of us, aligning in union with the universe. The trinity represents past, present and future combining all things in a world that is timeless.  The waking, dreaming and dreamless states of consciousness are united. Om represents all of consciousness.

The vibration of Om is felt in the body and is very calming to the nervous system.  This is true for those chanting as well as those listening.  You may even remember the viral video earlier this year of Daniel Eisenman chanting “om” to his newborn with astounding results. This is something I’ve seen repeated in person during the close of our baby yoga classes. I even suggest to parents that it’s a wonderful parenting tool and mantra that can be very soothing for you and baby in times of stress.

The long, low soothing sound rolls off the tongue, starting at the back of the throat and moves forward ending with the tingle of the humming of the “mmm” sound on the lips. The Om is a culmination of all sound in one tone.  After the sound comes the silence.

In fact, the silence was there before the sound, during and after.  Silence is unchanging, even while sound changes tone or vibration. Silence is ever-present and unchanging.  How many times do we crave for silence?  For the sound, the clutter jingling in our heads, around our homes, and in our world to stop, when in fact the silence is already present.  We just need to learn to tap into it, to understand the duplicity and paradox of the two existing together, as one.  All is One.  Om.

 
**Apparently, according to NASA, there is no sound in space. But through an experiment started in 2010 they took plasma wave data from the sun and translated it into sound.  You can find more info at: https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2013/01nov_ismsounds  and note that not all of the sounds in space sound like Om, but apparently some do:  http://www.hoaxorfact.com/science/nasa-recorded-om-sound-from-sun-facts.html.


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In 2007, when Holly became pregnant with her first child she began teaching prenatal yoga classes that impart not only the wisdom of poses for the childbearing year, but also knowledge of the spiritual and emotional process of becoming a parent. She continued to develop her support of mother, child & family connections through the opening of Om Baby Pregnancy & Parenting Center in 2008.

The Misconceptions of Attachment Parenting

by Holly Keich

As the leader of a the Harrisburg Attachment Parenting Group, I’m often approached with requests to join the group followed by a list of reasons the applicant considers themselves to be an attachment parent. Often I’m left wondering how it is that each person has come to identify specific attributes to this particular parenting style. Breastfeeding, babywearing, cloth diapering, co-sleeping, home schooling stay-at-home moms who slather their babies in coconut oil, make all their own baby food, choose to leave their baby boys intact, are vaccine hesitant and buy amber necklaces in bulk…This has become the attachment parenting stereotype.

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Let’s take a step back and look with fresh eyes to see where it all started. Attachment Parenting; a phrase coined by Dr. William Sears in and his wife Martha, a registered nurse, in 1982; was discovered by Dr. Sears when reading Jean Liedloff’s book The Continuum Concept. (1) This ground breaking book published in 1975 took a look at the Ye’kuana people of Venzuela. Through her research, Liedloff proposes that the modern Western ways of giving birth and raising children, with bottle feeding, cribs and baby carriages, does not meet the evolutionary needs of children and therefore they develop a sense of wrongness and shame about themselves and their desires. (2)

Attachment Parenting owes it’s roots to many philosophic predecessors beyond just Liedloff. The first of which is the father of attachment theory, John Bowlby and subsequently his research assistant, Mary Ainsworth who is most notably known for the “Strange Situation” which investigated how attachments might vary between children. With Attachment Theory burgeoning in the world of research after World War II, many responsive parenting styles began to become more mainstream. Most notably Dr. Spock’s best selling book “Baby and Child Care” was published in 1946 where he advised mothers to raise their infants according to common sense and plenty of physical contact. (3) In the 1990’s T. Berry Brazelton also contributed to this discussion with new research about the capacity of newborn infants to express themselves and their emotions and for parents to become sensitized to their babies needs and to follow their own judgment. (4) And there are countless others in between the two as research began to hone in on how babies attach and what that looks like in varying family situations.

The Baby BookIn 1993, the Sears’ published the first edition of “The Baby Book”, the first publication that guided parents in the tenants of “attachment parenting”. (5) This is where the 5 Baby B’s where introduced, which later became the 7 Baby B’s in 2001 with the introduction of “The Attachment Parenting Book”. (6)

  • Birth bonding
  • Breastfeeding
  • Baby wearing
  • Bedding close to baby
  • Belief in the language value of your baby’s cry
  • Beware of baby trainers
  • Balance

As we look at the 7 Baby B’s we begin to see where some of these stereotypes surrounding attachment parenting might have originated.   And even though the Sears’ discuss that attachment parenting is a responsive approach to parenting that it doesn’t have a strict set of rules, many choose to dig in and identify with the above concepts as guideposts to being the perfect parent, myself included in the early days of parenting. Have you found yourself using the guideposts as a checklist rather than a potential strategy that could be weighed in determining what works best for your family?

In 1994, with the blessing of Dr. Sears, Attachment Parenting International was founded by two educators and mothers, Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker in Nashville, Tennessee. (7) Both were teachers who noticed a growing need among their students for, greater family security and caregiver availability. (8) API has expanded on the 7 Baby B’s and Dr. Sears’ work and now promotes the 8 Principles of Attachment Parenting. (9)

  • Prepare for Pregnancy, Birth and Parenting
  • Feed with Love and Respect
  • Respond with Sensitivity
  • Use Nurturing Touch
  • Ensure Safe Sleep, Physically and Emotionally
  • Provide Consistent and Loving Care
  • Practice Positive Discipline
  • Strive for Balance in Your Personal and Family Life

While the intent is the same, the principles expand on the Sears’ premise by including Positive Discipline and allowing a broader definition for each category, further defining and refining the core concepts of attachment. While the Sears’ 7 Baby B’s are geared primarily for children 5 and under, the 8 principles are expansive enough to guide you through the ages and stages of parenting up until the teen years (and beyond).

Although it’s been around for nearly 35 years, with roots dating back to World War II, Attachment Parenting is viewed as a fad. Even though the tenants of parenting that are proposed are as old as time and secure attachment remains as basic and beneficial as it ever was to human development, there are critics of Attachment Parenting. Often, this criticism is muddled, confusing attachment parenting with permissive parenting, helicopter parenting, and natural parenting. But if we go back to the principles, you won’t find these attributes on the list. Positive Discipline utilizes strategies that are empathetic, loving, and respectful while strengthening the connection between parent and child. The strategies are kind yet firm. The ultimate goal of discipline is to help children develop self-control and self-discipline. (10) And even though many of the tenants are instinctual, responsive and therefore may come “naturally”, the use of coconut oil, cloth diapers, and natural remedies as espoused by natural parenting is nowhere on the list.

Despite the broader definitions, Attachment Parenting is still mistakenly viewed by many as an intensive parenting style that requires you give up yourself completely to care for your child. Visions of babywearing until they are in middle school are conjured up in people’s minds and written about in articles. And this stereotype may made even more true by those adhering to what they believe are the attachment parenting principles, forgetting that one of those principles is to Strive for Balance. Taking time for yourself is one of the key elements of being an attached parent. If you run yourself ragged meeting your baby’s needs and everyone else comes before you, you’ll soon find yourself struggling to hold on without realizing that you’re the one leading the circus. You’re the one spinning more and more plates striving for perfection and applause. That is, until they come crashing down to the ground and the tent falls in.

Before you loose yourself, take a step back, take a deep breath and realign yourself with the principles that speak to you and work in your life. Use them as tools rather than steps that help you achieve the broader over-arching goal of raising a compassionate, loving and responsible human being. Look at the principles as objectives in reaching that goal. Realize that babywearing is a tool, one of many that can help you meet the objective of using Nurturing Touch, as are infant massage, bathing, hugs, and snuggles. Move through each principle and reassess. There is no one right way to be an attachment parent, but there are a million ways to attach with your child. As is embedded in the philosophy itself, listen to your intuition and let it guide you. You are the best parent for your baby. You know what is best for you and your family. If you are able to quiet your mind enough to listen, to stop the plates from spinning, you can hear that inner voice guiding you. Sit with that voice. Learn to trust that voice.

Celebrate Attachment Parenting Month with a deep connection to peace, love and trust in your own heart so that inner light can shine out brightly for others.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_parenting
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_parenting
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_parenting
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_parenting
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_parenting
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_parenting
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_parenting
  8. http://www.attachmentparenting.org/WhatIsAP.php
  9. http://www.attachmentparenting.org/principles/principles.php
  10. http://www.attachmentparenting.org/principles/discipline

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Holly Keich is the owner of Om Baby Pregnancy & Parenting Center in Camp Hill.  She is a Licensed Social Worker, Yoga Instructor, Certified Infant Massage Instructor, Parent, Wife and adamant learner in the school of life.

Food Before One Should be Nourishing and Fun

Food before one should be nourishing and fun

by Erin Donley

Have you ever heard the term, “Food before one is just for fun?” I call that baloney. Have you ever thought of the most nutrient dense foods you eat? Some may say baked salmon, fruits, vegetables and coconut oil. Yes! All of those foods are very nutrient dense. They have awesome fats for the nervous system (helps the brain work well!), vitamins and minerals for beautiful skin and energy, and coconut oil is very satisfying and can even help your metabolism.

So, now think about those first foods infants are usually fed…rice cereal, packaged fruits & vegetables, infant cookies & crackers (puffs) and maybe some fresh fruits. Rice Cereal is not that nutrient dense compared to salmon or coconut oil. Children prior to the age of 18 months actually cannot digest grains such as wheat, barley, oats and rice. They don’t have the digestive enzymes and their systems have not matured enough to break them down.  So what is there to feed baby then?

Letting baby lead the process of starting solids is the best way to encourage healthy eating behaviors. Some babies will start as early as 5 months or so or up to 10 months for their first foods.

There are many soft and easy to mash up foods that are perfect for children up to age 2. For instance, the Weston A Price Foundation, a group that advocates nourishing traditional foods based on the work the dentist Weston A Price, suggests baby’s first foods should be egg yolks, liver, bone broth, butter, avocados, fish eggs, and fermented cod liver oil. These foods are easy to swallow and are chocked full of protein, fats, vitamins and minerals. These foods can be introduced at around 6 months old. Just lightly cook a whole egg in a skillet and grate some grass fed frozen liver into the egg yolk. Then just put some on a little baby spoon. You may be quite surprised how much your baby loves this food! Babies also love to eat mashed banana and avocado.

At around 10 months or so, babies can be fed a variety of meats, fish, fruits, fermented dairy (if tolerated) and vegetables. Don’t forget to include healthy fats such as grass fed butter, coconut oil, olive oil, and other grass fed fats when cooking for baby.

My son, now almost 3, had many digestive issues as an infant. After trying every commercial formula, we researched and found the infant formula recipe in the cookbook, Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. We started giving it to him when he was about 5 months old. He loved it. Then at around 6 months we started with the liver and egg yolk. Some of his digestive issues started to return so we stopped the eggs in recommendations of his physician. However, we continued to feed him soft cooked sweet potatoes and other root vegetables blended with bone broth. He would practice feeding himself avocado, banana, soft pears, and even beef stew meat. His skin was beautiful and his sleep was finally settling out better at night. Honestly, I was surprised how easy it was to feed him a whole foods based diet. I saved a ton of time using my crockpot frequently to cook down many types of animal meats.

By feeding your baby nutrient dense foods prior to age 1, you will encourage him to enjoy nutrient dense foods and develop a palate for vegetables and fruits. Plus, the whole family benefits from eating a whole foods based diet together. Remember that the main source of baby’s nutrition should come from breastmilk or formula before 1.


Erin headshotErin Donley M.Ed NTP is a Nutritional Therapist in private practice in Mechanicsburg PA. She has a passion for working with young families transitioning to a whole foods based diet, working with couples trying to achieve pregnancy, and running the RESTART group program for those looking for solid nutrition education and a sugar detox. Find more information on Facebook @ Faithandhopewellnessassociates and at www.faithandhopewellness.com.

 

It’s All Normal: A Story of Extended Breastfeeding in American Culture

20526275_10155428980056257_533579188615686729_n“How long did you breastfeed?” she’d asked as I started engaging in small talk at my husband’s friend’s New Year’s Eve party. She had seen me still breastfeeding my youngest earlier in her living room. I’m stumped by her question. This is the first time I’ve ever been asked point blank about the length of time I breastfed my oldest child.  I searched quickly for a non-answer and couldn’t find one. So rather than engage in awkward silence, I answered tentatively that he’s still nursing. She was astounded. “I mean don’t you want your body back?” She continued saying that she’d weaned at one because she needed to have her body back. It was her story, many women’s story, and another story that let me know I was different. This interaction left me feeling exposed, sure she would share my secret that my son was still breastfeeding at age 6.

“You know what they say? If you breastfeed past two it’s just for you.”  A co-worker who loves to instigate throws this quip at me after learning that I am still breastfeeding my then 2 year old son.  The implication is that I get sexual pleasure from the experience. It’s said in a tone that meant ‘not me of course, but that’s a belief that’s out there.’ It’s an offensive thought, but a small part of me feels the shame of society and looks inside as I defiantly defend myself and my sons need to keep nursing beyond what is socially understood or accepted in our ‘me first’ culture.

Up until age 2 I had an easy, pre-prepared come back; “The AAP recommend breastfeeding until one and the WHO recommends continuing to breastfeed until at least two years old.”  Even that gap between one and two years old felt tenuous when I said it. American pediatricians at least agreed that breastmilk was important enough for a child under one, but beyond that those WHO recommendations were really just for those living in 3rd world countries. For those living where it was less safe to mix formula for their child due to water conditions. Where disease was more prevalent and dangerous and breastmilk beyond one would help their survival rate. It really wasn’t for the modern mom living in western suburbia and headed to work every day.

So I developed a new story; “I planned to nurse to 2 years old, but my child had a different plan.” I used attachment parenting and the adage to follow your child’s lead to guide me through the years after two. But I became acutely more aware of the moments when he wanted to nurse in public, being extra sure to be discreet without actually leaving the room to hide my ‘shameful breastfeeding’ away. I wanted to normalize it, but had my own tenuous feelings of wanting to hide in those years after his 2nd birthday.

My son is 3 and perusing the food table stealing snacks and treats out of my view at a party. Eventually as day turns into night, he comes to me and wants the comfort of nursing or maybe it’s that he fell and bumped his knee, I can’t quite recall.  He wanted the comfort of being held close in his mama’s lap and the familiar rhythm of nursing. I don’t know these people, I think. I don’t feel safe to nurse here, so I steal away to a quiet, dark corner and sit at the bottom of an open stairway to nurse. This is the first time I remember feeling shame while nursing. I am more worried about who could see us than my son’s need to nourish himself, be it emotionally based rather than nutritional.

Before he was born I wasn’t certain how I felt about breastfeeding in public. It’s not something I had seen often and I’m not an exhibitionist who feels free with her body to expose it.  I mean whenever I was in a situation in college where everyone went skinny-dipping, I was the one sitting on the dock, fully clothed wondering what fresh freedom these people had found. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of my body, but that it was private and there was shame in sharing it publicly. How would these thoughts transition to breastfeeding my child? What I found is that my newborn’s needs trumped my concerns about what other people thought or saw. I mean which would they rather have, a crying, hungry baby or a possible nip slip sighting? I felt justified in those early days. And I’m pretty sure the hormones of birth and early parenting had a lot to do with that fierceness that allowed me to take care of my child regardless of setting. After all, this is what nature intended.

The cultural norm in countries where breastfeeding continues to term unhindered by these judgmental labels, what’s considered ‘extended breastfeeding’ in our culture (as if anything beyond 1 is abnormal), is 4-7 years old. Good, good. I’m within the cultural, biologically normal group. There’s nothing wrong with this, nothing wrong. We’re not an enmeshed family dyad where my needs depend on him needing me.

As the days and years pass, I tell myself he won’t nurse forever. He won’t need me forever. It’s as if I’ve resigned myself to his needs as I’ve always done since he was born, without considering me in the equation.  After all, what is motherhood but selfless service to another? I don’t need him to nurse to give my life value. His very existence as my child brings value to my life. He was a ‘wanted’ child that we conceived after two years of trying and many procedures poking and prodding my ovaries to work properly. Is it in my effort to prove to myself and the world that we aren’t enmeshed that I begin to push him away and resent his need of me? Is it what I feel or what society has laid on me?

In breastfeeding groups over the past ten years I’ve seen more women speaking out about how long they’ve breastfed. Proud of their 3.5 years, 4 years, 5.5 years. But you don’t hear much beyond that. Is there still shame in nursing to the upper limits of ‘normal’ even amongst breastfeeders? Portrayals of women who continue this connection beyond even the extended breastfeeders norm are considered freaks. The mother who has the bravery to share her story on TV is shown holding her child with their lanky legs dangling off her lap, certainly too old for breastfeeding. A story of someone who once knew a woman who nursed her son until he was 8, until her family had an intervention to say enough is enough.

My son lay next to me in his bed, our typical bedtime ritual in progress, reading a book, then lights out and nurse to sleep. It’s the only time my son nurses anymore. It’s the last of his security he’s had since he’s arrived on earth. As we turn out the lights and he drifts off to sleep sucking on my breast,  I hear my mother-in-law walking back the hallway to tell me she’s leaving. I quickly unlatch and we lay side by side as she comes in to say goodbye.

It should come as no surprise then when my son asked to nurse on another day in another time and knows that I’m scanning the room to see if I feel safe enough to indulge right then and there. I’ve taught him that it’s not safe to expose yourself, to be vulnerable even in the name of love. You must hide to feel safe.

Screams and cries as my son hits the floor in the lobby of the Farm Show building. It’s only been a few weeks since his little sister arrived in the world. We’re trying our best to keep his world the same and show our love for him by doing things. Nothing says love like the smell of a barnyard and petting a fluffy bunny.  As I carry his sister in the Moby Wrap, I assume he has tripped behind us and fallen to the ground. Nothing worse than the screams of a 4 year old in a massively crowded public setting. I scoot us to the side, out of the way of the moving crowd and know that he’ll want to nurse to calm down. I pass my daughter to my husband and I huddle up my son in my lap and enshroud us in my giant babywearing coat and hide in plain view of everyone entering and exiting the Farm Show. I comfort him. I meet his needs. And I send a clear message that what we are doing isn’t to be seen by others.

I often wonder how those messages were received. I continue to nurse to meet his needs, but if I’m ashamed of it what story does that implant in his brain. How will it display itself when he’s older?  Curiosity sparks me to continue nursing to term to see what is his norm, regardless of my discomfort which is more cultural than personal.

Despite my fears, I realize he still looks at it as a loving normal connection as I ask him if it’s OK if I share a story of our breastfeeding journey. He pauses for a second and looks confused as to why it would be important enough to write a story about it. It’s all normal. It’s the expression of the life giving love and power of motherhood…
regardless of the age of your child.