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Does a woman's right to choose apply to breastfeeding?

Does a woman's right to choose apply to breastfeeding?
A mother with a cache of breast milk bottles in the freezer. (Los Angeles Times)

The moment my son was born, he was placed on my chest and covered with a blanket. I saw people bustling at my periphery, but I remember only stillness as I tried to process that the baby squirming on top of me was not a foreign object. Fifty-five minutes passed before my husband, who had taken notes during our breastfeeding class, shot me a worried look and pointed at the clock: The baby should try to latch in its first hour of life, he said.

I had every intention of breastfeeding, and of doing so until the magical, doctor-recommended six-month mark. I had skimmed the important studies, had familiarized myself with the data. Six months of breastfeeding, several medical institutions had personally assured me, would help ward off infections, obesity, cancer, allergies, hyperactivity and even low IQ. It's this mainstream medical consensus that now leads more than 75% of American mothers to breastfeed their babies, up from fewer than 25% in 1971.

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As a millennial mother, I had also picked up on something else: For my generation, breastfeeding has become the ultimate status symbol. I could not possibly count the number of times I was asked while pregnant if I intended to breastfeed my child. Each time, I answered appropriately. Each time, I was met with reinforcing smiles. Though I probably will never be asked if I graduated college with honors, I will be asked how I fed my child for decades to come. Breastfeeding is the Phi Beta Kappa of millennial motherhood. I wanted membership.

Though I probably will never be asked if I graduated college with honors, I will be asked how I fed my child for decades to come.


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But as I would soon learn, deciding to breastfeed is one thing, doing it quite another. The initial process was tiring, uncomfortable and puzzlingly not intuitive. My efforts those first few days required the precision I would imagine is needed to refuel an airplane midair and the technical assistance and sage counsel of lactation consultants, nurses, friends and, of course, Google.

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I was able to get a good latch early, though, and at least in the beginning, I felt superior. Not only was I meeting yet another formidable physical challenge, I was nourishing my child with the best possible ingredients, ensuring that he would pass future algebra tests. For extra credit, I pumped and froze a sizable backlog of liquid gold. As weeks became months, my milk supply stayed strong and the baby and I got into a good rhythm. But I would be lying if I said breastfeeding was ecstasy. I would also be lying if I said it was agony. I thought it was fine.

By the three-month mark, however, I was physically and mentally depleted. I started to hope in secret that my supply would dwindle. After managing through two blocked ducts, I switched to pumping into bottles exclusively. My nipples were sore and my breasts ached, but the pain and fatigue were still worth it because, I thought, the baby was much better for it.

I was also bolstered by the company I was in, for we are a generation of addled pumpers. America's retrograde lack of federal paid leave, combined with the standard recommendation that mothers breastfeed for six months, made this so. Working mothers pump in office broom closets and germy airplane lavatories. To make it all worth it, we trade war stories. The main humblebrag of millennial motherhood is the outlandish place where you've had to pump. I had a friend tell me she shorted out the electricity on an entire floor of a Russian hotel with a hospital-grade pump. Another told of pumping in a cornfield surrounded by stray dogs while on a work trip in Guatemala. Of course, a cottage industry exists to support all this, hawking pumps, nursing bras, pricey classes and oat-filled lactation cookies that promise to enhance one's supply. The go-to spot for lactating moms in Los Angeles is the Pump Station, a boutique with two locations and an REI-grade selection of gear. (Tagline: "Where nurturing happens.")

After around four months, we traveled beyond county lines, and the logistical planning required in order to be mobile was dizzying. There were cooler bags of milk that would expire in five days. There were frozen bags of milk that would expire in 24 hours, but which could be used as ice packs for other milk between refrigerators. There were freshly pumped road bottles that would keep for eight hours at room temperature. And there were new bottles that would reenter the system every five to six hours, when I had a chance to pump. One morning at 6 a.m., as I stared mindlessly into the makeshift science lab I had installed in a friend's refrigerator, I decided: I'm done.

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When I began to vocalize my intention to wean my son, desperate for reassurance, I didn't get any. Instead, I got a refrain: "You have to get to six months." I got it from friends, from family, from strangers. Only a year and a half earlier, I had made the painful choice to have an abortion due to a very rare birth defect, and was met with profound sisterly support. Now, shy of the standard recommendation by less than two months, the spirit of support had vanished. Did a woman's right to choose not apply to breastfeeding?

I soldiered on, but other things started to nag at me. There is an entire generation, Generation X, that was mostly formula-fed. If only one in every four 45-year-olds in this country was breastfed, why aren't there pronounced generational consequences? I unearthed a 2014 study done by researchers at Ohio State University and published in the journal Social Science & Medicine that found the benefits of breastfeeding are indeed overstated. I read Emily Oster's report for fivethirtyeight.com, aptly titled "Everybody Calm Down About Breastfeeding," which explains that much of the data on the benefits is flawed in that women who breastfeed are typically different from those who do not in race, income and education — variables that could affect overall health, in other words. Another recent study out of Ireland raised questions about the IQ correlation. The mounting evidence began to make my 3 a.m. pump sessions, done by the glow of an iPhone flashlight while my husband and baby slept, seem very much for naught.

Somewhere around the five-month mark, I strapped the baby to my body and took him for a hike in Griffith Park. While I negotiated a narrow trail down a steep drop into a canyon, other hikers commented on how cute the baby was, his bootie-clad feet dangling from the carrier. Though I traversed the edge of a vast, wild, sandy canyon, possibly full of sleeping coyotes and rattlesnakes, I was greeted with the smiles and fawning of strangers. Suddenly it hit me: What I was willing to do — and unwilling to do — was downright absurd.

The next afternoon, as I shook up the first bottle of formula and made a weaning plan, I felt free. I imagined uninterrupted sleep, a life untethered by the tubing of a breast pump. The baby sucked down the formula and drifted off into a two-hour nap.

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When he woke up, I laid him on the changing table and gasped. A dark red, blotchy rash covered his belly and mouth. I placed a panicky evening call to our pediatrician, who suggested the baby may be allergic to formula or even lactose. Return to breastfeeding immediately until we can assess further, he said. Doctor's orders.

Lizzie Garrett Mettler is a writer in Los Angeles.

Lizzie Garrett Mettler is a writer in Los Angeles.

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