by Andy Steiner
When Ola, a thirty-two-year-old artist from New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood, describes herself as "stubborn," there's a hint of pride in her voice. If she weren't so stubborn, she says, she would've given up on breastfeeding early on.
Ola's family were not breastfeeders. In fact, until she met her partner, and he explained that his mother breastfed him, she had barely even realized that babies could be fed from their mothers' breasts.
"I know it sounds crazy, but I didn't know anything about breastfeeding at all until I was pregnant," Ola says. "I didn't know people who did it. I honestly didn't know that you could feed your child without using milk or formula because I'd never seen it. It never happened in my family."
During her pregnancy, Ola read everything she could find about childrearing. While the experts had different perspectives on temper tantrums, teething, and the terrible twos, they all agreed on one thing: Breast milk is the best food for infants. The idea that her body could provide all the food her baby needed in the first months of life was a revelation for Ola. The idea of giving the milk from her breasts to her child made her feel powerful, like she possessed a hidden talent that she'd never even realized.
"As I got more and more pregnant and my breasts started filling up with the milk, I thought, 'This is great'" Ola recalls. "Once I realized that this was something I could do, something that I was meant to do even, there was absolutely no turning back."
For a long time, Ola didn't even talk to her parents about her decision to breastfeed. She knew what their reaction would be. "My mom was going to freak out," Ola explains. "I didn't want to deal with that until I had to." So instead, she turned to her partner's mother, asking the older woman for advice and guidance. After Ola's daughter was born -- by emergency Cesarean -- her mother-in-law moved in for a few days to assist with the new baby and with establishing breastfeeding.
"I don't know what I would've done without her," Ola says. "She's a real breastfeeding advocate. She's very supportive, and she helped me get over the early humps."
The humps Ola faced at the start were far from insurmountable. Despite a few classic latch-on problems, the first days of breastfeeding were nearly textbook-perfect. Having an experienced guide on hand helped. "The only problem I ran into at the beginning was latching on," she recalls. "That was the hardest part. I needed to make sure that she got everything in her mouth." (When she says everything, Ola means that her baby needed to learn to latch on not just to the nipple but also to the areola -- the area surrounding the nipple.) "I needed to perfect my hold, too, but once I got past that point, it was smooth sailing. And once I figured out how I could lay down while feeding her," she drawls, laughing, "it was ooo-ver. I was chillin'."
After the baby was born, Ola had no way of hiding the fact that she was breastfeeding. Her mother and father were aghast.
"It was a huge problem for them," Ola says. "They'd say stuff like, 'She's not going to grow. She's not going to be strong. She's not going to be healthy. You need to give her formula. That's how you can monitor what she's getting.' Of course, I was a new mother and very nervous about my daughter's health, so hearing them say stuff like that made me anxious."
Still, at that moment, some sense of inner resolve kicked in for Ola. Even though she was feeling weak and vulnerable from the surgery, she told her parents to back off, insisting that she knew what was best for her child.
"I was pretty determined," Ola admits. "The more my parents resisted it, the more I wanted to do it. I wanted to prove them wrong. She was growing so nicely. She was so healthy and strong. I felt like I was doing the right thing. I guess at that time I was just following my "mother's intuition," letting my true nature take over. I was adamant that nobody was going to tell me what to do with my baby."
Eventually, Ola and her parents worked out an awkward sort of truce, with Ola continuing to breastfeed openly and her mother continuing to push formula in her own less-than-subtle way.
"She bought cases of formula," Ola laughs. "She'd bring them over to my house. It was just horrible, but it was also funny. They never got over it."
Breastfeeding has worked so well that Ola plans to let her now-toddler-aged daughter nurse until she weans herself. Ola describes her mothering style as "intuitive" parenting. "I haven't made any real conscious decisions around rules or education or discipline," she explains. "I kind of flow as I go. So breastfeeding works for us, because it's easy and natural, and that's what I'm all about."
And though she wishes her mother and father would have kept their opinions about nursing to themselves, Ola says she doesn't blame them for their insistence that formula is better for infants than breast milk. In her neighborhood, she says, that's the prevailing belief. "Even at the hospital when my daughter was born, the nurses were handing me the formula, saying stuff like, 'Take this for when you get tired,'" Ola recalls. "I'd say. 'No. I'm going to breastfeed her,' and then they said, 'You are going to get tired.' I was like, 'How can you say I'm going to get tired of feeding my daughter?"'
Despite her mother's relentless efforts to get her to stop, Ola has no regrets about her decision to breastfeed. In fact, she says, it's one of the best things she's done since she became a mother.
"When I thought about using formula, I was concerned about allergies, and what kind would be the best to buy, and how I would mix it all up and keep the bottles clean and sterilized," she says. "In the end, it seemed like a lot more work and worry than just lifting up my shirt."
Andy Steiner, former senior editor at Utne, is a prize-winning writer whose work has appeared in Ms., Glamour, Mademoiselle, Self, and Modern Maturity. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Reprinted from: Spilled Milk: Breastfeeding Adventures and Advice from Less-Than-Perfect Moms by Andy Steiner. Copyright © Andy Steiner. Permission granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098.