The other night I attended an evening of prayer and song for the recovery of Penina bat Shimona and her premature baby, Odeya Chana bat Penina. Please keep them in your prayers.
At the evening I met a woman from my synagogue, who asked me what I do. When I said that I counsel breastfeeding mothers, she said, “Oh,” and changed the subject. I walked home with a different woman that I knew equally well (that is, not so well). She not only remembered what I did, but told me all about the challenges she experienced nursing her numerous children. One had a heart problem and she pumped exclusively for several months, one was hospitalized as a newborn and didn’t nurse for a few days, and she weaned all her children when they began to bite.
I’ve noticed that when I go to a shiva (mourning) house, the mourners want to talk about the moment of death with each person who enters. They describe who was there, what the deceased said, and any other details they can recall. They feel the need to relive that critical moment between life and death. In the same way, women enjoy telling the story of the births of their children long after the child has grown.
When I meet a mother in a context other than breastfeeding support, her reaction to the topic generally speaks volumes about her breastfeeding experience. If she has enjoyed breastfeeding and we are in a relaxed setting, she usually treats me to her nursing stories. In my neighborhood where large families are common that might take a while! In some cases she might just say how long she nursed each one, but I often hear long stories about overcoming early difficulties, and how and why she weaned. I am convinced that women remember much more about the beginning and end of their breastfeeding relationships with their children than they do about the day their children first walked, or their first day of school.
Some women who react like the first one above had a traumatic nursing experience. (Only a small number of Israeli women choose not to nurse at all.) In many cases of attempted breastfeeding, the mother received poor support in the hospital and afterward but may still feel a sense of failure. When a mother weans before she is ready, there are physiological and emotional repercussions. She may want to process those feelings.
I am actually most fascinated by a third group–the ambivalent mothers. These nursed long enough to get past the learning curve, but never seemed to “get into it.” There are dozens of reasons why this can happen, including outside stress, scheduled feeds, lack of support from family members (or even outright criticism), unaddressed pain, unrealistic expectations or lack of knowledge, a very fussy or sick baby, or a baby who seems unhappy at the breast. When such mothers wean they may be surprised at their strong feelings of loss, but sometimes they are simply relieved. Fortunately for most mothers the hormones kick in at some point after they get the hang of things, and they enjoy a satisfying and mutually enjoyable nursing relationship with their babies.