Modern-day wet nursing

A spate of recent news stories suggest more mothers are outsourcing the boob. Groovy, or gross?

Published April 26, 2007 5:01PM (EDT)

Yuck! Yay! Ew. Hurrah! The recent flood of stories about the return of the wet nurse had me alternately wincing and scratching my head. According to a recent Time piece (as well as a Guardian story a few months back), wet nursing and cross-nursing are making a "minor comeback" among young mothers. Apparently outsourcing the boob attracts women who are committed to breast-feeding but can't breast-feed for physical or work-related reasons.

Now, usually, once a trend story hits the major newsweeklies it means the trend over. Or invented. In this case, I think we're seeing one of those little squirts of a trend that the media can't resist whipping into a froth.

In Asia and Europe, wet nursing was common among the elite until the 19th century, but the primary source of modern wet nursing seems to be via Certified Household Staffing, a Beverly Hills, Calif., domestics agency that lists professionally "certified" sucklers alongside housekeepers, butlers and nannies. Is this just a new instance of the super-elite wanting absolutely everything done for them? Not exactly. According to Certified Household Staffing's owner, demand for the modern wet nurse partly springs from adoptive mothers and women with breast implants whose plastic surgeries have damaged their milk ducts.

Cross-nursing seems to be a more homegrown phenomenon, with women nursing each other's babies for practical and personal reasons. Some women end up nursing the babies of friends or family members who have injuries or diseases that preclude nursing. For others, it's a long-term arrangement that forms deeper bonds. I know two single mothers who boob-swapped their daughters after both women happened to discover that the respective dads were philandering drug addicts. Baby-sitting for extended periods, covering for each other when their male partners flaked and breast-feeding each other's babies, the women formed an alternate family that worked for the children as well as the mothers.

However, the official voices of breast-feeding don't condone the practice. La Leche League, for instance, warns women that allowing another woman to breast-feed your baby can expose infants to hepatitis, HIV and other viruses. LLL also stresses that boob swapping can confuse the baby and disrupt maternal bonding.

Emotionally, the practice seem to strike people as either a healthy, sweet exchange between mothers or a serious sign of "where are your boundaries" depravity. Jennifer Baumgardner's recent essay in Babble about becoming a bosom buddy elicited the typical mix of responses: "This may sound strange, but I would feel as if I were cheating on my baby," one commenter remarked. "What a very sweet article, and probably a truly new intimate journey into your friendship," offered another. A third poster was less understanding: "Yuck. You hang out with some hungry freaks." And this last reaction isn't without precedent -- even during an era of widespread breast-milk outsourcing there was still considerable anxiety about doing it properly, as evidenced by this 1612 advice manual about how to pick a wet nurse, down to the color, consistency, smell and taste of her milk.

I can't say I ever had the urge to whip it out for my friend's babies -- in fact, I have a pretty strong aversion to the idea. It feels taboo. But the taboo seems modern, not some moral stricture left over from another era: It's a threat to my understanding of motherhood. Yet I wouldn't dream of judging my friends for doing it. For them, it made sense as women who were juggling enormous pressures and still trying to give their daughters a sense of security and family.

But there's something about the visceral response to the idea of cross-feeding that intrigues me. Wet nursing and cross-nursing both flout the sanctity of the Mother, a faith with followers from home-schooling Christians to neoprogressive attachment hipster parents. Letting someone else breast-feed your kid suggests that you're replaceable -- and for some women, that can be a serious letdown.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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