Milking it

"Unbuttoned," a new anthology about breast-feeding, gets intimate about humanity's oldest all-you-can-eat buffet.

Published March 3, 2009 8:01PM (EST)

Just when you thought there was nothing new to say about breast-feeding, Salma Hayek nurses an African baby, or an Ohio mother gets busted for doing it while driving or a lactating shoplifter attacks a security guard by squirting milk. We may be among that class of vertebrates called mammals, named for our mammary glands, but there's seemingly no end to our marveling about what mothers do with their boobs.

But amid all the boisterous public debate in this country about where moms should and shouldn't breast-feed, and for how long, what do mothers themselves have to say about it? Dana Sullivan and Maureen Connolly, the editors of the new anthology "Unbuttoned: Women open up about the pleasures, pains and politics of breast-feeding," have collected more than two dozen intimate essays written by nursing mothers, and those who couldn't or simply didn't want to be.

Sure, sleep-deprived new mothers struggling with their newborns to get that latch right will find lots to identify with here, but the collection also offers a startling range of experiences.

"Projectile milking," anyone? One prodigious mama, in a comical act of "dairy-pride," competes with another to see who can shoot milk the farthest. A single mother tries breast-feeding her date, in a piece recently excerpted on Salon. And, while chatting with another mom at the sandbox, an adoptive mother feels so inadequate for not having been able to nurse her daughter that she lies, pretending she had.

Broadsheet corresponded with Dana and Maureen by email about why breast-feeding is such a rich topic, even after all these millennia:

What part of the experience of being a breast-feeding mother did you feel was untold?

Woman are constantly told that breast is best -- and we definitely believe that it is -- but also believe that women go into breast-feeding believing that because it is "natural" it will also come naturally. And for many women it doesn't. We breast-fed six children between us, and within those experiences faced just about every hiccup imaginable -- starting with C-section deliveries, premature or very ill newborns, breast infections, low milk supply, trying to breastfeed while going back to work.

Our hope is that readers, no matter what their experiences, will find essays that really capture what they felt, what they feared, what they hoped, so that they can see they aren't alone.

Breast-feeding rates have gone up dramatically in recent decades in the United States. Yet, most mothers who breastfeed don't do so for the year that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends. Why?

One reason is the lack of meaningful maternity leave in this country. More than half of new moms go back to work while their babies are younger than one year, and while pumping is an option, it's not appealing for so many reasons. Two big reasons for the decline: the lack of support for pumping in the workplace and the expense of the equipment.

What most surprised you about the essays that you received?

The incredible emotional impact that breast-feeding -- for good, for bad, indifferent and in-between -- has had on all of the women -- even for the writer who adopted her child and with the woman who chose not to nurse at all!

Do you think that it's more socially acceptable for women to talk about their struggles with nursing than brag about their successes?

We think more women feel comfortable talking about their successes. Maybe it goes back to that "breast is best" mantra. I [Dana] even had one woman ask me how I could call myself a breastfeeding advocate when I occasionally gave my babies formula. We think that there needs to be less judgment passed on both sides.

Why do you think there's so much public debate these days about nursing, and where it should take place, like on airplanes? Or at public swimming pools?

Because our culture is so confused about sex. There isn't much more we can say about that. It's ridiculous, if you ask us.

What do you make of the phenomenon of public "nurse-ins," where women protest in places where breast-feeding is disallowed?

I [Dana] never felt that flaunting the fact that I was nursing a baby was going to further the argument in the favor of nursing moms. My kids were hungry. I fed them, wherever I happened to be. And I was more amused than outraged on the handful of times that I was asked to "cover up" when I nursed in public. I totally support the women who stand up for something they believe in, but personally, I never felt the need to protest. I have nursed my kids in so many public places -- including restaurants, church and airplanes -- and I always tried to be discreet.

After reading and editing these essays, is there anything that you think could be done to make breast-feeding easier for today's mothers?

Extended, paid maternity leave and on-site childcare so that nursing moms could take breaks to feed their babies. Sadly, we don't see either one of those things happening. One of the challenges that women will likely continue to face is how to balance working with breastfeeding.

The trend for women to return to work -- out of financial necessity or out of desire -- doesn't appear to be changing. It seems to be the pressure of combining those two that makes breast-feeding particularly difficult.

Do you think that for the next generation this will be a less fraught topic? Will breastfeeding just seem like a normal activity, as it must have in the not so distant past?

We think that we are already seeing glimmers of just this. I [Maureen] live in Montclair, N.J. where breastfeeding is a perfectly accepted, normal, routine act that doesn't invite all that much attention. Partners, spouses and other children see a nursing mother at a soccer game and it's almost as if they don't see it at all. We think that an act that goes almost unnoticed is the truest testament to the idea that breast-feeding is, in many places, already viewed as perfectly acceptable and routine.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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