When my children got their first teeth, I was literally torn. I shuddered at the thought of nursing with their pearly whites, but was reluctant to stop dispensing the benefits of breast milk. Like Little Miss Muffet’s spider, my fears frightened me away and I yielded to weaning – in hindsight perhaps a little sooner than I wished.
My children are now 4 and 18 months and my breastfeeding days are behind me, but I still long for the days when I held my children while nursing them and the satisfaction of being able to provide for them completely. For me, it felt like the most intimate form of local farming.
These sentiments have also affected me in the kitchen today.
I think that part of my feelings towards providing for my children is drawn from the many strong women in my family. None of them breastfed; but nearly all of them cooked – seriously cooked – despite the rigors of an otherwise busy life.
My own mother certainly set an example. She worked full time as a teacher (and part time running the family business), attended graduate school at night, raised me and my brother, managed the household chores, and cooked every night … from scratch. And when I say cooked, I do not mean a can of soup.
“Beef Stroganoff please…” would leave our lips one night – and we would find it magically appear hot over noodles the next evening. When I think of all her wonderful meals today, and how I struggle to meet the standards she quietly set, I know that I can never repay her in full.
I did not intend to breastfeed, but rather to once again follow my mother’s example. The browbeating that I received from doctors, nurses, and even fellow moms also fed my conviction not to nurse. “Do you want to feed your new born child a home cooked meal or McDonalds?”, intoned the oh so open-minded lactation consultant teaching my parenting class. Stepford mommies would approach me at the park, congratulate me on my pregnancy, and then anxiously seek validation, saying “you are planning to breastfeed, right? Right?” And the La Leche la lunatics held events down at the waterfront, chanting “breast is best” to confused bystanders like myself. I initially thought they were Krishnas, but there was no enlightenment there, just an angry political machine. It really turned me off and I was determined not to be a member of this club.
These feelings continued until my last day in the hospital. At the time, one of the nurses mentioned that breastfeeding had been shown to reduce children’s likelihood of contracting Crohn’s disease. This little factoid hit home – Crohn’s is in my family. Though there were a million other good reasons, like fending off other disease, increasing Harvard admission prospects, being closer to my children, and saving the environment, the prospect of preventing Crohn’s for my kids (any prospect at all) made me listen.
Once initiated, I was diligent. Looking back I estimate that everyday I spent 3 hours nursing or pumping. I did this for a total of 14 months – that’s 1,260 hours of my life. And despite my best efforts still had to supplement with the vilified substitute of formula.
An irony (that was not lost to me at the time) was that while I was laboring to produce the elixir of life, I was eating takeout and Twinkies – a practice that horrified the side of me that had been intent on following my mother’s example. I remember hoping that the prenatal vitamins would somehow compensate. But honestly, who has time to cook and breastfeed? My dear husband and I were both working full time, and he was doing more than his fair share of the housework and childcare. Something had to give.
When my children were finally weaned, I felt overwhelmed by so many conflicting emotions. Of course I was touched by the rite of passage, but felt a hollowness that echoed in the empty hours previously devoted to nursing. It was the first of many transitions I had to make as a mother, letting go and watching them move on. First steps would follow, and then talking and pre-school..what happened to my babies?
This became even more powerful for me in 2008. In late fall, I stopped breastfeeding my son. A month later I was laid off from my job, and three weeks after that he was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. In between all of the feelings that followed was a running stream of guilt for stopping short on the nursing. Could I have helped him more had I continued? Would the plasticity of his mind have been further encouraged if he had the continuing benefits of breast milk? The extra hours became time for me to despair and berate myself for being a bad mother.
To compensate, I returned to my kitchen and eagerly cooked uber homemade meals for my family, including gourmet baby food, hand cranked pasta, and homespun challah bread every Friday night. I took steps to keep a more kosher-like home, and became more diligent about what and how I cooked. I loved the business of my kitchen and pursued it with all the energy I had put into breastfeeding. My reward was the joy of watching them gobble what I made, murmuring sweet mmmmmm’s of approval. For me, it was and is a way to keep nurturing my children while nourishing my soul.
I cook often, but know it is impossible to maintain a pure menu. Despite this I beat myself up every time I serve hot dogs. As if it were completely feasible to prepare something from the garden nightly. I am compelled to constantly chop and cook, shop locally and require fresh fruit and vegetables with each meal and snack. My husband drew the line when I expressed interest in a make your own yogurt machine, but that’s OK because I am pretty sure I can fake it with some whole milk and a Dixie cup.
My friends think I am nuts, and give in to the take out impulse more frequently and easily. Most of them love reading about and watching cooking, but few (if any) of them seem to neither know how nor have time to actually do it. Judging from the media, they are far more representative of America than me. Michael Pollan seems to think cooking has become a spectator sport. Julie Powell recently asked her fans to blog their favorite MtAoFC recipe; many commented that they loved her work but never attempted to cook anything Julia Child, or otherwise.
I often wonder about the duality of this situation; how can we pump for hours on end and then later pack them Lunchables or Gogurt? Why doesn’t the initial time and effort of nursing later simply transfer to food shopping and cooking? And why do these two activities seem to trend in such polar opposite manner, whereby my mother’s generation rarely breastfed but cooked and my own does not prepare food but nurses till the cows come home?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no angel. We order pizza. My daughter loves Cheese-Its. And I like Doritos as much as the next gal. But I honestly feel that the combination of my family history and nursing have caused me to more rigorously pursue healthy, homemade food. I feel a little out of synch with other women who have similar backgrounds but live different lives in the kitchen.
Of course we are all members of the sisterhood of common love for our children, lack of time and resources, and periodic bouts of laziness. I am fortunate to have more in common with my peers than less. And many of them are far better mothers than I. Hopefully future trends will align cooking and nursing, and all will be right with the world. Until then you will find me furtively making yogurt in the dead of night, alone with my curds and whey.
Did you nurse, pump, or bottle feed? How has it affected your later cooking experiences? Comment below and tell me about it, or visit my blog at http://cheznoonie.blogspot.com.