Nursing Tales

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

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9 Responses to “Nursing Tales”

  1. Judith Says:

    Julie – I’m 9 months pregnant (and officially due tomorrow!). Your story is both inspiring, honest and VERY appreciated.
    Thanks for sharing, Judith

  2. Rachel Says:

    Julie – this is such a great post. I, too, nursed both children (still nursing my second once a day), despite an initial inclination not to. And I love to spend hours in the kitchen preparing food for my family, including homemade baby food using veggies from our organic farm CSA share. Somehow it seems like such a basic expression of love to cook healthy food choices for people you love.

    On top of working both a full-time job and a part-time job (and having an hour-long commute), I find it impossible to cook every night. If I did, I would never have time to PLAY with my children – and that is equally important in my opinion. So I try not to beat myself up when I stick a yogurt tube in my daughter’s lunch (better than a Twinkie, right?) or serve fish sticks (always with some veggies and fruits on the side) – but I do feel pangs of guilt every time.

  3. Leah Aharoni Says:

    Hi Julie,

    First of all, I really enjoyed reading your post. I think, as mothers, we all try to do our best, by somehow feel that our best is just not good enough.

    Fact is, we all have limited resources and our priorities are shaped by these limitations.

    From reading your story, it sounds like you an amazing mother with no reason for guilty feelings. :)

  4. Hannah Lee Says:

    When my daughter was born premature, I had been commuting from Brooklyn to Manhattan and there was a campaign to equate smoking to premature babies. Boy, did that hurt me, who’d never even inhaled. When my second child was born premature– and this time with medical concerns– I upgraded our family’s diet to organic dairy as well as fruits and vegetables, despite the added expense. Who knew what had caused our medical distress, but I was not taking any further chances with anything that was under my control. To this day, I’m more careful with my grocery choices for the home. The rest of the family might choose “junk food” out of the home, but I’ll not be their supplier.

  5. Beth at Upper West Side Mom Says:

    “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.”


    I am a La Leche League leader in Manhattan and I have no idea why everyone thinks we are all lunatics. I don’t wear tie dye (well only occasionally!), have hair down to my waist and berate women for not breastfeeding. In fact none of the La Leche League leaders I know do this or are lunatics . Yes, we are passionate about breastfeeding. Why else would we spend the time and effort to offer free mother to mother phone support and support meetings?

    I actually called a La Leche League hot line a few month’s after I had weaned my son at 3 months because of recurrent mastitis and an abcess that would not drain. I had the most amazing supportive discussion with the leader manning the hot line for that day. She told me that each feeding I had given my son was a gift and that I should feel good about nursing him for as long as I did. I told her that if I had another baby I would make sure I came to a meeting.

    3 1/2 years later I arrived at a La Leche League meeting with my 1 month old baby girl experiencing all of the same problem I had experienced with my son. I got the great advice and support from these women. They were able help me to solve all the problems that I was once again experiencing. The ones that my pediatrician, my OB, the breast surgeon and the lactation consultant could not help me with when I nursed my son. One of the things that made me feel so comfortable at that first meeting was how all the women there were totally non-judgemental about my decision to wean my son at 3 months. In fact they were less judgemental that I was.

    La Leche League has probably done more than any other breastfeeding group to support and educate mothers and medical personal over the last 60 years than any other group out there.

    It sounds like breastfeeding was an amazing life changing event for you. I am thrilled that you decided to nurse your children for as long as you could and I think this sentiment is shared by most if not all La Leche League leaders.

  6. Julie Steinberg Says:

    Thanks everyone for sharing your stories with me.

    Judith – hope the baby arrived safe and sound. Enjoy every second.

    Rachel, Leah, and Hannah – thank you for your posts. They are so positive, and I am glad to hear that I am not alone in my thoughts on this.

    Beth, I wish I had met you back in my nursing days. The folks I met with from LL were not nearly as balanced or compassionate in their efforts with me. I am glad to hear that there is a more even keeled population, and that you are responsible for leading part of it. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments and for giving me some new perspective.

  7. Arlyn Says:

    Great post. Very thought provoking and not so polarized like the breast vs. bottle articles you see in Parenting Magazine and the like. As a mom who has nursed 4 kids and also holds to a high level of nutrition and home cooking, I share your surprise that many nursing moms dont segue into feeding healthy food when they wean. And also the part about nursing and eating “takeout and twinkies”…a dualistic situation indeed. Though its often easier said than done, I think many people are so intimidated by cooking that they dont even try. Yes, I agree it’s a bummer when I cook a healthy meal for my kids and one or more of them snubs it…but its still worth the effort. Here’s to hoping moms can support one another in these endeavors…cause we know we are what we eat!

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