Moms: Is The Breast The Best For Kids?

Unbuttoned: Women Open Up About the Pleasures, Pains, and Politics of Breastfeeding, contains revealing essays from 25 moms who talk about their personal breastfeeding experiences. Maureen Connolly, co-editor of the book, is joined by regular parenting contributor Jolene Ivey, who breastfed all five of her children, and Patricia Berry, a mom of three who chose not to, to talk about the pros and cons of breastfeeding.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Today we want to talk about breastfeeding. As far as the medical establishment is concerned, for advocates like the La Leche League, for millions of moms around the world through the ages, there is no doubt, breast is best.

Breastfeeding is the best way to ensure the well-being of both mother and child, both physically and emotionally, but just because it's natural doesn't mean it's easy. Contrary to those blissful, warm, fuzzy images of happy moms and happy babies that you see in those parenting books, here's a newsflash, people. It's hard work.

And for many new mothers trying to balance many responsibilities in a fast-paced world, the responsibility can bring on an array of wildly conflicting emotions. Those feelings are explored in a new book, "Unbuttoned," a collection of essays about breastfeeding. and joining us now to talk about it is Maureen Connolly. She's one of the co-editors of "Unbuttoned."

We're also joined by Patricia Barry, author of one of the essays in the book. And as always, our regular TELL ME MORE parenting contributor, Jolene Ivey. She's one of the co-founders of the parenting support group, The Mocha Moms. Welcome, ladies, moms.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.

PATRICIA BARRY: Thank you for having us.

MAUREEN CONNOLLY: Yeah, thank you.

MARTIN: So Jolene, let me start with you. Five boys. Did you breastfeed all of them? And this is not a contest, but for how long?

IVEY: Well, I breastfed all of them. The first one, I felt a lot of pressure from my family and maybe from society to wean him by the time he was a year, and I did. But the others I was like, well, good grief, this is my baby. Who cares what they think? I did nurse them all longer, somewhere between a year and a half to two years each.

MARTIN: What do you mean you felt a lot of pressure? I'm intrigued by, like, why people feel the need to weigh in on how long you breastfeed your child. I'm sorry?

IVEY: People feel the need to weigh in about everything that has to do with your baby. I know, I had a big fight with my brother about the circumcision issue. So why he thought that was his business is a mystery to me.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask him next time I see him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Maureen, how did you get the idea for this book?

CONNOLLY: Well, my first book is called "The Essential C-Section Guide," and it's sort of the reality-testing guide to having a C- section, and my co-editor, co-author and I, sort of thought, okay, what's next for us? And breastfeeding was the most obvious, truly because we felt, like so many other women, that you know, all those how- to books made it seem so attractive and easy, and you know, you can do it too.

And for what we were hearing from lots and lots of women was that just was not the case, and so I thought, you know what? This would just be a great opportunity for women to tell their stories, the real stories, the good, the bad and the ugly.

MARTIN: The real stuff. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2007, 70 percent of American mothers were breastfeeding their babies at least at the beginning stage of life, and I don't know about any of you, but I think my mother breastfed. I mean, they were told back in the day that, you know, formula was better or was more modern or something of that sort. What about you all? Did you all have breastfeeding role models? Pat, what about you?

BARRY: No, my mother didn't breastfeed. I mean, there were plenty of role models, certainly plenty of women friends and family who chose to breastfeed.

MARTIN: Maureen, what about you?

CONNOLLY: I'm the oldest of three girls, and so I was born in the '60s, and certainly there were other moms, women breastfeeding, but my mom didn't. You know, Irish Catholic and just sort of listened to what the doctor said at the time, and they made it seem like formula was just like the thing, you know, just this is the best thing you can do for your baby, and it just sort of blows me away how far we've come, you know? So yeah, no, I was not breastfed.

MARTIN: Jolene, what about you?

IVEY: My mother was a renegade to start with. Here's a white woman. In the '50s she married my dad and lived in D.C. She was a little bit different, and she remembers sitting on the front porch nursing me, and it was dusk. You would have to walk all the way onto our porch to see what she was doing, and a neighbor did just that and came and yelled at her, and she told him to go back to his own house and he wouldn't know what she was doing.

MARTIN: Oh my goodness. So Maureen, what is it about breastfeeding that you think allows other people to feel that they can participate in your decision, number one, but number two, was it hard to get women to tell the real deal?

CONNOLLY: Yeah, I'm sort of stymied by it myself, you know. I tend to think it starts with pregnancy. I mean, you all know how that goes. You know, you're on the elevator looking super-pregnant, and people are reaching out and touching your belly and sort of saying, oh, any day now, and I remember saying, no, gosh, I've got three months to go, you know, but thank you. So - and then you kind of goes from there. You know, then you have your baby. And I guess because everybody has some sort of experience, I mean, on some level with it, meeting like, you know, other women who are commenting. They want to share their own wisdom and advice, and I think most of it is helpful to some degree. But people don't always want to hear what everybody else has to say, and that's kind of what I hear from my other friends as well.

It's just sort of like, oh, my gosh. You know, I formula fed and I was given a hard time. I breast fed and someone - my mom thought it was weird. And so - but as far as getting women to open up, it wasn't a problem at all.

MARTIN: The book addresses a number of issues, I think some that many people will have thought of readily and some that they won't. It talks about latching on to starting. It talks about people who've had difficulties, people who've tried to balance breastfeeding with demanding job situations. Pat, your essay is titled "Because I Don't Want To," which pretty much sums up what it's about. Tell me...

BARRY: Pretty much.

MARTIN: ...about your essay.

BARRY: Oh...

MARTIN: Is it all right stuff to talk about? Is it hard to talk about?

BARRY: It's - you know, I did hope to sort of travel under the radar with this, and it's sort of not working out that way. It has really turned out to be an explanation to my children, my daughters, of why I made the choice that I did and made it three times. And I don't particularly regret it because in my heart of hearts, I knew that breastfeeding was not something I felt comfortable with.

It wasn't something that I wanted to do and I felt that having children and taking care of my children in other ways, that I would find a way to make it up to them, that it was important that I not feel even more stressed with parenting than I needed to or that I felt I needed to.

MARTIN: In the essay, you're pretty upfront about this fact that you don't blame your mother. You don't blame the media. It's not that you didn't know about all the data surrounding breastfeeding. It's exactly, as the title said, you just didn't want to. With the benefit of some hindsight, can you say why you think you didn't want to?

BARRY: I had a physiological or mental reaction to the notion of suckling a child - like there, I'm even saying the word - it's not - it was not a process that I wanted to follow, and I didn't feel as though I needed to explain it to anybody.

MARTIN: Well, your husband didn't agree...

BARRY: No he didn't.

MARTIN: ...with your position, which is something that is actually a fairly painful passage in the essay, where you talk about your husband was not pleased.

BARRY: No. He wasn't. And I think that sort of surprised me. I don't - maybe that's different. I guess it is different today, but I know that there were - there have been times that men were sort of maybe even jealous of the whole notion of breastfeeding. That wasn't - definitely not where my husband stood. And my greatest ally, as I also write about it, was my mother-in-law, who was perfectly happy to talk about how her son was not treating me very well over the whole subject and that, you know, once we had discussed it, we could put it to rest and move on. And she thought that would be fine. So it was sort of a nice connection to have.

MARTIN: If you are just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're talking about breastfeeding. Its our regular conversation with the moms. And our guests are Maureen Connolly - she's co-editor of the book "Unbuttoned," a collection of essays about breastfeeding - Patricia Barry, one of the contributors to the book, and our regular moms guest Jolene Ivey. Maureen, what were some of the other scenarios that your authors wrote about that perhaps surprised you as life experiences?

CONNOLLY: Well, I still find the essay by Daryn Eller - she writes about her adopted daughter and the fact that even someone who's - you know, as someone who's adopted a child, who I guess socially, people don't necessarily know or expect them to be breastfeeding their daughter, or a child that she actually knew that it was possible, that she could take a drug that would get her milk to come in. So anyway, her essay is actually really amusing. I mean, she sort of starts off by saying how she lied on the playground, that one of the women she was sitting next to said, oh, you know, did you wean your daughter? And she said, oh, yes, she's weaned, and sort of lapsed into this whole lie.

And she thought oh, my God. What am I doing? You know, I feel such pressure to sort of play off this thing as, you know, would make me a better mother. And I just kind of found that fascinating every time I read that excerpt. You know, about - gosh, you know, she felt that. I mean, we're all feeling a certain amount of pressure. And a lot of these essays speak to that.

MARTIN: There are a number of essays about women who are working in the paid labor force and trying to balance being in the paid labor force with the responsibility of breastfeeding, which is constant. I mean, anybody who's ever tried to manage this, you know, knows that it depends on the kind of work that, you know, one does. But you have essay by a former colleague of mine, Dawn Porter, who was an attorney in the news division at ABC News.

Part of her job was to help journalists work through legal issues surrounding their work. But it's still kind of a demand business. And she talks about how they tried to - she and some of the other women in her part of the building tried to kind of commandeer some space so that they could try to keep it going with their breast pumps. But just - that leads to this question of whether they are kind of legal and social framework offer space for women to manage those dual responsibilities. So, Maureen, I don't know if that came up in the course of collecting essays for the book.

CONNOLLY: Yeah. It sort of, I mean, goes back to this idea where, you know, we have our own government, you know, who spent millions of dollars on a campaign to get the word out about how wonderful breastfeeding is and how it's, you know, so important for your child's health. I don't know if you women recall seeing that ad where there was like a nine-month pregnant woman riding a mechanical bull. It's sort of tagged with, you know, you wouldn't do this while you were pregnant. Well, then, why wouldn't you not breast feed? And it wasn't very well received by a lot of people. And by suggesting...

MARTIN: If a saw it, I blocked it out. I don't remember it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONNOLLY: Yeah, it was sort of like, you've got to be kidding me. And I - the reason I say that is because, you know, you can preach all you want - and as a journalist myself who's been on staff at Parenting, I mean, I sort of preached about the values of breastfeeding. But at the same time, you know, people aren't following up, meaning the corporate world, and sort of making it doable for women.

MARTIN: And speaking of that as a takeaway, Maureen, did you have a takeaway? Was there something after you collected these essays that changed your thinking about breastfeeding or the way women are living their lives?

CONNOLLY: I'm just sort of thrilled that we've started this dialogue, you know, the sort of reality testing that's so needed. And I think, you know, when women read this book, it's almost like they're getting reassured that yes, oh, my gosh, you know, I did give up after six weeks, and I'm not a loser mom. That doesn't mean I don't, you know, that I'm not fit to be a mother or I love my child any less and for people who've decided not to nurse. And then the people who do, I mean, there are beautiful essays in there. I don't want - you know, the takeaway to be that this book sort of is the anti-breastfeeding book, because it's anything but. I just think it celebrates, you know, all sides of it.

MARTIN: Well, there are no - one point I would make is there are no women with what I would call blue-collar jobs in this collection. There are no women who are, say, metro bus drivers, for example, who are, you know, subway train engineers or who work on ships or who work on an assembly line. I was curious about that experience. And was it just because you didn't know anybody who was a writer, who could express their experience in a way that was interesting?

CONNOLLY: I sort of went to writers I knew, partly. I mean, half of them live and reside in Montclair, New Jersey, and that was because, you know, the book publisher gave us a certain amount and we knew that we had to find, you know, 25 people who could do the job and get it done for very little money. So that was the reality of it. I mean, I think if I were doing a reporting piece on breastfeeding, I certainly would have reached out to just, you know, different backgrounds, different socioeconomic status. So, for sure - and if there's anyway to include, you know, I'd love to hear what...

MARTIN: And Pat, your essay ends on a kind of a wistful note. You write if I do have a regret, it's that my daughters won't have me as positive role model when it's their turn to think about feeding their babies. And if after weighing their options if they choose not to nurse, I don't want to hear one word that might cause them stress. But you also say: Do I think they should breast feed my grandchildren? Yes, I do. I would like them to try, at least. Was it hard to write those words?

BARRY: Yes, it wasn't there in the first version. For me, it was bravery, and I didn't have it then. I had - I thought I was pretty brave to have children. And that was - something that I'm able to do now is to look back and say: Could I've been a little bit braver? Well, maybe. And would I like to be able to offer my kids the support to do things differently? Sure. Am I going to be a role model for them and they might choose not to breast feed because of my choice? That's a risk I took. So, yes, it was a little wistful.

MARTIN: Jolene, final thought. Now you've got five boys. You don't have a daughter to worry about, but you'll probably have daughters-in-law.

IVEY: I hope I have a few daughters-in-law, and I hope they all love me very much.

MARTIN: That have children.

IVEY: Yes, many years down the road. But, you know, with my boys, they look at the way I've done things. You know, I was at home with them for many years. I breast fed all of them. They wore cloth diapers, most of them, and they think this is normal. And so I've heard them say oh, well, when I have kids, my wife is going to do x, and they would say something that I'd done.

And I always tell them, wait a minute. That's not your choice. That's your wife's choice. And I don't let them have that attitude, or I've tried to block it, of their babies must be born at home, or anything. I do say, oh, that the only thing that I'll hold on to is it would be nice if she'd breast feed the kids.

MARTIN: Do you have any final words of wisdom for women who might be listening to our conversation and who are struggling with this who find it harder than they thought it was going to be, who may be afraid or...

IVEY: Oh, it hurts, and it's going to be harder than you think it's going to be, but it's worth it if you can do it even for a little while. However much you can do is good, and however much more you can do is better. But that doesn't mean that you should let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

MARTIN: All right. Maureen, any final thoughts from you about - a word of wisdom, for example, for a woman who's listening to this conversation, who might think it much harder than she had envisioned?

CONNOLLY: Yeah, I guess I could say that...

MARTIN: The blissful people we don't have to worry about. They're fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONNOLLY: Well, you know, maybe if we could just do a little bit better at reserving judgment, you know, meaning among mothers, and sort of look to have more of a kinship. I know there tends to be, you know, we put each other, sometimes the media puts each other in different camps - you know, the breast feeders and the non-breast-feeders, the stay-at-home, the working moms. And so I just think, you know, moving forward, it just - wouldn't be great if we could all just get along, as my co-editor says, in her essay. That's my parting words.

MARTIN: How about you, Pat? Final thought?

BARRY: Only that, never underestimate the validity of your feelings. I just think it's important to know yourself and to know what you're capable of and if there are hurdles, you know, measure them up and decide which ones you want to take.

MARTIN: Patricia Barry's essay "Because I Don't Want To" appears in the new collection of essays about breastfeeding. It's called "Unbuttoned." Co-editor Maureen Connolly was also with us. Pat and Maureen both joined us from WBGO in New York. We were also joined by Jolene Ivey, our regular TELL ME MORE parenting contributor. She joined me from our studios in Washington. You can find more information about "Unbuttoned" at the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org. Ladies, moms, thank you and Happy Mothers Day to all of you.

IVEY: Happy Mothers Day to you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Remember, at TELL ME MORE, the conversation never ends. And now we'd like to hear from you. Are you a mom who's ever struggled with the decision about whether to breast feed or not? Did you find advice from others helpful, or just intrusive? Do you have your own story that you'd like to share? To tell us more, you can call our comment line at 202- 842-3522. That number again: 202-842-3522. Please remember to leave your name and tell us where you're from, or you can visit our Web site at the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org and blog it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Books Featured In This Story

Unbuttoned
Unbuttoned

Women Open Up About the Pleasures, Pains, and Politics of Breastfeeding

by Dana Sullivan and Maureen Connolly

Paperback, 223 pages | purchase

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