By Catherine Bailey
When I was pregnant, I had a vivid dream. I gave birth to a baby boy and nursing him was a cinch. Spoiler alert: neither of those things happened.
Let me back up a bit. Almost three years ago, I began advocating for paid family and medical leave through my job at the CT Women’s Education and Legal Fund in a very real way. In fact, right now I co-chair the CT Campaign for Paid Family Leave. But it wasn’t until last fall that this topic became a reality for me when I was expecting my first child.
Working for an employer with less than 50 employees, I technically wasn’t entitled to leave under the law. Luckily for me, I work for a progressive women’s rights organization that maintains a policy very similar to the federal FMLA, so I was able to take three months of time following the birth of my baby girl. I stress the “lucky” part of this paragraph, because most women are not so lucky. In fact, 1 of every 4 women goes back to week two weeks after giving birth.
Yes, that’s right. Two weeks. After having an unplanned cesarean section, I was surprised at the amount of time it took to physically recover. I could barely bend over, much less carry my baby up and down the stairs after two weeks. My body was still going through ridiculous things that my good friend Michelle candidly detailed here.
But the bigger problem for us was breastfeeding. Before and after giving birth, many medical professionals extolled to me the benefits of breastfeeding. My obstetrician-gynecologist, nurses at the hospital, certified lactation specialists, and even a dentist. Yup, a dentist. (More on that later.)
Babies who drink their mother’s milk have boosted immunity, a lower rate of ear infections and other sicknesses. Babies are less likely to develop illnesses later in life, like juvenile diabetes and multiple sclerosis. And it even has benefits for the mother: she is less likely to develop osteoporosis later in life, or have breast, uterine, or ovarian cancer. Plus, as everyone said, it’s much cheaper – no buying formula!
In light of all of these great benefits, what is our society doing to encourage a long-term breastfeeding relationship? I’m betting that forcing women back to work after two weeks isn’t exactly helping.
My daughter was born with a tongue tie and a lip tie, the former of which was diagnosed at the hospital and treated with a minimally-invasive procedure. These conditions meant that she was unable to extend her tongue and mouth fully enough to properly latch for feedings. For me, it meant excruciating pain every time we tried. Nevertheless we plowed forward, determined to make it work.
However, it didn’t just “happen” overnight. Let me count thy ways that we tried to solve this problem – hiring a lactation consultant, purchasing nipple shields, reading tons of articles at 3am about frenectomies and proper latching, learning to operate and use a breast pump, taking our daughter to cranial-sacral therapy appointments when I could barely operate a car, performing mouth exercises on our baby 5-6 times a day, emailing with other parents who had “been there,” driving 80 miles to have a dentist perform a laser procedure on her tongue tie, which re-attached after the hospital procedure, conducting new mouth stretches that made her scream, and more.
All of this took months of effort. If I had had to go back to work after 2 weeks, or even after 8, I would have given up on nursing my baby. It simply wouldn’t have worked. We needed that time at home together to practice, to try a million different nursing positions, to get to know each other. Finally, during my 3rd month home, it clicked.
But this isn’t the case for most mothers out there. I’m a privileged white woman in my mid-thirties with an advanced degree, an incredibly supportive and involved husband with a steady job, and a non-hourly, non-shift position where not only did I receive paid sick days but was able to save them up for this birth. Oh, and an iPhone and Wifi, which allowed me to do tons of research in the middle of the night.
Again, I’m incredibly lucky. At least, lucky in a country with no paid leave policy. But what about the teenage mom? Or the hourly retail worker? Or the underinsured single mother focused on making rent and putting food on the table for 2 other kids? These moms are the norm and don’t have the resources to devote months of time and money to breastfeeding. Why should luck play a role in the health of babies?
There are many reasons why some mothers cannot or prefer not to breastfeed. It certainly shouldn’t be forced upon anyone. But what are all of us – doctors, nurses, legislators, advocates, employers, parents, family – really doing to support a long-term breastfeeding relationship between mother and child? If you are a parent or know a parent, please support paid family and medical leave to support them and their babies.
Catherine Bailey is the co-chair of the CT Campaign for Paid Family Leave and lives in West Hartford, CT.