Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What's so great about "Natural"?

Having gone through fertility treatment in order to bring our daughter Maya into the world, I felt drawn to natural childbirth as a sort of equalizer.  I often hear romanticized rhetoric about children being conceived in love, yet generally these refer very specifically to the ... marital embrace, if you will.  During our childbirth preparation classes, whenever someone would allude to doing "what got the baby in" as a way to help get the baby out (sex), I couldn't help but notice a slight twinge of disappointment.  Even though no one needed to know that we had to jump through various hurdles in order to conceive, I knew, and that always seemed to remind me of what some people say about how our daughter came to us - namely, that it's "unnatural".  But really, what's so great about things that are natural over things that are not?

We are born in our birthday suits - this is natural.  Yet I don't hear anyone, not even avid nudists, complaining that everyone is going against what nature intended by covering up their bodies with cloth and linens instead of going a la natural.  I'm thinking in particular here about religious folk who, over the years, have given me grief about embracing modern medicine and technology in an effort to have a child.  It's not the way God intended, I'd hear.  (Ok, technically, I wouldn't hear this; I'd read it, predominantly online.)  If God had intended for us to have children, He'd have said "poof", and there Maya would be.  But since He didn't (they'd claim), we had no business putting forth any effort outside of the bedroom to become parents, because it wasn't "natural".

Phoey, I say to that.  With that line of thinking, giving birth likewise ought to be natural.  And frankly, when the epidural was first introduced, there were religious folk putting forth exactly this argument - that it was going against God's will to try to eliminate the pain of childbirth.  They quoted Genesis 3:16 as "proof", where God says to Eve: “I will greatly multiply Your pain in childbirth, In pain you will bring forth children."  But I think this only means that we have to work that much harder to get what we want (in this case, a less painful childbirth).  Frankly, the added effort and the millenia that it took for humanity to arrive at anesthesia of any sort is punishment enough, I think.

Very few ultra religious folk give a second glance to a woman's use of pain medication during labor anymore.  Some segments may encourage natural childbirth, but few consider opting out of the natural experience to be a sin.  So if delivering the baby to the outside world can be done with the assistance of modern medicine and technology, why can't the same be true for bringing the baby into the womb in the first place?

It took experiencing natural childbirth for me to look back and question if it really did equalize anything for me.  I cannot say that my husband and I simply did what was natural for a married couple to do, and that our physical expression of love for one another manifested itself in the form of our daughter.  Yet I can say that our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual love for each other did indeed manifest in the form of our daughter.  Is physical love the only kind of natural love?  No!  I won't argue that God's plan of 1+1=3 is anything other than divine.  Indeed, it's a beautiful demonstration of the mystery of the Trinity.  But that doesn't mean there is no room for those of us who have been left out of this equation to nonetheless experience God's love in the form of a child.

But to be honest, it's not the fact that I had my daughter without medication that brought about this observation; it's our struggles with breastfeeding.  

Maya is now 6 weeks old, and while nursing is no longer the gut-wrenching pain that it was in the beginning, the challenges have not resolved themselves.  Due to the damage that started the whole fiasco (described here), my milk supply has been unable to keep up with my daughter's demand.  Every time I have to rush around trying to warm up her bottle, I bemoan having to make her cry when nature didn't intend for it to be so.

If I were feeding  my daughter the "natural" way, there would be no need to warm anything up, no preparation time, no cleaning of bottles.  I wouldn't have to guess how much she was hungry for, or even if it was hunger that prompted her to want to nurse.  I'd just offer her the breast.  That's the way nature intended it.  And this is the message I hear everywhere I turn.  Don't get me wrong, I know that breast milk is the obvious choice for babies too young for solid food.  Yet it's not the obvious choice for every mom.  There are plenty of modern day obstacles that make exclusive breastfeeding nearly impossible.  (For one thing, it requires no separation between mother and baby for 6-12 months.  With most American women in the workforce, this ideal immediately becomes problematic.)

I lamented introducing formula, grieving my inability to be my daughter's only source of nutrition.  After all, that's what is natural.  I lamented it again recently, when trying to reintroduce breastfeeding after weeks of pumping, when it became clear that my supply didn't keep up with her demand. Formula is unnatural, right?  Feeding a baby with a bottle is also unnatural.  Expressing my milk with the use of a breast pump... unnatural.  It may be OK to milk a cow, but a human?!

As the list of "unnatural" decisions I've introduced into my daughter's life started to add up, I finally took a step back and asked  myself - so what?  So what if these things are unnatural?  And I'd argue to the contrary.  Bottles, formula, breast pumps - these are tools that human ingenuity invented to assist us when challenges come up.  It takes more effort, even more money, to not breastfeed a baby exclusively.  But does that make it unnatural?  Does using utensils instead of one's hands make a meal unnatural? It takes more effort to set the table, then wash the dishes, rather than just dig into whatever pot dinner is in with one's bare hands.  Yet no one bemoans how much more natural finger food is!

My conclusion?  Natural choices have their place.  But if one needs to be convinced to do something, doesn't that automatically make said decision unnatural for the individual in question?  Maybe our focus shouldn't be on isolated choices we make, but on the bigger picture. Let's enjoy motherhood in it's entirety, and not only bits and pieces of it that have been pre-approved by any group claiming to have "the" answers. Let's appreciate the forest as a whole, and not get fixated on individual trees; it's only natural.

Countering the Pros of Breastfeeding (a minor vent)

Breastfeeding advocates claim the following advantages of exclusive breastfeeding:

  • Mom will lose weight faster (I was just at a La Leche League meeting where a mom of a 6 month old was complaining about how her diet and exercise efforts are making zero difference in her effort to lose weight.  She has been exclusively breastfeeding her baby since day one, yet whether she pigs out or watches what she eats, she is not losing any weight.
  • It will save money.  I have personally spend $500 already in trying to fix our breastfeeding relationship.  On what, you ask? A baby weight and medical-grade breast pump rental; the purchase of an emergency breast pump to ease engorgement; various supplements to help with yeast and lactation support; medical co-pays for three visits with a breast surgeon to drain breast abscesses; co-pay for nipple cream, a nipple shield and nipple shells to help with sore nipples; a supplemental nursing system (SNS) to supplement baby at the breast; a nursing bra and tank; breastfeeding books; and a nursing pillow and nursing pads (ok, these were a gift so not my own expense).  Had I simply opted for formula right off the bat, I would have several months’ worth of nutrition for my little one.  As it stands, I’m paying for formula to supplement on top of all the other expenses.
  • Baby will have less ear infections.  My sister was exclusively breastfed for over a year, and she endured recurrent ear infections.
  • Mom has a decreased risk of breast cancer.  I recently watched a video discussion of breastfeeding, and one lady on there, who had exclusively breastfed three children, had to then undergo a mastectomy.  
  • It’s more eco-friendly than formula.  In my case, it is not, as I have to pump, and with that comes the use of various plastics and glass.  I’ve also had to purchase a kit to go with my rental pump, which now has no home because it doesn’t fit the pump I got through my insurance.  
  • It’s more convenient.  Yes and no. As I ride in the back seat with my baby while hubby drives, if baby gets hungry, I can simply feed her by bottle without having to pull over and get her out of the seat.  It’s not an ideal scenario for feeding, I know, because I do generally practice paced bottle-feeding to support the little breastfeeding that we do get to do.  But the option is there.  Also, being able to bottle feed in public rather than struggling the way we do at home is a huge plus. 
  • It’s easier.  When you’re in pain, what you’re doing does not appear to be easy.  Believe me.
  • It encourages bonding.  Ah, I think this is the one that really got under my skin, as it implies that without breastfeeding, bonding will suffer.  Tell this to adoptive moms!  I hear this so much that it’s hard to convince myself that all the other attachment practices we do, such as skin-to-skin contact, holding the baby, babywearing, rooming in... that all of these cower in comparison to breastfeeding.  Sucks when breastfeeding is the one thing we can’t do.  Don’t all the others count?!
I am amazed at how ingrained this notion of “breast is best” has become in my psyche, that in spite of having all of this outlined right in front of me, a part of me continues to grieve and hope we can still reclaim exclusive breastfeeding soon.  I get that it’s important, but it’s not more important than my enjoying my baby and simply doing what I can with what I’ve got. This won’t be the only time I’m unable to provide 100% of what my daughter needs.  I can’t let that make me question my abilities as a mother.