A Fair Trade Book
Title: The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (this review refers to the 35th Anniversary Edition, not the one shown/linked above)
Author: La Leche League
Length: 446 pages
Illustrations: many black-and-white photos
Quote: “The sensitivity that helps you do the right thing at the right time...develops more quickly, and to a greater degree, if you are nursing your baby.”
Or someone else's. Yes, this book is for aunts as well as mothers.
Natural childbirth, and its follow-through of breastfeeding, are so universally idealized today that young people don’t realize what radical cultural changes took place during the past century. For the first half of the twentieth century, a mechanized, dehumanized birth process seemed to be many people’s ideal; new mothers were immobilized, heavily sedated if not fully anesthetized; babies were extracted as quickly as possible; hormone injections were used to “spare” women the messy process of lactation, and babies were sent home with a load of cow’s or goat’s milk. In the mid-fifties, as the actual “baby boom” began to subside, women realized that this virtually artificial birth process was producing “dopey,” brain-damaged, large but malnourished babies, and liberated women began fighting for the right to give birth and feed their babies naturally.
My mother literally, physically had to fight hospital procedures. Picture a small, pale, sickly woman straight-arming bigger, stronger nurses even while panting and counting her way through the labor process. As a result, at a time when pop culture encouraged other kids to focus on sexual acts and relationships, I was given lots of information about natural childbirth and breastfeeding. At the same time, observation of Mother had convinced me that, if I married someone who wanted children, I’d just have to adopt some...I've always been glad I was sterile anyway. (There is probably some valid excuse for perpetuating the celiac gene, but I don't know what it might be.)
Nevertheless, my natural sister married young. Her husband had also inherited various health problems. Instead of "Cheers--you're about to be an aunt!" I heard "Your sister and that idiot she married are determined to have a baby, so prepare to adopt the poor little thing...it probably won't be healthy either." So I bought my own then-new copy of this book. I didn’t really need it; all of The Nephews were healthy breast-fed babies. (At last report their parents were still working, too, thanks just the same. There are ways in which real progress has been made during our lifetimes.)
A few years later a friend who’d married outside her ethnic group gave birth to a child who inherited two separate sets of food allergies. I restricted my diet to match hers and successfully induced lactation. I can testify that this book helped; there are things you don't learn just from words, and it was a lot less icky to be able to learn them from pictures than to ask for a live demonstration.
As discussed in the book, when new mothers’ milk seems to be failing, anxiety may be the cause. So it's possible that knowing that other restricted-diet human milk was available if necessary may have been what it took to enable my friend to produce all the milk her baby needed.
Anyway, women who have never given birth, or who’ve gone through menopause or even had hysterectomies, can still breastfeed babies. Nothing to it...except that I still had Mother's nasty celiac genes. During just ten weeks of induced lactation my metabolism changed; I went from top-heavy to just plain heavy, gaining two jeans sizes. The pounds came off as fast as they’d come on, but left stretch marks behind. This is one of the possible complications that are not discussed in The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. Both pregnancy and lactation have all kinds of effects on women’s metabolism. Most women recover, and in fact breastfeeding is a safe natural way for most new mothers to lose the surplus weight gained during pregnancy...but thyroid failure is possible.
This book is the kind of encouraging read that ought to be true. By and large it is true. Millions of women have found it true and empowering. There are just a few places where the La Leche Leaders blithely overlook some of the situations that occur in families less fortunate than theirs. In an ideal world, all mothers are financially comfortable, can afford to pay up front for the medical help they need instead of having to depend on what some insurance agency has decided they need, need very little medical help, are still in love with their babies’ fathers, and live in suburbs with all the mod. con...and most babies also have doting grandparents. Not all of us live that way. If you don’t, or you know a young woman who doesn’t...I think studying this book might give young single women a good incentive to wait until they have achieved the kind of economic comfort the typical La Leche Leaguer enjoys. Being a full-time mother can be such a sweet experience for those who wait for it. Then again, realistically, some women don't reach the place where they can afford to nurse a baby until they’re too old to have given birth to that baby.
What about those who’ve already had babies? “Learning to consider the needs of someone who is helpless before one’s own needs is a valuable lesson for the older children,” the authors chirp. “School-age youngsters...generally...enjoy babies.” Hah. What about women who don’t have husbands, or whose husbands can’t work or can’t find work? What about wheelchair dwellers? What about people who live in Brooklyn? The La Leche Leaders seem to feel that breastfeeding can be made to work for them, too, but they don’t write with the confidence of women who have actually done it.
Still, there are substantial reasons why most women should at least try breastfeeding, at least for the first six months of an infant’s life. Successful breastfeeding seems to prevent postpartum depression and reduce the chance that a woman will develop breast cancer. Babies who are breast-fed have more efficient immune systems, fewer allergies, and better resistance to infections--breastfeeding even seems to compensate for the adverse effects of problem genes. It’s hard to measure the incidence or severity of depression or hostility, but it seems that people who were breast-fed as babies have less depression and hostility than those who were bottle-fed and parked in day care centers. And check out page 384: “[A] mere twenty percent rise in bottle feeding, in just two years...would cost [the economy of Mozambique in the 1980s]...10 million US dollars, and this did not include fuel, distribution, or health costs...Inventors of fuel-saving cars are rewarded, why not energy-saving women?”
Oh, why not reward all caring family members for all the good work all of us do? It's such a nice idea...it's just economically impossible. Anyway, most people agree that the rewards of caring for family members are "better" than hourly wages, apart of course from little things like paying the rent...
Breastfeeding may not be as easy and delightful for everyone as it obviously was for the writers of this book, but it’s still a Green, healthy, and empowering choice for those who can make it. I consider the stretch marks and the brain-dead lethargy I felt during those ten weeks of reduced thyroid function. Then I consider that scrawny, screeching infant who couldn’t keep formula down, whom I never actually fed, who calmed down when his mother did and grew strong on her milk. I’d do it again...and the kid’s not even related to me.
La Leche League is a growing, flourishing organization. Many different editions of The Womanly Art have been printed; the book has grown, over the years, like a child. Newer editions sometimes answer some of the questions raised by older ones, so it's possible that more information is now being provided to answer some of the questions raised here. I chose to use a photo link to the latest edition for those who'd rather buy the book directly from Amazon. What I used (and have sold) is by now an older edition. If you want to support this web site by buying it as a Fair Trade Book, and don't specify which edition you want, I will send you the latest one. All the recent editions are easy to find, so the price is $5 per copy + $5 per package, for a total of $10, of which $1 goes to La Leche League (naturally). If you insist on a much older edition, collector prices may apply.