I wanted to breastfeed for many reasons, even though it was a minority choice in 1965 America. First, I’d heard horror stories from one of my aunts whose babies were allergic to all but the most exotic formulas. Second, it was an “old-fashioned” choice, and my love of all things “historical” was in this case a powerful motivator. Moreover, my husband and I—both of us 19-- were receiving grudging charity from relatives. Money was in short supply, and so breastfeeding also seemed a practical notion, a cost-saver and proof of commitment.
Fortunately, a lovely lady Chris had baby-sat for let me borrow her copy of the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, from the La Leche League, or my knowledge, when my son was born, would have been just what I could glean from reading the few pages devoted to it in Dr. Spock’s Baby & Child Care. There was a battlefield aspect to a decision to breast feed back then, which started on the delivery table where, as soon as my baby delivered, a nurse came at me with a needle.
“What’s that for?”
“To dry up your milk, honey.”
“No thank-you. I’m going to breast feed.”
Long pause, hostile glare. “You wait! You’ll be sorry.”
You probably won’t get this out-front negativity from a delivery room nurse today, but there remain plenty of obstacles to nursing. First and foremost, I think, is the easy availability of formula. Formula is much improved over fifty years back, when they were just beginning to pre-package it. The hospital sent me home with twenty-four 4 ounce bottles—just in case. As I’d never even held a baby before I took this one home, I was understandably unsure about my ability to handle the job.
I’d had my baby in a Boston Woman’s clinic and roomed with seven other women who’d also just given birth. We had curtains which could be pulled for privacy. Nurses brought me my baby at the appointed time—every four hours--and I’d stare at him, wondering when the milk would come. Poor guy—he lived on sugar water for a couple of days. Finally, as both baby and I wept, an elderly nurse came in to ask me what was wrong. I was afraid my milk would never come, I said—this with boobs like rocks and a steady leaking of something creamy. The nurse said, “That’s it, honey. The colostrum! Here, do this...” and she helped me get my boy latched on.
When we left the rigid routine of the hospital—five days, back then--things got easier. I could pick my son up whenever he cried, and as feeding was about all I knew to comfort him, he was fed. My husband still had a scale on which he’d weighed his model airplanes, and this was now pressed into service for the baby. We still had a bottle bred fear that he wasn’t getting enough, simply because we couldn’t see milk going in. The scale, my husband reasoned, would solve this. We would weigh him before, and again after, he nursed. It didn’t take long to lose our fear that we might starve him. Sometimes he would gain as little as three ounces, but more usually, he’d gain five or six.
Early on I had a cracked nipple, but I used a salve made of sheep’s lanolin, and, as La Leche League instructed, carried on through the pain. A public health nurse who came for the first couple of weeks was encouraging and helped me through that. Our apartment—this was during the hottest summer in Boston in 90 years—was crisscrossed with laundry line, on which I dried one or the other of my two nursing bras and a host of pocket handkerchiefs which were doing duty as nursing pads. (You could find pads back in 1965, but again, they were expensive.) We were saving Chris’ small salary—he was in charge of a mini-computer at a bank--to help him get back to college, and also paying our apartment and food expenses.
How proud I felt the day I gave my bottles of formula to the gal across the street for her baby! It may seem like a small thing now, but, despite the cloud of cultural doubt which surrounded women who nursed in those days, successful breastfeeding represented a big step toward self-reliance in my new role as a mother.