The second time my wife developed mastitis, an infection related to breastfeeding, she sat there shivering on the couch, feverish and chilled, swearing repeatedly, “That’s it. I am so done! I’m weaning. Done. No more breastfeeding.”
I greeted the news cautiously, but after my wife spent the majority of the next 15 minutes dropping “f” bombs on the entire notion of breastfeeding, I chimed in.
“Do you mean it?” I asked. “Are you really done?”
“Hell yes,” she said. “I am sooo done.”
“Good,” I told her, “because I’m done, too.”
At the time, I believed she might actually have reached her breaking point. Her first bout with mastitis necessitated a four-day hospital stay; for months, she endured cracked and bleeding nipples and a stabbing pain that radiated across her entire breast. Every so often, if a few days passed without my seeing her grimace, I’d ask if the pain subsided.
“No,” she’d say, “I’m still waiting for the good part.”
Of course, my wife chose to breastfeed because of the notable health benefits. But the “good part” held real, emotional allure: the bonding between mother and, in her case, twin sons; the joyful moments when the babies would look up at her and smile as they fed, milk dribbling down their precious chins. But now, her teeth chattering, the good part seemed a mere phantasm. And many of those studies on the health benefits associated with breastfeeding looked at children, like our boys, who had been breastfed for six months.
“Enough,” my wife said, “is enough.”
She seemed unequivocal. But even as I walked to the drugstore to pick up an antibiotic to fight her latest infection, I figured she’d probably change her mind. And sure enough, a couple of days later she started hedging.
“Have you talked to your lactation consultant about weaning?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“What did she say?” I asked, afraid of her answer.
“She asked me if quitting breastfeeding is a decision I should be making at such a stressful time,” she replied.
My wife is usually expansive, elaborating on her answers in anticipation of any further questions. But now she was tight-lipped, like a hostile witness before a Senate committee.
“Did you say anything to her?” I prodded.
Lisa turned red. Her voice dropped several octaves. “I said I’d call back in a few days,” she admitted.
Now, I’d heard what it was like to attend a breastfeeding support-group meeting with this consultant. She led a discussion among all the moms in the room. And each woman who felt so inclined told her story and shared her problems. Invariably, some of the women there were encountering complications severe enough that they had to supplement their breastfeeding sessions with a bottle. Each time, those women received warm support from the entire group. But often, some woman had “made the transition,” successfully negotiating all the pitfalls of breastfeeding so that she could eliminate bottles entirely. And those women? Well, they received a big round of applause.
I started thinking of those support meetings as cultish. And I imagined this consultant, a woman I’ve never met, sitting in front of a big, colorful mural of a giant boob, the nipple dotted with milk, as cherubim circle around the areola, ready to feed. I mean, doing the best you can deserves support. But a woman resorts to a bottle—well, they’re not really applause worthy, are they?
A few days later, my wife explained that she was going to quit breastfeeding. Not now. And not in a month.
“I’m going to go as long as I can,” she said.
Now, I was of course plainly on the record as being done. And unlike my wife, I’d undergone no subsequent change of heart. So where did this leave me? Well, it left me just another guy with a list of grievances. My wife had become a Breast Nazi to a great enough degree that after I gave her this column to read she swore I got it all wrong. Pretty much. So, know that. But hey, they’re her boobs. And this is my column. So there.
What are my grievances?
Well, I could tell you that because she breastfeeds we don’t ever know how much food our boys are getting, and this can raise questions at naptime and every time we get them weighed. I could tell you breastfed babies wake more often in the night, meaning the whole thing with the breasts is robbing the entire family of sleep. And I could tell you that the threat of another infection is always there, and mastitis can be serious enough to require surgery. But, the truth is, just to be really selfish and personal for a second, I am just ready for her to put those things away: her breasts, I mean. I used to see them on what felt to me, every time, like a special occasion. Back then, the sight of them … served notice. But for the last six months, it is not unlike Mardi Gras at our house. By this I mean, boobs. Everywhere. And far from sex objects, my wife’s first set of twins are now hugely symbolic of our new responsibilities, individual and shared.
But the decision on when to quit breastfeeding remains my wife’s alone, and in spite of all I’ve written here, I wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, the other night around 3 a.m., I watched her, eyes drooping, as the boys fed. They made little grunting noises at first. Then they made little lapping noises. And finally, they just breathed peacefully, in a steady rhythm. Our sons were, as my wife calls it, “dream eating”—sleeping, but continuing to eat automatically.
My wife softly stroked their heads, combing their hair with her fingers, and I noticed that, as has become their custom, the boys themselves were holding each other’s hands.
This, she tells me, is the good part, finally arrived.
A little too late for me. But I suppose, after how hard she fought to get here, my role is to be among those giving my wife a round of applause, even if I still have to get up in the middle of the night to do it.
Steve Volk is Philadelphia magazine’s senior writer. A new dad to twin boys, he blogs about the ups and downs of modern-day fatherhood here on Be Well Philly.