Monkey See, Monkey Do

Dear Daughter,

Each generation of women alive today has a story to tell about breastfeeding and the backwards way in which things were done when their children were born. My grandmother’s generation tells of injections covertly given to women to dry up their milk, of long strips of torn fabric to bind their breasts, or of doctors swishing a woman’s milk around and declaring it too thin or too thick.

Your own great grandmother was told that her milk was “too rich” for her daughter, and so she switched to feeding her sweetened condensed milk. Her breastfeeding relationship was sabotaged outright. My mother was sickly as a child as a result, and now suffers from a severe dairy allergy. Your grandmother tried to breastfeed her first child, your Aunt, and failed three months in because the culture of breastfeeding had been lost to her when her mother had been sabotaged.

My mother gave me the gift of understanding that failure comes from a lack of information. She gave me the understanding that breastfeeding was the default, the natural way to feed a baby. I grew up surrounded by mammals nursing their young. Gerbils, rabbits, cows, goats, cats, mice, and the opossums that took up residence under the stairs of my parents house.

At the hospital after your oldest brother was born, I encountered the “backwards way” of my own generation as I held your brother for the first time and looked first at him and then at my breast. A nurse who had never breastfed saw my confusion at what the next step was, and tried to help me to get him latched on. “You two are a good team.” she said as I tried again and again to get him to latch. I racked my memory trying to remember how I had seen other women breastfeed and was struck by the sudden and bizarre realization that I had never seen a woman breastfeed in real life. I was trying to imitate what I had seen in videos where seasoned breastfeeding pros latched their babies on easily and with grace.

I couldn’t figure out how to “bring the baby to the breast” and instead I tried hunching over and jamming my nipple into his mouth before he clamped down. As you can imagine, he fussed and pulled away. I struggled through the first few hours and became distressed by my failure and that night I picked up my baby and wandered down to the nursing station to ask to see the lactation consultant that I had heard about so many times during the hospital tour.

First I was chastised for carrying my own child, and I was told that if I held him I needed to be sitting down or laying down. Otherwise he needed to be in the bassinet.

Then I was told that if I was worried I could just give him formula. They had it in the nursery.

I wandered back to my room with my newborn son, no new information, no new hope.  I tried to latch your brother on, and watched what he did. I let him suck on my pinky finger. I squeezed colostrum out onto my finger and put it in his mouth. He ate. Slowly. In a moment of random desperation I managed to get my own nipple into my mouth. I sucked the nipple hard and managed to get him to latch on for fifteen minutes. This gave me hope.

We worked and worked at it, and he eventually learned to nurse without needing formula.

The problem that my generation has is this: Monkey see, monkey do. Monkey no see? Monkey struggle and often monkey fail.

Literally monkey-see monkey-do. Primates kept in zoos without exposure to other nursing mothers.. Cannot figure out how to nurse their infants. These monkeys are social animals that learn how to breastfeed from watching and from seeing. A study in 2009 by Anthony Volk states that primates generally require learning to be able to successfully nurse their offspring.

Because of our socially backwards rules about breastfeeding in public and our society’s self defeating insistence that women breastfeeding in public “cover up” and “be discreet” or “nurse in the bathroom”, monkey doesn’t see, monkey doesn’t do, monkey fails. Because of our society’s insistence on prioritizing the sexualization of the breast, we essentially have the breastfeeding skills of monkeys raised in captivity.

I was the first breastfeeding woman that I had ever seen. This is more common than it is for a first-time mother to have seen many others breastfeed before.

If women breastfed openly and were not discouraged from talking about it, all young girls would grow up seeing the different positions that nursing can be done in, the different ways to get a baby to latch when the baby is distracted. They’d see a proper latch. They would see mothers struggling though the early days and receiving help from other mothers. They would see mothers latch their babies on without flinching in pain. They would see how to nurse a baby while walking, while eating, while cleaning, while playing with older children, while living. They would see mothers latch babies on without needing their nipples to be rock hard, mothers latching babies on during growth spurts, side-switching, the witching hour. They would see mothers with small breasts and large breasts doing all of the things that are necessary to breastfeed without failure.

Instead, women are encouraged to hide away behind closed doors and nurse in a select handful of carefully chosen positions with bizzare names. Positions that often cause problems if mom has overactive letdown or large breasts or a baby who has reflux. Positions that mom needs pillows in order to support. We’re encouraged to pump and bottle feed in public to protect the public eye from the unsightly event of breastfeeding. Ironically that same public is so immune to seeing sexualized breasts that we barely even notice the billboards emblazoned with Victoria’s Secret ads that show far more breast than you would ever see from a breastfeeding mother.

The other letters I have written to you have been about the sweetness and slow pace of breastfeeding. This one is angsty and frustrated. I apologize. It is my hope that you can read this letter to you one day, while nursing your own child, and look back on this as one of the backwards ways in which people used to do things. It is my hope that you can read this story with the same sense of relief that I feel when I heard the stories of my own mother and grandmother. And that you can look at the backwards ways of your own generation, identify them, and act to end them so that your own daughters or daughters in law can be even closer to being able to just nurse their babies the way nature designed us to do.

It is my hope that we continue to move forwards toward this goal rather than falling further behind.

This hope is why I started helping other women as I was helped in those early days. This hope is why I write these letters. And this hope is why I share them now with other mothers rather than just saving them away for you to read someday in the future.  They will be saved, they will be shared with you, but they will also be shared with the generation that precedes you in the hopes that you (and any others that I have helped between your brother’s birth and now) will not have to re-invent breastfeeding on your own the way so many women have had to do.

Monkey see, monkey do.

<3 Mama


7 thoughts on “Monkey See, Monkey Do

  1. The womanly art of breastfeeding tells the story of the momma gorilla whose first baby died because the mom did not know how to nurse, but with her second a LLL mom came down and nursed and showed mom gorilla step by step how to latch baby on and it worked….I believe like you do that we are alot like that momma gorilla, but before our baby dies we would turn to formula.

  2. Great article. I love taking the opportunity to nurse in public because I feel like I’m fulfilling my duty to expose society to this normal act of feeding my baby. (But I’m so discreet and natural about it that most of the time no one even realizes I’m doing it.) Before I had my own children, I had only ever seen my sister nurse. I’m afraid you’re right that that is often the case for first-time mothers.

  3. This is beautiful. So very true too. I hope that my daughter’s generation and her daughter’s generation will embrace breastfeeding without social hang ups.

  4. I am so happy that my daughter has seen me nurse her brother and will see me nurse next baby (probably for years since he/she will be my last!)
    She is also part of a circle of friends who’s mom’s also nurse for long periods and where it’s the norm.
    She’s only 3.5 but she’s already nursing her dolls when they are sad and will nurse her new baby sibling if he/she is sad. We’ll see about that kiddo.

  5. Pingback: Breasts and Buts

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