Post Nuclear Book Review #1: Secrets Of Feeding A Healthy Family

This week(ish), we have not one but two book reviews to get to. They are the first ever Post Nuclear Book Reviews, and I want to do them in the same week because they’re on similar topics. I’m excited to be talking about books, but don’t worry, there’ll still be plenty of other content (like the rants you’ve all grown so accustomed to!) on this here blog.

But this week we’re talking about books. We’re talking about books about food. We’re talking about feeding, eating, and cooking, and how we do those things, and where they intersect, and why it matters. I had typed up a whole long introduction, but truthfully, this is going to get too long no matter what I do, so let’s just dive in.

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Post Nuclear Book Review Number One

Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family

by Ellyn Satter

Post Nuclear Rating: 4/5
I loved: the division of responsibility in eating, “health at every size” type attitude, loose definition of “family”
I liked: equal use of gendered pronouns for children, real life stories
I strongly disliked*: really awful recipes, lack of social analysis

CONTENT NOTE FOR THE BOOK AND THE REVIEW: discussion of dieting and disordered eating, classism, cultural appropriation

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By way of a preface to the uh, meat, of my review, I will say that I went into this book wanting to like it. Years and years before I had a kid, a friend sent me some of Ellyn Satter’s work, and I was very taken with it. It might seem weird that a childless twenty-something would get excited about the work of a nutritionist primarily known for her work with children, but it made perfect sense in my life. For one thing, I’m a huge nerd, known for geeking out about things that seem odd to others, and for another, I had been, as a child, one of the pickiest kids you can imagine. I was so picky, there were so many foods that I just loathed to eat, that at the age of ten I actually wondered if there was something broken in me, maybe I just didn’t like food.

I knew that I wanted to have kid/s one day, and I didn’t want to pass on that horrible experience to the next generation. Nor, frankly, did I have any interest in dealing with it from the parental side of the equation. So anyone who had something to say about how to feed the choosiest of children, well, I was listening.

But I didn’t go out and buy one of her books until my kid was eating solid foods. In fact, I didn’t get the book until he had been eating solid foods for a good six months or more, and was finally starting to show some preferences. Suddenly I felt like I needed backup, guidance, I got the book.

Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, or as Satter refers to her own book in the text, just Secrets, is broken into three sections: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eatings, and How to Cook. There’s some repetition between the three sections, and they certainly play off each other and affect one and other. Of course you can’t totally overhaul the way you feed your kids/family without also changing the way that you, yourself, eat to some degree! Right at the beginning, she encourages you to read the book in the order that you are most interested in, so I started with the “feeding” section, then jumped to “eating,” finishing up with “cooking.”

I was a little concerned that all she had to say about child feeding in the book would be repetition of what I already knew about her approach, but I actually found it to be helpful and enjoyable to read about in book form.

This big takeaway here is the division of responsibility in feeding (link goes to author’s website). I’m paraphrasing here, but it’s all about identifying who is responsible for what in the feeding relationship. In general, parents do the what and the when (we set the mealtimes, do the shopping, prepare the meals, and put them in front of kids), and kids get to decide how much to eat and even whether or not to eat. This idea is the backbone of most of Satter’s work, and honestly it’s the basis on which I feed my own child. It’s also sort of, especially when it comes to very young children, deceptively radical. Most American parents, I have found, participate in a certain amount of micromanaging of their children’s eating. Ellyn Satter is telling you not to do that. Just do your part, and then let it go. Stop asking for “three more bites” or telling the kid they can only have dessert if they finish their peas. It is nail-bitingly unfamiliar to sit back and watch your child eat an entire meal composed entirely of salsa (I did that last night). But yes, that it what she is saying you should do.
The idea is that your child has a biological drive to survive, so if you offer enough variety, your kid will get curious, nutrition will work itself out. Remember, she’s not getting these ideas from nowhere, she’s worked as a nutritionist. She says that when you look at a child’s diet over a week (rather than a day, or a meal) all those weirdo meals balance out into.

Oh, and you have to have structured meals and snacks. Apparently kids need it, and she’s super against grazing. So that probably kind of blows for people who are used to handing their kids a snack and letting them go do whatever, but we already only feed our toddler in his high chair, so it’s no big.

Her goal, in all of this, is not to produce a child who will eat their vegetables tonight necessarily, but rather to develop what she calls “eating competency.” Eating competency isn’t just cheerfully eating whatever is put in front of you, it’s being comfortable around unfamiliar foods, being willing to work up to trying them (even if you have to work up to it really slowly) and eating a wide variety of foods overall. There’s a lot of focus on this in terms of feeding children, but it’s also what she’s talking about when she gets into teaching adults how to eat, as well.

What I loved about her writing on child feeding was that, on top of that theory (some of which I already had) she offers a ton of examples and anecdotes. It’s all well and good to just say “offer the food and let them eat what they will” but what happens when your child is older? You may think you’ve set up your kid not to be obsessed with sweets by simply never allowing them to have them, but eventually they’re going to go to the corner store with their little friends, and when that happens they’re going to gorge themselves on oreos because they’re special and forbidden. Ellyn Satter recommends incorporating “forbidden foods” into your meals and snacks occasionally, to neutralize their weird power. I have an issue with sweets (more on that later) that I do not want to pass on to my kid, but without even realizing what I was doing I was trying to keep them completely out of his life. Since then, I’ve learned that I can actually give my child a cookie with dinner. Usually he’ll eat a bite of it right away, then focus on his other food. Most of the time, when the meal is done, half of the cookie is still sitting on the table.

If the section on feeding kids was helpful and informative, the section on eating was a mini existential crisis. I’d never thought of my own eating as disordered before, but now I’m realizing that I’ve adopted some pretty unhealthy patterns. Satter recommends a very similar thing for adults as she does for children, it’s still a balance of discipline (meals) and freedom (eat as much as you want) the difference is adults provide both parts of the equation. And of course, adults have had a lot longer to develop baggage and hangups with our food.

For me, it’s all about sweets. When I was a kid, my mother hated grocery shopping, and would put it off. We always had food, but it was a lot of pantry staples. Then, when she went grocery shopping, she would be hungry, and all the sweets would come home with her. One glorious day there would suddenly be icecream, cookies, snack cakes, you name it, all in the house at once. You’d be overwhelmed trying to figure out what to eat first. And then we would all descend upon it, and then it would be gone. If you complained that you never got any of the swiss cake rolls or whatever, you’d just be told that you should have gotten one while you had the chance. So I learned to eat my favorite foods (sweets) as quickly as possible. As an adult, this pattern has persisted. If I buy icecream, I eat all the icecream the same day. My “solution” has been to just not keep sweet foods in the house, but in reality that just makes my adult household even more like my childhood one. The sweets only come in once in a great while, and then they are instantly gone.

And then I silently hate myself for not having “self control.” Even though I don’t actually think there’s anything morally wrong with eating a lot of icecream, I still emotionally punish myself when I do it.

Satter recommends eating foods you like (you actually absorb more nutrients from foods that are familiar and enjoyable, apparently) and eating until you feel satisfied and just, well, done. She refers to this as “finding your stopping place” and the emphasis is that it has to be intuitive, you cannot impose a stopping place on yourself. I could probably write five blog posts about all of the nuts and bolts of these ideas, and all of the horrible and wonderful “aha!” moments I had reading them, but suffice to say that most of us have been restricting our own eating for so long that we don’t know how to eat without restrictions (even if we aren’t dieters) and then we look for ways to cheat, because you really can’t expect yourself to go hungry for the rest of your life, it turns out.

She comes right up to embracing the idea of health at every size, but doesn’t use the actual language. In fact, now that I mention it, a lot of her language use in the book feels just a tiny bit weird and… out of date? She says that you should eat a variety of foods, and eat as much as you want, and your body will be whatever size it will be, but she seems unaware of the body positivity and health at every size movements. The book was written in 2008, and she mentions “food fads” more than once, but she never once mentions kale. She adamantly sticks to some of her own definitions for things (a picky eater is normal, a finicky eater is a problem) and while her research seems sound and her ideas seem good, she seems very stuck in the role of white midwestern grandmother.

We are about to get into the reasons that I gave this book four out of five stars. Bear in mind, that it is always more interesting to talk about the things you don’t like as opposed to the things you do. I loved this book. It’s not an overstatement to say it has already changed my life for the better. If you have children, I am evangelizing to you right now, I want you to read this book. I will happily lend you my copy.

The final section of the book is called How to Cook, and it is the reason I had to give the book four out of five. No matter how great the rest of the book was, no matter how many lovely things the other two sections offered up, they could not make How to Cook go away.

Unlike in the prior sections, wherein she assumes you have some experience with putting food in front of a child and/or into your own face, How to Cook starts off with the premise that you really having no goddamn clue what you are doing in the kitchen. Maybe that’s handy for some people, but I found the “you CAN boil pasta!” attitude more than a little condescending and off-putting. Plus, there are recipes, and the recipes are bad.

In the introduction, Satter says that a reviewer of the first addition of Secrets said “There are better cookbooks out there, but there isn’t a better book on feeding yourself or your family.” Satter then cheerfully adds that she is “not entering any cookbook competitions.” Which is fine, but I guess I kind of feel like if you know your recipes are not that good maybe try to write slightly better ones?”

Which I guess betrays my bias, but the first recipe is literally for tuna noodle casserole, and the second recipe is for a sort of DIY hamburger helper. The rest are all in a similar vein. There are no vegetarian recipes for main dishes (those that seem like they would be vegetarian all include bacon). It’s fine you if want to eat these foods and learn how to cook them, but the fact that they are all that Satter imagines begins to feel like she’s writing this book specifically for one demographic, and I’m not part of it. Then, digging deeper in, when we get to her second tier of recipes, there’s one for black beans (with bacon, naturally). At the top of the recipe, is this little gem:

…June came back from several years in Brazil with a craving for black beans and rice and a conviction that this to-me-exotic dish was to Brazilian children simply a familiar and well-liked food. Comfort food, you might say. It has since occurred to me that gourmet cooking is, in many cases, our attempt to duplicate some other country’s everyday cuisine.

…”The darker the beans, the greater the flavor,” says June. If June says it, it must be so. However, these beans and the liquid they cook in are really black, so they might be challenging for your eaters at first, especially in the variations I suggest. Black bean tacos are a little strange. To make this recipe more accessible, try it with red beans or pinto beans instead.

Awe, look, she discovered cultural appropriation!

And that, for me, is where the dam broke, and I realized what the problem with Secrets that I was having such a hard time putting my finger on actually was. There is literally no social analysis. She says time and time again that eating and cooking are social things, but she fails to recognize or grapple with the social realities that we all live in. She is well aware that you have to have enough to eat before you can have the energy to try to expand your palette, but she has zero interest in talking about or acknowledging that many adults and children simply don’t have enough to eat. She’s aware that different cultures eat different foods, but she’s not interested in expanding her perspective to make her work more accessible to more people. No, Satter is writing for primarily white, working or middle class people, with enough money to feed themselves decently and consistently, and a culinary background similar to her own. That is consistent throughout the book, but it is never more clear than it is when she gets into the specifics of what to eat. And while she’s able to editorialize about her feelings about school nutrition programs (she doesn’t like them, no surprise there) for some reason she has nothing to say on things like food stamps programs, which could make her feeding methods accessible to many more families.

Also, I’m sorry, but this edition was written in 2008. Chipotle had 500 locations in 2006. But Ellyn Satter still thinks your children might faint if they see a black bean?

After slogging through the recipes, there are some helpful tips as far as shopping and meal planning go, but it took me forever to get to them because I mostly just wanted to throw the book (which again, I LOVED) across the room in frustration. Her section on nutrition is somewhat helpful, and definitely evidence based, though there again she betrays her own biases. Popular ideas and attitudes about foods are all “fads,” which might largely be true, but when her answer is to eat like it’s 1955, it sounds a little bit too “back in the good old days” for me.

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In conclusion, I mostly think this is a great book and everyone should read it immediately, but I also think that if you don’t like bland American casseroles, you should skip the recipe section altogether so you don’t end up screaming into your book, and taking two weeks off reading it while your toddler chews the pages, which is what I did.

I have a lot more to say, but this is already one zillion words, and anyways I have to go make sure I have five thousand side dishes to go with this pasta I’m serving my family for dinner.

 

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Gender Is For Toddlers, Apparently

I bet you thought we were done talking about gender for awhile. Maybe you even hoped we were. Maybe you thought that we had exhausted the topic of how gender affects babies who can’t articulate gender for themselves and we wouldn’t have to talk about it again until the child was three or four and asking questions about it. I sort of thought that.

But I should have known better.

Today, I have two vignettes for you beautiful humans, all about how gender, or rather gender assumptions, play out in our lives now that we’ve entered The Toddler Years.

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Part One
No Shirt No Shoes No Pronouns

For those who might be dropping by the blog for the first time, let me lead with the fact that my kiddo is a little over a year old, is apparently male (I say “apparently” because the way we define biological sex is tenuous at best) and wears a variety of colors, including blue, green, orange, purple, and yes, even pink. I’ve written extensively on the subject of babies and gender here in this blog, and why his mother and I think it is important to give him as many options as possible.

When he started walking, he got a snazzy new pair of sneakers. Since he is actually beginning to show an interest in choosing thing (what to eat first for lunch, what toy to play with, etc) I thought it would be nice if he had a hand in picking out his own shoes. As it happened though, the only ones he was really excited about were a pair of pink glitter covered mary janes, AKA dress shoes. I felt for him, I mean, those are probably what I would pick too! After that he decided he just wanted literally anything that came in a box. In the end, we ended up with a three-tone pair of athletic shoes. They’re pink, blue, and electric green, but of course because they have pink in them they are “girl shoes.” He’s still on the fence about wearing them, and so we’re trying to get him more used to them by putting them on him for short bursts.

So recently, the whole family was at the drugstore, and we had a bit of a wait. He was wearing dark blue baby jeggings and a black and white striped shirt. The shirt happened to be from the girls’ section, and if you looked closely you might notice that it has slightly capped sleeves, which aren’t really a feature of boys’ apparel. But we’ve found that since male is considered the default in our culture, and since so many girls his age are dressed with multiple gender markers (parents add a headband or a flower hair clip, pants are pink and have ruffles) that oftentimes he reads as a boy even when he’s dressed in clothes that would feel too femme for my wife. He also, and this is the important part, wasn’t wearing his shoes.

A store employee, a woman, walked by and smiled at him. “Oh what a beautiful little boy!” she said. My wife thanked her, and that was that.

Soon after, he wanted to walk around, so we wrestled him into the shoes. Then, in the kind of desperation that I’m sure other parents of toddlers know only too well, I ventured to the kids aisle to see if there was a book he could pretend to read. There were only three board books.

Disney Princesses
Pirate Jake
and Doc McStuffins

We don’t really do the TV thing, but I’ve heard decent things about Doc McStuffins, so I grabbed that one. He was thrilled.

The same store employee then walked by us again.

“Oh are you reading, little one? How precious!” and then, turning to address the grown-ups, “she’s not talking yet, is she?”

He kind of is, actually,” I responded, and then gave a short list of words he currently knows. I’ve learned from experience that it’s important, in these circumstances, to use male pronouns repeatedly until they hear you. People get extremely embarrassed about misgendering children, and if you aren’t explicit, they often feel you’ve deliberately misled them.

Only she didn’t seem to notice. In fact, we saw her three more times before we got out of the damn store, and each time, we carefully used he/him pronouns, and she explicitly used she/her. My wife and I kept raising our eyebrows at each other, wondering if and when she might catch on, but also not wanting to make a huge deal out of it. I mean, why should it have to be a huge deal? But it just kept happening. It was like, once she saw the pink shoes (they are also blue and green!) and the cap sleeves, and the pink book in his hand, her brain got the GIRL message, and that message wrote over everything else, including our earlier conversation with her, and also what we were currently saying at that moment.

I don’t think most people take it quite that far, but it did get me thinking about how our brains cling to gender expectations, and how we articulate that. One time, I saw an infant in a stroller, wearing a perfectly gender neutral outfit, and yet without asking I exclaimed “oh she’s so cute!” The baby’s father said “actually he’s a boy, but don’t worry, we get that a lot, it’s because his hair is so long.” Was that what I was responding to? I have no idea, but I think about that day a lot as I raise my own kid. Because the fact is that our culture is so invested in the gender binary, that we, without thinking, studiously examine tiny little kids for gender markers, and then we use those markers to decide how we talk to them. In some cases, maybe the gender markers are louder in our brains than anything else. And while we may feel that we need them to assign “appropriate” pronouns (most people still wouldn’t default to using the singular they with a little kid) I always wonder what else we are assigning to them.

When I headed to the cash register with a lipstick, as well as our other items, our new friend said “oh did she pick that one out for mommy?” And I found myself wondering, much later, if the same question would have been asked had she assumed (or remembered) that our child is male.

Which brings me to our next story.

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Part Two
Size Matters

We were taking the kid for a walk in the stroller, when a woman sitting on a porch said hello, and then followed it up with “what a cutie! Say, how old is that baby? Seven months?”

My wife and I both suppressed chuckles. Seven months? It was my wife who answered her, “Nah, more like fourteen.”

Fourteen? Well, she’s just a tiny little thing, ain’t she! Er, or he?”

We stared at each other.

When our child reads as male (which is most of the time, honestly) people are constantly telling him what a “big boy” he is, and how large he is for his age, and how you can just tell he’s going to be huge. And while I’m sure these comments have always been somewhat gendered, I usually don’t think about them too deeply. The thing is, he has been on the larger side for his age most of his life. When he was around six months old, he stopped being able to receive hand-me-downs from babies we knew who were six months older than him, because he was currently wearing the same size as them anyways and their old clothes wouldn’t fit him.

As we walked away, my wife said “wow, I’ve never heard that one before!”

“I actually have!” I replied. And then I realized, that the last time my child was called tiny by someone who had just asked for his age, I was out with him alone picking up supplies for his birthday present, and yeah, he was wearing “girls'” pants. I looked down at my kid in the stroller, sure enough, the size 2T pants he was wearing were bright pink.

People only call him small when they think he is a girl.

What.

And it actually makes absolutely no sense. Look, if people expect girls to be smaller (and according to the weight charts, baby girls are, on average, just slightly smaller than baby boys) than if they think my kid is a girl, he should look even more surprisingly huge to them, right? And yet, the opposite is true. They assume my kid to be a girl, inquire about age, I tell them, and they reply with “oh she’s so tiny!” Then, when I say “actually he is in the seventy-five percentile for boys weight for his age” or whatever, they dig their heals in. They are convinced my child is small, and nothing I say will sway them, so I just shrug and move on. Now that I think about it though, the really odd thing about these exchanges is that once the person knows my child to be male, they no longer say “tiny” affectionately. No, they suddenly sound worried.

It’s almost as if being small, being diminutive, is considered a characteristic of femininity in our culture. Little girl, big boy, girls are small people! So they attribute that characteristic, and it’s related adjectives, to my child, without really seeing him. Because girls are small. Then, once they realize that their gender assumption is incorrect (well, maybe it is! My kid could be a trans girl! Literally none of us know yet!) they can’t back down on the size thing. So instead they assure themselves, “no, I’m positive that baby is to small to be a year old.” That part makes a certain amount of sense. Who wants to admit their implicit bias? Who wants to admit they thought a person was one size, but now that they know that person has a penis, they can see that they are a totally different size? Nobody.

We don’t want to think we’re sexist. We especially don’t want to think we’re sexist when it comes to children. We are deeply invested in convincing ourselves that we treat boys and girls the same, yet we almost never actually do. My parents came very close to treating me the same they would have treated a son! My mother was practically famous for the level of tomboy she achieved in childhood, and she sure wasn’t going to push her girls to be feminine. And yet, a son would have been pushed harder to play sports. A son would not have been told he would make a beautiful bride one day.

I had to look up the stats on toddler sizes for this post, because writing this, it feels like I’m losing it. It feels a lot like gaslighting, and I find myself questioning my own perception of my child. “Well, maybe he’s not that big.”

I looked it up. He hasn’t been weighed in a bit, but he was exactly the average size of a fourteen month old boy two months ago. A seven month old girl, which is what that woman guessed my child was, weighs at least five pounds less than my kid.

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So here we are. My child is growing and changing. He loves throwing a ball as hard as he can at the hardwood floors, and he loves cuddling his baby doll and giving them their bottle over and over and over again. The older kids on the block love playing sports and other “boy” games and I am bracing myself to end the world of childhood athletics way sooner than I could ever possibly be ready for.

But I also can’t stop noticing this stuff.

I don’t want to turn this into a blog about my kid’s gender. Partly because it’s his gender, and he is the one who gets to decide what he wants to do with it and how he wants to talk about it. But I do want, and on some level I think I need, to share my gender related observations. Because if you just accept it as normal, if you take it as a given, you are going to miss things. And what the hell is that doing to our kids?

 

Ok, next week we’re talking about food.

Hello I Am Here To Write About Breastfeeding Thank You

Yesterday morning, I posted a rant about breastfeeding on Facebook. I was complaining. I like to complain. I’m often annoyed in life, and for some reason (probably how well adjusted I am) I derive a real satisfaction from sharing that annoyance with others. Especially if other people find it humorous or relatable. Look at me, I’m connecting with people!

I can really see how the nursing habits of SOME toddlers might convince people that self weaning is a myth and OMG what if you are nursing this kid until he goes to college?

Just another day, just another exhausted mother lifting up her shirt every ten minutes because when she does the calculous of “if the too tired to nurse feeling more or less strong than the too tired to listen to the baby scream?” she can’t actually finish the math because the baby is too loud and she will actually do anything to make it stop. Just another LOLSOB moment to share with friends because hey at least you can use the internet on your phone while you’re nursing, right? I mean, until the kid kicks it out of your hand and across the room, and then kicks you in the neck, and then starts laughing.

I actually really love breastfeeding. I love it a lot, I love it so much I’m maybe embarrassed to talk about that.

But it turns out I complain about breastfeeding kind of a lot.

It also turns out that this week is World Breastfeeding Week.

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When I was in the hospital, after my child was cut out of my body by a stranger who forgot him immediately, an army of lactation consultants helped us learn how to get him fed. My wife slept on the little sofa in the room and changed almost all of the diapers (we didn’t ask for permission for this arrangement, it simply was) and I slept in the hospital bed and continued to try to put boob and baby together. I didn’t love being in the hospital, but I was grateful for the support, grateful for expert hands that pushed my nipple into my kid’s mouth while I was still confused about getting the angle right and treating him like he was made of glass.

I was exhausted from the long labor and the birth and the drugs, and they were concerned that I was nursing enough, and for long enough. Their faces blur together in my mind now, but I can hear them saying “at least ten minutes on each side” over and over and over again.

At some point, we had what I considered to be a really successful nursing session. I proudly told that next lactation consultant to grab my breast that our last nursing session had lasted way more than ten minutes on each side! “It was more like twenty on the one side, honestly it might have been longer.”

“Oh no.” she was suddenly stern, “that’s too long.”

I felt like it was probably fine, and the next lactation consultant in the army confirmed that it was probably fine. But it turned out to be foreshadowing, in a kind of way. Because my child eats a lot. He eats a lot, he eats often, and he eats for long stretches. And sure, it’s varied throughout his life, but more or less, it’s always been this way.

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Breastfeeding, or chestfeeding, as many nursing transgender and gender nonconforming people prefer, is a choice. It isn’t a choice everyone has the luxury and privilege of making, especially here in the States where crappy parental leave policies and hostile work places often make it a non-option. Paradoxically, in other parts of the world, lack of access to clean water and formula makes it a choice many don’t have the luxury of making as well, just in the other direction. But for me, and for many others, breastfeeding is a choice. It should be a choice. No one should be required to do something with their own body that they don’t consent to, and my friends who have chosen to feed formula instead are every bit as wonderful of parents as those of us who feed our children from our own bodies.

It’s also a choice that’s highly politicized.

Other people have written about this before, have written about this better than I will and better than I ever could.

On the one hand, we have the constant “breast is best” rhetoric and the constant pressure birthing parents face to breastfeeding. On the other hand, we have basically zero institutional or cultural support for breastfeeding parents. When a parent chooses not to breastfeed (often because they have to work and they have the choice ripped from them, or because our culture has shamed them so deeply for the crime of having a body that they feel self conscious and gross feeding their own child) our culture cleverly deflects attention from the real problem (that is, our culture) and tells us instead that we have to support that parent’s choice to formula feed and if we don’t, we’re perpetuating the literal worst thing in the universe: Mommy Wars.

It isn’t individual parents who decide, for whatever reason, that formula is the better option, that I have a problem with.

It’s formula companies pushing the stuff on exhausted new parents. It’s policies that make it almost impossible to not formula feed. It’s an entire culture that, despite the breast is best rhetoric, continues to normalize formula feeding and treat breastfeeding as bizarre and animalistic. It’s the fact that I would breastfeed almost anywhere, except the city bus because I’m afraid that a dude might actually grab my tit if I try it.

I live in a culture that wants me to breastfeed, but really only if I can manage to do it without having breasts or drawing attention to them.

***

So like I said, I like to complain.

The first time I complained about breastfeeding, I was immediately advised to just do it less. I was told that if I just limited my infant’s nursing, he would “figure it out” and nurse more efficiently when he had the chance. The idea of asking a really young baby, who just wanted to eat and snuggle and feel safe, to just “figure it out” seemed weird to me and unnecessarily hostile. When I told my spouse that, she pointed out that the person was likely just responding to the fact that I was complaining. I seemed bothered by the amount of breastfeeding I was doing, and this person was merely offering a helpful suggestion.

So it goes, basically.

My kid, who has always loved to nurse, occasionally goes through a growth spurt or a bout of teething (thank your lucky stars you can’t remember growing molars, friends) and then he nurses even more. And there I am, bending down to give him a hug and instead he rips open my shirt. And so I complain. Of course I complain. If he’s nursing every three hours when he’s distracted, every two hours on average, and then it suddenly jumps to every half hour or really just as often as he can get it…. that’s overwhelming. And when I tell people about it, their eyebrows raise.

And someone is always there to remind me that I have a choice. I could choose to nurse less. I could choose to say no.

Honestly, sometimes I have appreciated these reminders.

But I know what my choices are. If I was looking to nurse less, I would just do that. If I was at the end of my rope and needing to wean, I would just do that. I’m not there. Where I am, though, is really really freaking tired, and needing space to be honest about how hard this is, sometimes.

And I do make choices. I make the choice to continue nursing. I make the choice to continue nursing on demand, without a schedule. And sometimes I make the choice to say “not now” and “not yet.” I made the choice, months ago, to cut down his night feedings considerably, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. And I make the choice, I make the choice every single day, to continue a nursing relationship that is sometimes hard, sometimes complicated. As he gets older, as he becomes more and more of a toddler, I make that choice knowing full well that it is not always going to be considered normal, not always going to be supported.

So I don’t, necessarily, always need to be reminded that I could be making another choice.

***

I complain about breastfeeding, but I actually really like it. I find myself talking about how much I like it less, maybe less than I should. Partly, I think, it’s because I’m embarrassed about it… our culture asks that we breastfeed without drawing attention to our breasts, it asks that we breastfeed for nutritional and health related purposes exclusively and never acknowledge that nursing is complicated and emotional and social. But partly it’s just me. I’ve always found it easier to gripe about what’s wrong than to talk about what’s right. Who wants to talk about how lovely the world is? It’s boring.

***

I adore nursing my child. There’s very little I can say about it that won’t sound cliche and flowery and stupid. There’s very little I can say about it that won’t just be more of the same, more of what you’ve already heard.

But this is the thing.

I adore breastfeeding so much that I am choosing to persevere through a very week of nursing. I adore it so much that despite how trying it is, I still feel incredibly lucky and privileged that this is the problem that I have. I adore it so much that even when he’s begging to nurse for the third time in one hour, sometimes I still laugh, and smile, and say “oh just come here, sweet baby!” and I roll my eyes while I do it but I secretly feel like a superhero. And I am overwhelmed with emotion. I am overwhelmed with tiredness, too, and thirst. But I am overwhelmed with emotion. The feeling that I know, deeply and completely, that he is getting all that he needs. If we are out and I forgot to pack a snack or a drink for him, I know he isn’t screwed. And I know he’s happy.

I know he’s happy because he smiles at me, he hums, he laughs.

***

Breastfeeding is a choice. It is a choice I am making every single day. Some days, it is a choice I am making fifteen or more times a day. It is a choice I am sometimes making joyfully, sometimes despondently, sometimes ambivalently. But it is still a choice that I am making, and in that, I am lucky.

The goal, to my mind, of breastfeeding advocacy is to make this choice available to everyone. They may have perfectly good reasons to choose something else, and that’s fine, but I want them to have that same opportunity to make a decision that I had, and continue to have. In order to do that, we have to stop passing the buck. We have to hold institutions, employers, our government, and our culture, accountable for their massive role in taking away that choice.

When a new mom says she isn’t breastfeeding because her work won’t allow her space to pump, we need to recognize that she isn’t really being given a choice and advocate for her. Rather than trying to pressure new parents into “choosing” the right think (AKA breast is best) we need to be working our asses off to make sure they have the same choices I do.