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Breastfeeding? Not in My Family

The November Carnival of Breastfeeding poses a question I have thought about a lot: what is my family history of breastfeeding and how were the decisions concerning breastfeeding made in the generations of mothers before me.

Check out the other posts in the November Carnival of Breastfeeding linked below.

I have no memories of my mother breastfeeding. I have one picture of my mother breastfeeding my younger brother. It is black and white, very grainy, and hand torn around the edges. My grandfather took up photography as a hobby for a while and he never mastered it. In the dark, somewhat haunting photo of a four year old me standing on one foot looking at my infant brother in my mother’s arms, I can see my brother is at the breast. My mother is wearing a bathrobe and so am I. From the series this shows up in, and the infrequence of visits from the grandfather, I think this was taken the morning of my brother’s bris. No surprise that I have no member of the breastfeeding but remember the bris very clearly. I watched the circumcision in horror and did not for a minute believe he wasn’t in a lot of pain because he screamed and screamed.

Based only on this picture, I thought it was possible my mother breastfed her five children, at least for a little while. But I wasn’t sure and it wasn’t information easy to acquire.

You see, my mother left me when I was a year old or younger – no one seems too sure. When I was growing up it was something we weren’t allowed to talk about and is now something no one will talk about. My older siblings were far too concerned (justifiably) about their own survival to keep much track of me though it is my understanding my then-12 year old sister did all the child care after my mother left and when she went to school I stayed with a woman I came to think of as my mother. From what I can piece together I was born bloated from likely alcohol use by my mother. She is an alcoholic. And then sometime within the next year she decided to leave my father and her four children.

By the time my younger brother was born four years after me, my mother had a new husband and had come back for me and one other of my siblings.

So I am fairly sure my mother didn’t breastfeed me and given her alcoholism I am likely better off. But that one photo of my mother breastfeeding my younger half-brother always had me wondering. I have only spoken to my mother twice in the last 34 years but I did ask her that question. She told me that she had started breastfeeding all of us but she never had enough milk. She said she thought breastfeeding was best for babies and that it was great I was breastfeeding my children (who she has never met). I don’t know whether to believe her or not. I am inclined not to.

My grandmothers are dead so I can’t ask them whether they breastfed. Knowing what I do about them, if formula or wet nurses were available options, there is no way either of my grandmothers breastfed. Both of them wanted as little to do with their children as possible.

One of the many reasons I was committed to breastfeeding my children was the lack of attachment in the mother-child relationships in my family for as many generations as I can trace. Mother after mother who handed her kids off to paid help if she could afford it and just ignored her children if she couldn’t. Each woman’s inability to attach to her children led to more people who couldn’t form healthy attachments. This was a cycle I was, and am, determined to break.

Extended breastfeeding of my three sons isn’t the only reason I believe the abuse of my childhood won’t continue on to future generations through my children. Breastfeeding is not the only reason I have relationships with my sons that my own mother could not even conceive of. But breastfeeding was my first experience of deep true love. Breastfeeding gave me my first attachment. Breastfeeding is now a family tradition.