How ‘Bout Them Apples?

appleI have lots of treasured memories about my paternal grandmother, but one that sticks with me the most is of her frequently saying, “how ’bout them apples?” I remember it having different meanings, dependent on whether the phrase was prefaced by “well” or “so.”

“Well, how ’bout them apples” was an expression of surprise — like, “Well, how ’bout them apples? Krista cleaned her room!” Alternately, “So, how ’bout them apples” was tacked on when she said something challenging, or something she knew my brother or I wouldn’t want to hear — like, “No you can’t have more crumb cake. So how ’bout them apples?”

She said it often enough that my little brother picked it up at a very young age and added it to his arsenal of phrases that he would pull out at the most inopportune moments. One time when we were at the mall, he saw an undressed mannequin, pointed to her breasts, and shouted, “How ’bout dem apples, grandma!” He was triumphant; I was humiliated.

“Dem apples” have been in the media a lot recently. They always are in the media, everywhere, relevant or not. But this week, they have been in the media for their actual purpose — feeding our children. Today is the last day of World Breastfeeding Week.

I wholly support the idea of advocating for better policies (for breastfeeding and just about everything else related to motherhood in America) and greater public acceptance of an act that is as natural as it is necessary.

But in addition to encouraging our (ironically) breastfeeding-phobic society to be a little more open-minded about mothers using their bodies to feed their babies, I would also like to see, in our community of mothers, a greater appreciation for the fact that, as mothers, it is our prerogative to decide how best to nourish our children. And, more importantly, to accept that other mothers, who might choose differently from ourselves, are doing the best they can for their babies — and for themselves.

Breastfeeding is hard. It’s hard when it doesn’t work the way you wanted it to, and it’s hard when it does work. I say this with the authority of someone who has experienced the extreme ends of the breastfeeding spectrum.

My older daughter absolutely refused to nurse. After a somewhat tumultuous pregnancy, she was induced at 37 weeks when it became clear that she was “failing to thrive” in utero. She weighed 5 lbs, 1.2 oz at birth and quickly dropped to 4 lbs 12 oz. Although she was healthy, getting calories into her little body was our primary concern. But she wanted nothing to do with me as a food source.

In the hospital, I tried everything. We used a syringe to squirt formula into her mouth while trying to get her to nurse in an attempt to pique her interest. Nothing. The lactation consultant hooked me up to a device that fed formula through a tiny tube taped to my chest, thinking that maybe if my daughter didn’t have to work so hard while nursing, she would take to it. She didn’t. They brought out other nursing aids and devices, all with the same result: complete refusal.

For six weeks, I tried to get my daughter to nurse. My husband and I came up with a tedious schedule, during which I would try to nurse her, with little success, then feed her pumped breast milk, then pump for the next bottle, again, and again, and again. It quickly became too much, both for me and for her.

I spent the next three months trying to convince my daughter to take my milk from a bottle. It was easier, but she was never an enthusiastic eater. She was, however, a devious eater. By the time she was four months old, she had developed the habit of drinking heartily from the bottle while letting a stream of milk pour out of one side of her mouth. That was the feather on this camel’s back — I had worked hard to make that miracle juice, and she was just spitting it all out. I just. Couldn’t. With that. Anymore.

Early on in this sojourn, I gave up reading books and articles from breastfeeding support groups, because the advice they gave always seemed to imply that women who struggled to breastfeed just weren’t trying hard enough. This implication was shattering. I already felt like a failure — as a mother and as a woman. Hell, I felt like a failure as a damn mammal — even mama pigs can nurse their young. I was exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed, and valued myself as being on par with a crustacean. The idea that I should somehow have been doing more was the outside of enough.

These feelings of failure continued for about three years, until my second daughter was born. Unlike her big sister, that girl took to nursing like a cat to cream. She nursed enthusiastically, all day and all night. By the time she was eight months old, she was nursing every two hours during the day and every hour at night. That’s right – she woke up hourly. I slept in 20-minute increments. I was exhausted, frustrated, and overwhelmed – but at least this time I had elevated myself from bottom-dwelling sea creature to dairy cow.

My younger daughter is now two, and she has never taken a bottle. She also has not stopped nursing. And again, my choices in feeding my child make me susceptible to whispers of disapproval. Every time my walking, talking toddler latches on, in the back of my mind I replay every criticism I have ever heard – or made myself – of women who engage in extended breastfeeding. “It’s excessive.” “It’s unnecessary.” “It’s weird.” But whatever it is, it’s my choice, and I have made it thoughtfully.

Breastfeeding is hard. Not breastfeeding is hard. Being a mother is really, really hard. Your children are constantly challenging you, and society is constantly judging you.

But being a supportive friend to other mothers – those we know and those we don’t know – really isn’t that hard. Not when you think about how vitally important that support is, both to mothers and to the children they are raising.

So as we mothers remind our society that breasts actually are for babies and not just car commercials, let’s also remind ourselves that, when it comes to breastfeeding, an act that is so ageless and natural can also be stressful and heartbreaking. Let’s honor ourselves for the choices we have made, whatever they are, and let’s honor other mothers for the choices they have made, even if those choices are different from our own.

Our greatest strength is in each other. Let’s not forget that.