Body work. (What do you know?)

Too often these days I find myself wishing I didn’t have to get out of bed.

It’s perplexing. I see value in what I do. And the Bunnies are really sweet kids when they aren’t tired. Or hungry. I love seeing them play together. And help one other. Running to get someone’s towel when she’s forgotten to bring it with her into the bathroom, reading to each other when I’m changing nappies, doing up a button that littler fingers can’t manage. I love seeing Puppy help Lamb put on his shorts!

Who wouldn’t want to get out of bed to see all that??

Then, just recently, I had a REVELATION.

Before I get to that, you should know that it took one of those spontaneous holidays that Sweet Man and I occasionally strike out on to produce it. The kind where you’re not sure what you’ll do with the next few days, but then you make a phone call the next morning and find out that cheap accommodation is surprisingly available over the long weekend.

We quickly scrambled together some stuff and went away for a 5-day family holiday, exactly a week ago – our first with 4 month old Piglet. I could describe all the wondrous things that we did, enjoying the cool tropical jungle air as our car weaved through winding roads up the mountainside, sipping endless cups of tea at tea plantations everyday, making friends with a cheerful white mongrel, drinking hot, steaming soups at our favourite restaurant this part of the country, and taking numerous hilarious snapshots of each other making funny faces.

As it is, the one thing that happened every single afternoon was this: I’d nurse Piglet until we both fell asleep, and Sweet Man took the other two Bunnies out for sweets, ballgames, and lots of fresh mountain air.

Guess what? I was depressed. I felt so sad because I’d ended up sleeping …. and missing the fun.

What did I do?

One afternoon, while waiting for the rest to come back, I read an article entitled “Breastfeeding as Work” by Cindy A. Stearns, professor of sociology at Sonoma State University. (What I’m doing on holiday studying – yes, studying – a research article is anybody’s guess – but yes, I’m sick that way.) Stearns explores breastfeeding AS WORK on a woman’s own breastfeeding body and the unpaid maternal body work of breastfeeding a baby.

As I waded through her article, I realized a simple fact: I was exhausted. Utterly and truly exhausted.

I have a new baby, 2 other children to mind, homeschooling them in between numerous household chores, and I’ve been breastfeeding every single day for 5 years. Tandem nursing for almost 3 years. I haven’t missed a single day – no Siree. And I’ve never used formula. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m tired.

Breastfeeding has become so much a part of my life that I’ve forgotten how much time and labour intensive work it is!

Stearns’s study reminds me that no one but the Mother can breastfeed. This is in contrast to other childcare and household tasks that other members of the family can perform. A family might use a bottle so that other family members can feed the baby expressed breastmilk (thereby relieving the mother), but the job of providing the milk is still hers.

Stearns also points out that many mothers change their lifestyle and adapt their diet in order to produce a high-quality, ample, and readily available supply of human milk. They must learn how to breastfeed (it’s not as “natural” or easy as people might think!) and how to persist with it despite personal discomfort, pain, and inconvenience.

I’ve done all that. I consider breastmilk as an irreplaceable form of nutrition for my babies, and because expressing milk to bottle-feed simply isn’t worth my time and effort (it takes far too long), I have exclusively breastfed my Bunnies all these years. They haven’t had a drop of infant formula – except for Puppy, who tried some from a free trial packet when she was 2 years old, and hated it.

To breastfeed for this long, I’ve paid careful attention to my diet and radically changed my lifestyle. I don’t know if I would have managed to keep it up had I “gone back to work”. When Puppy was born, I had to express milk for a few months during the time I was completing my postgraduate degree and it was extremely difficult to get a few ounces. I ended up taking her to classes with me (with my mother in tow).

I’ve also tried make sure I have sufficient sleep, because that’s important to keep up the milk supply. But of late, with Puppy’s homeschooling sessions continuing in the afternoon, and with increased in-the-middle-of-the-night-feedings for Piglet (going through a growth spurt), it’s been difficult to get enough rest.

So will I stop breastfeeding? Never, as long as the kids need it. There are health benefits to me (like drastically reducing my risk to ovarian and breast cancer), but I’m driven much more by my conviction that human breastmilk is truly unique, irreplaceable nutrition for babies and young children, and that breastfeeding satisfies their need for emotional and physical comfort in a way that bottles can’t. I am so thankful that Sweet Man not only supports my work, he urges me to continue when I say I feel like giving up. He knows what my heart’s desire is! I’ll simply have to adjust our schedule to ensure I get more rest.

Thank you, Stearns, for reminding me that breastfeeding has a direct impact on my body, and that means I have to take better care of my physical health. Most of all, thank you for enlightening me with the phrase “BODY WORK”.

I don’t know if other people have heard that before. Yesterday, my neighbour commented, “You haven’t even gone back to work yet.” And then, perhaps realising that that might’ve come across as just a bit insensitive, she added, “Professionally, I mean.” As I headed indoors to attend to Piglet’s crying, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “What can women do? That’s our lot in life.”

She doesn’t have children, so I don’t expect her to understand. I used to feel torn about “going back to work”. I loved my job, I loved working, and I had dreams and ambitions for new things. It’s taken me a considerable amount of time to appreciate my current role the way I do now.

Tempting as it is to pity myself for the sometimes thankless tasks that I have to do (like wiping crumbs under the table 3-4 times a day), I look at my Bunnies and appreciate how much I mean to them. And how much they mean to me, so much, that I want to be intimately involved in their growing up years. I don’t see myself as having stopped work. I’ve CHANGED JOBS – from a paid one to an unpaid one. And I spend ungodly hours in the wee hours of the morning trying to work towards a paid one when everyone’s asleep. How’s that?

No wonder I’ve been exhausted.

And I shouldn’t feel guilty about sleeping every afternoon when I’m ON HOLIDAY.


  • Kylie
    June 6, 2011 10:02 am

    Absolutely – someone I know recommends a nap every day while pregnant or breastfeeding! Hearing things like that help adjust expectations and alleviate guilt – which we mums are pretty good at! 😉

  • Mama J
    June 6, 2011 11:25 pm

    Oh I am soooo thankful for your comment. I needed that today 🙂

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