Author Archives: Wendy Wisner

Telling Mothers the Truth About Breastfeeding

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(This was written in response to the recent New York Times article, which I don’t want to link to here. Google “overselling breastfeeding” if you haven’t read it and want to.)

I have listened to mothers weep over how difficult breastfeeding is, or how much they hate it, dread it, want it to end.

I have helped mothers get through to the other side of breastfeeding, which usually includes varying amounts of pleasure and love.

But I have also helped mothers make the decision to end breastfeeding.

I never gloss over their feelings of loss and regret: these are feelings they need to feel and work through.

I don’t think it’s helpful to tell a mother she shouldn’t feel these feelings, that she needs to move on, or that breastfeeding doesn’t matter anyway.

A mother’s breastfeeding experience lives in her bones. Most (but not all) mothers have a visceral and primal urge to breastfeed. When it doesn’t happen for whatever reason, it can feel earth-shattering.

This is not a feeling EVERY mother has, but when a mother has it, it shouldn’t be disregarded. Women need support to work through these feelings.

I also never downplay the benefits of breastfeeding. I never say breastfeeding isn’t important for babies and mothers. It is. Its short-term and long-term health benefits are confirmed by research (despite recent claims in the media). Every major health organization stands by this.

I will not lie to a mother and tell her breastfeeding doesn’t matter. Because it does, and she usually feels that it does, even though weaning may be the best decision for her and her family.

I believe I can relay this to a mother who stops breastfeeding without hurting her feelings or shaming her. How? By being a good listener, by showering her with love, and by honoring her feelings.

Here’s what else I tell a mother who chooses to wean:

There is more to mothering than the food that you feed your child.

Breastfeeding is just one of the many choices you will make as a mother, and it is the sum total of choices that contribute to the health and well-being of your children.

Breastfeeding is not the only way to bond with your baby.

You are a good mother. You are loved. You are doing your best. You are following your heart, and that is the best thing you can do for yourself and your child.

But I can do all that without diminishing the power of breastmilk, breastfeeding, and her feelings about it all.

Regret is a human emotion that is OK to feel. Disappointment is too.

I am sorry that some women have felt hurt by friends, lactation professionals, doctors, or others when they had to make the difficult decision to end breastfeeding, or when breastfeeding didn’t work out for whatever reason.

But we don’t need to skip over the facts about breastfeeding, or sugar-coat a woman’s feelings in order to be empathetic. Women are most empowered when they are given the whole truth, when they are armed with facts, when they are encouraged to feel the whole range of their feelings, and when they are allowed to speak their truth.

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What Breaks My Heart About the Boy Who Had Surgery to Fix His Ears

You may have seen the story in the news about a boy named Gage Berger who had abnormally protruding ears, was bullied at school, and decided at six years of age (with his parents’ consent) to have his ears surgically “pinned back.”

I would never presume to judge that decision. If my child were born with ears like that and wanted them “fixed,” I would probably agree. The surgery itself sounds pretty simple and risk-free. A charitable organization that helps bullied children afford plastic surgery even footed the bill. I understand that it is not fun to have a physical trait that is so striking—open to curiosity at best, and bullying, at worst.

All of that aside, this story saddened me deeply. The little boy is in first grade. According to the news, he had been made fun of for “years,” the kids calling him “Elf Ears” and other cruel nicknames. His parents said he no longer felt excited about going to school, that he didn’t really play with the kids anymore. When I heard about that, my heart broke in half.

I am the mom of two boys: one who is in third grade, and one who just turned three. My older child has had a pretty easy time at school—some stress here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary. My three-year-old hasn’t started school yet, but when he does, I’m a little more worried for him than I was for my older child.

My three-year-old has a large, noticeable birthmark on his neck. Perhaps it’s not in the same league as Gage’s ears, but it covers most of his neck, and is a dark coffee brown. It’s one of the first things you see when you look at him (along with his huge, gorgeous eyes, of course!). Ever since he was born, the question of how he will fare in school with such a glaring physical anomaly has been a constant concern for me.

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We’ve talked to doctors. We learned that it’s not the kind of birthmark that disappears as he gets older: it grows as he grows. It can’t be lightened by laser like some birthmarks. Removal of the birthmark would require full-blown surgery—very possibly more than one procedure.

At three years, our son is just beginning to become aware of this difference. He knows that most people don’t have large birthmarks on their necks (although we have pointed out the smaller birthmarks people have, and have explained that birthmarks are common). When he was little people would sometimes ask about his birthmark, but he had no idea that their asking was in any way significant.

But now that he hangs out on the schoolyard after school with his big brother and socializes with the other kids, he gets asked often about his birthmark. I am usually with him when children ask, so I am there to answer. More and more, I have been letting him answer for himself. I am proud of him. He answers, simply and unapologetically, “It’s my birf-mawk.” Sometimes I have to translate his toddler-speak to them, but the kids usually get it, and move on.

I wonder what will happen when I am not there. In fact, I’m a bit terrified about that. I believe there will be times when the question will have a taunting edge to it. There will come a day when my son will be bullied.

I hope to God that my son will tell me as soon as it happens. If and when it does, I will be on the steps of the school the next day to talk to his teachers about it. I have confidence in the school that my son will be attending (the one his big brother goes to now). There have been very few reports of bullying there. The school has a zero-tolerance policy, and is very responsive to parents and their concerns.

My hope is that any unhappiness my son experiences over his birthmark will be minimal. I hope that any teasing that happens at school is shut down immediately, and that the kids just get used to how my son looks. Usually what happens when someone meets him is they notice his birthmark right away, and then it just becomes part of him—not noticeable at all..

In the case of the Gage Berger—while I don’t know what was done to address the bullying issue, the fact that it went on for “years” really upsets me. What actions did the school take to prevent the bullying from continuing? How about the parents of the children? These were young elementary school students. If I got word that my child was bullying another child at such a young age, I would do something right away. I would not allow it to continue.

If the school administration took no action, I wouldn’t give up. I would go over their heads. I would speak to other parents, rally the community. If nothing else worked, I would switch to a different school. I know this is not an option for everyone—but I can’t imagine under any circumstances letting my son stay somewhere where this was permitted.

As for my son and his surgery, we are leaving it up to him. Even without bullying, it is hard to grow up with a physical abnormality, even one that is purely cosmetic. My son will have our blessing to get his birthmark removed when he is old enough to make a mature decision. But if anyone taunts him or bullies him for his birthmark—or any other reason—the first thing I will do is address that issue directly. When a child is being bullied, the victim is not the one who needs to be “fixed.”

I am very glad that the Gage Berger feels happier now—and relieved that he is not being bullied anymore. But I’m concerned about the message this sends to the children who bullied him. If Gage needed to be “fixed” before the bullying could stop, this suggests that his appearance was somehow responsible for the way he was treated—it suggests, in fact, that the bullies were right. And I’m concerned about Gage himself internalizing the message that the only way out of an awful situation was for him to change. Even if the surgery was ultimately the best decision, it is no solution to the problem of bullying in his community.

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And Now You Are Three

Dear Peter,

It was a beautiful September morning just like this one when you were born in our bedroom in the tiny one-bedroom apartment.

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I knew I would love you as soon as I saw you, but my pregnancy was full of worry. Unemployment, food stamps, job hunting: it seemed like the worst time for our family to grow. But there you were, growing in my belly.

I knew how patient and forgiving you would be. My easy child. My mild one. But it was hard for me to trust, with all the worry that filled our lives then.

Labor with you was hard. You were in some weird position. Not quite posterior, but not quite anterior either. I kept telling the midwife: “He’s stuck, right here,” pointing to the spot where I felt you not quite descending. But everyone reassured me that things were progressing normally.

The only way I could push you out was on all fours. No other position worked. As I lay there with my head in your dad’s lap, my first thought was: “I can’t do this.” My second thought was: “I don’t want to do this.” And then I realized that I simply had to. So I mustered up all the energy and vigor and strength I had even though I felt nothing but doubt and dread and fear. And I howled you out of my body.

I had to stop pushing for a second, though, as the midwife gently rotated your shoulder. I was right. You were a little bit stuck. But with one little tweak, you came flying out.

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The boy who taught me to trust in love. The boy who asks for so little and gives so much. The boy we needed at just the moment when we thought our world was falling apart.

And now you are three. And Daddy has the job. And we have just what we need. But most of all, we have you. And we are eternally grateful.

Thank you for coming just when we needed you most.

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Love,
Mommy

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My Problem with Similac’s #endmommywars Campaign

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Have you seen the #endmommywars hashtag floating all over social media lately? It’s becoming a pretty big thing.

On the one hand, it’s an important idea. No mother should ever be shamed for any parenting choice she makes. Period. Truly, it shouldn’t matter if you breastfed, formula fed, stayed home, sent your kids to daycare, whether you were labeled as a “helicopter” parent or “free-range.” Every mom is just doing her best, trying to find her way, and learning as she goes along. The most important thing is how you love your kids. And there is more than one way to provide a loving, secure family base for your child. I’m sorry that any mother has made another mother feel anything but supported in her choices, whatever they may be.

But I’m afraid this #endmommywars campaign is not as supportive as it seems, and in many ways is just pitting mothers against each other further. Are there judgmental mothers out there? Sure. I’ve met them (and I’ve seen loads of them on the internet!). But for the most part, I have seen a ton of kindness from the other mothers I encounter in my daily life. And I think we need to accentuate that aspect of motherhood MORE. Let’s talk about what we can do to support one another, not underline how some small number of moms are cruel to each another.

But most importantly, the campaign shuts down our ability to voice our opinions and debate civilly. Although I wholeheartedly support motherhood in all forms, I know that feeding babies breastmilk is the best thing for their developing bodies. As a lactation consultant (IBCLC) it is my job to support mothers who wish to reach those goals. Does that mean I don’t support formula feeding mothers? Of course not! I know that breastmilk is not an option for all mothers, and I know that in most cases their babies will do fine with formula. But I should be permitted to say that one infant food is, in many ways, better nutrition.

The same goes with other opinions I may have about parenting choices, like what I think is the best car seat, how I want to discipline my children, and whether I think it’s important or not to feed children organic fruits and vegetables. Can’t I voice these thoughts and opinions without somehow starting a war with someone else? Not every disagreement is a war!

Now, I have to walk on eggshells anytime I state an opinion in this current parenting climate. But it doesn’t have to be that way. And #endmommywars only perpetuates the myth that there is some kind of huge divide between parents. Most of us all basically want the same sorts of things for our children, and listening to one another—hearing varied thoughts and opinions—can be truly enriching. In fact, I have learned a lot from talking to mothers who did things differently than me. If I couldn’t talk about things, I would never know what works for others, and how similar we are even when we look different from the outside.

And, of course, the biggest problem with the #endmommywars campaign is that it is entirely a marketing campaign from Similac! Yes, it is. Let me say it again: IT IS A MARKETING CAMPAIGN FOR FORMULA. If you do a search anywhere for the hashtag, you will see Similac’s name splashed right under it. Even if you like the campaign, you need to know that’s what it is. It’s a campaign whose aim is to get mothers to buy formula.

Formula is a really useful modern innovation, and many babies who have access to clean water and modern medicine do well on it (this is NOT the case in developing countries, and it is a dire problem). Many of my dear friends used it for various reasons, and I support them fully. I believe you can formula feed and be the most cuddly, loving mom. I know that.

But for a mother who really wants to nurse, is struggling, still finding her footing, getting criticism from left and right, and feeling entirely open and vulnerable, this campaign is potentially QUITE damaging–which is exactly Similac’s purpose.

Research has pointed out the power of formula advertising, and formula companies are quite stealthy in how they sneak their advertisements in. Have you gone into a pediatrician’s office recently? There will be pens with formula brands on them, and posters on the wall sponsored by formula companies. Our pediatrician gave us a little book to record shots and baby milestones that was made by Similac. And of course, there is the formula that is handed out left and right at hospitals, and sent to new mothers’ homes whether they request it or not.

I remember when a friend called me after her third baby was born. She had successfully breastfed her first two children, but her newborn was really fussy at the breast. She was exhausted, in tears. When babies fuss at your breast and you don’t know why, it’s hard to have faith that breastfeeding is going to work, no matter how many babies you have. She told me they’d been sent home with formula and were about to use some, but she thought she’d call me first. I gave her some tips to calm the baby down, helped her feel more normal, and things ended up going fine. But she told me had she not spoken to me, that bottle of formula seemed pretty damn tantalizing.

And it is, for many moms. Most moms don’t know what to do when their baby cries while nursing, when their nipples hurt, or when they aren’t sure if their baby is getting enough. They may not have a breastfeeding helper’s number to call, but they almost always have formula on hand, thanks to the generosity of companies like Similac. And quite often, one bottle of formula leads to another, and another, until breastfeeding is over. Obviously this is not the only way things unfold, but it is an altogether familiar scenario I encounter.

Thanks to formula companies, it is much easier to find formula than breastfeeding help. Thanks to formula companies, it is easier to say that women are at war than it is to find ways to unite them.

And I am sick and tired of it all. So, let’s END #endmommywars. And support one another by listening, questioning, thinking, loving, and listening some more.

EDITED TO ADD: Part of the publicity for #endthemommywars is that Similac is putting out a movie with that title. Click here to watch the trailer. I was actually asked to participate in this film a few weeks ago. More about that later…

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The Gift of A New Year

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Both of my parents are Jewish and were brought up with Jewish customs and culture. But they were atheists for most of my childhood, and we seldom celebrated Jewish holidays. We lit the menorah some years, and when we lived near my mother’s parents, we went to their house for the holidays. But that was about it.

I will admit that I really knew very little about Judaism growing up. I don’t think I even knew that Rosh Hashanah (the holiday currently being celebrated) is the Jewish New Year. I only learned that a few years ago!

My mother-in-law does all the major Jewish holidays at her house, but in a very loose way. We gather, eat Jewish food, and make merry. We’ve tried to do some kind of Seder during Passover, but it’s totally thrown together ourselves, with my two children acting out the parts of Moses (my younger son is baby Moses; my older son is Moses all grown up).

The point of all this is that this year, for the first time, I have been embracing this time of year as a new year, a kind of beginning. And it’s been wonderful to think of it that way. We all need new beginnings sometimes, and why not have more than one occasion to start over? The fact that the weather is cooling off, fruit is growing ripe and falling off trees, and a new school year is underway—this all seems fitting as well. In fact, I almost always think of the school year as a time to reframe my life,  especially since my husband is a teacher and my son is in elementary school.

So, to that end, here are some of the things I want to focus on this year (on the Jewish calendar we are entering 5776!):

  1. I want (no, I need!) to carve out more time for self-care. I have a tendency to want to do, do, do—for my kids, for my work—until I run myself ragged. It’s not good for anyone. So I want to remember to take things slow. My goal is to meditate five minutes a day (a little goes a long way), and give myself the gift of a solo run twice a week, even if that means doing it at 5pm when my husband gets home and it’s right smack in the middle of the dinner/homework rush. I’ll still walk/jog with my toddler in the jogging stroller and throw on the TV so I can do some yoga, but I want to find times to do things on my own, in my body, without kids, even if all I get is 30 minutes a few times a week.
  2. I want to spend more real time with my kids each day. Life is ridiculous sometimes. It feels like some days there is literally no time, even for my kids, who I spend every waking second with. We are either on our way somewhere, in the middle of one of our many meals, or transitioning to something else. Each evening, I spend one-on-one time with the kids when I put them to bed. I want to strive for more than just that. But on the days when that’s the best I can do, I want to be as present with them as I can. Listening, cuddling, inhaling their essence. Yes, please.
  3. I want to read. I read a lot. But it’s all online! This summer I read a few books and it was divine. It was so much more silent, delicious. I could focus on the words, the feel of the book in my hands. It’s tougher to find reading time during the school year because by the time the kids are asleep, I am too tired to do anything but check Facebook or watch TV. But reading actual books is so enriching, so I’m going to find time. My goal is to read one book each month (Book of the Month style!). I think that’s a reasonable goal, especially since I usually choose a slim book of poems.
  4. I want to make more time for my friends. A lot of my friends have moved away in recent years, but I have a few dear ones who live nearby. And yet, it’s so hard to make plans. We each have full lives and opposing schedules. But I’m going to do it. Now that my little one is older, I need to get out more. For real.
  5. I want to find ways to make work to fit into my life, not take over my life. With a little one still at home with me all day, it’s hard to find time for my writing and lactation business. But I do them because they are my passion (and I need to pay the bills!). It’s a constant balancing act to fit it all in, but I have gotten better at doing so. And yet, I know that as the school year advances, it’s going to be harder to do it all and stay sane. So I need to remember that it’s OK to say no to things. It’s OK to put my children and myself first. And that the weight of the world doesn’t rest on my shoulders.

That’s it, I think! L’Shana Tova to all who celebrate.

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End of Summer Sorrow

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Tomorrow marks the beginning of the last week of summer vacation. Sigh.

It’s been a good summer in many ways. In July, my husband (who is a full-time teacher during the school year) worked part-time and the big kid had some day camp. We went to the pool a bit, played outside in the sprinklers some too.

In early August, we all took a trip to visit my dad and stepmom in California. It was really nice to see everyone, but traveling with little ones is far from relaxing. Still, the kids (especially the big one) remember it as an awesome time and are excited to travel again.

But now. This right here is my favorite thing in the world. No one has had work or other outside commitments for the past two weeks (and counting). It took me a few days to really relax into it, but oh my goodness, it’s good. I know that some people don’t love being home with no activities. And I have heard the words “I’m bored” uttered more times than I’d care to, but it doesn’t really matter when both parents are home to help (and our kids are finding stuff to do with a little nudge here and there).

I just love feeling this relaxed. I can feel each breath enter and exit my body. I can feel my heart beating slower. And I can enjoy the children—spend those few extra minutes inhaling their hair, watch the precise angle of their backs as they lean into the couch. I love the freedom of it all, not having to plan my day up to the minute so I can fit everything in and make everyone happy.

And sleeping. Taking turns sleeping in if the kids wake up too early (and dare I say that sometimes the kids are sleeping in themselves—wow!).

I know it will be impossible to bottle these feelings of slowness, solitude, and relaxation. But I hope the goodness we have been feeling—that feeling of all being together, in sync, loving on one another—will propel us forward into the busyness of September with a little more patience and understanding.

Let’s face it—the busyness of modern life can kind of suck sometimes. Don’t get me wrong: I am grateful that my husband has a good job, that my kid goes to a school he likes, and I have the kind of flexible work schedule that allows me to be home for my kids pretty much all the time. I know new adventures await us all in the new school year, and I’m excited for them.

But I see this summer ending, and I feel a little sad. No, very sad. I just want to hold on a little longer. I like the nothingness of our days. But most of all, I like these people. They are pretty much the best thing I have in life. I am eternally grateful, and so in love.

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Family photo from the other day. The best we could get. Love the pile of junk next to us on the couch. Totally authentic.

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The Time I Was Shamed For Breastfeeding In Public

Sharing a new article I wrote for RoleReboot​ about the time I was asked to leave a Subway restaurant while nursing my first son. That was over 8 years ago, but I can still feel the way my throat closed up, and how simply terrified I felt. I was a new mom, just trying to get through my days. I am certainly an advocate for public breastfeeding, and this incident didn’t stop me from doing it, but it helped me to understand in a real way why so many moms feel uncomfortable breastfeeding outside their homes. We need to make the world a kinder place for breastfeeding moms and babies.

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Here’s a sample of the article:

By the time my son was a few months old, I became an expert at nursing anywhere, anytime. And let me tell you, my baby nursed all the time. Every hour, to be exact. I gave little thought to nursing in public: If I hadn’t done it in public, I wouldn’t have left the house. (Pumps didn’t work well for me, nor did I particularly want to use bottles.)

So I nursed at stores, parks, and restaurants. I nursed him in a baby carrier while walking down the street. I learned how to nurse while leaning over his car seat (only when the car was stopped in traffic—with my seat belt on).

I never got a second glance from anyone while nursing in public, without a cover. We live in a suburb of New York City—not many mothers nurse in public, but it isn’t unheard of. I took for granted that I was never harassed. It didn’t even cross my mind.

And then, the summer my son was six months old, we spent a week upstate. One afternoon we decided to go out to lunch. There weren’t a lot of restaurant options so we reluctantly settled on Subway.

While we waited for the sandwiches to be ready, my baby needed to nurse. As always, I lifted my shirt and nursed him. We were seated near the back of the place, in a booth, and my breast and baby were fairly well hidden. I didn’t think about that at the time, but it was a detail that would spin through my head later, as I revisited the scene in slow motion.

Across the restaurant, an employee called out to me: “Excuse me, ma’am, you can’t do that here.”

“What?” I asked, truly not even realizing what she meant.

“Listen, I nursed by babies too, but you can’t do that here. You can go to the restroom if you want to continue. People are eating here.” She motioned to the one other patron, his back turned to me. “That’s indecent exposure,” she said.

Click here to read the full article.

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It’s World Breastfeeding Week, and I will be sharing breastfeeding photos all week on my Facebook Page. Please come over and take a look. I’ll post as many pictures as I get. Email pictures to me at wendywisner78@gmail.com.