Equally Shared Parenting - Half the Work ... All the Fun

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Here's where we keep you updated on news about parenting as it relates to division of responsibilities, career versus home decisions, work/life balance, and legislative and grass-roots movements toward equality or better choices for families. We'll also throw in our opinions of life as equal parents in a nonequal world, regardless of what's in the news.

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Equality Blog

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Guest Post: What We Learned from Shared Breastfeeding

We met Gail and Lyn a few years ago when they wrote to us about their ESP life, and consider them to be two of the most intentional and thoughtful equally sharing parents we have ever had the privilege to know. They have written their Real Life Story for us awhile back (and write much more on their blog, First Time Second Time - check it out!), but we had been hoping that they could also share with you the unique journey they have taken to literally share breastfeeding - for better or worse.  And now we have been gifted with their thoughts - their examined journey - on this very topic.  Read on for a real treat...

What We Learned from Shared Breastfeeding - by Gail and Lyn

We're not quite your average ESP couple. As a two-mom family, we've been able to share the work and joy of pregnancy and birth, as we each gave birth to one of our children, both conceived via donor sperm. Gail gave birth to Leigh in 2006, and it was during her first year of life that we became an equally sharing couple. When Lyn was pregnant with Ira a couple years later, she popped the question. Not marriage, since we were legally married in Massachusetts in 2004. No, the question she asked was, "Would you consider inducing lactation?"

For some background, it is possible for a woman to induce lactation without pregnancy, using medications and herbs or just relying on the stimulation of a baby or breast pump. Induction is most frequently done by adoptive moms, with varying degrees of success. Lyn considered induction (but decided against it) when Gail was pregnant with our first child, and she encouraged Gail to think about it seriously when Lyn was pregnant with our second.

Gail’s initial answer was, "Absolutely not." But as we talked about the possibility we realized this might be an opportunity to share nighttime care in a way we hadn't with our first. Prior to about 8 months old, Leigh slept in our bed, waking multiple times a night to feed, and the responsibility for those feedings fell, as it does in many households, to the nursing mother. Lyn expressed a strong willingness to do nighttime bottles, but we did them only occasionally for two reasons. One, the very first time Lyn ever fed a bottle of expressed milk at night, Gail developed a plugged duct that eventually became a huge, painful breast abscess; we were both understandably gun shy. Two, like many women, Gail got attached to being the solo nighttime parent. Nighttime parenting is lonely and exhausting, but it does make you feel critically important – more important, in fact, than your partner. There were also some good reasons why we chose to have Gail do more nighttime care, including that Lyn was then able to get up well before dawn to work on her dissertation before caring for Leigh most of the day. But in the end, Gail felt frustrated, and Lyn felt like Gail wouldn't let her share the work of nighttime care.

So this time around, Gail decided that if inducing lactation would help us to share nights, then it was important for her to at least attempt it. We'll spare you all of the gory details about how it all worked since most families won't be able to replicate it (but feel free to read more on our blog). Instead, we'd like to share something far more important: what we learned from the experiment.

Our initial goal was for Gail to start nursing when Ira was about a month old, after Lyn's supply was well established. Until then, starting several weeks before birth, Gail pumped. A lot. But as that month deadline crept up, suddenly Lyn felt like she might not be ready to share in the nursing of Ira. Excuses and discomfort started bubbling to the surface, which brings us to...

Lesson 1: There may be a piece of the birth mom that wants to keep the baby all to herself. That's OK. Just acknowledge it, and find a way around it.

We experienced this after both births. No matter how much she may want to share parenting, there may be a part of a mom that will hold back. Dads may well feel the same way, but the nursing relationship gives moms an ostensibly "good" excuse, and a surefire method for hogging the baby that dads just don't have.

In our case, Lyn started to drag her feet and to realize that there was a part of her that didn't want to share the task of nursing. But Gail had invested six months of taking herbs and medications, and nearly two months of pumping every few hours to be ready to nurse the baby, so Lyn couldn't very well keep Gail away from the job, especially since Lyn pushed for Gail to take this on in the first place. That brings us to...

Lesson 2: Having a commitment mechanism can help get a family over a sharing hump.

What's a commitment mechanism? It's something that pushes us to keep our promises. In our case we had two: the time and resources Gail had invested to induce lactation and Lyn's loudly stated commitment to Gail's nursing. Had Lyn persisted in the foot dragging, the waste of time and resources would have been glaring, and Lyn would have had to cope with some fairly public embarrassment.

So Lyn stepped up to the plate, and Gail began nursing. First it was occasional daytime feedings, then regular daytime feedings, and then eventually we began to trade entire nights. We sent the mom who wasn’t "on" at night to the living room to sleep completely uninterrupted, while the nursing mom dealt with all nighttime wake-ups. For Lyn, this meant getting full nights of sleep for the first time in a long time. That brings us to...

Lesson 3: There are huge benefits to shared parenting -- notice them!

Once Lyn was getting real sleep every other night, any last resistance she might have had to both of us nursing completely evaporated. It was clearly a good thing. Gail also got to feel like a really important parent for the baby, not just relegated to tasks like diaper changes, cooking, and distracting our older daughter. The feedings Gail took on also permitted Lyn to have great uninterrupted time with Leigh, helping smooth her transition to big sisterhood.

We continued in this way until Ira was about six months old. At that time, it seemed night weaning was close at hand and Gail's supply was diminishing, so Gail decided to stop nursing. But then it turned out that night weaning wasn't as close as we had hoped. In fact it was still a couple of months away, and we found ourselves in infant sleep hell. That's when we learned...

Lesson 4: Your partner doesn't have to induce lactation to share nights.

Yes, some of you have probably learned that lesson already but it took us a long time and a lot of work to get there. Gail fed Ira bottles of pumped milk at night, and Lyn maintained her supply by pumping right before bed and first thing in the morning. We had a few things going for us by this time. First, we had a large stash of breast milk in the freezer. Second, we had already proven to ourselves that we could share nights, and we had established routines that worked.

After a few more months in baby sleep hell, we decided we needed to push night weaning. But by this point we had a secret weapon, albeit one that most couples already have – we had a non-nursing parent. Gail took charge of getting baby Ira to sleep at night without the comfort of a breast. After a lot of work on the part of everyone, night weaning took, and Ira started to really sleep (although, to be honest, he still frequently wakes at 4:30am, but we'll take it). That is how we learned...

Lesson #5: Sharing means that you can use both partners’ strengths when parenting your kids.

Now Ira is 13 months old, and the five-month window during which Gail nursed him is a hazy, but sweet, memory. Lyn is still nursing, but less often, and Gail no longer needs to give him bottles of expressed milk on her days home with him.

If we had it to do all over, would we both nurse again? That’s hard to say. Despite the green-eyed look of envy that appeared on the face of nearly every nursing mom we spoke to when we explained this project, it wasn't quite the perfect fantasy world you might imagine. It was a lot of work on both of our parts (but especially Gail's), and it introduced some rough emotional terrain that we could have simply avoided by not taking on this task at all; it's not clear that the benefits outweighed the substantial costs. But it was still a great experience for our whole family. Gail got a rare opportunity to connect with her non-biological son in a deeply meaningful way, and once she was over the hump, Lyn saw only good in the nursing relationship between Gail and Ira; it was clear her relationship with Ira was not at all compromised by making room for Gail.

But most importantly our experience sharing breastfeeding laid bare our last excuses for not sharing every aspect of infant care; maybe you won't have to go to such great lengths to get rid of yours.


Blogger N said...

Excellent post.

11:10 PM  
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