It was 2 a.m. My bedroom was pitch black and I awoke to feel the hot body of my fevered toddler beside me. She had a terrible cold. And the only way she could console herself was to breastfeed. But because her nose was so stuffed up, she could only suck for a few seconds before she would pull off, gasping for air and crying uncomfortably. All night, I walked her around my apartment, rocking and soothing her and alternating the breast when she cried for it. This exhausting pattern kept on until thin streams of yellow morning light peeked around my curtains. Only then was I able to exhale and lie my angel down in bed in a deep slumber – a slumber that lasted exactly 45 minutes until the alarm went off and this single mother’s second shift began. I had another kid to get off to school.
Breastfeeding as a single mother is no cake walk. That tiring night (and there were more than a few) I had no one to hand her off to while I took a recharging cat-nap, no one to drive the other one to school so I wouldn’t have to drag the sick one out of bed. And most of all, no one to help me with weaning. How could I distract my daughter with a different fun activity while the boobs she craved dangled in her face? There was no Dad to run to the market for protein when my milk stores were low. No man to attend to the sibling while I nursed.
When I wrote my Psychology dissertation I looked at a woman’s own attachment style and her breastfeeding outcomes, I asked more than 100 women about the biggest obstacles to nursing. All my study participants were married or co-habitating but the data on breastfeeding success was pretty clear. The biggest factor in a mother’s ability to nurse is her partner’s support. But what if there was no partner?
Studies show that most American women do not meet a goal of even six months of breastfeeding and single mothers have the lowest rates of all. Coupled with the lack of partner support is the disabling stress that accompanies a relationship’s break-up during pregnancy or lactation. This stress alone can cause women to prematurely wean.
But if some careful preparation is done, pre-mature weaning doesn’t have to happen, and indeed a breastfeeding lifestyle can make single motherhood a wonderful experience. Divorce is hard enough on children, but to also divorce them from a vital part of mommy is a double injury. Joining La Leche league and not being afraid to reach out for support from your village are crucial to breastfeeding as a single mother.
Years ago, when I was still with my “baby-daddy” and happily nursing my first child, I asked the pediatrician about the magic benefits of breast milk that affected a child’s I.Q. He smiled and told me that the magic was mostly in the mother, not the milk. “Breastfeeding mothers are different mothers,” he said. I didn’t fully understand it then, but recent data out of the UK showed that breastfeeding mothers were more engaging and had warmer relationships with their children. It is linked to the female bonding hormone, oxytocin. It changes the brains of women.
All the more reason for single mothers to nurse. I don’t think children should ever be a surrogate for an adult love-relationship, nor do I think unnaturally clinging to an infant is the best way to deal with divorce, but I do think that having a healthy bond with kids and staying close and involved with them, can keep you strong during divorce. It’s all too easy to take a broken heart and run into the arms of another man — any man – and that might not be the best thing for your kids. Children living in the home with a mommy’s boyfriend are six times more likely to suffer abuse.
But a breastfeeding mother is less likely to seek a man’s arms because, frankly, her arms are full. Humans can have multiple attachments and indeed good mental health is dependent on those many attachments. Our children can be our greatest strength and putting them first is a way of putting ourselves first.
I am grateful that I continued to nurse when I became single. As hard as it was, I miss those days. I also built some solid friendships with women in my village whom I had to lean on. My kids are now happy and well-adjusted and when my 13-year-old is having a little mommy-wistfulness, she often says, “Tell me a story about when I drank booby.” Our relationship has warm memories all around.
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Dr. Wendy Walsh is a journalist, mother, doctor of psychology, and popular culture junkie. She often finds herself asking “Why?” and finds the answers at the intersection of biology, psychology and culture. Well traveled and presiding over a multi-racial family, she has a particular sensitivity to ethnic issues. Want to know why people do the things they do? Dr. Walsh has some answers. She blogs daily for MomLogic.com, her own Blog, Dating.Mating.Relating., and is the relationship expert for Pregnancy Magazine. She also appears regularly as a psychological expert on CNN and The CBS Early Show. In addition she has appeared on EXTRA, The View, Lifetime Television and contributed to countless local TV, Radio and Print Media. Follow her on Twitter at @DrWendyWalsh and find her on Facebook; she’s got some great videos on YouTube, too!
Dr. Walsh holds a B.A. in Journalism, a masters degree in Psychology, and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. As an author, she has written The Boyfriend Test, and The Girlfriend Test (Random House).