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The New Breastfeeding Rules

Woe, too, to the hapless new mom whose circle of peers includes someone a little too intoxicated with sharing news of the dangers of phthalates in plastic bottles or the politics of co-sleeping, after spending too many hours plugged into the more paranoid corners of the momosphere. Childbirth-class reunions that should be spent comparing stretch marks or developmental milestones -- or, better yet, exchanging tips on how to avoid getting sucked into work before your leave is up -- descend into harangues or debates. No, girlfriend, I don't want to donate leftovers to the local human milk bank.

Back when I became a nursing mother, "attachment parenting" was still just the name of a chapter in a book, not a lifestyle with rules (and busybodies) of its own. Nobody was organizing "lactivists" into suckle-ins every time an intimidated mother collided with an ill-informed shopkeeper over her right to feed her baby wherever she chose. I've fed my kids while wedged between two men on a United Airlines flight, in Sunday school and even during business meetings. I was discreet and nobody ever gaped, much less showed me to the door, though if they had I'd have rolled my eyes and said, "Grow up." Although a decade ago there were the occasional headline-making arrests over public nursing, the issue hadn't yet been trumped up into a civil-rights campaign.

It's a shame, really. Instead of being a natural extension of pregnancy and childbirth, something you just do right away to pass on all those protective antibodies (and save a little cash at a time when it's flying out of your wallet as if it had been sprinkled with pixie dust back there in the delivery room), breastfeeding has been turned into a statement. A chore. Another series of tests on the way to "good" motherhood. I breastfed because I was convinced it was a smart start. I kept at it because it was much more pleasurable than I'd imagined (not that one can accurately imagine much about breastfeeding before actually doing it). I made it work for me. And then when my baby grew teeth and I grew tired of being tethered to the baby or the pump, I quit.

The message to mothers-to-be and new moms should be: Take breastfeeding one day at a time. Try it in the hospital -- you're just lying there anyway. And people there are glad to show you how. Then, if you and your baby are getting the hang of it, stick it out during maternity leave to pass all those health benefits to your baby, and to yourself. Plus, it's free, and it can be easier to stuff a ready nipple into a hungry mouth than to prep a bottle while suffering extreme sleep deprivation.

And then, see how it goes. Maybe it will be easier, and more enjoyable, than you thought, the way it was for me. Maybe you'll move on in a few weeks or months. Maybe you'll stick with it right through toddlerhood. Whatever follows, everybody will be okay.

That's the real definition of success: everybody coming out okay.

Henry is not a week old when I'm home explaining for the 20th time to my husband, George, that no, breastfeeding does not feel erotic. (Has he not noticed that I don't have to grit my teeth during foreplay?) The doorbell rings. Again. It's not that I don't appreciate the chance to show off our son. (Our son!) But I'm jangly from new-mom fatigue, insecurity and the soreness of 10,000 stitches somewhere I can't quite place on my lower body. Visits wear me out. Blessedly, most friends and neighbors coo at Henry, bestow a bib or even better, a ready-to-eat lasagna, and split.

Barbara brings beer.

"Here's a welcome-home present just for you." She sets down a wrapped six-pack of Michelob. "My pediatrician's wife brought me some after Anna was born. She said it's good for the let-down reflex."

My milk comes in -- and goes out -- just fine. But the rest of me could use a little unwinding. If a pediatrician's wife said so, it must be okay, right? I gladly down half a bottle. I do not "pump and dump the milk," as a government Web site admonishes. And I really do feel much more relaxed.

In fact, the boy grew nicely, with nary a food allergy or ounce of excess fat. He's on the honor roll and once won the Presidential Physical Fitness Award. He towers over me and looks his dad in the eye. He once made me a card: "To the best Mommy I ever had." We're bonded very nicely, thank you.

Same for his three younger sisters -- despite the fact that I stuck each of them in a room down the hall at night and weaned them to fake milk before they were five months old. I never even warmed up the bottles. Then again, I never preheated their baby food -- or their diaper wipes -- either.

I did, however, chill the Michelob. It was good.

Paula Spencer is the author of Momfidence: An Oreo Never Killed Anybody and Other Secrets of Happier Parenting, and a longtime contributing editor to Babytalk. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.