If there is one universal characteristic about parenthood, it’s that it teaches you some things. Not the swaddling and the diapering, but the stuff that makes you go, “Damn, so that’s why I am the way I am.” Motherhood is one of the greatest learning institutions around, as it holds a tiny human mirror up to your personality and makes you want to be the best one for the job. And I think out of all the various aspects of parenting (each undeniably lesson-yielding and engrossing in their own way), breastfeeding offered me the best life lessons.
I was propelled into middle management of my advertising career, mostly because I was chasing the carrot of a title. But the further up the ladder I got, and the less hands-on I was with the creative aspects of my job, the more my motivation waned. At that point, I had a toddler and an infant, and I credit them for inspiring me to walk away from a promising position at the peak of my career, and go do some work that made me happy, even though my title and pay diminished.
Some of this had to do with being a working parent; If I was going to be away from my little ones all day, I'd better feel fortified by the work I was doing. But a lot of this change had to do with the four consecutive years I spent breastfeeding. My view was different from above the Boppy pillow. And what I learned from sitting still with my babies all that time has served me in many aspects, especially professionaly.
Here are just a few I learned while breastfeeding that have definitely made me better at life:
My baby is crying because she is hungry and that means nothing else in the world matters, even if it did five seconds ago. Responding to my kids' hunger cues helped put a lot in perspective for me. When I went back to work, I was much better trained at recognizing what was truly urgent, and what could afford to wait. I got in the habit of "sleeping on it" when a decision didn't need immediate attention. I put space between the receipt of an email and my response, and it made for much saner, much less typo-ridden, work days.
To Say "No"
Once I started prioritizing, it became clear that not everything could be at the top of the list, and some things simply had to go. This was a hard change to make for a person like me who wants to please, and basically not tempt pissing anyone off by using that two-letter word. But saying "yes" to everything is self-sabotaging. I can't keep up with the needs of every person in my life. And I have new respect for those who say "no" to me. It means they know their limits and honor their personal time. Who couldn't benefit from some of that?
To Stop Multitasking
Everyone says "sleep when the baby sleeps." But there's good reason you don't hear "eat when the baby eats." Quite a few bites of my attempted lunches ended up on my firstborn's head. My lesson was to do fewer things well, versus a lot of stuff half-assedly. I'm passing that down to my kids, who are now school-age. There is huge value in teaching them to do one thing at a time (unless you're OK with them turning in homework covered in spaghetti sauce).
To Put Yourself First
For waaaay too long, I practiced the "you first" policy. I made sure everyone else was served, before serving myself. But then suddenly, I was the only one in our house who could nurse the kids. I guess technically I was putting the baby first, but I made sure I got what I needed to settle into my half-hour nursing sessions. If I didn't make sure I was taken care of, how could I have the resilience to take care of this helpless baby?
To Not Feel Guilty About Putting Yourself First
This one took me a minute, but I got over it. Putting myself first gets my voice heard, my needs met, and minimizes any resentment I may feel when I see others putting themselves first. I'm more generous with my time and attention, at work and at home, when my own needs are being met, from making sure I keep regular doctor's appointments, to making sure I keep regular pedicure appointments. I'm a lot nicer to be around after I get some me-time. If I am fulfilled, everyone benefits. Can't feel bad about that.
To Manage Time Better
There were some times, breastfeeding my first baby, where I'd sit for 30 or 40 minutes per side, thinking she was just being a slow eater. I'd get up to pee and then it would be time to feed her again. Those extended nursing sessions were frustrating, and counter-productive. She wasn't chowing down the whole time; She was literally nursing her drink. I soon learned fast how long she needed to nurse before she was just going through the motions to hang out. And it made me think: Do I sometimes take longer than I actually need to complete a task? I always seem to complain that I never have enough time to do anything, so I started putting time limits on myself: 10 minutes at diapers.com to get our supplies refilled, 20 minutes or less (usually less) to get the occasional meal my husband wasn't responsible for ready. Once I started capping the time it took me to execute chores around the house, I actually had more time for fun stuff. Like laundry. (Blergh.)
To Be Quiet
Noise and nursing didn't mix for me. In those quiet periods (when I read the closed captioning of whatever show I had on), I listened to the muted sounds of my baby eating and sleeping, and the rhythm of breathing together. And I didn't have to be "on." I learned to talk less in conversation, and listen more. When I stopped trying to think of the right thing to say and focused on listening, it was clear most people just want to be heard anyway.
As I nursed, I deeply focused on my babies while they were inches from me, getting to know them intimately. I studied their skin, their movements, their breath. I learned how the slightest deviation of their behavior could indicate something, or nothing. I was collecting valuable data. When I returned to work, I observed others in meetings; Their faces and their body language were clues to how to better communicate with them, and made our interactions more productive. Someone’s crossed arms didn’t necessarily mean they didn’t want to hear what I had to say. Sometimes it just meant they were cold.
To Put My Feet Up
I hadn't valued down time until parenthood introduced me to a whole new level of exhaustion. I used to power through tiredness, leaning hard on caffeine and kickboxing classes. And if I got sick, so what? Now, with two little kids and as half of a full-time working couple, I can’t afford to feel less than OK. Breastfeeding meant sitting, and relaxing. Letdown does not come to those who stress.
To Ask For Help
While I was parked, with a baby latched on, I needed some help. If you don’t have to do it all, why bother? Ask for that water (with lemon), ask for the A/C to be turned up, ask your partner to just take a message from whomever is calling. Yes, I was sitting, but it wasn’t like I was doing nothing: I was singlehandedly, double-boobedly, keeping my baby alive with my breastmilk. So can you please pass me the remote?
To Continue Eating Well
I was pretty good with the quality of the food I consumed during pregnancy (though not always great about regulating the quantity). As a breastfeeding mom, I knew my nutritional choices directly impacted my kids’ health. So while I wasn’t eating well for me, it became habit (after four consecutive years of nursing), to save junk for special occasions and lean heavily on protein, whole grains and veggies. Introducing my babies to veggies meant I had to consistently eat them too.
To Dress For Utility
Nursing bras and tanks, button down tops and drapey scarves were staples of my breastfeeding wardrobe. And when it was time to go back to work, the thought of wedging my body into anything that rode up, pinched or required body contortion to get zipped up was quickly nixed. I've retired the heels and have been rocking tunics and wedges since having children. Plus you can't have a kid and not have pockets. I still care about how I look, but I don't have to sacrifice comfort for style any more.