The debate rages on, with this article in the new issue of THE ATLANTIC entitled “The Case Against Breastfeeding.”  I read every word.  The author concludes that breastfeeding ends up enslaving a woman, which is actually kind of hard to argue with, and that the much-touted benefits of breastmilk are actually unproven and/or negligible.   

But enough about the polemics of breastfeeding.  I happened to read another passage on nursing – and when it goes too far - in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.   This made me LOL in bed and then I had to read it out loud to Chris.

There was a little boy named Gussie who “lived off his mother’s milk until he was nearly two years old.  The milk stopped then because his mother was with child again.  Gussie sulked and bided his time for nine long months.  He refused cow’s milk in any form and took to drinking black coffee.

“Little Tilly was born and the mother flowed with milk again.  Gussie went into hysterics the first time he saw the baby nursing.  He lay on the floor, screaming and banging his head.  He wouldn’t eat for four days and he refused to go to the toilet.  He got haggard and his mother got frightened.  She thought it wouldn’t do any harm to give him the breast just once.  That was her big mistake.  He was like a dope fiend getting the stuff after a long period of deprivation.  He wouldn’t let go. 

“He took all of his mother’s milk from that time on and Little Tilly, a sickly baby, had to go on the bottle.  Gussie was three years old at this time and big for his age.  Like other boys, he wore knee pants and heavy shoes with brass tips.  As soon as he saw his mother unbutton her dress, he ran to her.  He stood up while nursing, an elbow on his mother’s knee, his feet crossed jauntily and his eyes roving around the room.  Standing to nurse was not such a remarkable feat as his mother’s breasts were mountainous and practically rested in her lap when released.  Gussie was indeed a fearful sight nursing that way and he looked not unlike a man with his foot on a bar rail, smoking a fat pale cigar.

“The neighbors found out about Gussie and discussed his pathological state in hushed whispers.  Gussie’s father got so he wouldn’t sleep with his wife;  he said she bred monsters.”

So to summarize, the way Gussie’s mother broke him of the habit is hilarious, involving a war-paint treatment using stove blackening and lipstick to create a fierce mouth near the nipple.  When he saw it, Gussie screamed and ran away, never to nurse again.  This created a new fashion in weaning called “Giving the baby the Gussie.”

I haven’t read this book since I was a teenager and I’m constantly surprised at how honestly it depicts life in a teeming Brooklyn of pre-WWI days.  There are loose but lovely women, brutal men, sex fiends, unmarried mothers, beloved alcoholic fathers, and ethnic descriptions that would be very un-PC today.  I’m loving every word.   Get it at a library near you!  Or just download to your Kindle.  You know who you are.

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