The Girls Finale Gave Us All Permission To Chill Out About Breastfeeding

Photo: Mark Schafer/HBO.
For all the criticism of the characters on Girls being selfish, narcissistic, and unlikeable, the series itself has always been marked by generosity to its audience. By showcasing terrible behaviour it implicitly modelled good decision-making (think about it: Would you not now think twice about doing crack at a Bushwick warehouse party?) and the kind of qualities that matter in relationships and life: loyalty, ambition, empathy, persistence, kindness and honesty, confidence (delusional or otherwise), forgiveness, and love.
That generosity was on full display in "Latching," the series finale, in which Hannah Horvath is now a single mother coping with a fussy newborn who refuses to feed from her breast. He's drinking fine from a bottle, and she's pumping like a champ, but he won't take her nipple. Hannah takes this incredibly personally, not only as a rejection of her but as a sign that she's a failure as a mother.
Which is ridiculous, of course, and Girls makes that plain. The message is clear: Chill out about breastfeeding, chill out about motherhood. It will be fine. You've got this.
That’s a generous message, indeed! As a relatively new-ish mum myself, I have logged my share of time on parenting sites and Facebook groups and have seen first-hand the angst caused by the breastfeeding dilemma: When it works it's great, but when it doesn't it can cause mums the physical pain of cracked nipples and blocked ducts (ow, ow, ow) and emotions ranging from frustration to guilt to heartbreak. It also brings out the know-it-alls, the pontificators on either side who trot out "breast is best" or alternatively cheerlead for formula, but without an easy catchphrase because nothing rhymes with "formula." (Give your baby formula/Make sure the bottle's warm-ula? Never mind. Enfamil, you're on your own.)
My own breastfeeding experience was much easier: My daughter was plopped on my chest, slithered herself up to the nipple, and boom, we were set. It worked exactly as you'd think a totally instinctive mammalian process that had been operating for thousands of years would — but if it hadn't, then it would have been a lot harder. Which is not uncommon! Which is why formula is actually such a terrific and lucky option, and breast pumps come in hand-held versions for the backseats of cabs. And it's all fine.
For the most part, nursing for me has been pretty smooth sailing, save for a savage biting phase at around 10 months that came thisclose to shutting it all down (nothing makes you realise how sharp tiny new baby teeth are like a chomp to the nipple). Otherwise my experience has been the opposite of Hannah's: My kid wouldn't take a bottle, which meant most of my pumping efforts ended up down the drain, and it was tough to get away for more than a few hours. (I left her once, for a whirlwind 36-hour business trip, and she barely touched the meagre milk I'd left, or her baby food, or the secret-stash formula my sister ended up giving her.) Sometimes it's easy. Sometimes it's not.

The relative ease with which your milk flows from your nipple into your kid's mouth does not perfect motherhood make.

Now my kiddo is a happy thriving 2-year-old who still loves the boob and shows no sign of weaning — a sentence that I am sure more than a few of you are reading with an arched eyebrow, because how long one nurses is a whole other area of judgment, so much so that Marnie being breastfed for two years was a punchline on the show. (And do I really want to be raising a Marnie? For the bone structure and singing chops, yes; for the judgmental nasty streak and damaging dating habits, no.)
The point is, breastfeeding is different for everyone, and even when it works great there are still bumps, and moments of decision where you pick one route, and critics would prefer you picked another. Take it from someone who needed so little nipple balm that I'm still using it for my lips two years later: The relative ease with which your milk flows from your nipple into your kid's mouth does not perfect motherhood make. Luckily for us mums, there are all sorts of other delights to truly test us. (Like when you have to suck the snot from their nose, or when they vomit on you, or the rainbow of ways in which you experience their poop.)
I got all of that and more from this season of Girls. Maybe it's because the show is a Rorschach on which we each project our own experience, but as a single mum who is also a writer who also had to get her happy-go-lucky life together in order to responsibly commit to a child, I felt strongly that the show was reaching out to me and saying, you're doing just fine.


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This may be my single-mum bias talking. Pretty much the entire internet agreed that Hannah Horvath was a hot mess when she got knocked up. Look no further than the reaction to Hannah's pregnancy news to see that in action. One writer even declared that Girls had betrayed its audience — and maybe feminism? — by not having Hannah choose an abortion. (That's the thing about choice, though: It's an actual choice.) Inside the world of the show, Hannah's news was met by judgment and criticism, from Elijah's "You're going to be a terrible mother" to a successful female author intoning that "Childlessness is the natural state of the female author" to Hannah's mum's eye-popping "Every time I look at your baby, I will see my own death." Yowch. Way harsh, Loreen.
(Is it any wonder she’d feel like a failure when her kid wouldn’t take her boob? Or that any of us does?)
But I saw a show that was incredibly generous with its protagonist, and gave her space to grow into this decision, and how it would be implemented. Girls gave Hannah her big break (publishing her Modern Love piece, the kind that has boosted many writers, and at least one killer whale) and then let her follow that up in a loping, haphazard, but decidedly upward trajectory. It was believable enough (ish) to justify her landing a teaching job upstate and thus solve housing, income, and health insurance just in time for delivery. (I lucked into a consulting gig at eight months pregnant which bought me financial security — that's not to say the plotline was without holes, just that one can get lucky.)
Even in the pregsplaining Hannah got from minute one — from Doc Joshua assuming she’d want an abortion based on knowing her for a weekend four years ago to Adam and Laird both assuming that a single pregnant lady needed swooping in and saving — we saw that old assumptions about Hannah no longer applied.
It's worth noting, too, how Girls treated its adults and authority figures: largely as buffoonish or comically outsize (Booth Jonathan and Desi are two examples of older men whose seeming togetherness was a grotesque facade), or weak and broken (Hannah's flawed parents; the drunk, sobby Dill). Even the “temp doctor” in the final episode gets it wrong, exacerbating Hannah’s new-mum breastfeeding fears rather than allaying them. Remembering just how flawed grown-ups are makes it easier to realise that the range of so-called adult behaviours is wide. It gives Hannah lots of room not just to screw up, but to do better.
Many smart people have many issues with Girls, and with a baby being the resolution for Hannah's character arc. (And how she holds baby Grover, and Grover’s double-take skin tone, and many, many things.) Fair! It’s Girls. There will always be something. But it’s also worth noting that the show also had two spectacularly failed marriages, one water-birth and one almost-abortion, and lots of unprotected sex. And so there’s a baby. Life comes at you fast.
One last thing. In addition to our boobs, the final chapter of Girls was generous to single mums. Not only did it bat away the treacly, preachy conventional wisdom about how "every child needs a father" by putting it in the mouth of the dissolute, pathetic Dill, it belied it with an episode showing how women show up for each other. No disrespect to dads (or at least the good ones) and the men who do show up, but this episode wasn't about them. It was about women showing up for other women, and kids getting what they need from the people who show up. From their boobs. Or, you know, not.

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