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“Our Milk”

June 13, 2011

The de facto topic of the weekend seemed to be milk. A neighborhood friend with a brand new baby texted me on and off about her challenges. A friend on Facebook was lamenting her supply; she offered to make a deal with the devil to have more food for her baby.

Ah, nursing: the bonding, the nourishment of body and soul, the continued physical connection after the umbilical cord is cut.

But also, ugh, nursing. The early challenges of breastfeeding were so steep that I couldn’t write about them at the time. I wrote one piece a bit later, which attempted to characterize the craziness, but it was far cozier than the actual scenario.

It started off as a grim time. And when I told my mom and a close friend, both of whom had been through the challenges themselves, they were absolutely sympathetic. Scads of women have these problems but they aren’t discussed: while the entry into motherhood entails the unavoidable hazing of sleep deprivation and physical pain, there is a true sorority among mothers. We have been there; we want to support each other; we don’t want to scare the crap out of everyone else.

And the last thing I want to do, if you are a new mom, is scare you off, so let me quickly cut to the punch line: after the hell described below, my happy, healthy, well-adjusted 26 month old son is still nursing, and showing no signs of quitting, and I am having no physical problems with it.

Cut to early 2009. I am a week overdue. I’ve already been admitted to the hospital twice to have my baby delivered, only to be sent home when my blood pressure stabilizes. But calendar and blood pressure be damned, my body is not ready to have a baby. I’m not dilated even one smidge.

Nor is the baby ready to be had. He hasn’t dropped, and he is literally climbing the walls, alternately breech and not breech.

I spend days sitting on a yoga ball, because I somehow can no longer manage to sit on a couch, though in retrospect, how can a person not be able to sit on a couch? It is a mystery even to me.

Evenings are spent propped in a glider with my feet on a rocking ottoman, my pragmatic and intellectual husband burning a strange and magical acupuncture substance near my smallest toes, trying to persuade the baby to turn. However, he may be too big to be born through the normal channels, anyhow.

Chances are excellent that I will need a c-section. I have made my peace with this. I have not made my peace, however, with people acting like it will be a tragedy when it happens.

After what is coldly termed a “failed induction,” I have a c-section, and I am gifted with my big, gorgeous, baby boy.

I’ve had surgery, but I feel comparatively great, because: I have a robust baby. No one is scrabbling up the walls of my uterus. I have a catheter, which is every pregnant or recently pregnant woman’s fantasy. But the main reason is, I no longer have debilitating heartburn. We have a private room. I keep ordering a vegetarian pasta dish from the hospital cafeteria, and it is the yummiest thing I’ve had to eat in months:  vegetables are again welcome in my mouth. Food is again an object of wonder. My baby is a wonder. My body is a wonder. I’m hoarding percoset like an addict—just in case— but taking less than the recommended dose. At night, I am sleeping like a rock. Things have definitely changed for the better.

Except . . . my nice fat baby starts losing weight. He has orange crystals in his diaper, rather than yellow urine. He’s not properly hydrated.

Maybe the hormones that would have triggered labor—which was untriggerable regardless of lots of tricks they tried—were also to serve as the milk triggers. I know that my breasts are supposed to be like footballs. Painful football crammed with milk. C’mon, footballs . . . I’m waiting and waiting for engorgement. However, there is no football action, nor will there ever be. My milk won’t come in for 8 days, during which time my son will drop weight like a high-school wrestler skipping rope in a trash bag in the shower.

My poor baby.

I schedule meetings with highly paid consultants. I borrow an industrial grade pump. I talk to everyone in the hospital, and my mom, and my friends. I work on “latch.” I wonder why my son won’t nurse at all from the left unless I hold him upside-down with his tiny feet in the air. My theory is that he is so confused in this position that he doesn’t know that he hates the left.

I set a timer because nursing is so painful and I can only bear to do it for 8 minutes at a time, which is what I’ve been told is necessary. I suddenly have a condition that makes it feel like there are jagged pieces of glass in my arm when my son is nursing: mastitis. I get a yeast infection, and my chest has a burning feeling in the middle. I rub olive oil on myself a thousand times a day. Everything I own is stained with milk and oil. It feels like Ancient Greece, with none of the panache. I have to soak my nipples in saline-filled shot glasses for weeks on end. I need special, Fedex-delivered-from-the-Internet plastic shells to keep my bra off of my terribly painful chest. At one point, my mother’s dog eats one of the cones, and it feels like the world is actually ending. I have blisters. I get cuts and need to put antibiotic cream on, and that happens to be poison, and I need to remember to wipe it off before the baby eats. I don’t always remember. Why would I remember: someone is crying at me, and it’s 2:30 am? After he eats, I have to put him back to bed and pump until my breasts are empty. My nipples turn white from lack of blood. Then I get a white bump in my nipple: a plugged duct, leading to a hot, hard place. I have no idea what this is, or how to deal with it. My husband diligently boils everything, trying to keep up with the melee. We learn that my son has a shorter than usual tongue. I take him to an Ear / Nose / Throat specialist, whose nurse polishes the world’s tiniest, sharpest scissors in front of me. Without a proper diagnosis, they are willing to give my new tiny son, whom I would not let be circumcised, a frenulectomy. In other words, they are considering snipping the little cord under his tongue. I pack him up and hustle out of there. The pediatrician and I nearly come to blows. “It’s not supposed to hurt,” he keeps saying. I’ll show you how it hurts, I want to say. I realize I am not doing enough feedings per day. I am still supplementing. It is a mess. It is a mess. It is a mess.

So, my child had formula. Before he was born, I was fine with this idea. I had the clear-eyed perspective that I wanted to breastfeed, and I hoped it would work out. I actually told people this, because I knew that sometimes things didn’t work out. No one was trying to drag me into the cult of nursing before I had a baby. Before I had a baby, I’d tell people that I was breastfed, but my father would give me one bottle of formula before bed, so that my mother could stay sane. I thought that sounded like a great plan: resting mom, baby getting lots of calories to help it sleep and get on a schedule. I didn’t realize how crazy that would have sounded to other Brooklyn / New York City moms until I became one. And I didn’t realize that my perception of myself as a mother would hinge on being able to accomplish what in that present, seemed completely impossible.

So I drink mother’s tea. I drink Guiness. I eat oatmeal. I pop fenugreek. I bask in the glory of my little love, and yet a month has passed, and he hasn’t regained his birth weight. I feel sick before his Dr.’s appointments, which are scheduled frequently to monitor his weight. Finally I realize: what are they going to do, take him away from me?

I get a slow but steady supply of milk. I buy a zillion different nursing pillows, until I find one that works. He learns to drink from the left. I realize that the milk on the left doesn’t “taste bad,” as I’d feared. We ease up on bottles. We get into a swing. We fall into a schedule that lets me feed him 8 times a day, and still leave the house for walk.

I do backtrack emotionally one morning when a hot shower hits me and I start spraying milk. It’s going down the drain, my precious milk, and I don’t know how to fix it. Liquid gold, is what the lactation consultant calls it. I learn to press my hand flat against my breast to stop that flow. I take the baby to the lactation consultant. She weighs him before and after nursing. He gains four whole ounces. I have milk. He is getting the milk. I am vindicated. He will be healthy. We will survive.

Ultimately, I was one of the lucky ones: I was able to overcome the maelstrom of crap and learn how to nurse. When I started working, I worked from home, and a nanny could hand the baby to me when he needed to nurse. I could pump when necessary. I didn’t work for the MTA, or as a teacher, or in an office that wouldn’t grant me the time or privacy I needed to nurse or pump for my child. I did have family support, unlike some women whose moms don’t understand what they are trying to do, and as I mentioned, I was able to pay a consultant. And I didn’t have the dreaded MRSA infection, like some women I know, who simply couldn’t do it. In short, mine was ultimately a winning scenario.

It can be hard, ladies. It can be very hard at the start. “Two weeks,” everyone said. “It will be so much easier after two weeks.” Two months was more like it, in our case.

And two years later, I don’t seem able to wean.

Dealing with judgment, either real or imagined, is a bit weird. My husband and I thought I’d be lucky to nurse until a year, and I definitely didn’t imagine myself as a person who would go until two years . . . or beyond. But I have come to realize that it depends wholly on the child and wholly on the relationship and wholly on the circumstances.

I mentioned I was still nursing at a recent dinner party full of women, none of who had children. Someone immediately asked whether I’d read Room by Emma Donaghue. That is a recent book where the 5-year-old narrator, who has been raised in a state of malnourished captivity with his kidnapped mother – is still nursing, and he charmingly describes the comfort he receives from this act of closeness. The crazy nursing community loves this book, and many other people, both inside of and outside of the story – consider the scenario to be very strange.

Henry’s new pediatrician is a woman: a person whom I wholly respect, who appears to wholly respect me. She is entirely supportive of child-led weaning. She thinks that what I am doing is great. I would like to buy her a fur coat, a cheeseburger, a nap. I would like to buy her whatever she likes in return for the conversations she has with me about this stressful topic. She says that I shouldn’t nurse overnight, because then I will resent my toddler. I should do it during the day if he wants to, and I want to, and I shouldn’t pay one whit of attention to anyone else’s opinions.

I haven’t weaned, I frequently tell people, but it’s not like I haven’t done anything mean to my child. I sleep trained him, more than once, and that is considered meaner than weaning. That was necessary for my sanity, though: that was clear. Nursing is simply no problem anymore, and it remains a great tool for when I really, really need it. Case in point: the boy hit his head on a rock when we were in Martha’s Vineyard. I did a little impromptu session, and he was back to 100% in moments.

The flip side is that he seems abjectly bereft when I deny him his mother’s milk. I often wonder if this is because he had to fight so hard for it in the beginning, when it simply wasn’t there, and when learning to nurse was really his only goal. I wonder if that scenario will inform his entire relationship to food, which already seems very intense.

He doesn’t do it in public anymore, and he gets most of his nutrition from tacos, and melon, and daal with rice, and whatever else is on hand: I am the supplement. And he’s old enough to wait, now, if I ask him to wait. He doesn’t nurse in public, with the exception of airplanes that are taking off and landing, and he doesn’t nurse overnight.

He’s also able to talk about it with me. If he claws at my shirt, I can tell him that I’d rather he ask for some milk than pull at my clothes. So I ask him to ask for some milk. But he doesn’t want to ask: you shouldn’t have to ask for what is yours, he thinks, I think.

He is getting easier to reason with, though. The other day he said “my milk,” and tore at my shirt, and I said no, “mom-mom’s milk.” He sat and looked dejectedly into space. Then he brightened, hitting upon a compromise. “Our milk,” he said. “Want to have some of our milk.”

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Alana permalink
    June 13, 2011 4:59 pm

    Love this post. Thank you :). Little angel creature of mine was also robust and then we had our introduction to pink crystals the first week we were home, which I had never heard of. Quite a surprise to find when changing your new, perfect baby’s diaper. After looking it up online in the middle of the night, I felt horrible. Formula was necessary. Acceptance was necessary. Our perfect baby was hungry!

    By your clock I still have a month of possible change and that feels good. Adding oatmeal to the routine starting tomorrow. Oh how I love my evening half glass of Guinness. It’s hard not to crack it open during the day and drink the whole darn thing.

    • June 15, 2011 8:09 am

      You definitely have time for possible change! Mostly, don’t worry if you are giving your son some formula. He’ll still be an emotionally-in-touch neurosurgeon. I’ll give you a money-back guarantee.

  2. Gabrielle permalink
    June 13, 2011 7:12 pm

    Our Milk “Our Milk” I love it! Claire still thinks its hers but thank you for writing so eloquently about the challenges with both with a newborn AND a two-year old. Thank you!

  3. Lilo permalink
    June 13, 2011 9:01 pm

    So sweet! I miss nursing sometimes. Gabe basically weaned himself after turning one. I was at once proud of his independence and sad, very sad, that he didn’t seem to need me in that way anymore.

  4. June 14, 2011 8:10 am

    I love this post, Meredith. I’m always amazed that people give a crap about how, where, and for how long a person nurses.

  5. Michelle permalink
    June 14, 2011 3:14 pm

    Great post. I had those protective plastic shells too! A pointy look, huh? Better than the t-shirt I cut two holes out of and wore around the house. In front of my supportive yet dismayed and quite embarrassed parents-in-law.

  6. Karen permalink
    June 15, 2011 1:31 pm

    Meredith, this is The.Single.Best piece of writing on breastfeeding that I have ever read. And believe me, during my Crazy Time I read A LOT. I laughed I cried and plus you’re so right on. I was also reminded of nursing 16 times a day, for 20-30 mins at a time, and people wondered why it was a struggle to get out of the house- hah. And I, too, bared the rack in front of my in-laws. That’s just what happens during Crazy Time that seems to go on forever.

    I am going to send it to every breastfeeding mom I know- which at the moment isn’t many, but over the years, many women will read this because of me!

    Mia weaned herself at five months old when it became clear that my breasts could in no way keep up with demand, esp as I was back at work and she was growing so fast that if you watched her closely you could almost see it happen. But then three of my four godsons were nursed in a family bed until at least age 3. It really is all about the kid, and the relationship.

    *Before* I breastfed, I thought three was a little excessive, but hey, different strokes for different folks, she’s one of my best friends. Now I totally get it. I am a little sorry that Mia quit so early, but this is the same kid who regularly says “No kissing mommy, no touching.” It’s just who she is. We are still very close. It’s okay.

    You rock on. Henry too. See you soon.

    • June 15, 2011 2:42 pm

      thank you so much! (blushing) and if i did it with a different kid, i am sure that the experience would be different, just like if you did it with a different kid it would be different. it’s a fascinating topic!

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