Giving Her What She Needs
“I told Daddy to shave his chest and grow breasts that could give me delicious milk like yours,” my daughter informed me when I returned home from a conference.
M. is currently three-and-a-half and we are in the midst of a long, slow weaning. Though I sometimes despair she is a nursaholic, I see the irony of my frustration. When M. was born, my milk never came in. Like many of the women who have shared their stories, I watched her “nurse” for five days, sucking at nothing with what many consultants pronounced a “beautiful latch.” Jaundiced and dehydrated, Mira ended up in the PICU and we found ourselves in the middle of a nightmare.
I remember crying when the nurse fed her formula, because the lactation consultant had referred to it as “poison.” I pumped while we watched her in the light box receiving treatment to remove the bilirubin from her jaundiced body, and my milk formed a film at the bottom of two vials. I can’t describe the shame and insufficiency that flooded me when the nurse said, “that’s ALL you got - ?!?” How could my body not provide her with this “natural” nourishment? The thought that I had watched her slowly wither away, believing I was nurturing her, still terrifies me.
We returned home and launched rounds of pumping and nursing and charting and SNSing to try to establish a flow. It took M. 45 minutes to feed. I pumped for 25 minutes after that, while my partner syringe-fed her an earlier pump plus inches of pasteurized milk from a milk bank. Then we had a 15-20 minute window before we began the cycle again. We did this for four weeks, around the clock, except for one two-hour stretch at night. We were like bots.
I prayed that my pump would match the amount of milk M took from Dave. If I could pump more than she drank from the jars, we could stop our insane routine. I found myself begging Dave to give her only a little so that my supply might catch up. Caretaking my breasts was replacing caring for her. The milk others had seemed magical – an easy flow that responded to their babies’ needs. I fantasized that one day I could hold my baby to my breast and trust that my body was giving her what she needed. Then, I would be the mother she deserved. In my haze, nursing had become mothering.
Finally, our doctor shared I could take Reglan. Why didn’t she mention this sooner - ? We watched my vials of pumped milk get larger by the hour. After five days, we stopped visiting the milk bank – which never charged us for the milk M drank.
I stayed on Reglan for 18 months and let M. nurse whenever she wanted. At the supermarket…? She must be hungry – nutrition was the most important thing, right? Fussy in the middle of the night - ? I thought of her in the lightbox and pulled open my nightgown. Once I literally ripped my dress open to feed her, terrified the 15-minute car-ride home would throw off my supply.
Proponents say nursing is “free” but I am grateful to Sarah Blackwood and others for pointing out that women’s time is not free. The book I have been writing and my social life and sleep and sometimes my sanity came second to feeding my daughter, on the dot, for two years. That was my choice – my privilege, really. When, after her second birthday, I ventured out without her for more than three hours at a time, I felt light. Also: I could wear dresses again!
M discusses nursing a lot. The second time I tried to read her Maggie’s Weaning, La Leche League’s children’s book, she threw it across the room. “No!! That is NOT a good book!” On a sick day, she informed my right breast that it had a fever and shouldn’t touch the left one. “Don’t share your germs, breast,” she remonstrated gently. She used to “pretend nurse” from Dave and then nurse for real from me. Then she’d pretend one breast was mommy and the other was her dad: she’d pretend nurse from the dad-breast and then nurse for real from “mom.”
About three months ago, a flight attendant shouted at me for breastfeeding on the plane. Suddenly, I became the center of attention. I wanted to sink into the floor when a man weighed in that the flight attendant was “well within her right” and that if I didn’t want to adhere to Delta’s rules, I could always “drive and not fly.” He knew how to calm a child without needing to resort to breastfeeding, he explained – implying that her cries spoke volumes about my deficient parenting.
The pendulum had swung the other way. Nursing wasn’t mothering any more – now, it apparently meant I was a failed mother. I remain furious at him – since when were those who don’t nurse entitled to make rules about feeding children? (Since always, maybe…) But my encounter shocked me into recognizing I was no longer really feeding my baby. And that I could give her what she needed without using my breasts. I wish I’d known that all along.