I used to think I had a pretty good understanding of my body, including my chest. I know my way around a Victoria’s Secret catalogue; I’ve got a drawer full of bras of various colors, fabrics, and functions, from a pair of useless stick-on bra cups for strapless, backless tops to industrial bounce-proof running bras. Breastfeeding has shown me that I understood my boobs about as well as I understand the functioning of my spleen – not at all. Breastfeeding is natural, and so we assume it should come to us naturally. Natural should not be understood as a synonym for easy or painless or fast. Hangnails are natural. So are wicked flu viruses and zitty adolescent angst. After Axel was born, the two of us didn’t immediately snap in to a perfect, symbiotic breastfeeding relationship – it’s been a struggle.
Apparently, I have flat nipples. I’d never given them much thought prior to trying to breastfeed so, when the nurse first told me this, I wasn’t surprised, exactly, but I didn’t know how to react. Was that a good thing? A bad thing? A freakishly rare thing that could land me in the Guinness Book of World Records? In my case, combined with Axel’s overall wee-ness, it’s a challenging thing that meant we’ve been using plastic doo hickies called nipple shields to help him latch on. I’ve now had three visits with lactation consultants, and I am getting very comfortable having strange women grab my breasts and squeeze them into an aereola sandwich. Modesty ceased to be a concern when all that water was gushing out of me in the delivery room.
My baby seeks out something to latch his mouth on to like a mad zombie (only without the foaming and blood at the mouth), wildly wagging his head with a gaping mouth. Anything close to his mouth will do – his hands or sleeve, my husband’s non-functioning nipples, my cheek or shoulder. What he wants, of course, is my breast (preferably with the shield, not without), and he often goes from placildly sleeping and letting out adorable squeeks and moans to sudden, ravenous hunger. Hungry babies must have been the source of inspiration for a whole cast of zombie-playing actors.
Between pumping to bank away some milk and Axel’s recent frequency feedings, during which he’ll eat and then, 30 minutes after finishing, want to eat again, clustering three feedings into four hours, chaining me to the nursing chair and Boppy, I feel like a soul-less buffet. Maybe I’m delicious, and have an array of fantastic delicacies to offer babies, but I’m exhausted. Sure, there are moments while breastfeeding that I caress his fuzzy head and smother him with kisses, feeling that all is right with the world, even if there is a piece of plastic between my breast and my baby’s mouth. But there are other moments where my neck aches and it’s three a.m. and I’m overcome with unbearable thirst, and I just want him to hurry up already and finish eating. Unfortunately, babies are not reasonable. Axel doesn’t understand when I explain to him that he just ate, and that I want to eat, or sleep, or shower, and couldn’t he please wait just an hour or so to eat again? Of course, I give in to him. He’s the baby. He’s much cuter than me, and he cries a lot louder. He’s clearly in charge.
While nannying for a three and a six year old during graduate school, I took the kids on a trip to a working farm, where we watched a cow, moaning because of its bloated udders, get hooked up to a milking machine. The cow rolled her eyes back in her head, and her groans changed to sound relieved. I feel like that cow and I could really bond with one another, if she ever gains the ability to speak.
As soon as Axel’s tiny belly is full (temporarily), he lapses in to a luxurious food coma, slowly stretching his arms and wiggling his fingers, a secret sleepy grin crawling across his face. “You’ll never guess what I just had,” he seems to be thinking, “And it’s all mine. All mine!”
Sometimes he’s then awakened by what seems to be gas pains worse than anything the world has ever seen, judging by his writhing and squawks of protest. I don’t eat any cow’s milk products (another reason the cow above would like me), and I haven’t been going on broccoli binges, so I’m not quite sure what’s at the root of his pain. I’m considering tracking everything I eat, which will make me feel even more like nothing but a milk factory, but it might help get to the cause of his violent burps. As soon as the burps explode out of him, he lapses back into his full-bellied sleep, only to awaken 30 minutes or three and a half hours later, zombie mouth ready again to eat. We’re getting the hang of this breastfeeding thing, slowly, unnaturally working at it.