Until I had to pump exclusively
It’s important to know that I was never that committed to breastfeeding in the first place. Toward the end of my pregnancy, I imagined I’d go three months, four max, then I’d reclaim my body, and the boy would hit the bottle.
I set this limit for several reasons. First, I’d hated every second of being pregnant, not so much for the physical discomfort as for the oppressive responsibility of it all. I was tired of wondering if I was irreparably damaging my child every time I cruised the cheese section of Whole Foods.
But I also disliked the self-congratulatory culture of modern pregnancy, as if getting knocked up and deciding to keep the baby were some rare accomplishment. I hated being addressed as “Mama” in the checkout line and being lectured on the amazingness of doulas and water births. And I really couldn’t stand the proselytizing of those overeducated “lactivist” moms I kept encountering. Breastfeed your child or don’t, but stop talking about it all the time!
Like many children of the late 1970s, I wasn’t breastfed even once. The closest I ever came to my mom’s boobs was in the dressing room at Macy’s, and I was totally okay with that. My brother and I both grew up to be intelligent and allergy-free, and the mother I remember was a lot more relaxed than many of the alpha moms of my acquaintance today, who spend their days in a frenzied competition to out-organic one another.
I wasn’t the type to prove my maternal devotion by the number of hours I carried my baby in a sling or the number of months I exclusively breastfed. Call me selfish, but I cared too much about my career. Sure, I wanted to give my son the best nutrition possible, but my scattered readings on the subject suggested that four months would imbue him with all necessary immunities and superpowers.
Then, after my son was born, something funny happened, or rather didn’t happen: breastfeeding. We just couldn’t figure it out. Either my nipples were too short, or his tongue was. Whatever the problem, he couldn’t latch. And oh, did we try!
In the hospital, we submitted to an elaborate hourly ritual under the observation of an on-staff lactation consultant. Leo would eagerly root toward my breast, just like the babies in the video. But then, after several desperate minutes of trying to latch, he’d fling his tiny head back and howl in frustration. An hour later, we’d go through the whole excruciating routine again.
While still in the hospital, when I wasn’t trying – and failing – to get the baby to feed off my breast, I started pumping to “establish my supply.” This, at least, I could manage. My problem wasn’t producing the milk but getting it directly from my body into my child’s.
Once back at home, we tried every possible method for making nursing work: nipple shields, syringes, a pediatric ENT specialist, a parade of outrageously expensive lactation consultants. But still no latching, and with every attempt, my son and I grew that much more miserable.
Though I’d never set much stock by the whole “breast is best” clich’, I soon came to feel like a failure as a parent and a person. Breastfeeding was the most natural act in the world, so why couldn’t I do it? There was suddenly nothing I wanted more than to succeed at this basic human chore: not fame, not wealth, not immortality. I just wanted to feed my goddamned baby.
Meanwhile, I was pumping for 20 minutes every 3 hours, eight times a day. I expressed enough milk to keep my baby fed and my freezer stocked and I took no small pride in that. At least I could do something right. But even 60 ounces a day wouldn’t have been enough to help me overcome my guilt about not breastfeeding. An article in TIME presented exclusive pumping as a “lifestyle choice,” a convenient alternative for the busy and/or self-conscious new mom. Yet almost all of the exclusive pumpers I’ve ever met have one thing in common: We pumped because, for one reason or another, we couldn’t breastfeed. And almost without exception, we felt like shit about it.
Though I badly needed friends in the city where we’d moved in my seventh month of pregnancy, I skipped the biweekly get-togethers of my neighborhood’s new moms group. Watching all those other mothers with their drowsy infants lolling happily beneath their nursing covers just hurt too much. It didn’t help that whenever I pulled a bottle out of my diaper bag these same moms would raise judgmental eyebrows at me before confessing that they, too, had struggled at first. I just needed to be more patient, that was all. I’d cringe, nod, then race back home to my pump.
Because I could never stray from my pumping station for long, on the rare occasions I left my house, I might as well have been going off to war between the diaper bag and that battleship of a breast pump I carted everywhere. I pumped in a bank parking lot, a Target handicapped stall, an Amtrak toilet. But it was the least I could do for the beautiful, sweet-natured creature I’d incubated; it wasn’t his fault his mother was such an anatomical reject.
Right around my son’s one-month anniversary on earth, just when I was beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, the all-pumping lifestyle wasn’t so terrible – that it might actually be more conducive to gender equality than nursing, since my husband had to handle the random night wakings while I stuck to a set schedule – I came down with a MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infection. And that “resistant” was no joke: I spent the next two weeks in and out of the hospital, with a temperature of 104 and a purple boob swollen to football dimensions.
But still I couldn’t stop pumping. Even in the ER, with an IV in my arm, I insisted on giving my son that ambrosial nectar of my breast milk. By my fourth course of ever-stronger antibiotics in a month, I did occasionally wonder if Bactrim-laced breast milk really was best, but by that stage, I was too committed – or crazed – to give it up.
Then, when my baby was ten weeks old, my husband left on a twelve-day business trip. I was home from the hospital by that point, and without my co-pilot to manage the antibiotics runs and bi-hourly wakings, I fell apart. Not even the football boob and fever could compete with my exhaustion.
A few nights before my husband’s return, and the first night my son slept six consecutive hours, I fell asleep with the pump still going. I woke up at dawn to the wheezing sound of empty tubes and nipples like exit wounds. In the Moses basket next to me, my swaddled son opened his eyes and smiled up at the ceiling. And as I untangled myself from the tubes and smeared yet another gallon of olive oil over my scraped-sore nipples, I finally understood that, in my pumping mania, I’d all but overlooked one crucial component of parenting: my child. My enslavement to the pump – the belief that not only was breast best, but that mothers fell into two camps, those who could breastfeed (the good) and those who could not (the evil) – was alienating me from the very creature I’d set out to nourish.
So I made an appointment with my OB/GYN, who examined my battered body and agreed that yes, I’d done enough. I left the office with a prescription for birth-control pills to cut off my milk supply, a coupon for organic formula, and my fifth bottle of antibiotics, just in case.
Did I feel liberated? Not at all. I felt more monstrous than ever. Some women pumped for five years to maximize their children’s chances in life, and in my pathetic selfishness I was giving up after barely two months!
Even now, almost two years later, I feel a twinge whenever I see a woman whip out her boob at the playground. Why couldn’t that have been me? I briefly fantasize about having another baby (could I maybe get it right the second time around?), before reminding myself that the dream of breastfeeding is possibly the worst reason to have another child. But then I look over at my son, roaring with laughter as he whizzes down a slide or shouting out a new word from the top of the jungle gym. My inability to breastfeed seemed so do-or-die when he was an infant, so all-determining. But I don’t think my strapping son has suffered in the long run, not even a little bit, from what I saw as such a horrendous deprivation at my hands. Breast milk or no breast milk, he couldn’t possibly have turned out any better, and these days that’s the only consolation I need.
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