I recently published a story in the newly released book of essays, “Have Milk, Will Travel: Adventures in Breastfeeding” edited by the wonderful Rachel Epp Buller. The essays chronicle, well, breastfeeding stories, in all their glory. They are kindly letting me republish my essay, “My Broken Boobs,” if I let you guys know you can purchase this fantastic collection on Amazon or at Demeter Press or by requesting it at your local bookshop. I’m excited to be published on actual paper, and I’m even more excited that my first publishing is about my boobs.
My Broken Boobs
When it comes to babies, there are just so many choices. Co-sleeping or crib? Disposables or cloth? Breastmilk or formula? Before I had a child, I always thought that I would breastfeed. All the research said it was best, provided a special bonding time unique to only you and it was free. I especially liked the free part. Nursing, I decided, was the best choice for me.
I also wrongly assumed that it was a choice.
So when I welcomed a daughter in June of 2011, I was mentally ready to go. I had read the articles, talked to friends and bought the pump. When my hopes for an all-natural, drug-free birth (HA HA HA HA!) went down the drain after too many hours in labor with not enough results, my kiddo was born by c-section, face-up and blue.
She was whisked away to the NICU where she spent five days working out a few issues. In the meantime, I recovered from a hellish labor and surgery in my hospital room three floors above her. Definitely not the birth story I had imagined. I was wheeled down to visit her every three hours for feedings. It was there in the NICU that I nursed my daughter for the very first time. She latched on fabulously. No problems there! The problem was, she was getting very little milk.
The nurses told me this was normal and that my milk should be coming in any day now. They advised me to pump to help things along. So I pumped. And pumped. And pumped some more. Each time, the small cylindrical bottles remained nearly always empty. Again they told me this was normal and that it takes some women a little longer for their milk to fully come in.
So I kept pumping and was able to eek out about an ounce from each breast. And every three hours, I carried my measly ounces of breast milk down to the NICU and carefully attached the nipple, as if it were a magical, rare serum. Priceless. Unicorn tears. I gave her the tiny bottle, imagining that these few drops for which I had pumped for so long would hit her tongue, roll down her throat and suddenly, beams of light would shoot out her ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes. Just like all the books said, breast milk was amazing! I could hear her brain cells multiplying, especially the math ones. She opened her blue eyes and had x-ray vision. Looking down at my angel, I wondered how I would teach her to control her super powers as a young child. Punching through her kindergarten walls. Would the other children ostracize her because she was so much faster and smarter than they? These were things we’d just have to deal with when the time came, I thought, smiling down at her.
And then the nurse handed me the second tiny bottle. Until my milk came in, I had to supplement her feedings with—gasp!—formula. The f-word. She took the bottle with equal vigor as the breast milk and then came back for seconds. Oh no, I thought. What if she gets used to the formula before my own milk comes in? I could hear her brain cells shrinking and deforming. Her eyes glazed over and she stared off at nothing in particular. Would she be the kid in class who always stuck things in her nose? That kid? I could hear her now, coming home from school saying, “Mommy, I want to be a Reality TV star.”
Damn you, formula! Come on, boobs! Work!
I pumped harder. More frequently. I talked to the lactation specialists. I started taking Fenugreek and Blessed Thistle herbal supplements. Drinking special herbal teas. I nursed. I pumped. Friends offered advice, ranging from yoga positions to skin-to-skin contact to “just relax.” Still, only a few drops were left at the bottom of the bottle after all of our collective efforts.
After five days in the NICU, I could finally bring my new baby home. She was healthy and beautiful and perfect. My boobs, however, were still big, lousy disappointments.
I was a big, lousy disappointment.
One bizarre thought kept passing through my brain. I couldn’t help but imagine that it was 10,000 B.C. and here I was, in my cave. The baby’s corner had been all decked out in the softest regional animal pelts and the surrounded walls had all been painted with the most colorful dancing bison and spear-wielding figures. My pet dinosaur had been sleeping with the baby’s loincloth for a week now to get him used to her smells. (I know that’s not historically accurate, but it’s my fantasy and I can have a pet dinosaur if I want.) Everything was perfect! Yet all this meant nothing if I could not do the one thing that she needed most. I couldn’t feed her! Without my milk, she simply wouldn’t survive long enough to enjoy her mobile of dried flowers hung from the stalactites above. She would never gather her first berry nor make her first fire. I realized that it wasn’t, in fact, 10,000 B.C. We had modern medicine and formula and ways to foil stupid, uncooperating nature. But that wasn’t the point.
The point was that I was a failure at the single thing that was most important to me. I was a failure as a mother.
Maybe it was the hormones or the sleep-deprivation, or perhaps simply my stubbornness, but I wouldn’t give up. I couldn’t accept that my body was just not going to produce milk. I kept trying. Kiddo was a champ at latching and sucked unbelievably hard. Maybe she was getting more milk than I thought she was? How could one really tell, anyway? My god, does she suck hard! My nipples hurt, but that was normal, right? I kept at it.
On the fourth day home from the hospital, I was nursing Kiddo in bed. She had sucked for a long time before I balanced her on my lap with one hand and burped her with the other. One good burp. And then it happened. My tiny baby projectile-vomited all over me, all over herself, all over the bed. A massive amount. My brain processed this quickly and realized that this was not your normal post-feeding spit-up. It was red. Blood red.
Something was very wrong.
In the car speeding to the hospital, I tried to focus. She’s going to be okay, I thought. She’s going to be fine. But the terror was beyond anything I had experienced. Were these the quiet moments before the storm? Before one’s world is turned upside down with a horrible, life-altering diagnosis? Would there be hospital stays? Procedures? Grim conclusions? Would people say, “Did you hear about Jill’s baby? It’s so sad.” Was this the moment that everything changes?
Oh please let her be okay. Please. I’ll do anything. Please just let her be okay. None of it matters anymore, not the formula, not the soft animal pelts, not the future love of reality TV shows. Even if she sticks things in her nose as a child, especially if she sticks things in her nose as a child. Just please be okay. Please oh please, oh please let my baby be okay.
At the hospital they ran some tests. The doctor finally came in the room with the results.
“She’s going to be okay,” he said. “It’s not her blood. It’s your blood. STOP BREASTFEEDING.”
I sat there stunned. As it turned out, Kiddo had a damn good latch after all. Though I had no evidence of cracks or bleeding, she had been sucking so hard that she was sucking my own blood. My baby was a vampire.
We went home. I zipped up my expensive breast pump and put it in the garage. I threw out the Fenugreek and the breast milk storage freezer bags and the nursing bras and the nipple cream (okay, I kept the nipple cream). I microwaved Kiddo a bottle of formula. She happily gobbled it up.
My boobs eventually dried up and deflated. I had lost the breastfeeding battle. Turns out, it wasn’t a choice after all.
And, if I were to be completely honest, there was a tiny part of me that was relieved. Breastfeeding is hard. Though I was ready for the commitment that it took, part of me was glad that I had a reason that would be seen as valid by most all mothers why I formula-fed. “Well, at least you tried,” the hardcore Earth Mothers would say. “Meh, you’re better off,” the Team Formula moms would advise.
As for me? I think about how I was given formula as a baby, as were many children of the ’70s and ’80s. And I turned out pretty okay, right? Right? As I watch my now-toddler name all of the colors of the rainbow and then try to jam the entire remote control into her mouth, I realize she’s going to be just fine. Because in the end, it really doesn’t matter what you choose, or even if it was a choice or not. We put far too much pressure on ourselves to do what’s Right, even when there is no such thing as Right to begin with. What matters is not your best laid plans. Not your stupid, broken boobs. What matters is that smile. That laugh. That she’s happy and healthy and on her way to sticking things up her nose and living to tell about it.