Feed Your Children Well


My eyes are up there.

When my first daughter was born, I knew everything.

I knew exactly how we were going to raise her philosophically and practically. I was well-read and well informed of all the best, modern parenting practices and was ready to enact the most effective means of implementing them. I knew how we'd schedule our days to include maximal intervals of sleeping, eating, changing, playing, reading, singing, educational verbal communication, physical and kinesthetic development, nature exploration, sensory stimulation and recovery therefrom, synaptically beneficial massage, attachment time, and independent time, all to the tune of edifying Classical music (except for when we were aurally exploring the wonders of foreign language instruction, of course). And I knew, more than anything, that I would breastfeed that baby like the educated, dedicated, natural, human mother that I was.

I knew that I would nurse my baby the same way that I knew that gravity was real. And, with the same confidence that has never motivated me to prepare for gravity's cessation, it never occurred to me to prepare for an inability to nurse as my daughter's due date approached. For all of the time and energy my Smartner and I spent shopping, nesting, reading, and researching what to expect when we were expecting, we both took the visible, physical abundance of my breasts to indicate an eventual abundance of milk. We bought a breast pump and a few bottles for the bounty of milk that I'd inevitably produce for my Smartner to feed our daughter (purely for recreationally bonding experiences - my sweater puppies were obviously destined to become work horses), but we bought no formula. Formula was for the uninformed or those whose work precluded the possibility of their diligent pumping, transporting, freezing, storing, thawing, and delivery of breastmilk. Formula was not for my child.

Until we accidentally and with all good intentions almost starved our daughter.

I have no idea what's happening here.

When our baby girl was finally born after hours of hard labor via a scary emergency C-section, I slapped her to my breast and nursed her like a pro. I think. I mean, I remember none of this thanks to the heavy doses of narcotics swimming through my wracked body, but I have photos and video that attest to this truth. And I remember, hazily, a visit from a ham-fisted hospital lactation consultant who woke my sleeping baby and took her from me to demonstrate how to nurse, which only caused my newborn to scream uncontrollably until she was back in my arms. The consultant apologized, left, and, shamed, didn't return, even upon request.

So, I turned to my nurses to help me figure out whether my new baby was latched correctly or properly flanged or getting anything besides snuggles from our nursing sessions. Their strategy was to shove her tiny mouth to my enormous breast, and say "There you go!" before checking out my vitals and heading back out. Things seemed fine. The baby cried, but don't all babies? And people kept talking about my milk coming in, and, sure, it must be, right? How could it not? And we went home with our little girl, my big boobs, and our assumption that the three were getting along great.

It wasn't until a couple days later when my Smartner noticed in between making sure I got my meds on time and the baby was well taken care of that she was sleeping a lot. A whole lot. For uninterrupted hours on end, and even through one night. I was dazedly and vainly proud of my daughter's excellent sleeping skills, but he knew better and called the pediatrician right away. We went in to the doctor's office within an hour of his phone call, where we found out that our little girl had lost weight - too much weight - since our discharge from the office. It was with real shock and awe that I fed her that first emergency, doctor-provided bottle of formula and realized that she was weak from hunger and thirst, not a good sleeper. That she was quietly failing to thrive, not a preternaturally calm infant. That for all of their girth and weight and mass, my breasts had never filled and still remained empty of nourishment for my daughter.

We would wait for that mythical milk, we decided. We bought formula at the grocery store (I was so unprepared for this that I kept repeating "You can just buy it in stores? It's just in stores like normal milk?" even though I had babysat formula-fed babies before and was a formula-fed baby myself.) and hired an independent lactation consultant to come to the house for regular infant weigh-ins and lactation coaching. What followed was a sad blur of failures. We slowly dripped formula from a syringe that my Smarter would hold above my shoulder. The formula would then inch through a plastic tubed taped to my body, its terminus attached to my nipple via a precarious Band-aid-and-nipple-shield contraption. The idea was that I would hold the baby, who would learn to suckle the milk from my "breast" while we waited for my milk to come in. Ever a smart Smartling, our daughter quickly learned that if she lay inert and unsuckling that we'd eventually just shoot the milk into her mouth via this device to both keep her from starving and so we could get some sleep. In between syringe-feeding sessions I'd attempt to pump. But, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, "there was no there there." My funbags remained just that, their transformation into feedbags a stunted dream.

So we dismissed the lactation consultant (who kept repeating that not breastfeeding was our choice, that we were choosing to opt for formula, that we were choosing to quit) and threw the syringe and tubing away. Then, after a night during which I cried out all of my grief at my failure, my frustration and anger at my body's impotence, we embraced the formula. We bought flats of the stuff from Costco and phalanxes of bottles took over our kitchen counter and never looked back.

And this is why I want to high-five Adele for strongly tackling Jamie Oliver's recent embodiment of all the pressure put on new mothers to nurse. Because the belief that nursing is easier and more convenient only holds for the cases when it's possible, when it's not painful, and when the nursing mother is able to bend her work and life schedule around the rigors of nursing. And the notion that nursing is free is only applicable in cases where the nursing mother's time otherwise has no monetary value. And the idea that it's natural and intuitive remains valid only so long as the mother and baby are able to work together to get the milk from the mother's body into the baby's body. That's a lot of if's, people, none of which applied to me, nor, apparently, did they apply to Adele during her attempts to nurse her son. Because what was easy, natural, and intuitive about nursing to others would, without intervention and eventual discontinuation, have killed Adele's and my babies.

When my second daughter was born, I knew nothing.

After the trauma of failing to breastfeed my first daughter, I informed my OBGYN during a routine prenatal appointment that I wasn't able to nurse and wasn't going to try. She encouraged me to give it a shot and quit if I had to. I lied when I told her I would. I boldly told my nursing friends that I wasn't cut out for it and wouldn't attempt it. They told me to experiment with it, and I again lied when I told them that I would. And, after she was born, I only allowed the labor and delivery nurse to put my sweet baby girl to my breast to humor her, fully intending to demand formula the minute the morphine wore off and I could reliably self-advocate.

And that's when the magic happened.

We had the same haircut!

I don't know what was different this time, or what change had occurred, but my younger Smartling and I were a nursing match made in heaven. She latched flawlessly, I was only uncomfortable for about 2 weeks, and we never needed any assistance other than that of my Smartner as I demanded drinks and snacks while our little girl sucked the calories out of me. In a defensive maneuver designed for self-protection, I declared that if I ever had any conflict with nursing or any negative feelings about it, I'd quit. But I never did. My little girl and I never had any problems working together to make the collaboration of breastfeeding work, and so we continued until she staged a nursing strike at 10 months. Never a Pinkerton at heart, I didn't break it, and instead we switched to frozen breastmilk and formula in bottles until she switched to cow milk at 12 months. It was a beautiful romance and a smooth breakup, with no regrets on either side.

And so, experientially, yes I fall on the side of breastfeeding advocates. Because it can be a beautiful and edifying nutritional bonding experience for mother and babe. And, yes, it can be easy and convenient and free and all that jazz.

But only when it is. That's why I also fall on the side of mothers telling breastfeeding advocates to get the fuck off of our backs because sometimes it's impossible physically, and often it requires a Herculean effort logistically. I appreciate the intention of breastfeeding advocates, and I know that Jamie Oliver, et al, mean well. But perhaps it's a better move to advocate for pumping rooms and breaks, the widespread adoption of laws guaranteeing mothers' right to nurse in public, and paid maternity leave to encourage the establishment and continuation of breastfeeding. Because smugly telling women that it's easy to pop a nipple in a baby's mouth and nurse on, sister, ignorantly denies the effort involved in nursing. It diminishes what is work and assumes a possibility where one doesn't always exist.

In her book Yes, Please, Amy Poehler argues for adopting an acceptance of others' choices that she terms "Good for her! Not for me." And that's roughly how I feel about nursing these days. Obviously the "Not for me" applies since I'm not nursing, so, whether you're nursing or formula feeding, let me just say "Good for you!" You feed those babies, mamas, however you possibly can, and I will high five you and bring you snacks and drinks whenever you need them. (Bonus points for getting others to feed them while we go get snacks and drinks together!)

I know how hard feeding babies is, Smarties, whether it's from your body or from a can, and I offer nothing but respect and support for the whole endeavor. Up top, Smarties. Feed on.