I can no longer make promises about my writing.Two years into single parenthood and I have had no luck re-establishing a writing practice. After writing the essay below, it occurs to me why. I decided to parent my daughter in a way that’s been pretty all-consuming. We co-sleep, we still breastfeed. These things are not conducive to awesome, hour-connected sleep. Two years of sleep deprivation is not conducive to a creative, time-rich person. I will write and share when I can, stealing hours from sleep when I can ignore what it does to me, and stop berating my self for not being in an MFA for creative writing already. I’ll get there when I get there.
At one of my mid-pregnancy appointments, I asked my doctor about my breasts. “Are they ok? I mean, shouldn’t they be getting bigger or fuller? Shouldn’t they hurt?” She shook her head, “Some women’s breasts don’t change much, and most go on to be able to successfully breastfeed. I don’t think there’s any cause for concern at this point.”
And I didn’t give it another thought.
When my daughter was born, my mom caught her and placed her on my chest. Within ten minutes, she wiggled down to my left nipple and began to suckle. I laughed at my immediate inclination to remark on her exceptional cleverness. I knew she was doing instinct’s bidding, and yet.
She was perfect, and she was hungry.
She nursed for hours that first time. I imagined the thick, nourishing colostrum moving into her body and preparing her digestive system for the milk that was destined to engorge my breasts in the coming days. I was in awe of this process, perfected by centuries of evolution, innate as breathing. I’d always wanted to be a mom, from as early as I can remember. Finally, I’d entered the ancestral community of women who grow humans out of newborns with only the milk made inside our bodies. A powerful inheritance.
The lactation consultant came the morning we were going home from the hospital. She took my girl’s weight and looked concerned, “She’s lost too much weight. Your milk hasn’t come in yet. It’s not uncommon for milk to come in three, four, five days out, so not to worry, but you need to get her on some formula even as you continue to breastfeed, until your milk comes in.”
The tears came fast and hard. This was not in my plan. I don’t judge moms who decide to use formula for any reason, but I wanted to breastfeed. While I was pregnant, I would often dream about lying in bed, my baby stretched out beside me, nursing, breathing, existing together as a system. I did not want to formula feed, but what choice did I have? I tried to tell myself it wouldn’t be long until I’d be exclusively breastfeeding, but I thought of how my breasts had never changed, not one bit, and a part of me knew.
The next week was a blur of lactation consultant appointments, doctor’s visits, tracking feedings, taking herbs and drugs every few hours, acupuncture treatments, craniosacral therapy for the baby, craniosacral therapy for me, long crying jags for both of us, next to no sleep, and my most hated activity of that time: pumping mere drops of milk every two hours, a futile effort at tricking my mammary glands into thinking they had twins to feed.
Every other day, we did weigh-feed-weigh tests at the lactation consultant’s office. It was always the same: I was only producing about an ounce of milk per feeding, not enough to sustain my baby. I couldn’t make milk. I couldn’t feed my baby from my body alone. I felt betrayed by my breasts. Because of them, I had failed at my primary job of motherhood. This wasn’t going to get better.
I don’t know how long I cried the day I realized my milk wasn’t going to come in. At some point that day, with my skinny little newborn in one arm, I emailed a few women I’d been pregnant with who’d had their kids before me, asking if they had any extra breast milk. They forwarded my email to other moms with new babes, and within 48 hours, my freezer was full of donated breast milk.
My lactation consultant rigged us up with a system where I could nurse my daughter so she’d get whatever I was making, while tiny tubes taped to my nipples, and fed by a bottle, carried the donated breast milk into her mouth. I imagined these half a dozen or so women in my town, some I knew, some I’d never met, hooked up to breast pumps, watching their milk fill up the little bottles, knowing it would go to my daughter, happy to be able to nourish her, and comfort me, as we adjusted to our new reality. We made it eight full weeks almost entirely on gifted breast milk, and many more months supplementing formula with periodic “liquid gold” donations. Milk sharing isn’t for everyone, but it gave my girl nutrients that formula and I couldn’t, and possibly as important, it eased my desolation.
At my six-week post-partum doctor’s appointment, I asked my doctor if she remembered telling me that even though my breasts had not changed during pregnancy, that I should be able to breastfeed. She did. I started to cry big, heaving sobs. I couldn’t help it. She said, “There was no way to know then that you’d be an exception to the rule. I’m so sorry it didn’t work out the way you wanted it to. It’s really, really unfair.” I wanted to be mad at her, to make her responsible, but I was too tired and too sad to be angry.
I thought I would never make peace with my breasts. I thought that seeing them would always trigger in me the despair I’d been feeling since my girl was born. But to my great surprise, my daughter fell in love with my boobs, even though there was hardly anything in them for her. She learned to latch on, tube and all, and go to town. I’d watch in amazement her tiny lips, parted just enough to see her thin, lapping tongue against the bottom of my breast. I’d feel my nipple stretched and pressed flat against the roof of her mouth. The warm formula radiated into my skin through the taped tube. Her eyes would flutter, her tiny chest would rise on the inhale, drop with a sigh on the exhale, her body melting into my arms. I experimented with bottle feeding the formula, then breastfeeding without the tube system, and my girl still wanted boob. I began taking nursing selfies, proof I could look to later to confirm it wasn’t some sleep-deprived hallucination.
My daughter is two now, and we still breastfeed. I can’t find the will to wean her. I do all the “wrong” things: I nurse her on demand, to sleep, and through the night, I whip out my breasts anywhere and everywhere, I feel tingly with pride when she asks in public, “Mama, boob, pwease.” My breasts didn’t work the way they should have, but I managed to build the feeding relationship I’d wanted with my girl anyway. I just don’t give a fuck what other people think about it. My breasts redeemed themselves, and they deserve all the publicity they get.