October 27th, 2010
Today at the Pump Station in Santa Monica, the epicenter of lactation worship, Sage, the counter matron, (okay, maybe her name wasn’t that New Agey – it might’ve been Peg), asked pointedly over my brand new Pump-In-Style breast pump just how long I intended to nurse my soon-to-be child.
“Well, I replied, girding my breasts, “I’m not actually sure I’ll be able to nurse, which is why I’m buying a pump.”
Sage/Peg was good, except for a slight intake of breath and the delicate flaring of nostrils; her outrage was kept in check. She seemed to sense any proselytizing would just make me stubborn, maybe even dangerous. She seemed to calculate which subtle, insidious approach would inculcate me into months, perhaps years of dexterous nursing.
Here I must make a confession. I didn’t breast feed my toddler Clare. I bottle-fed her my pumped breast milk. Just saying that makes me feel like I stand before the Nuremberg commission confessing a war crime. My defense lies in our birth story.
Clare was born via emergency C-section three weeks early because my placenta had pooped out causing Intra-uterine Growth Retardation since renamed “Restriction” so no fetuses would be offended.
She was a pitiful looking creature when I first saw her, tiny, mucousy and limp. She had a terrible APGAR score, which I somehow focused on more than the fact that she might not be alive. ”How can we get that score up? Do we need a tutor?” I can only hope this was a coping mechanism and not some form of sociopathic personality disorder.
They suctioned Clare’s lungs and she bleated. It was a reassuring bleat, if a bit thin. When they handed my burrito-rolled baby to me I expected primordial eye contact, my reflexive sob of joy, her beatific repose, the outside world receding to the point of a pin.
Instead Marty Feldman looked back at me, goggle-eyed and startled. I didn’t immediately recognize my baby in some profound way reserved only for mothers and began to suspect she was never going to be entirely mine. But before I could ruminate further about who this person might be, the first gauntlet was thrown.
“She’s got to latch!” the lactation nurse cried.
“But…she’s so tired and squished. She just got born,” I said as the doctors put my guts back in my body and stitched me up.
“She’s got to get the colostrum! The colostrum!” chanted the nurse, seeming not to’ve heard me. “It’s like 24 carat gold for the baby! She can’t miss out on the colostrum!” How could I have forgotten. The colostrum!
Wikipedia – Colostrum: ”First milk. Colostrum has a mild laxative effect, encouraging the passing of the baby’s first stool, which is called meconium. This clears excess bilirubin, a waste product of dead red blood cells…which helps prevent jaundice. Colostrum is known to contain antibodies called immunoglobulins IgA, IgG and IgM (and the Lost Ark of the Covenant).”
It was a given that if my baby didn’t get the colostrum (which is as ephemeral as the fruit fly) she’d be sickly most of her life, suffering everything from red eye to flesh-eating bacteria. She’d have the intelligence of the Cro-Magnon Man and would never bond with me, ultimately committing matricide with a candlestick in the parlor.
Getting the colostrum and then the milk from my breasts into Clare’s body became as harrowing as Frodo getting the One Ring back to Mount Doom in Mordor. There were around-the-clock nurses grabbing my breasts and pinching my nipples and trying to shove them into my sleeping babe’s mouth. Then there was the trying-to-wake-the-baby-enough-so-she-could-eat torture. She’d just been floating snugly in warm amniotic fluid and was now being stripped naked and doused with cold drops of water.
“You’re water boarding my baby!” I wanted to scream.
I worried this five pound three ounce infant might lose weight because she’d fall asleep after two sucks on a breast that was twice the size of her entire body.
My husband Henry and I drove straight from checking-out of the hospital to see a lactation specialist at our new pediatrician’s office. We’ll call her Nurse Ratched.
“Remove your blouse,” Nurse Ratched ordered, her lips lined like a wooden marionette doll. She appraised the goods. Of my nipples she said, “Inverted, but not impossible.” Inverted? Whaa…? I wanted to tell her that Lance Pomeroy, the first boy to feel me up, didn’t seem to notice.
“You’ve just got to get in bed and keep this baby on your chest,” she said, “The two of you naked, flesh to flesh, give her time to figure it out, even if it takes hours, days. And no supplements, if she gets hungry enough, she’ll figure it out.” If she gets hungry enough?
We told Nurse Ratched we’d hired a night nurse for the next week or so to help me pump and feed the at night. ”There’s a Baby Bucket,” she sternly informed us, “And there’s a Parent Bucket. It sounds like you’re filling the Parent Bucket, not the Baby Bucket. What your baby needs is you, not a night nurse.”
“I’ll be there,” I said, “the whole time, but I’ve never even babysat. I need someone to show me what to do.” And Henry was no better. In the hospital he’d mistaken an 80-percent alcohol hand wipe for a diaper wipe. Clare’s butt looked like a three-alarm fire.
“Your instincts will tell you what to do,” Nurse Ratched advised. ”The healthiest thing for a child is to be with her mother, to have her mother’s milk. That’s filling the Baby Bucket.” I wondered why the Parent Bucket and the Baby Bucket had to be mutually exclusive.
Then, for good measure, Nurse Ratched popped our baby’s hip out of joint just to make sure the chart from the hospital was accurate. ”Yep, dislocated hip, she’s gonna need a Wheaton Pavlik harness.”
I snatched my screaming baby from her, trying to soothe Clare while I imagined Nurse Ratched as a sacrificial victim atop Montezuma’s altar.
When she left us alone in the room I asked my husband, “Is it just my hormones, or is she an asshole?” ”Asshole,” he said, confirming I was right to marry him.
As we exited the check-up room with Clare en-fortressed in her baby carrier, we passed Nurse Ratched at the nurse’s station, a good thirty pounds overweight, shoving a double cheeseburger from Jack-In-The-Box down her throat. Don’t get me wrong, it was all I could do not to tackle her and wrest that burger from her clutches and devour it myself, but catching someone who preaches nutritional health chowing down on junk food was almost as satisfying as busting a self-righteous Evangelical minister buying meth from a male prostitute.
For three months I pumped and fed Clare my breast milk. She became a very fat baby. There was crud in her neck we couldn’t get to because her cheeks were too fat. She grew a few mushrooms in there. Some okra. But after three months of making love with that infernal hospital-grade pump I was D-O-N-E done.
I think the reason I reacted so negatively to Nurse Ratched was because I had no confidence yet as a mom. I was worried she might be right about me and the Parent Bucket. That in hiring a night nurse and not breast feeding I had demonstrated I was a mother who didn’t love her child enough, wasn’t willing to sacrifice enough, was exactly the kind of privileged, selfish, scabrous, under-a-rock-dwelling mother found on some Real-Housewives-Of-Somewhere reality show.
I paid Sage/Peg for my Pump-In-Style breast pump. ”Nursing’s a learned skill,” she said as I tried to skulk away, “It doesn’t come naturally like people might tell you, so if you need to pump don’t kill yourself over it. But if you need some help, some encouragement in breast feeding you can call me anytime.”
She offered me her card. I hesitated, then took it.
Outside in the car I caught my breath and allowed the perceived persecution to die away. I knew I didn’t want to throw my breast milk out with the bath water just because some mean ladies had made me feel inadequate. I tried to find my humility again and said a little prayer, despite my agnosticism, that I might find my own way to nursing. Not a capitulation or dog-and-pony show to please the zeitgeist, but rather my own modest attempt to celebrate this child.
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