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Milk, tears and mastitis paranoia: Hazy adventures in early breastfeeding

mom breastfeeding baby- breastfeeding help
BONNINSTUDIO/Stocksy

“You should try to nurse her now,” suggests my midwife gently, after you are out and on the other side of me. After we catch our breath. Right, I think. Shouldn’t I have just done that, like, instinctually? They said I would do it instinctually. Are my instincts suppressed because I’m here? If we were alone in a field somewhere, would I know it’s time to nurse you?

I fumble around and guide you toward my nipple. You clamp on with surprisingly minimal effort from me. I stroke your thick, black hair, still damp and speckled with birth. “They don’t really like having their heads touched,” my midwife cautions. Oh. I stop touching your head.

Later, when all the doctors and nurses have gone, we finally get to rest and drink each other in. Other babies in the postpartum unit are screaming, but you are quiet, save for the occasional coo or hiccup. You move like honey, slow and sweet. You are an enchanting little animal. I stroke your downy arms, pillowed with rolls. I try to comprehend that it was you all along. I stare into the dark, warm galaxies that are your eyes. You stare back. I did not know such a black shade of blue existed. I did not know blue could feel so warm. They will brighten up later, but they will remain blue. They will move away from me later, but I will remain spellbound. You are the celestial body around which I will spend the rest of my days orbiting.

I am completely empty. I am completely full. All of us— you are part of “us” now—are exhausted in ways that do not seem humanly possible. Yet, it is the most human thing possible. We—you—sleep through the first night. Lucky us. The next day, the nurses tell me not to let you do that. They are right, but I won’t understand why until later. The lactation nurses are kind and helpful. They are impressed with how much colostrum I am making. It does not seem like a lot to me. You are latching fine, but won’t wake to eat. We express spoonfuls and syringe-feed you. You are so sleepy. It scares us. Try a wet cloth, they say. Try changing her. You sleep and sleep and sleep.

At home, I offer you milk often, but you don’t drink for very long. You sleep for hours. We syringe feed you before bed, just in case. We make a bottle at one point, because  we think maybe this will be more helpful than my warm skin, than soft breasts that smell like the place you lived for months, than the thing you were made to do. It works, but it doesn’t. I pump after you finally fall asleep because I am so painfully full. I probably shouldn’t do this.

At night, we set alarms to wake up and feed you every three to four  hours. You won’t feed on the left side. Or was it the right? I can’t remember. Later we will learn that you are tight and tense from birth, that you are uncomfortable and don’t want to be held in certain ways. My boobs are uncomfortably full.

It feels like this might never work. And then, it does work.

A week or two goes by. I call the lactation counselor, she comes and weighs you and gently touches my breasts. ”You need to get that milk out,” she says. She watches me bumble around trying to latch you until I start crying hysterically. “It gets better, so much better,” she says, and reminds me that we are learning a new skill—to be patient, to trust. This isn’t the violin, I think to myself. But she is right. Even a bottle, even a spoon, even a syringe is new. There is no skipping ahead past the learning curve.

You are getting plenty of milk. You are gaining weight beautifully. She suggests you may have a tongue tie, starts talking to me about pediatric dentists and chiropractors. I can’t handle that. Hang on, hang on I say, I just wanted help with her latch. They already checked for a tongue tie at the hospital. What does a newborn need a chiropractor for? I tell her that I don’t want to take my baby to a chiropractor.

We drive to DC. I take my baby to a chiropractor. She touches you with feather-light intelligence. She says you are very tight and urges us to get your ties revised because this could cause problems down the line. We say thanks and ignore her—for a while.

A couple more weeks pass and we are still breastfeeding. You have awful reflux, you throw up a concerning amount, sometimes you cry about it, sometimes it doesn’t bother you. I’m worried about jaundice. I’m worried about foremilk and hindmilk. My boobs are still painfully full. I am paranoid that I have mastitis. You are still carrying so much tension. I am still carrying so much tension. My shoulders feel like there are boulders hanging off of them. I don’t need to be so worried. We are finding our way. I call a different lactation consultant, this time an IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant). She comes on my 29th birthday. You are one month old. Someone texts me “happy birthday! and what are you doing today?!” I tell them I am getting help with breastfeeding. They write, “don’t let that lactation consultant tell you not to give the baby a bottle! Pump that milk and let Dad feed her every once in a while!”

The lactation consultant comes to my house with a take-charge, powerful sort of attitude. She likes my dog. I like her. She’s intimidating and lighthearted at the same time. She tells me casually about all of the places she’s traveled and all of the degrees she holds and all of the children she has and how she used to have a pet sheep who lived in her house. I decide I want to be her when I grow up. Later, I will be her intern.

She does not pander, pathologize or placate. She does not use my problems as an opportunity to share every single thing she knows about lactation. “This baby is fine!” she pronounces with comforting, dismissive certainty, in a European accent that I can’t quite put my finger on.

She laughs. At this time, you are managing to get something like 3 oz of milk in just a couple minutes of nursing, even with tongue and lip ties. She teaches me about block-feeding, tells me to throw my Boppy pillow out the window, shows me how to actually get comfortable and explains why that matters. She gives me a different Haakaa that fits better, comes up with some solutions for your crazy reflux, gives me permission to drink my coffee, makes me laugh a lot, tells me over and over how perfect you are—I get the sense that she actually means it. She tells me to take an Epsom salt bath with you. I wonder what this has to do with breastfeeding. I do it anyway, and then I understand. I ask her worriedly what the prickling pins-and-needles feeling is. “That’s the factory!” she trills. I marvel at how I can be so confused by my own body. I marvel at how my body doesn’t need me to understand it.

I want her to stay. I realize I feel completely alone, despite all of the support I have. I wonder how this can be true. I prepared so well for this—and still. So many people seem there, say they are there but are not actually there. The actual there-ness equals love. I need boots on the ground. She is boots on the ground. I bite back tears because she is helping, because I need help, because, on paper, I have help, but it is not the right kind of help.

You cry. I cry.

“And how are you doing?” she asks casually as she’s halfway out the door. She already knows the answer. This is a relief. I respond, “Not great,” chuckling, “but it’s getting better.” 50% honesty and 50% understatement. She invites me to walk the trails behind her house. I say thank you and I may take you up on that, but both of us know I won’t. I cry again when she leaves. She checks in the next day, and then the next.

Our nights look something like this: You go down easy in your bassinet, and wake up several hours later. Initial sleepy stirrings devolve quickly into distress. I pick you up and pad across the threshold into the dark living room. I pick you up because I have been waiting my whole life to pick you up, because my hands reach for you before my brain can decide whether to pick you up or not. I try to nurse you in the rocking chair, the chair everyone says is good for nursing. You get frustrated, more distress. I get back up, sway and slow dance and hum lullabies into your ears, guttural tones that bubble up unconsciously from some primordial place deep inside of me. I nurse you again, somewhere else. You cry. I cry. You cry because your body is uncontrollable. I cry because my body is uncontrollable.

I sleep in milky puddles. I used to be so containable. The uncontainability is what makes it beautiful—it’s beautiful because I don’t exist for myself anymore, because nothing exists for itself anymore, not this chair, not this body, not him, not me, not him and me. Rien n’est pareil.

Something ends up working. Every day, every night, somehow you eat, something puts you to sleep, something puts me to sleep. I don’t know how. More nights pass. I stop this unnecessary disruption of getting up and leaving the room, and practice nursing you in bed propped up on pillows. One night, we get you to latch while I am lying on my side. I cannot believe how comfortable and natural this feels. I try over and over to recreate whatever perfect conditions it took to make this happen. We keep practicing. It feels like this might never work. And then, it does work.

Eventually, I bring you into bed with me. After the first night, I wake up gripped by a profoundly primal connectedness to you, something I’d been waiting to feel for a few weeks. That first, cuddle-curled night heals me. Awake, gazing down at you sleeping, I am overcome with respect, a respect that is laced with guilt, awe and that sugary word that we must keep using—wonder. Your whole body conveys complete and utter safety. Arms akimbo, soft belly breathing, an expression that defines the word “peaceful,” cast across your face. You seem so wise. You are not just a blubbering blob needing to be quieted. You are not small. I think you must be what Rumi was writing about—“the universe in ecstatic motion.” The universe in ecstatic stillness.

I go to see the lactation consultant a few more times. She always wonders why I am there. Things get easier. I don’t know how. Latching, like magic, becomes second nature. The lumpy engorgement goes down, eventually. The reflux stops, eventually. I couldn’t tell you when, exactly. Things just get easier.