There is a deep chasm of fear and failure that separates the mother that I am, and the mother that I long to be.
When I was pregnant with Max, I was SO good at parenting that some days I amazed even myself. I took classes on breastfeeding and childbirth at a swanky private boutique mother’s club. I bought fancy nursing bras and cute little tank tops with tiny clips that would allow me to discreetly feed my baby in the ONLY WAY THAT NATURE EVER INTENDED. I was so confident about how natural and normal and easy breastfeeding would be, that I even made jokes about strippers and baring my breasts in public. Oh yes. I sure did.
When I was 8 1/2 months pregnant we sold our house in the city and packed everything up to move to the suburbs. Except our new house wasn’t ready yet. Minor details still had to be ironed out, like plumbing and cabinet doors, and oh yes, the mortgage paperwork?! So we lived in a hotel for almost 3 weeks. The hotel where our dog died, and then Max decided to flip around in my belly so that he was suddenly in the breech position.
Why am I telling you this?
Because you might be new here, for starters. But mostly because I blame all of these things for what happened next.
I delivered Max by C-section, because in my mind, it was the safest way out when your baby is ready to enter the world feet-first.
I don’t regret for one second that Max came into the world that way. Of course anyone who knows him also knows that this is how he bounds into any room…feet first. He was born healthy, and perfect, and while I did not split my girl parts open to bring him into this world (and I can’t say I’m bummed about that, honestly), I was awake and alert for every octave of his “hello, world!” first cries.
So what happened after that?
I. HAVE. NO. IDEA.
I have no idea.
I remember starting to shake. I remember my arms were tied out to the sides and I was freezing. I remember asking the anesthesiologist to tell my husband to move out of the way so that I could see my baby over there, and she laughed and said “That’s not your husband, that’s the doctor”. I remember Sean brought Max over to my face, and feeling his sweet baby skin against my cheek was the most complete I’ve ever felt in my life. I remember Sean asking if he could go with Max to the nursery, and me saying “Yes, yes please. Of course.” And then the doctor said “I can give you something for the shaking…” and then….
I remember nothing.
Telling you that, admitting that, breaks my heart open and spills it across my lap. It makes me want to throw up. Do you know how horrible that is, to not remember the first hours of your child’s first day on this earth?
I have pictures of me holding Max in the recovery room. I think that I remember that. Sean tells me I was there. But it’s like looking at pictures from your childhood. It’s possible that the memories don’t really live in your mind, they’ve just been entered in like data, because you’ve seen the pictures enough times to know the story.
5 or 6 hours later that day….that’s clear to me. I remember the drugs wearing off, and the nurse helping me up as I sobbed and sobbed. I remember wanting to be with Max every single second, to make up for the time that I had missed. I had carried him for 9 months in my belly, and even though I couldn’t feel anything from the chest down for those first few hours, I missed his little frogger body curled into mine. When night fell on our first full day together, I could barely walk, but I held on to the side of his bassinet and followed the nurse into the tiny office where she did his hearing check. “You don’t have to come with us” she said, in her kind, condescending way. “I’m going to go everywhere with you” I told her, and followed her back down the hall with my baby.
But what I don’t remember? I don’t remember nursing. I don’t remember feeding my child, and to this day, I’m not sure I did in those first 5 or 6 hours. I know that he was with me. Some of the time. I know that on the second day, when Susie came to visit, I nursed Max under a nursing cover for an entire hour. At least I think I was nursing. I’m not sure he was ever really, truly latched on in a way that would help him at all. But I remember watching the minute hand on the clock and thinking “Wow. This tiny baby is STILL nursing.” And then “I think I just fell asleep with my eyes open, and Susie and my mom just kept talking to me. Coooool.” So glad that I took the swanky expensive nursing class. Learning “the football hold” means abso-fucking-nothing when you are on drugs and delirious and your baby has no idea how to latch.
To say that I had a bad reaction to waaay too much medication, would be an understatement. My birth plan was being used as a coaster for the endless cups of apple juice they were plying me with.
So it wasn’t a surprise that on my 3rd morning at The Hospital Inn and Suites, we noticed that Max was trembling every time we held him. A quick heel-stick showed us that his blood sugar was dangerously low. Do you know what it feels like to think that you have been STARVING your baby? That this tiny child is going to DIE because you have no idea what you’re doing? And do you know how cute and small and EASY those little formula bottles are when you are scared and exhausted and BLEEDING FROM YOUR STAPLES and your nipples are red and raw because the lactation consultant came in and said “Yeah, if he’s still not nursing well tomorrow maybe someone should bring you a pump.”
Maybe someone FUCKING should.
Instead, they brought me formula. And more pain meds.
And because I hadn’t prepared for a C-section, and had just moved into a new house oh, 6 days ago, and our dog died while we were sitting there watching her, and I probably couldn’t even have told you my name if you asked because I was so doped up on god knows what…..I said “Yes, please”.
I figured I’d nurse when I felt better. I will never forget my mom pleading with me, sitting next to me on the couch, begging me to at least pump if I wasn’t going to nurse. And the 16 year old naive part of me crying and saying “I WILL Mom, I’m just so tired right now!”. She told me about supply and demand, about the learning curve of nursing, about how the more bottles Max took, the less he’d want to work at nursing. That nursing WAS harder, but it was worth it. I heard my friend Jenny in my head, reminding me that the first few weeks would be the hardest, but that it got better from there. I took out the pump that she had loaned me, and I hooked myself up. My mom brought me water, and snacks, and support. My husband held Max while I watched the tiny glistening droplets of milk fall into bottles that were still way too empty.
The hormones, the adrenaline let-down, the lack of sleep….they never got better. So I trudged through nursing, and supplementing with formula, and I pumped my never-engorged boobs off, and I would gingerly carry the bottles of breastmilk to the fridge, and put them away. 1/2 an ounce in each bottle. Only drops. I had missed the window. My milk had never been given a chance to come in. I hadn’t welcomed it with open arms. I hadn’t thrown it a little party, with balloons and streamers and cupcakes. I had shut the door on nursing, before I even realized what I had done.
When Max was 10 days old we took him to the lactation consultant at the swanky expensive boutique mom’s club. She couldn’t save us at that point, as hard as she tried. But while I was running to the restroom to cry my eyes out about how badly I had failed my son, my son was puking up formula exorcist-style over my mom’s shoulder and all down the back of the swanky expensive rocking chair in the swanky expensive mom’s club.
We had bigger fish to fry, my boy and I. Max was having major reflux, and we were just beginning our journey of belly-ache hell.
Would it have mattered if I had nursed him? Maybe. Probably not. What we know now is that Max has severe Reflux, Delayed Gastric Emptying, and probably some food allergies. I would’ve had to have gone on a severe elimination diet, and well, with the Post-Partum Depression and inability to even get dressed without crying…I’m not so sure I would’ve had the strength to eat a balanced diet that consisted of anything healthier than graham crackers and bagels with cream cheese. In fact, I was about a step away from either needing marriage counseling or the loony bin. So formula it was.
I’ve already told you how it felt for me to feed Max with a bottle. How when I came out of my post-c-section fog I was mortified that I was now one of THOSE moms. How I spilled the powdered formula EVERYWHERE one day at music class. How I had nightmares that I forgot to bring the bottle of perfectly distilled water in the diaper bag, and my baby starved to death. How I hid formula in Medela bottles so other moms would think it was breastmilk that I had pumped. How I tried 7 different formulas and 10 different brands of bottles, but it never mattered because Max puked everything up, whether it came out of an expensive Dr. Brown’s bottle or a cheapie Gerber one.
Max was thriving, and growing, and adorable, but he was sick.
And as time went on, I spent less time soothing my wounded ego and more time really talking to other moms I knew.
Turns out there are lots of us. There are tons of women who weren’t able to nurse, for one reason or another. In fact, some of them were feeding their babies bottles in my playgroup. I just never noticed because I was too busy looking at the ones unsnapping their cute nursing tanks with the tiny clips and clucking over their cooing, perfectly content babies. “Oh, he just won’t stop with the boooob” they’d lament. And I’d want to scream at them “Shut UP! Just shut the fuck up. Really.” Fuck you with your nursing tank top. Fuck you with your “I have so much milk I spray my baby in the face” stories. Shut. Up. You have no idea how blessed you are. You have no idea how much I hate you for not having to carry an extra-large diaper bag that will hold 3 bottles of water and 3 huge servings of powdered formula. AND your boobs are still huge, AND you’re losing weight because you’re nursing, AND the first ingredient in your breastmilk is not High Fructose Corn Syrup. So just unsnap your little tank top and shut.the.hell.up.
When Max was about 6 months old, someone whispered to me that it would start getting easier. “Now that he can eat other things, there won’t be so much focus on how he gets his milk.” they said.
Except he started throwing up his cheerios. And the avocado that I lovingly smushed up for him because that’s what my hippie-crunchy mama food handbook said to do. He puked up the rice cereal and the purees and pretty much anything else that we offered. When well-meaning folks suggested that we give him banana/applesauce/anything at all, we would sometimes give in just to prove to them that yep….there he goes…sorry…can I get you a wet paper towel so that you can wipe the vomit off of your shoes? Now next time, would you please just trust me, because I AM HIS MOTHER AND I KNOW WHAT HE NEEDS.
This feeding thing was AWESOME, y’all. And on top of feeling like I was doing it all wrong, I couldn’t stand to see my sweet boy in so much pain while he was eating. While he was just crawling around, minding his own business.
So we finally found a hypoallergenic, prescription formula that worked for him.
And at that point, I could’ve cared less what anyone thought. My baby was growing. My baby was getting healthier. My baby held my hand and twirled my hair while he drank a bottle in my arms, so put that in your pipe and smoke it all you Boppy-wearing mommies.
Max grew stronger, but his belly still wasn’t working properly. When he was about a year and a half, his team of GI doctors finally insisted that we stop solid foods all together. They asked us to only give him formula, for at least 3 weeks.
I argued with them. I cried out loud to them. I embarassed myself begging for them to reconsider. “He has come SO far.” I said. “He has done feeding therapy and occupational therapy. Won’t this set him back months?”
They insisted that it was the only way to finally determine, once and for all, what was bothering his system so much. Another mom on one of the GI message boards gently asked me “Does it really matter whether or not he eats solid food right now? If it’s making him so sick, then does it really matter?”
Those bottles gave him life, for 3 weeks. Those bottles nourished him, and energized him, and soothed him. My sweet boy cuddled in my lap and drank his bottle, and his belly started to heal.
My heart started to heal. It wasn’t about the Formula-Feeders versus the Lactivists. It wasn’t about my failures in those first few days of Max’s life. It wasn’t about the missed opportunities with his first pediatrician, or my frustration with the formula companies for making their rep leave cute little bottles in a cute little bag for every new mother in the maternity ward.
It was about feeding my child. It was about embracing the most important thing that we can do as a mother. Because feeding is about loving is about healing is about bonding.
It was about saving my baby.
It is possible to love a child back to health. It is possible to bond with a child over a bottle. It is possible to rest a tiny boy against your chest and have your love flow into him from the very deepest parts of your heart, instead of from your breasts.
The bottles are what saved us, in the end.
So you can see how it was hard for
me him to let them go.
A few weeks ago, we decided it was time.
But this was no ordinary goodbye.
Max is almost three years old, but this was not about bottles being for “babies”. This was about Max finally being healthy enough to survive without them. And as much as you might disagree with how we fed our child, this was about
me him letting go of the little moments. The curling up together in bed while he drank a bottle. His little fingers dancing across my wrist as I held him. The deep breaths that he took in between sucks. The content smile that helped him to drift off to sleep.
When we were finally ready, both Max and I, we took each bottle out of the cabinet and placed it in a bag. We said “Thank you bottles for taking such good care of Max. Thank you for keeping Max so healthy, and helping him to grow big and strong”. “Thank you bottles” I cried that night, as I set them gently in the garage. Thank you for helping him. Thank you for making him OK. Thank you for teaching me that love washes over our children, regardless of how we feed them. That it is my love for him that kept him alive, and the bottles that kept him fed.