Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The breastfeeding matador

One night, when I was seven months pregnant, I had a minor explosion. (I like talking about my pregnancy from the safe distance of motherhood; I can finally acknowledge that I rivaled Emily Rose from the “Exorcist” in terms of possessed behavior.)

My husband Charles was on the phone with his brother, Mike, who is a father of two. I was lying in bed, pillow under my knees, trying to make my way through the latest “Fit Pregnancy” magazine. Who was I kidding? I stopped giving a shit about being fit around month four when I surrendered—gleefully—to elastic waistbands. I overheard Charles tell Mike, “She’s going to try.”

“Try what?” I called. Nothing. “Try WHAT?” I yelled.

Charles stuck his head in the door and said, “Mike says breastfeeding is hard and that you shouldn’t feel bad if you can’t.”

At that moment I saw every imaginable shade of red known to man. “Why is Mike concerned about my breasts?” I hissed. “Do I give him tips on his testicles? Do I inquire about their activities?” Although I hadn’t lived in the bygone time of Ward and June Cleaver I suddenly longed for men who were content smoking cigars alongside their male counterparts; men who weren’t allowed in the delivery room; men who didn’t give a flying hoot about a pregnant woman’s flippin’ jugs!

Charles said goodbye to his brother and tried to calm me down. “He was just trying to help.”

“I don’t need his help! I don’t need anyone!”

It turns out I did need help. I tried breastfeeding my son at the hospital, but my wee little boobs held about as much milk as a raindrop. The lactation expert assured me that the lack of fluid was a side effect of my excess water retention (i.e., elephantitis), painkillers, C-section, and long labor. She told me my milk might take longer to come in. Then she thrust the breast pump at me and told me to go home and pump ’til I could pump no more.

Our first day home I tried offering my son my boob but he screamed.

“What about the women in the movies?” I cried. “It’s supposed to be like that.”

Charles handed me tissues and the pump. I hooked up the horrible contraption to my boob and hit start. To say it’s a robotic and sterile experience to have a plastic cup globbed on to your cleavage, sucking your nipple forward and backward, is an understatement. I pictured myself in the janitor’s closet at work, pumping on my lunch break. I cried harder. Charles was wonderfully sympathetic, given the fact that his brother had overheard my breastfeeding rant and was now scared to visit.

I pumped for 10 minutes. After it was over there was just enough to line the bottom of the bottle. It was the saddest accumulation of breast milk in the solar system. But Charles got the eye dropper and dutifully squirted out the three drops. My son, asleep, grimaced as they hit his tongue.

In the days that followed we awaited my milk coming in like it was the tooth fairy. But no matter how much I pumped or tried to breastfeed the same sparse drops dribbled out. I called the lactation experts. They told me to keep trying. I asked everyone I knew who had breasts what to do. They didn’t know. They sympathized but always managed to tell me that when they were breastfeeding, they had had enough milk to feed 10 children. How it shot across the room. How their child had to wear a bib it was so messy. So flowing. So bountiful.

I felt like an arid McDonald’s, empty hamburger wrappers littering the parking lot like tumbleweed. I felt like a failure. I had had such high hopes. I was going to be one of those women who whipped out my engorged breasts in public—with as much disregard as men who pee on the side of the highway—and if anyone even looked at me crooked I would burn my bra and shout women’s liberation war cries. I felt so cheated; I had wanted to be a breastfeeding matador.

Still, I gave it my all for three months. Every two hours for three long months. It might not have been a monsoon but at least it was a passing shower. Ok fine, it was a garden hose with a big crick in it. But you work with what you’ve got.

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