[originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review, Volume XXXVIII, No. 1]
BREAST IS BEST
Before I became a mother, I was naive enough to believe that the breast and the bottle were two morally equivalent ways of feeding a child. But the breast and the bottle have never been morally equal–one has always been incontrovertibly, soundly scientifically better. In the 1950s it was the bottle: boiled to a purity, filled with better-than-nature nutriment, kin to other such mid-century marvels as space travel, television and twilight sleep during childbirth. Today the breast is better, and if you are middle-class, if you attend a childbirth course, if you read the latest literature on childrearing, you too will become convinced of it.
There is validity to the breast-is-best argument. Breast milk is immunologically superior to formula: babies can’t be allergic to it, and it goes a long way toward preventing childhood respiratory illnesses, digestive problems, and ear infections. However, most breastfeeding advocates–to judge by the books I immersed myself in while pregnant–scorn to limit themselves to this claim. While a few new-mother primers, such as What To Expect The First Year, achieve a genuinely neutral tone, other popular books make it clear that only the unwise or unthinking mother would choose to bottle-feed. The Baby Book, by “attachment parenting” gurus William and Martha Sears, contains sentences like, “Not only is your milk best for baby, but breastfeeding is also best for you” (followed by assertions that breastfeeding is more relaxing than bottlefeeding and “gets you back in shape” faster) and “Breastfeeding is good discipline” (breastfeeding leads the mother to “a deep perception” of her baby’s responses, which leads to a better-behaved baby). La Leche League’s The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, probably the most widely read text on the subject, includes the striking statement that breastfeeding is “the key to good mothering.” That book also stresses the economic advantages of breastfeeding and the security of knowing, in the middle of a freak hurricane, that you don’t need to get to the supermarket to buy formula. The list of breastfeeding positives ranges from the relatively trivial to the credulity-stretching: Your baby’s poops will smell better. He’ll speak more clearly and read better. He’ll be more sociable.
I decided I would breastfeed, but not because of any of these promises. Though it embarrassed me to admit it, I was willing to take the risk that my child would be allergy-prone and socially backward. I had been formula-fed, and so had my husband and nearly every friend in our thirtyish age bracket. We were all healthy, and our neuroses and deficits, it seemed to me, were caused by influences that post-dated the bottle. If breast milk was better, it was better in the same way that a shirt made by Ralph Lauren is better than a craftily constructed knock-off: It supplies confidence and cache, even if no one else can tell the difference. No, what drew me to breastfeeding was an idea so powerful it was physical, something I could feel as a warmth, an erotic loosening in my arms, jaws, forehead. It was an image of my own arms, enlarged and coarsened as if in some Soviet Realist painting of Womanhood, cradling my baby, the two of us rocking in a slow motion back and forth, time-stopped, refuge from the world. It was the picture of sensual bliss, complete absorption, a circle in which the boundaries between my child and myself were rubbed out, rendered unimportant. Of touch felt so deeply it becomes security, harmony, wholeness.
Long before I decided to have children, when I was still in my teens, my first real love said to me that I had the air of someone who wasn’t used to being held. I seemed to him at once guarded and inordinately grateful for physical warmth. His comment startled me, even hurt, but he was right: My parents were not “touchy.” They disliked display in all respects: in furniture, in conversation, in feeling. Libertarian in personal style as well as often in politics, they were horrified by the idea of intrusion–fanatics who wanted to impose their religion on infidels, friends who lingered over a visit past six p.m. And what could be more intrusive than touch? My mother admits she didn’t hold me much when I was an infant. She was depressed, on top of everything else. My father was almost never at home. “You children were 100 percent my job,” my mother recalls. “I was 25 and I felt my life was over.” When I try to recapture my childhood, I can’t remember her laughing, smiling or even looking directly at me. She didn’t enjoy being a parent, she says, until I began to talk: “Then I felt could communicate with you. I felt I had something of a companion.” Then there were things to teach me–she is a teacher by profession–and I loved the things she opened my eyes to: books and paintings, music and ballet. But even as a child, I often felt bereft around her–around both my parents. I knew, somehow, that their interest in me was primarly responsible rather than affectionate, intellectual rather than visceral.
If it is touch that tells us we exist–that we take up literal and legitimate space–then the absence of touch can make us doubt that we truly belong to the life we see around us. And so the larger life became–the more possible it was, as I grew older, to travel, meet strangers, live away from home, choose my work–the more disoriented I felt, the more I wanted to flee. I was afraid of everything outside because it took all my strength not to succumb to the growing panic within. By the time I was in my late teens I felt I might literally die from a lack of being held. I had terrifying presentiments that my body would fly to bits, or that at any moment I was going to fall from some sort of tightrope in the sky. Metaphors, I tried to reassure myself. One can’t really die from a metaphor.
What pulled me through the years from sixteen to twenty-six was men. They wanted to touch me–they wanted me to enjoy touch. They grounded me, made me know I was here. Physical pleasure gave me something to seek–a reality, a thisness, an immanence. In the beginning intimacy was frightening as well as desirable, and too incomplete to undo the anguished conviction of my unreachability. But over time I learned the the simple alphabet of closeness–as simple as staying put, as not flinching and running away. As simple as finding someone to whom you were not a burden, who wanted you to take up his time, be in his way, divert his attention. I married; there was love to spare; I began to want children.
When I got pregnant I determined one thing, the same thing that is determined by every parent-to-be: For my child it will be different. I wanted my own child to learn, through my touch, how fiercely I had yearned him into existence and how fiercely I wanted to keep him there, how much I granted him his taking-up-of-space. Breastfeeding would simply be the earliest and most primal expression of this desire. What I felt I’d been deprived of was more than physical, but it had begun with the physical. In the beginning love is physical love, and at the beginning of physical love is the breast.
Breastfeeding has cycled through periods of favor and disfavor since long before there was such a thing as Enfamil. The fact is, despite the panegyrics of the experts, large numbers of women in all eras and all countries have found this “natural” form of infant feeding difficult and restrictive. For some women breastfeeding simply hurts a good deal; others find it hard to keep up an adequate milk supply. Breast infections, cracked nipples and other conditions that make nursing painful are quite common. As far back as the classical Greeks, many families in a position to do so turned to wet nurses. In the modern era, when industrialization and urban crowding led to a decline in the use of wet nurses (who tended to be rural women), recipes for “paps” and “panadas”–starch-based breast-milk substitutes, sometimes patented–became extremely popular.
But many women also recognize that there is something exquisitely intimate about clasping a baby to one’s breast for suckle, something that can generate feelings of indescribable closeness and, for lack of a more precise term, rightness. And so breastfeeding inevitably has its comebacks–even its evangelists. In the West, breastfeeding gained in popularity in the mid 1700s, between the two World Wars (less in America than in the British Commonwealth) and since the 1970s. Its latest resurgence is due to a combination of feminism, environmentalism, New Ageism and various other cultural tendencies that are rooted in a skepticism toward authority and a confidence in the “natural.” The natural is supposed to give us shelter us in these times of dislocation, offer authenticity in a world of the ersatz and disposable, allow us to touch bliss when we have been educated into cynicism and distrust. Whereas past proponents of breastfeeding stressed hygiene above psychological considerations, today, given the safety of bottle-feeding, advocates lean on the hypothetical emotional, even spiritual, payoffs.
If breastfeeding is natural, it seemingly follows that it is universally desirable, and so the most cherished tenet of today’s breastfeeding advocates is that any woman can do it. Is it painful? The baby is merely improperly positioned at the nipple. You have breast cancer? Don’t be deterred! You’re an adoptive mother? You can still induce a milk supply! Nothing, it is clear, should be allowed to interfere with the ecstatic connection that is forged between mother and child via the breast. Long sections of breastfeeding guidebooks are devoted to the many obstacles that can arise to nursing, but there are always, always solutions–however arduous or impracticable they may be.
I had plenty of reason to believe breastfeeding might not be as simple as I’d imagined. Most of my friends who had done it warned me, in that elliptical style mothers use to avoid frightening mothers-to-be, that it “wasn’t easy.” I barely listened, however. You might say I suffered from a sort of sensual arrogance. I felt myself to be a finely tuned physical organism, able to get pleasure from what others might find too subtle, too ancillary. “Breasts,” snorted a friend of mine once, in an offhand discussion of bedroom technique. “Men think they’re such a big deal.” But I thought they were a big deal. Having them touched, stroked or suckled awakened my whole body, seemed to draw the disparate parts of me together in a vibrant receptivity. Nursing, it seemed to me, would be like sex, only more so. It would be at once the simplest and most profound expression of unity with my new child.
The literature on nursing in no way prepares a new mother for how strenuous a physical experience it can be. I knew labor would be strenuous–dozens of books had told me so, then gave me advice on how to manage it. When the time came I did know how to manage it. I had expected a trauma and discovered instead that I possessed a reservoir of will and stamina. When it was over I was not shaken but thrilled. I felt very, very strong.
After cleaning and swaddling my new son, the two attending nurses asked if I wanted to breastfeed him. Abraham took the right breast first. There was a powerful sucking sensation but no pain. “He’s so vigorous!” praised the nurses. I was the hero of the hour: a drug-free birth; an alert, enthusiastically nursing baby. After a few minutes, we switched Abraham to the left. This time I felt a dull throbbing. “Is he on correctly?” I asked. One nurse inspected me. “Yep. Looks like he’s got his mouth nice and wide.” Then it was time to take him off.
From that point on, each time I nursed my son the pain grew worse, until I began to dread his mealtimes. “Nursing isn’t supposed to hurt,” our childbirth-class teacher had told us. “If it hurts, it’s not being done right.” A staff nurse suggested I contact a lactation-consultant group affiliated with the hospital. I dialed the number she gave me and was told that someone would be over first thing in the morning.
To my surprise, the lactation consultant–let’s call her Miriam–told me to stop nursing. Immediately. She scooted her chair close to peer at my nipples, and pointed out a purplish bruise on the left. “How would you rate the pain of nursing on a scale of one to ten?” she asked. “Seven?” I replied uncertainly. I didn’t know how much worse the pain could get. And I didn’t want to look like a whiner. “That’s not good,” Miriam said evenly. She was a very pale woman with a tired, flattened-out voice. Even her smile was melancholy. “We like to get the pain below a five. Four to five”–she smiled–“is considered acceptable. You need a day or so to heal.” In the meantime, she would show me how to express my milk by hand into a tiny medicine cup, and how to get Abraham to drink out of that cup. This was to prevent “nipple confusion,” in which a newborn gets accustomed to the ease of a bottle nipple and then can’t be induced to drink from the breast.
In the first day or two after delivery, as I later learned, most women produce only tiny amounts of milk, but for the time being this is likely to be all the baby needs. It took me about half an hour to squeeze out six or seven droplets–so little liquid that it didn’t even coat the coin-sized bottom of the cup Miriam had brought. “Is this enough?” I asked anxiously. I held Abraham while Miriam tipped the cup toward his mouth. The baby jutted forward his top lip and drew the milk into his mouth with a single slurp. “Is that all he needs to eat?” I pursued.
But Miriam wasn’t letting me off the hook. She smiled wanly. “Let’s see how much you can get out during the rest of the day.”
By six o’clock that evening I was worried. My personal best had been a dozen drops, despite my earnest application of the procedure. What kind of communion was this, anyway, I thought: me hunched, milking myself, over a tiny cup, the baby finishing his meal like a rude diner at a fast-food joint? I called the beeper number Miriam had given me. When she called me back, she pronounced the sentence I’d dreaded to hear: “It sounds like you might need to give him a little formula.”
I didn’t confess the connotations that word had come to have for me. Artifice! Regimentation! Capitalist exploitation! I simply said, “I thought using formula will interfere with building up my milk supply.”
“He needs to eat,” replied Miriam.
And so our baby was introduced to formula. Our childbirth teacher had been so emphatic in her distaste for the stuff (“It stinks, literally,” she told us) that to my mind a smog of uncleaniness and unhealth clung to it. From the moment of Abraham’s birth I had been dazzled by his beauty, his robustness, his alertness. I wanted to look at him continually–despite my exhaustion after the labor, I barely slept for the next two days as my husband and I watched him sleeping or lay side by side in my narrow hospital cot, whispering to each other of our luck and our love. To hold our baby was everything I thought it would be–a yearning, a satisfaction, an experience of such tenderness it bordered on grief. But hour by hour the challenge of nursing began to throw up a parallel reality of logistical fussing, frustration and pain.
Miriam had suggested she visit again the following day, after our discharge from the hospital, and when she arrived she had more apparatus in hand. We had already taken up her suggestion that we rent a breast pump, which she promised would traumatize my nipples less than the baby’s sucking and be more efficient than expressing milk by hand. The pump parts had to be boiled every night and meticulously washed and dried after each use–somehow this was not to be seen as an annoyance, although it had been impressed upon me again and again how great an inconvenience it was to have to wash and boil formula bottles. What Miriam had brought with her was called a Supplementer, a flattish bottle that hung by a strap and had two thin tubes emerging from its cap.
“What is this supposed to do?” I asked.
“Do you have any breast milk handy?”
I shook my head. Abraham seemed to drink it up as fast as I could pump it out.
“What about some formula, then.”
Miriam poured two ounces from a can into the Supplementer and draped the strap around my neck. Then she taped one of the tubes to my nipple with a piece of surgical tape.
“When Abraham sucks on your nipple, he’ll also get formula from the tube. That way he won’t have to nurse as long, which will keep you from getting so sore. And it will make sure he’s getting enough to eat.” She helped me latch Abraham onto one breast. “How would you describe the pain on a scale of one to ten?” she asked.
“Eight,” I said. In fact every time the baby latched on I had to clench my whole body so as not to jerk away. “Is he on correctly?”
She checked him, pulling his lip gently back from the breast. “It looks like it, yes.”
I try now to think back to that fluid, dimly lit time when my husband and I woke every two to three hours in the night: the fumbling attempts to strap on the Supplementer, the baby’s hungry wailing and my pain, my husband’s attempts to massage the tension and fear out of my back and shoulders, the flimsy surgical tape inevitably coming unstuck, the baby sobbing again as we tried to rejigger the contraption, the heavy sigh of surrender: “Just put some formula in a cup.” And every day, the pain growing worse, until my nipples were so inflamed that they burned between nursings and merely to put on a bra or the softest T-shirt became an ordeal. In the books I consulted this condition was laughably described as “sore” nipples. I finally stopped wearing anything at all on top while at home. When I accidentally brushed against a door or countertop, the raw pain made me jump.
Breastfeeding had not merely been something I felt I would enjoy–a pleasure that would be a kind of reward after the exertions of pregnancy and childbirth. It was something I felt I owed my son. Perhaps “owed” is too dour a word. It might be closer to say that I thought nursing would be a natural continuation of the months-long intimacy of pregnancy. It seemed right to keep the baby close to my body, to make the birth as small as possible a step from the all-encompassing protection of the womb. I felt, with great poignancy, my baby’s forced expulsion from that protection: It was so easy to rouse my own sense of standing alone in the great windy spaces of the world. In my friendships and love relationships I’d sometimes felt merciless: My need for solace and attention had to take precedence. My feeling of fragility was such that I was sure I could be held together by only the most uninterrupted devotion. Pregnancy was the first time I wished to nurture as much as be nurtured; I felt that another creature’s needs might be more important than my own. But what were those needs? Perhaps I did confuse them with my own. Naturally, a baby wants contact, warmth, safety. But he has no past, and so he is not yet shaped by complaint. The world does not appear to him dressed in moral and cultural associations: good, bad, healthy, unhealthy, progressive, retrograde. It matters whether he is held or not held, whether his cries are attended to or ignored. If there are warm arms to hold him, can he possibly know that a latex nipple is “worse” than a human one? Isn’t a bottle nipple, because it removes the distress of hunger, just as “loving” as far as he is concerned? I thought about the delightful children of friends who for one reason or another had chosen to bottlefeed. I had to imagine that if a child is properly loved, held, rejoiced in, he will not feel mistreated because he has to drink from a bottle.
And yet… there was always the “yet.” A newborn doesn’t talk, doesn’t walk, doesn’t even see much. He has a limited repertoire of ways to absorb sensation and significance, a limited repertoire of ways to make his needs understood. It seemed to me the only complete thing I could give my son was a line, as it were, into my own body. Holding him was good, yes. I loved all the varieties of holding: crading the baby in the crook of my arm as we dozed next to each other in bed, nestling his tiny head in the soft slope below my jaw, letting him sprawl stomach-down on my belly. But holding a lover is good, too, and yet not the same as sexual intercourse.There is in fact something unique about intercourse. One genuinely experiences, to a greater or lesser degree, a confusion of the boundary between bodies, a sense of being welcomed into the home that is another’s physical being. After my husband and I make love, I am suddenly aware that, up until this moment, I have been carrying around an unobtrusive yet distinct feeling of separateness, loneliness, ache. Only the disappearance of this feeling reveals that it existed in the first place. Grace is the word that occurs to me then–something bestowed that is in excess of what is expected or thought to be needed. A gesture that brings us beyond what we thought was our best happiness.
Breastfeeding, I believed, would bring this same blurring of boundaries, the same sense of interpenetration and flow between bodies. And even when I discovered that nursing hurt, even when my shoulders and back would contract in anticipation of my son’s grasp, the comparison with lovemaking was not altogether rendered ridiculous. The physical sensations of nursing are so profoundly felt: the sucking that pulls at the entire breast, the let-down of milk that is like a spiked fist pressing the flesh. The breastfeeding primers talk of “skin-to-skin contact,” but nursing is not an affair of the skin. It is a disruption of the entire equilibrium within. As with childbirth, the pain seemed only to drive the experience deep, and as much as I earnestly wished to be relieved of the pain, some part of me may have been hooked by the very intensity of the experience.
To keep up my willpower, I read. Perversely, I zeroed in on the books and sections that prescribed the most heroic dedication to breastfeeding. Nurse every two hours (timed from the start of the previous feeding, which for my forty-five-minutes-to-an-hour-at-a-stretch nurser meant roughly an hour from the time he’d last stopped eating). If the baby seems particularly fussy, nurse every hour. I went over and over passages that emphasized a Total Woman approach toward parenting, such as this one, for sleep-deprivation-crazed mothers, from The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding: “When you hear that a neighbor’s baby sleeps through the night and yours doesn’t, ask yourself, ‘Is it really that important?’ Isn’t the important thing that your baby is content and happy and you can satisfy his needs at night as well as during the day?” Reading about such cheerful devotedness had a goading effect: Couldn’t I, then, do my paltry bit?
Challenging myself further, I read The Continuum Connection, by psychotherapist Jean Liedloff, which I later came to understand was a groundlaying work for the attachment parenting philosophes. It had been an impulse purchase at my local Barnes & Noble on one of my first postpartum outings; I’d thought from the title that it contained some sort of argument that good parenting ought to be judged on a spectrum. In fact, it is about the author’s experiences with the South American Yequana tribe and their “in-arms” style of parenting: children are carried nearly 24 hours a day, and for this reason, according to the author, never develop the loneliness, rebelliousness, and fears of abandonment that are so typical in American children. The Yequana are a hardworking yet good-humored people. They are not aggressive. They do not discipline their children, who at nearly all times behave so as to best please their parents and peers. Breastfeeding, of course, is the way the Yequana feed their babies. Like the Searses’ book, The Continuum Connection seemed to promise that breastfeeding could create a parent-child bond that was intuitive, spontaneous, trusting. Even more, it suggested that the heartbreaking disorders of contemporary life could be altered by better child-rearing techniques: the holy trinity of nursing, carrying and “the family bed.” It began to seem important to breastfeed not just for my baby and myself but as an act of solidarity with an entire world view.
My mother taught me the love of learning things, and I have always placed a great deal of faith in teachers. Throughout my pregnancy, I had numerous helpers–a massage therapist who once a month unkinked my aching back, an Alexander Technique practitioner who corrected my posture so I wouldn’t need those massages, our childbirth-class instructor, and most importantly, our doula, the woman who attended Abraham’s birth to offer an extra shoulder to lean on and a knowledge of pain management strategies. As I have always reached out for touch, I have always reached out for authority, a benevolent authority that will coax me along, protect me in my larval incompetence until I am strengthened enough to act on my own. So Miriam returned and returned, until my husband and I had spent $900 on her visits and felt we could spend no more. At that point our doula recommended a cheaper form of aid: consultations with a La Leche League leader, at $18 an hour. We managed to spend several hundred dollars more on her visits. Repeatedly I asked each of my helpers: How much longer? When does it get better? Promises of two days turned into a week into two weeks. All right, I was told, in some cases it takes longer, let’s say a month. And later: All right, at the six-week mark I’m sure you’ll see a turnaround.
When I didn’t–when the pain lasted into the seventh and then the eighth week, my helpers responded with their limited catechism. Perhaps the baby thrust his tongue at the nipple while sucking. (I was given tongue exercises for Abraham.) Perhaps the baby had thrush–yeast from the birth canal that can get into the baby’s mouth and then transferred to the mother’s nipples. (I had the pediatrician check the baby’s mouth for thrush.) The pediatrician didn’t find thrush? Well, maybe it was subclinical thrush. Perhaps I should have my own breasts checked. (I arranged for babysitting and dashed to my dermatologist, an hour away by public transportation, praying I could accomplish the round trip before the baby needed to nurse again. The dermatologist, a congenial man who knew a good deal about breastfeeding, reported that I had no sign of thrush or any other condition likely to cause pain and that there was no such thing as subclinical thrush. I probably just had very sensitive nipples. Buck these political correctniks, he told me.)
I attended a La Leche League meeting in a nearby town, hoping for some commiseration, a few tips. One of the two women who ran the group waxed rhapsodic about the “perfect synchronization” between babies and breastfeeding mothers: the more, or less, the baby suckles, the more, or less, milk the mother makes, so the baby can regulate his own food supply. Both of the leaders were puzzled that I claimed to have sore nipples this late in the game. They insisted that soreness lasted only a few days if the baby was positioned properly. Then they watched me nursing Abraham and pronounced my positioning perfect.
In despair I called Miriam, with whom I hadn’t spoken in a while, to see if she had any more advice. “Have you looked into the possibility of thrush?”
“I told you!” I said. “I’ve been checked for thrush. The baby has been checked for thrush. We don’t have thrush! Don’t you think it’s possible breastfeeding is just painful for some women?”
She paused and said uncomfortably, “Not really. Breastfeeding is a system that works.”
I think I know why all the helpers and fixers I consulted refused to admit that not every breastfeeding problem is solvable, or even that many of the solveable ones carry a heavy burden of distress. There seemed to be a need among them–a need I felt so strongly myself–to believe in the beauty and perfectability of the mother-child bond, in the idea that total comfort and sustenance can be offered if the mother simply wishes it enough. If this bond can be perfected, it’s implied, then all the problems we see around us–the violence, the apathy, the isolation and the disrespect–can be remedied. The world can be made better than it is now.
Many women do wish, passionately, to breastfeed. Like me, many women are almost unable to give up on it. That is why lactation consulting is a booming business. An unscientific gauge: At one informal gathering of five new mothers in my neighborhood (brought together only by virtue of having delivered at the same hospital), every one of us had seen lactation consultants, one woman four times a week for nearly six weeks. Another had endured three and a half months of horrendous pain due to recurrent breast infections. Four of us were still nursing; the one who had quit had done so only because her baby became frighteningly undernourished. I have spoken to friends who described terrible feelings of failure and grief because breastfeeding was difficult, because they stopped after three weeks, or two months, or even longer.
I never quite made the choice to continue. I just kept at it, day after day, until one evening, not long before the baby turned three months old, I thought to myself with surprise: Why, I’m still breastfeeding. It had been many weeks since I had had to supplement Abraham’s meals with formula. There had been good days and bad days. On the bad ones, I’d vow to start weaning “tomorrow”; when tomorrow came, things were generally no worse, and I thought they might even be a little better, so I’d breastfeed that day, too. Around the time the baby was two months old, my “soreness” began to subside–not completely, but enough so that my body began to move freely in space again, so that putting on a bra wasn’t like loading bruised fruit. As I got more confident and relaxed, I would nurse the baby while at restaurants or parties or realtors’ offices. But the feedings always maintained a reminder of our separateness: the harsh tugging, the painful milk let-down, the moments where the baby would relinquish suction for a moment and then make me wince as he pulled the nipple back in again.
On a less metaphysical plane, the claims made by the breastfeeding evangelists now seemed laughable to me. Breastfeeding as economical? Even if my husband and I hadn’t spent over a thousand dollars on visits from Miriam and La Leche League, we still would have shelled out several hundred for the inevitable nursing bras, nursing pads for leaks, nursing nightgowns, extra button-down shirts that allowed for discreet feedings in public, a breast pump to provide milk for times I needed to be away from home, lanolin ointment for the nipples, bottled water to drink since tap water might taint my milk with impurities, and so on. Breastfeeding as nature’s deft synchronization between baby and breast? But the breast was always slightly behind, painfully full for a couple of days when the baby started sleeping longer through the night, or temporarily unable to provide enough during a growth spurt.
And yet… and yet… there were hours or days when nursing seemed to find its perfect rhythm and time became a sensuous round of sleep, feeding, quiet play and sleep once again. I would dim the lights and put on an album of lullabies. I would rock back and forth, fingering my son’s silky hair, his cheeks, just as I had pictured in my fantasies. The pleasure of seeing the blissful expression on an infant’s face after nursing cannot be underestimated. Nor can the pride of knowing that one is making one’s baby flourish, take on flesh. That one can make one’s child bloom simply by giving him what’s within: it’s a powerful metaphor.
My new ease lasted about a month. Then, right around the three-month mark–on Valentine’s Day, in fact–I developed a plugged duct, a blockage of milk in my left breast. No one knows precisely why plugged ducts occur, but they often develop into breast infections, or mastitis, which feels like a nasty flu and can itself lead to a dangerous breast abcess (cows sometimes die from mastitis). I’d had one plugged duct already, when Abraham was three weeks old. At five in the morning, I’d noticed that one area of my right breast remained full and hard rather than draining when the baby nursed; it was painful to the touch. As the day went on, nursing on that breast became excruciating on an order I’d never yet experienced: each time the baby sucked, I felt shooting pains deep in the nipple and lower breast, so that I had to curse and grunt to get through the first couple of minutes. My labor pains had not been so crucifying. The cure, my books told me: heat, rest, and nursing as often as possible, every two hours at least, so that the duct would eventually flush free. Instead of pitching me over the edge, this recommendation had much the same effect on me as the awareness, in preceeding months, that the extraordinary pain of labor and delivery was unavoidable: it pushed anger and self-pity largely out of the picture and girded me to meet the challenge. So be it: I would nurse every two hours–every hour when I could; I would spend the day in bed with a warm pack against my breast or taking hot showers; I would weep in my husband’s lap when pain and frustration got the better of me. Within twenty-four hours the plugged duct had resolved itself, and if anything my determination to succeed at breastfeeding had increased.
The new plugged duct was more extensive and, if I may be believed, more painful than the first. It cleared, and two days later I had another. By the end of the week, almost incoherent with lack of sleep (I had been nursing every one to two hours almost around the clock the entire time), I was broken. I could no longer tolerate the constant dread of infection, or the sensation that my breast was going to swell until it exploded. I had discovered that there was, in fact, a limit to the amount of suffering I was willing to experience: the pain had gone on too relentlessly and for too long. Labor had been nothing compared to this. I wanted my normal, healthy, pain-free body back. And perhaps since, over the weeks, during brief stays by a babysitter or relatives, I had allowed Abraham to have a bottle; perhaps since he was a little older now and already, in small ways, was exhibiting his distinctness from myself, I was better able to tolerate the idea of an end to nursing. I began, slowly, to replace one feeding at a time with a bottle of formula. For weeks my breasts ran rivulets of surplus milk, streaking my bras and my T-shirts, as if they were weeping.
Lost paradise. But is human union ever precisely what we envision? Now, when I hold a bottle to my son’s mouth, I lean him against a pillow and with my free hand I stroke his head, his belly. His large eyes look into mine–something they couldn’t easily do when he was turned toward my breast. I hug him and hold him tight; I have done this so many thousands of times now that his little body settles into mine like cookie dough into a mold. We are merged; we are not merged. Back before weaning, I sometimes nursed with a novel or magazine in hand, and my thoughts flew off to other locations and periods of history, to personages who never existed. Or I made phone calls, because I knew the baby was occupied. We were merged; we were not merged. Complete connection is something I have wanted all my life, and I have never quite been able to say I have gotten it. With the most fleeting exceptions, I never entirely forget my own separateness. I have never known if this is a failure on my part or simply the human condition. Sometimes I wonder whether the problem is one of semantics: when I say union, do I really mean self-obliteration? Sometimes the pleasures of sex or love render even the persistent fact of self-awareness trivial, unable to wound. Breastfeeding was complete nourishment for my son, it was warmth and satiation; for me it was often–and this still surprises me–peace and pleasure. It was not perfect concordance of mother and baby, or total comfort or unimpeded union or unspotted sensuality. It was not the eradication of all stubborn separateness and regret. It was my way of feeding my child for nearly five months. I still miss it sometimes.