I had just pushed live young through a narrow and sensitive orifice without painkillers or screams. I felt like one hell of a mammal, and I was not afraid of the Second Mammalian Imperative. My breasts would fulfill their destiny. The nurse helped me arrange myself. My tiny naked boy latched on.
This is the moment I began to question Nature and my place within it. In the first place, a "latch" is a piece of metal or plastic that clamps down hard on an insensible object. I was not insensible. It was all I could do to keep myself from prying my tiny naked helpless baby off my nipple. Suckling was not the gentle process of milk passing from breast to mouth that I had observed in Old Master paintings! It was latching on.
I was glad when the nurse said we could stop and test his vitals now.
All the next day, in a kind of sleep-deprived ecstasy that was quickly turning into primal fear, I admired Sam in his capsule and tried, with the help of various nurses, to become a food source. I had been warned by Lamaze classes and pregnancy books that the worst thing I could possibly do in the hospital would be to let my baby sleep outside my room with the nurses. If I did, they would feed him with bottles. The baby, spoiled and greedy, wouldn't bother to learn the more technically demanding art of breast-drinking and he'd be addicted to formula, then Kool-Aid, and no doubt heroin later on.
But the nurses studied my breasts with guarded skepticism. They would stand to the side and show me how to pinch my nipple and thrust it into Sam's mouth. "Does it hurt?" they would ask.
"Yes, it does," I would say.
"Then he's not latched on properly." They would have me stick my finger into Sam's mouth, thereby breaking suction, and try again.
"Does it hurt?"
"Can you hear him swallowing?"
I listened. I could not.
"Is your milk letting down?"
How would I know? Nothing had ever happened inside my breasts before. For thirty years, they had just sat there.
"I don't know," I said.
"Well, your milk may not have come in yet."
This was an alarming detail. For the last 40 weeks I had been preparing for this baby -- signing up with a diaper service, buying a crib, prewashing his layette in gentle laundry soap, ordering birth announcements -- and what I should have done first was call the breastmilkman and make sure I had plenty in there when the baby arrived. What kind of survival plan was this that the mammal's milk would arrive several days after the live young?
My doula reassured me by telephone that during the first hours or days after birth, the baby was drinking colostrum, a sort of maternal vitamin syrup. Colostrum was so concentrated that the baby couldn't really chug-a-lug it, so probably things were going just fine. We'd watch Sam's diaper and see. We'd watch for wetness and we'd watch for poo.
The situation made me consider my breasts with the eye of a used-car salesman. They were not large. They were not medium. They were undeniably, disturbingly small. As a relative once cheerfully put it, I was built for speed. This might mean, I suddenly realized, that I was not built for milking. I reassured myself that the pregnancy books and my childbearing friends had said the size of one's breasts has absolutely nothing to do with how much milk they contain. They all said, in various ways, that it is not like comparing a gallon jug to a one-cup carton.
Still, as I lay in my hospital bed next to Samuel, waiting for him to produce solid proof that my hooters worked, I recalled an alarming conversation with my doula. When I was eight months pregnant, she had casually asked if my breasts had grown. "Have you gone up a cup size or two?" she asked.
A cup size or two? No. Perhaps a demitasse.
"Sort of," I said. Having large bosoms had always been a secret dream of mine, and pregnancy was a guaranteed boob-inflater. I couldn't stand to admit that I was so flat-chested that not even pregnancy worked.
"I think so," I said. "Yes."
Recalling this possibly important lie, I tried not to worry too much. Sam slept in his capsule, his tiny head soft and round in the knit cap, his body tightly bound in flannel, the incarnation of sweetness and need.
It was at this point that I turned on the wall-mounted TV and watched a sprightly educational show about the animal kingdom. The camera zoomed in on a koala bear that had just given birth. "She simply isn't making enough milk!" the zookeeper said, and then the zookeeper described how they were going to give the koala's baby to a different mother. The next image showed the hapless koala, her nipples exposed to the whole world, her baby gone.
I felt a slow, panicked recognition. Le koala bear, c'est moi! I needed to avoid zookeepers at all costs. In any case, Samuel was a very quiet little package. Why not just go home? Everything would be absolutely, completely fine.
I have a notebook on my shelf that contains phone numbers and interview notes. I was writing a weekly column when Sam was born, and the notes go right from questions about turtle gardens and the Lindy Hop to a fanatically detailed account of my time with Samuel from Thursday, May 7, to Wednesday, May 27.
Sam cried when he wasn't nursing, and he nursed nearly all the time. I nursed him until my nipple felt, with each compression of his mouth, as if it were being pierced by a sewing machine needle. I stared out the second-story window of our house at the pink climbing roses. The spring was wet and cloudy that year, and the roses trembled in the wind. A pair of bluebirds had nested in a bird house I could see from the sofa where I sat hour after hour, nursing, and I watched the father bluebird carry insects to the chicks and then come out again with their droppings in his mouth. Well, at least I don't have to do that, I thought.