• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

I took Sam to the pediatrician for his one-week checkup, and he was found to be losing, not gaining weight.

"The thing is," he said, "not all women can nurse. Babies can be fed in other ways. You're probably going to have to supplement."

Le koala bear, c'est moi! I held tightly to Samuel and considered the word "supplement." The doctor meant formula, and it's hard to convey the distaste with which natural-birth people view formula. For nine months I'd heard that formula is the junk food of the infant world and the loathsome tool of corporate greed, sold to Third World women who have no choice but to mix it with filthy water. Cans of Similac, like cigarette packages, contain a small government message: "Breast milk is recommended."

I had also read about the legions of sadly misinformed women who give up on nursing because of perfectly fixable problems like the failure to latch on properly. Maybe this was a perfectly fixable problem.

So like any sane, flat-chested koala bear, I asked the doctor if he knew a lactation consultant in town, and he made a phone call that probably went something like this: "Hi, Lottie. This is Dr. S. I'm sending over a new mother in a few minutes." I imagined him lowering his voice. "A little worked up, yes. Remember Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction?"

Lottie, whose name I have changed here, was also a children's dentist, and she did breastfeeding consultations in the back room of a building that smelled like mint and high-speed drills. She had a motherly air and, underneath her dentist's smock, breasts much larger than mine. (I suppose only Hugh Hefner is more focused on this part of the anatomy than I now was.)

Once Lottie had me seated in the lactation room, she smiled, admired Sam, and asked me how many times a day Sam soiled his diapers. I said that sometimes not even once a day. Again, I was quizzed: Did I feel my milk let down? Did Sam seem to be swallowing? Did I hear liquid going down his throat?

He did not. I did not.

Lottie hesitated. She had become a lactation consultant because breastfeeding was wonderful for her and because she had been surprised to learn, after her own success, that some women had trouble with it. She wanted to help those women. But in my case, the doctor was right. I had to supplement. It was like a priest telling a supplicant she was going to have to fornicate with the devil.

I don't remember everything in the right order after that, due to excessive, non-Chinese-peasant-style weeping, but I know that I rented a breast pump. Lottie told me to nurse Samuel and then to give him an ounce or two of formula from a tiny medicine dropper (not from a bottle, because he might learn to prefer the silicone nipple to my own) and then pump my breasts to stimulate further milk production. If he didn't wake up every two hours at night, I needed to strip him, tickle his feet, apply a wet washcloth to his head and rouse him because he needed to keep eating. He needed 12 feedings a day.

I put the breast pump in my car and drove Samuel to the obstetrician's office. There I was to be checked in the lower region, the region where all had gone well. I held in my arms tiny Samuel, who weighed less than six pounds. Seated in the waiting room was a woman I knew who had also given birth recently. As Hugh Hefner would have noticed, her breasts were large. Her baby was immense. Thank heavens there was not a zookeeper present, because the answer would have been clear. I waited my turn, clutched my baby, and then took him home to nurse, bottle-feed, pump, nurse, bottle-feed, pump, nurse, bottle-feed, pump.

Lottie had told me to keep a log of Sam's feedings and the contents of his diapers, so I wrote down, to the minute, how long he nursed on each breast, how much formula he subsequently drank, and for how long afterward I used the breast pump. Then I wrote down how much milk was in the vial after I pumped. The log goes on for many pages, all of them filled with tiny black notations such as Van Gogh probably made right before he picked up the ear knife.

I was not a good dairy cow. I was too self-conscious, for one thing. If you have ever removed your bra, attached a suction cup, and flipped the "on" switch, you know what I mean. Dignified, it was not. It was also not encouraging. Milk didn't flow, pour, or spray from me as the air contracted inside the suction cup. It dripped like rain from an eave after the rain has stopped falling.

A few days later, when Sam still wasn't producing the desired number of soiled diapers or gaining the desired weight, I rented an electric baby scale from Lottie so that I could measure the ounces Sam imbibed naturally. It worked like this: before I nursed Samuel, I weighed him, and after I nursed him, I weighed him again. Sometimes he weighed two ounces more after nursing. Two ounces is half of a newborn's baby bottle, half of what bottle-makers call a "serving." On one giddy occasion, I wrote: "lots of swallowing and some actual slurping."

The bluebirds flew in and out of the bird house with crushed crickets in their beaks. The Cecile Brunner roses turned their pink petals to the rain. Lottie called to tell me that she had found a case like mine in a textbook. I had, she said regretfully, "insufficient mammary tissue."

I'd never heard of this as a biological diagnosis. That self-assessment had come to me many times in the dressing rooms of lingerie stores and swimsuit departments, but not while I was reading breastfeeding tracts.

I suddenly wondered if that was why I had needed fertility pills even to conceive a child. All by myself, without the makers of Clomiphene and Similac, I was incapable of rearing live young. I wasn't really a mammal after all.

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!