It is three days after Penelope’s birth, and we are home in our apartment for the first time. I am hiding in our bedroom alone, stuffing fistfuls of the white down comforter into my mouth, my whole body shaking violently with sobs. I feel myself breaking, cracking open. Out in the living room my mother-in-law rocks my tiny, wailing baby. My husband scurries back and forth between us both. I cry, and cry, and cry. My daughter is starving.
When filling out the paperwork for daycare, I have to write in that Penny is “combination-fed” both breastmilk and formula. I try not to die inside. Why won’t my body do what it was biologically designed to do?
We overslept and we are rushing. Penny plays on the floor while David and I swoop around getting things ready so he doesn’t miss the bus. I open the fridge. “Where’s the breastmilk?” I say. Yesterday I pumped a record 7 oz total over three pumping sessions at work. It’s the most milk I’ve ever pumped in one day, and I am damn proud. “What?” says David, pausing in the kitchen. “The breastmilk,” I say, panicking now. “Didn’t you bring it up from the car yesterday?” He had. And there it is, sitting in the lunch bag on the kitchen counter. Neither of us remembered to stick it in the fridge and now, fourteen hours later, we are paying for it. Spoiled. It is no one’s fault. It just is. David holds me in the kitchen while I blink back vicious tears. It takes every bit of strength I possess not to apologize to my daughter as I kiss her goodbye. After she and my husband leave I collapse on the floor, sobbing. I can’t bring myself to pour it down the drain so I leave the bottles on the counter where I found them. I go to work. Start again.
I had planned to breastfeed from the moment I got pregnant, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. I have always been uncomfortable in my body, and breastfeeding frightened me. My husband tried to mitigate my discomfort by assuring me that breastfeeding was normal. “Well, I’ve never had milk come out of my boobs before,” I said tartly. “So it’s not normal for me.”
But when I saw her, when I held Penny in my arms for the first time all of that discomfort and apprehension melted away. Of course I was going to nurse my daughter. Of course.
It wasn’t that easy.
We struggled in the hospital. I expected there to be a learning curve when it came to breastfeeding. A learning curve for me, that is. I just assumed my baby would be born knowing how to breastfeed. It never occurred to me that she would be learning, too. We struggled with latching, positioning, getting Penny to swallow, keeping Penny awake long enough to nurse, waiting and waiting and waiting for my milk to come in. The nurses were all eager to help, but each one had different–often conflicting–advice, and we would inevitably reach a point in the process where the nurse would just grab my breast, place it in Penny’s mouth and hold it there, while stroking her throat with the other hand to get her to swallow. I felt invisible, detached, and so sad. One nurse dripped formula onto my nipple to try to get Penny interested enough to suck, because there was just no milk there. I was so empty and so far away.
Before we were discharged from the hospital the resident pediatrician instructed us to set up an appointment at the clinic for the following day rather than waiting for two week check up. “She’s looking just a little jaundiced,” he said.
The first night home was the worst night of my life. I did not know it was possible to feel as exhausted, as heartbroken, as ashamed as I felt when I could not feed my daughter.
Somehow we survived the night. At the pediatrician’s appointment the next morning, Penny was more that “just a little” jaundiced. She was fluorescent yellow down to the whites of her eyes and had lost 13% of her birthweight. We immediately went into crisis mode. Penny’s pediatrician, Mary Jane, is also a specialized lactation consultant, so she watched us nurse and then went to work. My left nipple was inverted, so we focused on that. Mary Jane showed me new holds, tips to get Penny to latch, and ways to make sure she swallowed. She got us an electric pump and instructed me to start pumping for a minimum of 15 minutes after every feed. And she gave us a supplemental nursing system.
An SNS is a thin, flexible tube that is taped to the nipple and attached to a bottle filled with formula. The idea is that the baby is still breastfeeding while simultaneously getting supplemental calories from the formula. My milk still wasn’t in, and if Penny didn’t begin gaining weight immediately she was going to be hospitalized. So we were sent home with the SNS and the pump and got to work.
The SNS was shoddy, a temporary device we were hoping to get rid of as soon as possible. Most of the time David held up the bottle for me, but on the rare occasion that he couldn’t there was a clip that would attach the bottle to the brim of a baseball hat. When David held it up for me it was easier to pretend that it wasn’t there. That my body wasn’t totally betraying me. But when wearing the baseball cap the bottle hung directly in my face, gently clunking my cheek whenever I moved, a tangible, forcible reminder of my failure. Wearing the SNS–which I did at every single feeding for the first two weeks, slowly dropping it one feed at a time for weeks afterward–filled me with shame. Fresh, undiluted shame. I wept through every feeding.
With the constant nursing and pumping, my nipples cracked. The pain was agonizing. I remember sitting on the couch after a feeding, slowly peeling the tape off my nipple while David sat beside me and held Penelope. The pain was so intense that my whole body shook as I grit my teeth and kept peeling. More painful, less purposeful than childbirth. Tears streamed down my face as I pulled and pulled and pulled. David cried watching me.
Penny had doctor appointments every day that first week, and weekly appointments for the first month. Little by little she gained weight, but never enough. It took her over a month to get back to her birthweight.
It rapidly became clear that exclusively breastfeeding my daughter was not going to be an option. She was always, always going to need formula. Especially because I couldn’t pump enough to sustain her when I returned to work.
I tried everything. We were skin to skin for the bulk of my maternity leave. I drink lactation teas, eat oatmeal every day, started taking fenugreek capsules, and have been taking a drug prescribed by the pediatrician to help increase milk production. I nurse Penny on demand: she eats whenever she wants for as long as she wants; we have never tried to cut her off or impose a schedule. I have pored over books and articles and forums. I have been to lactation consultants. If it has been suggested, I have tried it. And it hasn’t worked.
It hasn’t worked.
We dropped the SNS after a few months and switched to a bottle for Penny’s formula feeds. I couldn’t handle the tube anymore. At my insistence we never took a photo of me wearing that contraption while nursing, the dreaded bottle swaying horribly in front of my face. Now, though, I wish we had. I wish we had a photograph that I could pull out and shove in the face of everyone who thinks I didn’t try hard enough. “See, see?! I did everything I could.”
I am feeding my kid. What matters is that I am feeding my kid. She is getting food. It doesn’t matter where the food comes from. She is healthy. I am doing the best I can. This is what I tell myself over and over again. David is more worried about me than he is about Penelope. He wishes I didn’t take this so much to heart. He wishes I could see how much I am giving, and not view that as a failure. He wishes I could be proud of myself, the way he is so very proud of me. I wish all of that, too.
We are still nursing as often as we can, and I dream of making it to a full year although I’m currently setting my sights on six months, which is on our horizon. But until she transitions to an all-solid food diet Penny will always need formula to be healthy. I just cannot make enough for her. And it is devastating.