Books v Baby, or How My Nipples Got Tougher Than I Am

As you can tell from those fat cheeks, he no longer has any trouble eating.

As you can tell from those fat cheeks, he no longer has any trouble eating.

In the beginning, motherhood made me an avid reader. During nighttime feedings I’d be filled with adrenaline, so by the inadequate LED tap light by my bed, I read literary journals. Short stories, essays, and poems all seemed nicely portioned for such occasions, and I blew through several journals and collections in my first few weeks as a mom. I felt pretty proud of myself; I should blog about this, I thought. But as time went on, it became clear that whatever post I might write would not just be about the amazing literary opportunity afforded by feeding. It would have to focus heavily on my breasts. From there, it could get a little weird and introspective.

First, let me tell you a little about my son’s eating habits. He is a terrible nurser. He has a weak latch–for those who don’t know much about breastfeeding, that means ouch for mama and hunger for baby–and in the beginning he showed very little interest in eating. He now enjoys food immensely–wherever it comes from, however he can get it. He’s just not very good at getting it.  About half the time, that means it comes from a bottle. Which means I spend a lot of time with a plastic cone attached to my breast, extracting it for him. This experience doesn’t come with the lovey-dovey hormones you get from nursing that cause you to fall in love with your baby. No one falls in love with a breast pump. At least, not that I’ve ever heard of.

I write this now rather cavalierly, but it is a subject that has caused me a lot of grief. My son’s trouble feeding, mixed with the “it’ll be okay” nonsense fed to me by lactation consultants and nurses, led to a three-day return to the hospital, with IVs and all sorts of monitors attached to my son’s eight-and-a-half pound frame while he was treated for jaundice and dehydration. And even after all this, I received pressure from nurses and two more lactation consultants to eschew the bottle and offer my son only the breast, though he continued to nurse poorly even when using a supplemental feeding tube. The doctor gave him bottles immediately, filled with formula or as much colostrum as I could muster, but once he was stable, formula became the f-word, and the fear seemed to be that if I fed my son breast milk in a bottle, it was only a matter of time before I succumbed to the relentless wooing of the formula companies and gave up breast milk all together. Most of the nurses I met encouraged to do anything to avoid the bottle, even though it was the only way he would eat his fill. Though I left the hospital determined to get enough food in my son’s belly no matter how it got there, the anti-bottle pressure preyed on my mind. My son cried for food he could not seem to get directly from me, and I cried because I could not provide it in the way everyone seemed to think I should. No matter what I did, I believed I was a terrible mother. I felt judgment oozing from even my greatest supporters–the mere mention of breastfeeding put me on edge. If it hadn’t been for some plugged milk ducts (more effectively removed by a baby’s suck than a machine’s), I might have given up all together, but somehow, as his mouth got bigger and his neck got stronger, my son sort of figured it out. He still has a latch that would make a lactation consultant cringe, but whether he’s doing it “right” or not, he’s now able to take his daytime meals directly from the source, while at night, he still uses bottles. We haven’t turned to formula yet, but I’ve decided not to judge myself too harshly if I have to make the switch.

Throughout my breastfeeding troubles, I read. I gave my son my full attention while he ate, hoping to build that mysterious bond I’d never realized I’d have to work for, but when the pump came out, my husband or mother watched the baby and I had to find something to occupy my mind. It was a distraction and a comfort to open a literary journal and slide into a different part of my brain, one in which I’d lived so often in my days before becoming a mother. I especially enjoyed the darker pieces because their darkness wasn’t my own. Immersed in the words, I could nearly pretend none of this had happened–only the nagging hum of the breast pump kept me tethered to reality.

I don’t remember most of what I read during this time. A story about a student and her teacher, a poem about douching in Ploughshares. An essay about mentally different young men in The Missouri Review. Something about junkies following Phish in BLR. While I know I read some solid work (and some that failed to impress me), I also know it doesn’t really matter. The memory that comes to me most when I think of that time is of blue light, shadowed pages, and the grunting breast pump against the backdrop of my husband’s grandmother’s quilt. Journals managed to take a ritual that could have taken me hostage and turn it into time I could call my own.

I’ve never read literary fiction for comfort or escape. For that, I tend to turn to authors like Gregory Maguire, J.K. Rowling, and once, Jennifer Weiner. It’s possible what I experienced is something akin to the tendency to cope through work; the best job I’ve ever had, in which I buried myself dozens of time, was my editorial internship with Willow Springs. It brought out a workaholism I’d never known I had in me, and it pulled me through graduate school, helping to draw focus away from my social difficulties. Reading a journal’s finished product was a little like reading really good pieces in the slush pile, and it put me back in an editorial state of mind. I remember thinking how I wished I’d had some of these pieces for issues I’d worked on, and how others I might have rejected out of hand. It almost made me look forward to pumping.

It’s hard to describe how I felt during the first weeks of my son’s life; it’s even harder to describe how it got better. Hormones settled. Sleep patterns settled. There were a couple therapy sessions in there, too. As I began to heal, my reading got lighter and lighter. I joined a book club, for which I’ve read Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling and Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. Our discussions of these books are quick and without any literary merit–we’ve spent more time discussing childbirth and pets than the books that brought us together. I’m still reading, but it’s different now. I recently finished Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close–mostly in the hour I get to myself most evenings, during which my husband watches the baby and I usually stew in the hot tub–and during the sadder parts of the book, I couldn’t stop letting my own life leak in. I imagined losing my son and my son losing me. I don’t usually cry over books, especially ones that seem to try so hard, but when Oskar says he wishes his mom had died instead of his dad, I wept. Okay, I blubbered. Every little boy I read about is a possible vision of my son’s future, for better or worse. The most enjoyable book I’ve read of late is The House at Pooh Corner; though obviously a little advanced for a three-and-a-half-month-old, I’ve been reading it aloud in the nursery and thoroughly enjoying the sweetness of Christopher Robin and his adventurous stuffed animals.

When the content of what I read began to depress me, I started watching TV. A lot of TV. A twenty-two minute episode of The Office was just about perfect for getting through a feeding; two or three episodes got me through a nap (my son greatly prefers to nap in physical contact with me than alone in his crib). Sometimes the TV stays on through playtime because I enjoy the background noise and I figure it can’t hurt the kid to hear as many words in a day as he can, no matter where they’re coming from (though, yes, I know they should be coming from me, but one can only babble so much in a day). I’ve been a mother for almost sixteen weeks now and I’ve been through all eight seasons of the U.S. version of The Office that Netflix has to offer, plus a few episodes of the U.K. version. Also, four seasons of Parks and Recreation. One season of New Girl. Quite a few episodes of Dirty Jobs. These things are light and funny and rarely make me think about my son’s past or future. I know I’m going to have to stop watching soon, so as not to create a tiny TV junkie, but I don’t quite know what I’ll do with myself during the inevitable lulls when my hands are full but my mind is idle.

If I keep allowing myself to place my son in every story I read, I’ll probably stop reading. I’ve never cared so much about anyone’s future–not even my own–as I do about his. I worried so much about how I fed him because of the unknown outcome of each possibility. Not breastfeeding can keep a mother and child from bonding properly. Bottle feeding is thought to increase the likelihood of obesity, though it’s not clear if expressed breast milk bottles have the same effect as bottles of formula. Breast milk helps bolster a child’s immune system, but it’s no guarantee against illness. Studies have shown that breastfed babies have healthier relationships to food and are more likely to eat their vegetables; studies have shown that breast milk contains toxins like pesticides and jet fuel. I was formula-fed, and I have an extremely close relationship with my mother. I’m not obese and any issues I have with food seemed to develop during my teen years. The truth is, there’s no way of knowing how any choice I make will affect my child’s future; much of it depends on personality traits that haven’t come out yet and life experiences I cannot predict. Still, I’m bound to wonder. But there’s some reason in worrying about real-world problems like feeding methods; there’s no reason to worry about fictional situations that really have no influence on my life or my kid’s.

A year or two ago, I never would have considered joining a book club. Light discussion of light literature was never my style. But I’m beginning to understand why people read that way. At our last meeting, when asked for suggestions for future books, I came up with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, since the club members seem to like nonfiction and it’s been on my to-read list for a long time. But when someone looked up a description, foreheads knotted–mine included. None of us wanted to eat cookies and talk about a woman dealing with the deaths of those closest to her.  It wouldn’t be fun. And for now, I’m happy mostly reading for fun. I don’t know that I’ll ever read the same way I did before I was a mother, but I’m sure I’ll eventually get close.

1 Comment

  • Marina Sofia says:

    Ah, yes, I remember those good old ‘snatch a few minutes to read’ moments, with dribbles, leaks, pain… The good news is it does get better – although books or films which describe the suffering of children are still nearly impossible for me to read or watch. And yes, I think the proportion of ‘fun’, escapist literature has increased overall.

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