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Chicken Soup for the Female Breast

I am well aware how much everyone here enjoys when I write about breastfeeding. 99.9% of the time, I stick to my internal promise to leave my breasts off this blog. And then there is the other .1% of the time that Chicken Soup for the Soul writes me and asks if I’d like to contribute an essay to the book they have coming out in November about food and love.

Because breastfeeding is certainly about food, and for some of us, it’s also about love or hate of our bodies. We want to utilize breastfeeding to show love, and we can’t always get our breasts to work.  I couldn’t think of a better story for the book than discussing infertility and how it ties sometimes into our feelings about breastfeeding.  I hope the average reader takes away the message that infertility isn’t a moment in time to get over.  I also hope that if the reader, by chance, is someone who finds herself in the same situation I found myself in, that she can use what I did if it works for her to take back that label of nurturer.

So this is my story, pre-edit.  You can read it in November in the book along with a second essay about the slacker seder I held in college.  I know it won’t please everyone, but I hope I did the majority in the community proud.

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Most women are walking refrigerators. No, wait, milk comes out warm, so they’re more like walking ovens. Or walking stovetops. Whereas men are like table tops, ready to receive the food, women’s bodies are fecund like farms, producing life-sustaining milk; nourishment for our children. We are walking, talking food makers.

I am not one of these women.

I used to be one of these women; or, at the very least, I assume that I was one of these women back before I started down the road of fertility treatments. The mandatory blood work each cycle checked hormone levels. Prolactin, the hormone associated with breast milk, was always in working order.

When we finally became pregnant with our twins, breastfeeding mentally became the way I would take back my body; learn to love it again after its wonkiness made me rack up enormous fertility clinic bills. My breasts were going to produce milk for me, and I was going to forgive my body for letting me down in such a big way. The twins and I would be as peaceful as the woman and child on the nursing pillow tag: mother beatifically smiling down at her perfect baby, her modest nightgown hiding the majority of her perfect white breasts, her hair tidily back in a French twist.

The twins arrived and my milk didn’t. I hadn’t experienced breast changes during pregnancy, but I had been assured that many women don’t and this wasn’t problematic. The twins were too small and premature to breastfeed, but I hooked myself up to a breast pump eight times a day, dutifully staring at the “breast is best” poster in the pumping lounge of the hospital.

Eight times a day the machine would hum, tugging at my breasts. And eight times a day, I would get only a few drops of liquid that looked suspiciously like boob sweat. After a few weeks, I became certain that if I hooked up the breast pump to my husband’s chest, he’d be able to produce the same watery substance. It didn’t help that across from the twins’ NICU room was a family of triplets whose mother filled the NICU refrigerator with vial after vial of her rich, yellowish breast milk. She would close the refrigerator after putting in her pumping takeaway and inform me that she just didn’t know what she’d do with aaaaaaaaaaaaall thaaaaaaaaaaaat miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiilk.

I did not look like the beatific woman on the nursing pillow label. My hair was not in a neat French twist, my boobs were red and raw from the machine, and the twins certainly weren’t calmly suckling. At four weeks post-birth, we were a massive trainwreck both physically and emotionally. I had tried medications and sleeping more and sleeping less and drinking more water and eating more protein. I had been to several breastfeeding specialists, tried holding the twins’ sleepy mouths to my breast prior to pumping or sniffing one of their spit-up-soaked burp cloths while on the machine – an idea, I was promised, that would trick my brain into producing milk.

I probably don’t need to tell you that it didn’t exactly work.

After four weeks, someone had the idea to test my prolactin levels, and lo and behold, the culprit for my lack of milk was found. I wasn’t producing prolactin anymore, a side effect possibly of the very treatments that brought me my twins. One month of useless pumping finally came to an end, at least physically.

Emotionally, I couldn’t move on nor wrap my brain around the idea that once again, my body had failed to do what other women could do easily. It couldn’t create a child, it couldn’t carry said child to term, and now it couldn’t even feed a child. This body that I had always loved and treated well certainly wasn’t showing me the care I had showed it over the years. And beyond that, I had always been a nurturer, a cook. I was the person who always provided the food, who baked cookies for friends and held dinner parties and had worked her way through an entire cooking school textbook (with the exception of the forcemeats chapter but I secretly believe that everyone would skip the forcemeats chapter if they could).

I was a woman: food was what we did. Not being able to feed my children in the way that I was led to believe was best from hospital posters and parenting books hit me in the very core of who I was as a person. Was I really the nurturer I saw myself as if I couldn’t do this simple task?

One night, in the middle of yet another crying jag over the idea that I had failed so enormously at this whole make-and-keep-a-baby-growing thing, my husband gave me the solution I needed in order to take back that label of nurturer. He asked me to come up with another task equally as difficult as breastfeeding that didn’t depend on my body to function in a certain way.

Making my own baby food instantly sprang to mind. Peeling all of those apples and pears, roasting butternut squash and deseeding it, pureeing steamed peach slices: all of these tasks were time-consuming and messy as opposed to simply twisting the top off a baby food jar. So we went to the supermarket and bought fruits and vegetables. We purchased dozens of ice cube trays and Sharpie markers for labeling. We set up marathon baby food making sessions after the twins went to bed, turning on some music and creating an assembly line of tasks until the last ice cube tray was in the freezer. And several days later, we did it all over again.

Making baby food for picky twins was a never-ending task. Instead of cracked nipples or mastitis, I had cuts on my fingers from the peelers and knives. Instead of searching for a discreet place to nurse in public, I was constantly seeking microwaves where I could heat-up our frozen baby food cubes when we were on an outing. And instead of feeding being a task solely on my shoulders (or should I say, my boobs), my husband was able to be an equal partner in not only the action of placing the food into the twins’ mouths but creating it as well.

Our twins have had exactly one jar of store-bought baby food in their life, but it’s not a fact that I hold over the heads of fellow mothers. I have come to realize that everyone has things they do well and things they don’t; everyone has special ways they provide that others cannot either due to time, inclination, finances or ability. There is no single way of feeding that is “best” in the grand sense of the term, but only ways that are best for each individual mother; each individual child.

I never got to be that beatific woman on the nursing pillow label, but like most advertising, I don’t think her life was really like that anyway. Instead of a French twist, modest nightgown, and angelic child, I got a messy ponytail, jeans, and the Violent Femmes blasting from the computer while I made baby food, side-by-side with my husband. And that’s a memory that it is worth more to me than fulfilling someone else’s idea of perfect motherhood.

37 comments

1 jodifur { 07.14.11 at 7:58 am }

I couldn’t nurse either, for different reasons than you, and 6 1/2 years later, it still haunts me.

2 JustHeather { 07.14.11 at 8:03 am }

I love it, Mel! Not only does it sound like you came to terms with not being able to produce breast milk, you turned it into something wonderful and amazing! I’ll keep this in mind in case I need it someday. :)
And this is the 2nd Violent Femmes reference in as many days. I love the VF!!!

3 Alexis { 07.14.11 at 9:10 am }

I also failed to breastfeed. In my case, my prolactin was fine (boosting it did nothing). I drove myself nuts over it, partly because everything else hadn’t gone to plan either. I had severe preeclampsia and had an emergency section without going into labor. This, damn it, was going to go right! And it didn’t. I had very little support, and no one could tell me what was wrong. (Two theories: Process disrupted by pre-e and blood loss; insufficient glandular tissue. I won’t know which until I try again.)

4 Esperanza { 07.14.11 at 10:49 am }

Great job! Also as someone who also tried to make all her own babyfood (for just one child) I have a very good idea of just how much labor and sweat feeding TWO babies home made babyfood would be. My daughter eats about 1/3 jarred and 2/3 home made and for that I’m quite proud. I can’t imagine feeding TWO babies home made food exclusively. That is very impressive. As was this piece.

5 Justine { 07.14.11 at 11:15 am }

LOVE this post. I’m hoping to make more food this time around, and I can appreciate just how hard it is … differently hard than breastfeeding. And more equitable because men can help, too. :)

6 tash { 07.14.11 at 11:29 am }

Mel, this is really beautiful and made me cry. As my kids grow and move away from the first year I am constantly reminded that mothering and pure loving moments (for me) are not birth and breast feeding. Far, far from it. My memory bank is full of so, so much more. This includes the sick daughter who never tasted my milk. Thanks for reminding everyone that mothering is full and rich and not always caught on a poster or in a catch phrase.

7 Searching for Serenity { 07.14.11 at 11:30 am }

This is great. Thank you for representing.

Production was not an issue for me. The complete opposite actually. But, we were never able to get a good latch. After 5 weeks of tireless attempts at a successful feeding session, I finally gave in to the pump. Which I had been using to supplement since day 2 anyway. For the next 9 months I carried my pump with me everywhere I went. I produced so much milk that for a period of a few months I was pumping 4-6 times a day in 45 minute sessions. I was a slave to the pump.

But there was a reason I did it. The same reasons you so badly wanted to bf. I thought it was the best for my son. I wanted so badly for bfing to work, that I took the next best option, pumping. I thought it was once part of the journey to motherhood that I could contol. I was convinced that he’d be healthier, which he was. I was convinced that it could decrease his chances of developing allergies. I pumped enough in 9 months to last until he was 15 months old. I’m proud of that. But now 2 years later I am raising a child with a life-threatening nut allergy and we suspect he also has seasonal allergies. Among other things that will likely present themselves down the road. I was ignorant in thinking we could sail through childhood without these health concerns if I could just do everthing in my power to provide breastmilk for him. Looking back I would do it again because I believe he still benefited from it. But it was not the highlight of motherhood that I expected.

Thank you for sharing your story.

8 Alex { 07.14.11 at 11:50 am }

Great essay! I think it will be a wonderful addition to the book. Congrats on being asked to be in the book!!!

9 Quiet Dreams { 07.14.11 at 11:52 am }

Beautiful post.
And, for the record, I love reading about your breasts.

10 Lynn { 07.14.11 at 12:16 pm }

I LOVE this story!!! So beautiful and real! The longer our TTC journey goes on, the more I feel it unlikely we’ll have a biological child. I’m not sure yet how I feel about BFing if we adopt, but I do know that The Hubs and I want to make our own baby food. It’s something we’ve talked about for years. Thanks, Mel, for making me see it as a way of showing my dysfunctional body I can still be a great mom!

11 Hollie { 07.14.11 at 12:21 pm }

PERFECTION! As always, THANK YOU!

12 Gil { 07.14.11 at 1:38 pm }

Well said Mel. Well said.

Petite will be two this August, and I still cry and lament the fact that she refused to latch, and my production absolutely sucked. I spent hours attatched to a pump while everyone else got to enjoy my (hard-won!) baby girl. I ate so much oatmeal and took so much domperidone during the first three months of Petite’s life, all in an attempt to increase my production. I’m still terrified about what might happen if we are lucky enough to have a second child; the grief and regret haunts me to this day.

It’s hard, as women, to accept that the ‘normal’ things that our bodies are supposed to do just don’t happen easily. Not only do we not accept it, but then we actually beat ourselves up over it to boot. I wish I could stop that infernal tape from running in my head that repeats, over and over, “… never good enough.”

Thank you for posting this. It means a lot to so many of us.

13 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 07.14.11 at 1:43 pm }

Fabulous that you get to write for such a large audience!

My twins have had exactly 0 jars of prepared baby food. It’s really not as hard as I would have thought, since much is done in batches ahead of time (roasting a squash, cooking a big batch of lentils), some is done in tiny batches every day or two (like steaming some peas), and some can be done on the fly (like mashing avocados or bananas).

Tip for future baby food chefs: thaw overnight. Every night I set out the next day’s meals in the fridge. Makes life so much easier.

14 Elizabeth { 07.14.11 at 1:58 pm }

Beautiful! We had our son through gestational surrogacy, and I decided not to try to induce lactation b/c I didn’t want, as you said so eloquently, to feel like my body had once again let me down. And perhaps more pragmatically because our surro pumped for us but also because I had never been sure if I would have breastfed if I had been able to get pregnant. Like you, I also made all of his baby food even though I never thought I would do that sort of thing (I used to associate that with crunchy granola types for some reason). I have similar fond memories of me and my husband peeling, chopping, cooking and pureeing fruits and veggies. Once I started doing it, it felt right. Until I read your post, I don’t think I ever thought about how making his food was perhaps my way of saying to him–and the world–that even though I didn’t/couldn’t breastfeed him, I made up for it in other ways.

Something for me to ponder.

15 Queenie { 07.14.11 at 2:16 pm }

Love this!

16 sunflowerchilde (stacey) { 07.14.11 at 2:23 pm }

I wonder sometimes if it would be better if my body didn’t produce milk. I produced a ton of milk, although never “quite” enough for my twins. And sometimes they would even latch on. But they never seemed like they got enough from the breast. I almost never had a successful breastfeeding session. I started pumping and bottlefeeding “temporarily” to ease the nipple pain and frustration, and things just got worse from there. I had no help to speak of, just someone who came a few hours a day to help out and turned out to NOT be a good choice for new twin support. In the end, she was watching my babies while I was pumping in the back room (since we had contractors and it’s hard to be modest with a breast pump). For hours per day.

I was able to provide 90% of their milk needs for the first few months of their lives before my husband convinced me it was better to spend that time with my children than with a breast pump, and I weaned myself. I still regret it, even though I think it was probably the best decision. I still hate that I had no help, no support. Neither my family nor my husband’s supported breast-feeding, and I didn’t realize until after the babies’ were born that my husband didn’t really support it either (he thought, all other things being equal, that it was worth doing, but that in our case all other things weren’t equal).

In the end, my husband thought their screaming was caused by upset stomachs caused by my milk, so I carefully packed and stored hundreds of ounces of breast milk in our deep freezer while feeding my children formula. It sucked. Then we went to stay with his family for Christmas, and came home to find that the contractors had cut the power to the room with the deep freezer and everything was spoiled, including the milk. Hundreds of ounces of liquid gold into the trash.

It still really hurts. I know I became crazy after it, too, hounding everyone to wash the bottles better, be more careful with the water temperature. I HATED that other people were feeding my babies when I should have been the one doing it. It made the early part of their lives a bit bittersweet for me. I don’t seem to be able to get over it. It’s great that you found something to help.

17 Becky { 07.14.11 at 2:30 pm }

I have/am bf-ing my 2 sons (through adoption). It’s funny, that with the if, bf-ing was the 1 thing I oculdn’t let go of. It was the one thing I couldn’t accept that I wouldn’t be able to do. I threw myself into learning how to induce lactation and have taken/continue to take tons of meds what I produce is such a tiny amount. I continue to breastfeed, using a supplemental nurser and donated breastmilk, but, as you put it, I feel like my body has again let me down. And it seriously pisses me off. I thought maybe just this one thing it could do right. Apparently not.

Instead of using baby food, we have done baby led weaning. So no jarred (or otherwise) baby food here.

18 HereWeGoAJen { 07.14.11 at 3:14 pm }

Fabulous story, Mel. I love it.

19 Elizabeth { 07.14.11 at 3:26 pm }

I love your voice.

20 Chickenpig { 07.14.11 at 3:49 pm }

Ok, how weird is it that I thought this post was titled “Chicken Soup FROM the Female Breast”? I seriously have to get my eyes checked.

I loved this story. I think all of us can relate, whether we breastfed our children (or plan to) or not. I breastfed my twins for 10 and 11 mos, and it took months before I felt even half competent at it. The picture of me would have been a woman naked from the waist up, her dirty hair all tangled and askew, while weeping all over her babies. I think the only reason I kept at it was because breastfeeding only involved picking up a baby and putting it to my breast…and for months that was all I was capable of. If I had tried to make baby food I’m sure I would have lost a couple of fingers, and the food would have been over seasoned from my tears. Looking back, I realize that being so dedicated to breastfeeding my twins may have contributed to the severity of my PPD . At the very least, it certainly didn’t help.

21 JDragonfly { 07.14.11 at 4:28 pm }

Mel, I really appreciate your model of taking your situation and working with it. Thank you for being so open about the pain of getting to the decisions you do, and for showing us through those decisions that being a woman and mom doesn’t come in only one package… (Especially if that package has to have hair up in a french twist – I’m more of a messy pony tail girl too…)

22 Natalie { 07.14.11 at 4:54 pm }

I really enjoyed reading your story. I also had a hard time breast feeding after IF. It seemed like at every turn my body was failing me. I’m not sure that I have ever really forgiven my body, but I have learned to accept it. I’m hoping that with my current pregnancy that I can try once again to breastfeed and maybe I’ll have better luck this time. I definitely want to try making baby food too. =)

23 Leah { 07.14.11 at 7:45 pm }

I don’t want to over look your pain, but want to say that is a really beautiful story. Your husband is a wise man. Good on you for making your moment some other way. I can relate to that, I have hung on to a future “moment” possibility to ease the pain of missing one and as the pain has eased it made it possible to have many other moments in the interim.

24 TasIVFer { 07.14.11 at 9:57 pm }

Love hearing about the baby food making part of the story! I’m so glad you had that. And it give you super-mum status in my mind!

25 Battynurse { 07.15.11 at 12:15 am }

Fabulous post and essay. I think sometimes the pressure we put on new moms to breast feed makes things so difficult for them. I know breast feeding is great for mom and baby both but it’s not necessarily always great for everyone.

26 luna { 07.15.11 at 2:27 am }

huge congrats on being included! and thanks for adding your voice to represent an often missing perspective.

when we adopted our daughter I really wanted to breastfeed, both for her benefit and for the bonding. yet I had only limited success inducing lactation (i.e., virtually non-stop pumping with herbal and rx protocol for months only to produce a bare minimal amount that couldn’t even satisfy one feeding at a time). we had to start supplementing with formula immediately.

like you, I took immense pleasure in preparing her food once she showed an interest at about 5 months. I put so much love into those yams and carrots and apples and pears. and she loved them! the only time she ever ate jarred food was when she needed prunes and I had none to puree. (I can’t say I’ve kept that up anymore, as we’ve added many healthy foods of convenience to her diet.) but it was that act of nurturing and caring to show love and security — it was all I could do and I loved it.

do I still get pangs when I see a baby nursing with ease from a carefree lactating mom? sure. because we’re hard wired to believe that’s what we’re supposed to do: *make babies and nurture them with our bodies*

like others here, breastfeeding was just another reason to feel like an inadequate mother and woman. at least we could both get some satisfaction in other nurturing ways.

27 A Field of Dreams { 07.15.11 at 4:17 am }

Excellent post. This was MY life with the boobs. I couldn’t breastfeed either for similar reasons (and maybe psychological too) nor was I a whizz in the kitchen. But man, I make the best fresh and healthy baby food ever. 100% fresh & healthy fed toddler. Thank you for your post.

28 Anna { 07.15.11 at 10:38 am }

This is such a politically and emotionally charged issue. Thanks very much for sharing your writing. I would have loved to read this when I was breastfeeding and desperate and I am sure that person you’re writing for will get comfort from it too.

I forced myself to breastfeed my daughter for just shy of 6 months, stopping was a revelation to me and made very positive changes to our lives. In a way it haunts me too, I did what I could do but at a cost (repeated infections that I couldn’t kick because I was too drained, feeding every 1-2 hours day and night, lack of energy) that couldn’t help but make our first months together tough going. If I had my chance again I don’t know what I would do, possibly try but give up sooner.

29 K (les terres fertiles) { 07.15.11 at 2:34 pm }

Mel,

I love your story so much! It was beautifully written. Your husband is a genius for recognizing your need to not only nourish but have something to work on and keep your hands and body and mind busy.

I haven’t been been pregnant or had kids yet, but my assumption was always I would breastfeed. Of course, IF has a way of making you realize assumptions mean nothing to the universe and reality.

But the thing is, even though this issue has yet to apply to me directly, it still can get under my skin. I sometimes feel like “Breast is best” got distorted to mean “anything else sucks for your baby.” Breastmilk may be better, but formula is still good.

A good friend of mine who recently had a baby said to me, “Formula will keep your baby alive, but breast milk is PURE GOLD.” Um, isn’t keeping your baby alive your number one freaking objective! What a smug attitude. It’s like saying, “Your Civic will get you to work, but look at this amazing Ferrari!” And you’re like, Yeah, I pretty much just want to get to work.

That said, I’m sorry you had to struggle with breastfeeding on top of infertility. That definitely is a low-blow from the universe. But in my opinion, I don’t see how anyone who put as much love into the baby food thing as you did could ever be providing less because they didn’t breastfeed. So definitely good on you!

30 Lut C. { 07.15.11 at 6:35 pm }

My prolactin levels came back normal but for the life of me I couldn’t get my milk production up to needed levels. NOTHING worked.
It was hard letting that go in my mind, but I did. After going through infertility, I did feel betrayed again, but at least this was easily to work around.

Good post.

31 slowmamma { 07.15.11 at 9:00 pm }

This is wonderful. I hope the right women finds this at the right time. Looking back, I did manage to breastfeed for a while and did make all of my son’s food but I wish that I had gone a little easier on myself, accepted a little less in some circumstances.

32 Manapan { 07.16.11 at 12:22 am }

Not gonna lie… I’m sobbing after reading this.

I was finally lucky enough to get and stay pregnant. Almost three weeks ago, my son was born. But the birth didn’t go well. He wasn’t healthy right away. And all I got for the first four days of pumping was, like you, boob sweat. I still can’t get enough for even a single feeding, and I’ve been feeling like such an epic failure. In a few months, we are SO doing homemade baby food. Thanks for the idea!

33 Lori Lavender Luz { 07.16.11 at 12:33 am }

It’s beyond perfect.

It fed my soul. Even more nourishing than chicken soup.

34 Barb { 07.18.11 at 10:28 pm }

Awe sweet. Love it. Makes me sigh. Even though I did produce milk, it was never enough, and there were so many problems that I beat myself up much like you did.

35 Billy { 07.19.11 at 4:28 pm }

Great post! Loved how you found a way to overcome it (and well, loved Josh’s advice!). Breastfeeding is seemingly so easy and anyone can, and then you can’t and the anguish..

36 Myndi { 07.24.11 at 6:28 pm }

From the very beginning, I was insistent that I would breastfeed, even though I was having triplets that were guaranteed to be some degree of premature. My goal was a year. I was BF’ing within hours of their birth, or trying to at least, and by the time they were all out of the NICU 13 days later, I had one exclusive breastfeeder, one that was well on his way, and one unknown. And I was pumping enough to feed them 90% breastmilk. I made plenty of milk, but I couldn’t get enough of it out because I have weird nipples that can’t handle pumping. No matter what flanges I used, they were rubbed raw if I pumped more than 3 times a day. Having a prolific amount of milk that you can’t access to the degree you need to is sort of like having a gold mine that you can’t actually mine. By the time my husband went back to work, I simply didn’t have the time to breastfeed one (4o minutes, 8 times a day), half-breastfeed and then top off another (another 40 minutes, 8 times a day), bottle feed one (30 minutes), AND then pump (another 40 minutes when all is said and done). On a 3 hour schedule, I was spending about 2 of them feeding and pumping. I just couldn’t do it. So, I walked away from it and I did so with the heaviest heart. Honestly, if I could go back and change my mind, I would…even today.

I think it’s fabulous that you found an alternative that worked for you, and that your husband was so brilliant as to suggest it. I dreamed of making baby food, and I just couldn’t make the time. Even now, I dont’ see how I could squeeze it in and keep my sanity. I’ve already given up showering every day, and I usually get one meal a day. By the time my husband gets home from work, I’ve been on my own for 12+ hours, and I still have to get them to bed. Exhausted. Kudos to you for finding the strength and determination to get it done.

37 Bea { 07.26.11 at 8:10 am }

Nicely put.

Bea

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