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.
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.