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08/10/2008

The only post I will ever write about nursing our second son

Ben nursed exclusively for the first ten days of his life.  My milk came in on day 3 postpartum — a revelation to me, since the sudden engorgement made it clear that my breasts never really did quite what they should have with Charlie.  (Apparently a premature delivery and a full tank of mag can do that to a girl, no matter how much hippie-smelling funk the fenugreek induces.) 

Supply was not a problem, and Ben had a beautiful latch, and I had the invaluable assistance of a cadre of knowledgeable nurses.  Aside from his routine weight checks in the nursery, Ben was never taken out of my room.  He spent his days and nights wearing only a diaper and a light blanket for plenty of skin-to-skin contact, and I brought him in close every time he started making interesting shapes with that curious pink mouth of his.  We had the peerless support of a donut delivered straight from the bakeries of Heaven itself.  Hot and cold running Lansinoh.  A leopard-print nursing bra, for crying out loud.  Everything should have been great.

And it hurt every goddamn time.

I had always heard the first two weeks of breastfeeding are the most difficult, not an instant blissful communion but a hump to get over by dint of determination and endurance.  And endure I did, wincing with every chomp, twelve times a day, chanting to myself with every beat of the rhythmic mangling, The first two weeks are the toughest.  So it wasn't strictly the pain that made me — say it with me, friends — talk to a lactation consultant.  It was the pediatrician, casually mentioning in the course of her routine examination that Ben's pretty mouth is tongue-tied, not severely, but enough to warrant a consultation with an ENT doctor.

And because I like a good specialist as much as the next heavily medicalized God-bless-American, I also called the lactation consultant.

She watched me feed Ben.  She saw his jaw working fast, clamping down over and over.  She saw me stiffen and grimace as he worked.  She checked the position of his lips, properly flared in an ardent fish-kiss, and watched the motion of his tongue, which was not clearing his lower gum during sucking to form the comfortable cushion it should have.  She suggested a tongue exercise for us to do with Ben.  (Open mouth, insert pinky, initiate sucking, press gently on back of tongue, and savor the cries of one righteously pissed-off newborn.)  She was encouraging, positive, and relatively sanguine about our chances of eventually getting Ben to nurse without making me dread each feeding.

Dread.  It's precisely the word.  She said only the right things, but she told me exactly what I did not want to hear.  She recommended that while we wait for our ENT appointment, I bottle-feed to limit damage to my nipples, and pump ten to twelve times a day to keep my supply from dwindling.

Oh, how we all did laugh.

I talked with her a bit about my history with Charlie, in which my hatred for the pump figured prominently.  I think she somehow mistook me, because she warmly told me that I should be proud of working that hard for him (I was and am) and that I have no reason to feel I'd failed him (um, what?).  Failed, what a ridiculous word under the circumstances, one that has nevertheless a dangerous resonance.  When we left her office I could already feel the crazy creeping in.

How much influence ankyloglossia has on an infant's feeding is up for debate.  The main problem seems to be the pain it can cause the mother, coupled as it often is with near-constant nursing to compensate for the less than optimal sucking action.  Of course breastfeeding such an infant can be done, especially with a relatively mild case like Ben's.  The trouble is, I am not willing to do it.  The pain while nursing, the pain while pumping, the bad place it all takes my head and heart — I don't believe it's worth it.

While we waited for our appointment with the lactation consultant, Paul leafed through the breastfeeding brochures racked outside her office.  "A mother's love knows no bounds," he intoned in an ominous voice, reading from one.  Talk about a dangerous resonance.  I can't look at Ben without feeling a rush of that mother's love.  But I can't look at the pump without feeling a bound so definite it might as well be a concrete wall.  After Charlie, I don't equate any mode of feeding with love.  With Ben, though, when I know my giving up after ten scant days to be a decision borne of purest selfishness, I can see how someone might.

For the last two days I've been feeding Ben a combination of formula and the milk I've pumped solely to reduce engorgement.  I can't describe the feeling of well being I have as I hold him and give him, yes, a bottle.  I hear his squeaks of enthusiasm as he drinks, and I see his eyes getting heavier, and I watch the fleeting sleep-smile that's no less enchanting for being only reflex.  And of course breastfeeding has incomparable advantages, but the signs of a contented baby seem, to my biased eye, to be the same in any infant who's being held close and fed with love.  I remember them from Charlie.  I want to enjoy them this time without pain, drama, or stress.  I want to enjoy this baby.

I am enjoying this baby.  I don't dread his waking to eat.  I don't put him down with a feeling of resignation as I lurch off to the pump.  Feeding him, which at this point constitutes the bulk of his conscious moments, brings only pleasure.

That's not to say I'm completely okay; in fact, I'm rocked with ambivalence a dozen times a day, telling myself, There's still time to keep pumping, to keep the supply going, to give him another week, to see how it goes.  And then I swing wildly in the other direction: But why exactly would I do that?

Despite the obvious nutritional superiority of breast milk, I can't think of a reason good enough to continue — that's how strong my resistance is.  I promised myself I wouldn't get crazy again.  I promised Paul, and I meant it.  I promised Charlie, if silently, not to subject him to a mother made unhappy that way.  Three good reasons not to.

However we nourish our children, we all want to give them the best in ourselves.  It's just that for Ben, his mother's best isn't milk.  It's time, peaceful feeding, and the recognition, won through experience, that sometimes embracing "good enough" is the very best of all.

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