My son was born three months premature and when they took him out of my body and away from me, they brought me a breast pump to nurse.
Instead of a hot pink squirming infant on my chest, they brought me a machine, the tubes and gears in cruel mimicry of the monitors veining in and out of my son’s isolette. Like him, I was on the brink of death, hooked up to prayers and survival rate statistics.
Meeting my baby…and my pump
They brought me the pump within minutes of my arrival to maternity from labor and delivery. I think now that they should’ve wheeled it in cradled in a bassinet with one of the green blankets a friend had knitted for my son. A grandmother-nurse began showing me how to use it.
“Lord. Honey, were you even pregnant? Your belly is already gone.” I think she meant to make me feel better. At least I still had my figure, right? It made me cry buckets after she left.
“You’re not gonna get much out of those tiny things,” she teased, poking my left breast (the bigger one, by the way) playfully as she helped me fit the funnel-like cup around it so it would “latch.” I actually did laugh.
The nurse looked at my chart and stopped teasing and smiling, but didn’t say anything. There was a brief, confusing moment when she moved to check an incision that wasn’t there, not in a discernible line, anyway. I’d been down for an emergency C-section, but my son arrived on a stretcher en route to the operating table, and no one had updated my chart.
Meanwhile, the pump had a rhythm going, a sort of wheeze-and-whirl sound that I never got used to. I did ten minutes on one side, ten minutes on the other, all for what looked like less than a teaspoon of a custard-colored liquid called colostrum, the first nutrient-laden spurts before the milk comes down.
A neonatal doctor told me later that day that the colostrum was immediately fed intravenously to my son. She said my breast milk was the strongest medicine my son could have, a cocktail of potentially lifesaving, immunity-building antibodies customized by my body specifically for him. I’m an earthy sort who was struggling with a new clinical vocabulary, so I believed her with near-religious zeal. I had wanted to breastfeed anyway. Just a week ago, I had been excited to nurse my baby…in three months.
Starting to pump
I began pumping breast milk every two hours. Sometimes I didn’t even leave the NICU; I’d slip into a small room with a curtain and pump away, then carefully label my little bottles and bring them out to the nurse who would store them in the fridge while I settled back into the surprisingly comfy chair beside the monitors, the incubator, and my one-pound, 13-ounce, 25-week-old baby.
For days, I did this. I set alarms and woke myself up in the middle of the night to pump. I wrote not only the dates but the times on the bottles’ labels. The grandmother-nurse came in once at 3am, blessed my soul for being awake and diligent about pumping, and frowned sadly when she saw how little milk was in my bottles.
“It’ll pick up, honey, just keep at it,” she said unconvincingly.
And the next day, they discharged me. A lactation specialist asked to talk to me for a few minutes. She recommended a tea called Mother’s Milk that she assured me would “help things along.”
“Also, try to concentrate on a picture of your son while you pump,” she advised as I was finally leaving.
You know, like porn. Like how people look at porn to get turned on. I could never get that comparison out of my head no matter how wrong it seemed. The wrongness of it, in this situation where everything was wrong, seemed right.
I rented the hospital’s pump, bought the tea, went home, pumped, and came straight back to the hospital to see my son. For a few days, I did this, pumping at home and then bringing the milk back and sitting beside the isolette, until I realized I got more milk—not much more, but more—when I visited my baby first, then pumped in that little curtained room. I often read articles on breastfeeding and pumping while I was there, but I didn’t recognize myself in any of them. I didn’t spot the fronts of my blouses when I came near my son. My breasts didn’t ever become painfully engorged with milk. I wasn’t sore or chafing. I simply wasn’t producing much milk at all, tea be damned.
So I tried the porn thing, I mean, the photo thing. I snapped a picture of my son up close while a nurse was changing his nasal cannula and I could actually get a clear view of his face.
I want to say his face was adorable, his tiny button nose scrunching at being woken up too soon before his next cares (i.e., diaper changes, feedings, re-tapings, monitor readings, all the scheduled procedural things a nurse ordinarily does for a hospitalized baby). I want to say this first photo-snapping was a special moment.
What actually happened was that I cried and ended up taking a blurry photo. The nurses thought I was so sweet, a doting mother capturing, what, a face only she could love? My son looked alien, incredibly ill and impossibly small. His skin was red and too tender to be stroked or even touched for long. He looked emaciated at his limbs and bloated at his center. I didn’t want a picture of him looking this way.
Still, I saved the blurry photo to my phone and pulled it out later, at home, with my breast pump. I tried to love the photo. I tried to believe in that emotional connection that would let my milk down, but the truth is, I was feeding a machine, not a newborn baby.
What’s worse, I was feeding a machine that I was starting to hate.
Still no milk
After 10 days, I returned to work. Everyone thought I was crazy, but I was clinging to optimism-or-perish and wanted to save my maternity leave time for when my son was discharged from the hospital, which wouldn’t be for at least two more months. I lugged that hospital rental breast pump to and from work, pumping once in the morning, once at lunch, and twice in the afternoon before spending the evening at the hospital, where I usually pumped at least one or two additional times.
I pumped again at night right before bed, and first thing in the morning. I tried to keep up the overnight pumps but I couldn’t fall back asleep afterward; my nipples tingled while I disinfected the pump’s parts and labeled the half-full bottles, and I would lie awake for hours worrying about not being able to adequately feed my baby. What if they didn’t let me bring him home?
Once, while in a conference room at work, pumping away, I answered a call (I always took my phone along to set a timer) from my best friend, who was coming to town that night to visit me. As I lost myself in our conversation, I felt a warm wetness on my chest and realized I was overflowing the bottles. That had never happened to me before. My milk had finally let down.
Elated, I told my friend I needed to go home and change my shirt before meeting up with her. Thinking my worries about my milk supply was over, I also stopped at the hospital for more bottles and labels and to see my son a second time that day. That night in bed, though, I barely filled my bottles to the halfway point again. I brought out the photo, made myself some tea, and tried again. Almost nothing.
The one thing I thought I could give my son, and my body was failing me, again, as it had seemed to fail me when his placenta inexplicably detached from my uterus three months too soon. I broke down and realized that I couldn’t even produce tears at that point, let alone milk.
And now I wish I could say that I went to the hospital the next day and they let me breastfeed my son for the first time, and he latched on perfectly, and I was filled with maternal attachment, and my milk let down once and for all and I breastfed him exclusively until he was a fat little one-year-old. I did get to breastfeed him soon after, and probably sooner than his NICU team normally would’ve let me because I wouldn’t give up on it, insisted that my milk supply was never going to increase if I had to keep pretending an industrial-grade breast pump was my hungry infant. And despite the fact that breastfeeding a preemie is enormously challenging, my son did latch on perfectly and take to the breast faster and better than anticipated.
But my supply never increased.
Bringing my son home
After three months in NICU, my son was discharged. I kept the breast pump for another three months. I hated it. After breastfeeding, I would then pump immediately after for 10 minutes on each side, then label, disinfect, sit for 20 minutes, and it would be nearly time to start the process over again.
As my son slowly grew, he started needing formula in addition to the little breast milk I could provide, so that added 15 minutes of bottle time and more disinfecting to the routine. It was an uncomfortable and tedious rhythm, just like the pump itself, with its annoying whirring sounds. I was numbly moving through this rhythm, more a mechanism than a mother.
I didn’t enjoy breastfeeding. I wanted to love it, but after the initial pleasure of finally getting to do it when my son was two months old, I was too attached, so to speak, to the idea of hating the pump for not being a baby. The entire process was tainted for me, a nearly empty carton of milk gone sour. The more “normal” my body became, the more it resembled itself pre-pregnancy, the more my mental health suffered, contrary to popular belief.
I wanted a sweet story about curling up with my son and a blanket for a midnight feeding, dozing together afterward, his soft, content burps and me smelling his first wisps of hair. Instead, there was only the wheeze of that awful pump and the microwaves beeps when the bottles and tubes finished their steam clean. Far from earthly, feeding my son was a clinical, mechanical process that reminded me entirely too much of the NICU.
Liberation, at last
Giving up breastfeeding, then, was a liberation. I finally called the lactation specialist and made arrangements to return that awful pump. She didn’t appreciate my joke about dousing it in kerosene and dancing around its flames in my backyard. I suspected she knew I had failed at breastfeeding and was disappointed in me, until I made my way back to the NICU with the pump.
“I can’t believe you kept up with this for six months,” she surprised me by marveling. “So many NICU moms with the supply issues you’ve had just give up.”
I want to say that her praise made me feel better, but the truth is that I was angry with my body. Angry that my first three months of motherhood should’ve been my last three months of pregnancy, and that I’d missed out on holding my son immediately after he was born, that the emotional connection that would’ve helped my body do what could have been effortless and natural was delayed. I was angry because I knew my anger was maybe part of my problem of not producing enough milk, and that I couldn’t control it. And I was sure the lactation specialist was only telling me what she thought I wanted to hear, and that made me angry, too.
For nearly a month after I stopped pumping and breastfeeding, I could still squeeze drops of milk from my breasts in the shower. Once during sex, milk literally shot out of my right breast. It was actually kinda hot until I jumped up, thinking my milk was finally really letting down, that my body wanted to breastfeed and was rebelling against my decision to stop trying. Crazed with guilt, I dug out the manual breast pump that the hospital let me keep, and which I’d used exactly once before. Nothing.
Then one day, there were no drops. It was the most sadly freeing thing I’ve ever felt, like leaving a lover and knowing you’ll never have another one.
My son was a year old before he stopped nuzzling against my breast while I held him. He wanted to breastfeed, and I couldn’t do it. I’m not angry anymore, except when people get self-righteous about “breast is best”; (because science says maybe not) but I’ll be forever sad that my body couldn’t do more for my baby. I think of that even now, as I cut the crusts off of his peanut butter sandwiches before preschool.
Breastfeeding depends upon emotions, and after the ordeal of NICU, I had all the wrong ones, a debilitating intrusion of anger, anxiety, and guilt. If failing at breastfeeding imparted any lesson, it was this: for my body to function properly, my mind had to be functioning properly, too. I suppose I wouldn’t trade that knowledge, only the way I came to it.