By Suzanne Schlosberg
Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from Unbuttoned: Women Open Up About the Pleasures, Pains, and Politics of Breastfeeding, edited by Dana Sullivan and Maureen Connolly, copyright 2009, used by permission from The Harvard Common Press. I have 5 copies of the book to give away. To win a copy, leave a comment describing why you would be interested in reading this book.
I used to think that the most boring person alive was Steve Forbes, the former Republican presidential candidate who droned on for a decade about replacing the federal income tax with a 17% flat tax on personal and corporate earnings.
But I was wrong. It’s not Steve Forbes. It’s me. Because all I talk about these days is breastfeeding.
Consider: Last week at the supermarket I ran into an elderly couple from the neighborhood. Though we ostensibly had plenty to chat about – their trip to Florida, our town’s new Thai restaurant – somehow, within seconds, I turned the conversation to my milk supply. Marlene managed to feign interest, but poor Nathan was reduced to reading the nutrition labels on the ground beef.
Worse: Last weekend at a bat-mitzvah party, the president of our synagogue’s board of directors marched over, grabbed my hand and said, “Could you stop talking about breastfeeding for five minutes and come dance?”
But what’s there not to talk about? Feeding my four-month-old twin boys is the driving force of my existence. In my every waking moment, I’m never more than 2 1/2 hours from the next nursing or pumping session, which means if I’m not nursing or pumping, then I’m thinking about the next time I have to nurse or pump and calculating how to squeeze the rest of my life into that window. My breastfeeding schedule dictates everything, even down to where I get my snow tires installed. (Every year it’s been Costco, where I brave the long lines in exchange for the low cost. But this year I paid double at a local garage because the wait at Costco was longer than my breasts could withstand.)
The other day a friend startled me with this question: “What do you like most about motherhood?” She might as well have asked, “What do you like most about Slovenia?” The thing is, I don’t really think of myself as a mother. I think of myself as a breastfeeder.
It’s true that I’m the one who delivered my twins – one vaginally and the other via c-section, which, technically, makes me not only a mother but also a war hero. And yet I feel I’ve done so little mothering. I would venture to say that my husband, who bathes the boys before bed and massages them with lotion while I work in my office, does the bulk of the mothering. Even when I’m singing “The Wheels on the Bus” to the boys on the morning shift, my mind is wandering: How much will I be able to accomplish before the next feeding?
A friend suggested that my preoccupation with breastfeeding is biologically driven – that new mothers are programmed to be so single-minded because otherwise their babies would starve. It’s a good point. I’m acutely aware that a few wrong moves – a couple of mistimed dermatologist appointments or a six-hour wait at the Costco – and my milk supply will dry up like Lake Anguli Nur in China.
Before the boys were born I wouldn’t have pegged myself as the type to blather on about nursing. After all, when I was pregnant, I rarely talked about my pregnancy. What was there to say? I was fat. I had heartburn. My ankles were swollen. None of this struck me as newsworthy. Pregnancy was easy to dismiss as a conversation topic because, other than monthly doctor’s visits and a trip to the jeweler to get my wedding ring sawed off, it required nothing of me. I was pregnant the same way I was left-handed: I just was. But breastfeeding is different, not only because it demands so much of my attention but also because my milk supply has been so hard-earned.
Toby and Ian were born a month early, weighing about 5 pounds each, with less body fat than Nicole Richie pre-rehab and even less interest in sucking. When presented with my nipples, they were at a complete loss, as if someone had offered them fly-fishing rods. They’d fall asleep or cry or just flail about, but rarely would they suck. Without sufficient stimulation, I was producing no milk. The hospital outfitted me with an industrial-grade breast pump that looked like it could extract breast milk from my deceased grandmothers, and I dutifully cranked it every three hours, 24 hours a day. But still, no milk.
To help the boys along, the nurses hooked us up with a remedial nursing system, training wheels for the lactationally challenged. Clipped to each of my bra straps were small, formula-filled bottles with tiny hoses dangling from them. I’d tape the hoses to my breasts, then insert the ends into the corner of the boys’ mouths as they “nursed.” The idea was that the babies would think they were breastfeeding when, in fact, they were sucking formula through a straw. My boys did not seem to appreciate the leg up and would expend huge amounts of energy shrieking and yanking the tubes off my breasts.
All of this was monumentally distressing. I couldn’t help but feel that I was failing Toby and Ian. (I’ll admit that at a low point, I tried to get them to shoulder some of the blame and blurted out, “You people have only one job – to suck – and you can’t even do that?” I later apologized.)
After four days in the hospital our problem moved home, along with all my anxieties. The situation remained so frustrating and so utterly ridiculous that my breastfeeding, or lack of it, was unquestionably my biggest headline when my friends asked how I was doing. And they seemed rapt as I described our strategies to keep the boys from falling asleep on the job, like tugging at their ears, tickling their feet and promising to buy them video games when they grew up, the kinds with Uzis, suicidal terrorists and mutilated female corpses.
We abandoned the hose system – you can’t use training wheels forever – and, gradually, the boys did start to catch on, though not enough to earn any Boy Scout badges. Toby would lick instead of suck. “It’s a nipple,” I’d plead, “not an ice-cream cone.” Ian would spit out my nipple 15 or 20 times per feeding, as if he were being force-fed Brussels sprouts.
I’m certain I’d have thrown in the towel if not for the encouragement of a friend with twins who’d persevered through ten weeks of the same problems, plus a breast infection and cracked and bleeding nipples. I felt like a demoralized marathon runner who’s on the verge of dropping out of the race – until someone with an artificial leg hobbles by. Quitting was not an option.
Plus, mercifully, there was Charlotte. Charlotte was our baby nurse, generously underwritten by my parents for our first two weeks of parenthood and imported from Los Angeles, where they live, because there was no such person as a baby nurse in my town. (I live in do-it-yourselferville, and though I’d like to maintain the delusion that I could have done it myself, I’m skeptical, and utterly grateful I didn’t have to find out.)
I adored Charlotte, mostly because she was even less domestic than me. Charlotte was incapable of loading a dishwasher – she’d arrange five dishes and suddenly the dishwasher was full – and her scrambled eggs were both burnt and runny, if that’s even possible. This was a woman who had raised three children. There was hope for me, after all.
Charlotte was intimately involved in our fledgling breastfeeding operation. Every three hours, she’d bring the boys to me in bed, then stand by my side and knead my breasts, imploring them to produce more milk and cheering on the boys as they thrashed around in the vicinity of my nipples. After my 10 minutes of quasi-nursing, Charlotte would bottlefeed one baby with a mixture of formula and breastmilk while my husband would bottlefeed the other, and I would pump. We made for a great threesome. I was sad to see Charlotte go.
Charlotte’s replacement, Sally, a grandmother of eight, billed herself as a doula – available “to do whatever a mother needs,” according to her resume – but seemed to have a single goal: to do as little as possible. Upon arrival, at 11 p.m., she’d yawn and whine, “Ooooh, I’m soooo tired.” (She was tired? One morning I applied mascara under my eyes instead of concealer, accidentally achieving the linebacker look.) Once, at 4 a.m. Sally carried the boys into my bedroom and announced, “OK, they’re ready to eat!” when, in fact, the boys were nearly comatose. Clearly, she was trying to unload them so she could go home.
Sally made no attempt to conceal her disapproval of our breastfeed/bottlefeed/pump triumvirate. She inspected my nipples, pronounced them “marvelous,” and insisted that if only I took vitamin B12 complex, my breasts would flow like the Fountain of Trevi. (I did take vitamin B12 complex, plus various herbs and teas, and none of it made a difference.) Sally lasted three days.
After six weeks of audacious effort, my milk was finally flowing. The boys were nursing like champs, and I could handle the whole operation solo. Breastfeeding became such a non-event that I could manage it while reading a magazine, a feat that, early on, seemed as improbable as my learning to juggle while riding a unicycle.
But even though the big headlines have vanished, my obsession has remained. Where previously I was consumed with my shortcomings, now I’m completely caught up in the complexities of this whole process. Take, for instance, how I’ve mastered breastfeeding two babies at the same time.
Tandem nursing is not something you do at Starbucks. I see women breastfeeding while chatting with friends and sipping a latte and marvel at how discreetly it can be done. Tandem nursing is more like a piece of performance art involving a bed, numerous props and, inevitably, exposed breasts. There’s no stylish shawl that can shield the public from the spectacle of two four-month-olds sucking down their lunch. You’d have to erect a four-person tent.
These days I nurse my boys on a twin bed in their room. I place one Boppy on each end of the bed, then plant one baby on each Boppy while I buckle myself into a giant, U-shaped foam pillow that my friend Sarah has dubbed the “life raft,” all the while asking my wailing boys to forgive me for the delay. I place another foam pillow between my back and the wall, then hoist each baby atop the life raft and shove one Boppy under each side of it, to make the surface flat so that the babies don’t roll off.
Like I said, not something you do at Starbucks.
Once they get going, I never fail to be impressed with their competence and to note that they’ve each developed their own signature style. Ian sucks rhythmically, with his eyes closed and long lashes fluttering, and appears to be concentrating hard, as if he’s doing calculus in his little, lopsided head. Toby operates entirely on instinct. He sucks erratically, with his plump little fists planted on his temples, as if to say, “Oy vey, the brisket is undercooked.”
Sometimes, when he’s really hungry, he’ll …
Oh, dear. I did it again. I’m being boring.
When I think about how my life has come to this, I tend to start counting up all the hours I’m now devoting to breastfeeding. Some babies take five minutes to suck down a meal, but perhaps making up for all those weeks of trying, Toby and Ian prefer to linger at the table. (Lactation consultants call babies like mine “gourmet eaters.”) Sometimes, I’m nursing for 40 minutes, not counting the set-up time. Multiply that by four, then add in two half-hour pumping sessions (to produce enough milk for the boys’ daily bottle, given to them by our babysitter while I work). Then multiply it all by seven, and I’m spending upwards of 25 hours a week simply feeding my children.
Maybe breastfeeding is all I talk about because, some days, it’s practically all I do.
I know, I know. Breastfeeding is supposed to be a special time of intimacy and bonding. Well, when I calculate that I’ve probably spent as much time breastfeeding in the past four months as some women spend in a year, I have to wonder: How much more bonding do the three of us really need?
I’m already itching to quit, or at least scale back. I’d like to retrieve some of that time so I can do things that make me feel more like a mother than a breastfeeder. I want to sing “The Wheels on the Bus” without looking at the clock, and I want to know my children better when they’re not eating. I’d like for their dad to take over some of the feedings so that, sometimes, I can be the one to pick out their sleepers and toys at Target. And let’s deal with reality: I’d like more time so I can earn the money to pay for those sleepers and toys. If I just had a few extra hours, then I think I could put an end to this compulsive need to discuss my milk supply and stop being the most boring person alive.
I know that day will come soon enough, but right now, it seems a lifetime away. And so I talk, and I continue to test my friends’ patience. When I apologized to one friend last week for prattling on about my noisy breast pump, she cheerily told me I wasn’t a bother at all.
“You think you’re boring now?” she said. “Wait until all you talk about is potty training.”