The scene in the hospital, the first 24 hours after my son’s birth: Whenever the baby so much as whimpered, I tugged up my shirt, unsnapped my nursing bra, and brushed a nipple against his lower lip. Bridger opened his maw, clamped my offering between his gums, and wagged his head like a lion shaking a thrashing gazelle to death. My nipples felt as though they’d been dipped in sizzling bacon grease. I was in the hands of a madman who got to have his way with me whenever he wanted.
Breastfeeding should not be painful, I had read over and over. If it hurts, something is wrong. Seek help immediately.
“I thought breastfeeding wasn’t supposed to hurt,” I ventured to the nurses and the staff lactation consultant.
They shrugged. It would probably hurt a little at first, they told me, until my nipples toughened up.
Terrible things could happen if Bridger didn’t get enough milk, with dehydration and failure to thrive topping the list. I knew the only way to build up my milk supply was to breastfeed often, so I gritted my teeth and nursed. Passages from The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding echoed forbiddingly through my brain, blotting out any thought of offering the baby a bottle. “If both breast and bottle are given during the impressionable early weeks, a baby may try to suck the breast as he sucks the artificial nipple,” the authors warned. “Babies who become nipple confused suck less efficiently at the breast and may not gain well or may refuse to nurse altogether.” I could not let these things happen. We had to succeed at this nursing. How else would I be able to give Bridger the perfect childhood I had planned for him, the neurosis-free adulthood? The whole project rode, I had come to believe, on breastfeeding.
The lactation consultant asked if I could hear Bridger swallowing when he nursed. I told her I don’t know what a baby swallowing breast milk sounded like. He made a rhythmic sighing noise when he sucked; was that swallowing? The consultant leaned down and cocked her ear near Bridger’s head while he nursed, then straightened up, nodding.
“Yep. He’s swallowing, all right.”
I couldn’t watch formula going down in a bottle to reassure myself that he was getting something. I had to trust. I was so relieved to hear that Bridger was audibly swallowing, I brushed aside the unpleasant fact that my nipples were turning to hamburger. They just have to toughen up, I reminded myself. That’s all.
Bridger weighed eight pounds, one 1 ounce the afternoon we checked out of the hospital — seven ounces fewer than he’d weighed at birth. “A perfectly normal weight loss,” our nurse-midwife told us. But ideally, she said, within a week, Bridger should regain his birth weight. I silently vowed that I would do everything in my power to get my baby back up to eight pounds, eight ounces, hamburger nipples be damned.
When Bridger was three days old, we were visited at home by a lovely young public health nurse named Natasha, who sucked in her breath at the sight of my nipples.
“He must not be opening his mouth wide enough,” she said. “We’ve got to teach him he only gets to nurse when he opens up nice and wide.”
Bridger and I settled into a living room chair for a latch-on tutorial. My mom stood to the side, heroically attempting to disguise her anxiety. She’d fed my sister and me formula from day one, and we’d turned out fine. As she saw it, if breastfeeding was so hard, why not crack open a can of Similac?
Natasha hunched over the baby and me like an offensive lineman poised for a tackle. As soon as Bridger’s mouth opened, she grasped his tiny noggin and rammed him full-force against my breast. This did not go over well. Natasha insisted we try again.
“We almost had it,” she exclaimed. “Sometimes it actually works to your advantage to get them when they’re crying, ’cause their mouths are open so wide.”
My mother fled the room, unable to stomach the manhandling of her first grandchild in the name of successful lactation. She needn’t have bothered leaving. After two more botched attempts, Natasha ushered the baby and me upstairs and tucked us into bed. On my night-stand, she left a bargain-model breast pump and a card with the name and number of a lactation consultant she promised was “the rock star of lactation consultants.”
The next morning, my husband Brian and I strapped our boy into his pastel polka-dotted car seat and headed for our date with a rock star. On the drive over, Brian asked why we were visiting a consultant at a different hospital than the one where we’d given birth. My explanation tumbled out in a nervous, defensive jumble.
“Well I’m sorry if you think this is a dumb idea, but Natasha said these people really knew what they were doing, and it’s not like the first consultant did us any good, she just told me I needed to toughen up and asked if Bridger was swallowing, and, and, and–”
I was sobbing. My chest had been colonized by a pair of pulsating alien pods. My nipples were so sore, the milk-damp cotton breast pads stuffed in my nursing bra might as well have been steel wool. And having the baby all the way in the back seat in his infant carrier felt about as normal to me as wearing my kidneys on the outside of my skin. An emotional meltdown was pretty much inevitable.
“It’s okay, Care,” Brian said quietly. “I was just trying to make conversation.”
The rock star of lactation consultants turned out to be a bespectacled, white-coated woman in her early fifties named Evelyn. Her office was resolutely cheery, from her afghan-draped couch to the list of nursing affirmations posted on the wall. “Nursing mothers are beautiful,” one affirmation read. “Some day, my baby will smile at me while he/she is breastfeeding.” I’ve never been a big fan of affirmations; there’s something a little embarrassing, it seems to me, about trying to be my own cheerleader, my own good mother. Still, the words on the wall yanked tears to my eyes all over again.
After a few pleasantries, Evelyn had me bare my breasts yet again so she could inspect the damages.
“Well,” she said matter-of-factly, “what you have here is a pretty bad case of cracked nipples, so it’s good we got you in here when we did. The good news is that this can be very easily remedied. You’re going to be amazed at how fast the tissue can heal once we get you on the right track.”
As a first step, Evelyn hooked me up to an electric breast pump on her desk. She wanted to siphon off enough milk to soften my volleyball-hard breasts, so Bridger could latch on more easily. Once the suction cups were attached and my milk was flowing into a pair of plastic bottles, Evelyn stepped out of the room with a promise that she’d be right back, leaving Brian, Bridger, and me alone.
It occurred to me then that I had never intended for my husband to watch me getting milked like a prize Holstein.
“Is this going to make it hard for you to think of my breasts, um, sexually?” I asked him. “Seeing–?” I gestured toward the suction cups.
He was slouched on the couch, dark circles smudged under his eyes.
“Don’t sweat it,” he said. He waggled his eyebrows at me Groucho Marx-style. “I may have a kink or two I haven’t told you about.”
It felt good to laugh, but it was still humbling to be in that office, seeking help for something I’d assumed would come naturally. I didn’t know then that for primates, breastfeeding is more of a learned behavior than an instinctual one. Female gorillas in zoos who have never seen other gorillas nurse learn to breastfeed by watching videos of breastfeeding gorillas. One mother gorilla had so much trouble, zoo keepers called a La Leche League chapter for help. League members took shifts nursing in front of the mother gorilla’s pen until she got the hang of things.
I might as well have been one of those hapless gorillas. I didn’t grow up seeing women breastfeeding, and it wasn’t until my early thirties that I saw women nursing on a regular basis. Even then, I didn’t exactly get a close-up look; at the first sign of a lifted blouse, I politely averted my gaze.
In another time and place, I might have grown up watching my mother nurse my siblings, my aunts nurse my cousins. By the time my sisters and friends were nursing their children, breastfeeding would have struck me as a fact of life, no big deal. After giving birth, I might have had a bevy of intimate female mentors eager to show me how to get my son latched on. Instead, I was being tutored by a paid stranger whose first action had been to hook me up to a machine and leave the room. I appreciated the help, but it was an oddly impersonal way to be led back to my animal nature.
Evelyn reappeared, detached me from the pump, and presented us with a handful of eyedroppers that we could use to feed Bridger my pumped milk. That way my breasts could get an occasional break without us risking the dreaded nipple confusion. It was a good thing Natasha had left that manual pump on my night stand. I was so sure that my baby would drink only from my breasts, I hadn’t bothered buying a pump.
“But you know,” Evelyn stressed, “taking breaks isn’t going to do a bit of good if you don’t improve his latch-on. He’s not going to starve if you put him off a few times until he gets it right.”
Bridger woke up from his car-seat snooze after letting loose an explosive poop. Once Brian had changed his diaper and zipped him back into his fuzzy blue sleeper suit, we got Bridger situated for another breastfeeding lesson.
He was so beautiful, so precious, so blissfully unaware of our plans for him. His eyelids were still bruised a faint rosy purple, his nose speckled with milia. His spiky brown hair felt as soft as duck-down against the palm of my hand. He searched my face with eyes that roved restlessly in their sockets, unable to alight on anything for long. Before his birth, my nursing goals had been so lofty: I would breastfeed him for as many years as he wanted to nurse, as often as he wanted, offering myself as a warm island of peace in a cold, uncaring world. I would nourish him so thoroughly, he would never feel the emotional hunger that had so often gnawed at my heart.
Now my primary goal was a good deal more modest: I just wanted to feed this kid without wincing. I cupped the back of his head, lifted him to my left breast, and brushed my nipple against his lips. He lunged forward and clamped down the old, familiar way.
“Okay, here’s where you have to take control,” Evelyn said. “Pull him back and try again. Wait until his mouth is at its widest. Then push him on.”
How many times had I read about this exact maneuver? All that reading hadn’t mattered a bit once there was a real baby in my arms. The first time he’d locked his bony gums around my nipple, he’d seemed a hell of a lot surer of what he was doing than I was, so I’d sat back and let him have at it, grateful that someone was willing to take charge. But now I knew that wasn’t going to work. Right now I had to say, No, honey, not that way, this way, so that I could say “Yes” for the long haul.
In other words, I had to step forward and act like — surprise, surprise — a parent.
When I poked my pinky finger inside his mouth to break the suction, he screwed up his face and mewled with rage. Cold sweat prickled on my forehead. I glanced up at Evelyn, faltering. She lifted her eyebrows and nodded at me. I took a deep breath, brushed my nipple against Bridger’s lower lip again, and then watched until his mouth had opened wide.
“There it is. Now. That’s just the way you want him,” Evelyn said.
Resolute, I pushed his face against my breast so snugly that his nose and chin were pressed into my flesh, just the way the Womanly Art diagrams had showed.
“He won’t smother this way, right?” I asked Evelyn.
She smiled and shook her head.
“Now,” she said. “Let’s check that lower lip.”
Bridger’s lower lip was curled up against my breast so tightly, the lip wasn’t even visible. Evelyn beckoned Brian over and showed us both how to use our index fingers to flip the baby’s lower lip open and down, the way it was supposed to be. As soon as she’d flipped Bridger’s lip, he curled it right back to its customary position.
“Old habits die hard,” Evelyn laughed. “Even if they’re only a few days old.”
“For him, that’s a lifetime,” Brian said.
Evelyn had me try the lower-lip flip this time. I nudged Bridger’s lip down, but it stubbornly flipped closed. I tried again, and Bridger started pulling away from me, losing interest. It’s not going to work, I thought. I’m failing again. I’m failing, failing, failing. But just then an especially strong surge of milk let down, and Bridger stayed attached, his lip flipped open. He knew a good thing when he had it. He might, perhaps, be willing to negotiate.
“These next few days, go topless as much as you can,” Evelyn instructed me as we left her office. “And apply your milk to your nipples. It’s the best salve around.”
Back home, we drew the curtains so I could follow her advice without giving the neighbors an eyeful. I wandered the house topless, dripping a shiny trail of milk drops on our wood floors. I ate dinner topless, with yellow streams of colostrum-rich milk sliding down my slack belly. During labor, I’d pushed on my hands and knees for hours, naked as Eve before the Fall, thrusting my bare butt out like a baboon in heat. I’d lost count of how many times latex-gloved fingers had invaded my privates. After all that, going topless around my mother and husband didn’t even register as embarrassing. Kindly, my mom and Brian acted as if watching a National Geographic special unfold in the living room was no big deal for them, either.
For the next few days, we fell into a predictable routine. s soon as Bridger and I had settled in our glider to nurse, I bellowed “Lower lip check!” Brian or my mother obligingly appeared, often bearing a fresh glass of water. Then, with admirable nonchalance, whoever had answered my summons leaned down to push aside the flesh of my breast and prod Bridger’s lower lip into position. During fevered, wakeful nights of incessant nursing, my mother and Brian dragged themselves from bed to spell me, feeding Bridger pumped milk with the eye droppers Evelyn had given us.
Neither of them ever questioned all the fuss. Brian knew I’d be devastated by any mention of bottles or formula. And though my mother may have had her doubts, she supported me as loyally as any diehard breastfeeding activist would have.
Within a few days, my nipples had healed, just as Evelyn had promised. Lower lip checks had become a distant memory, and I was finally experiencing the pleasures of nursing: The warm tingle of letdown, the opiate haze of nursing-induced hormones, and best of all, the sight of my son pulling away from my breast satiated, a drop of creamy hind milk clinging to his unfurled lower lip.
When Bridger was a week old, Natasha the visiting nurse stopped by to weigh him. My stomach squirmed as she took him gently from my arms and placed him on her portable scale. Would we pass this test? Was my baby thriving? The scale’s index hand waggled like a narrow, scolding finger. Years passed before it finally settled. I leaned forward to read the verdict: eight pounds, nine and a half ounces. Bridger now weighed an ounce and a half more than he’d weighed at birth. I didn’t know where we were headed from here. But wherever it was, at least we were on our way.