When I was a little girl, I knew that some people fed their babies from their own bodies, but I had never seen such a thing actually happen. I was fascinated by the concept, though. I took my baby dolls outside, and hid under a bushy tree in the backyard. I lifted my T-shirt and pressed a doll’s hard plastic face to my tiny nipple. Our latch and positioning were abysmal.
I had to hide under a tree to perform this act of parenting, because at seven years old, I understood that female breasts were inherently sexual. And I understood that neither me being a child, or the act of feeding a child, could neutralize that. I was certain that if anyone saw me nursing my baby doll, they would be shocked and horrified. So I hid. But as I sat there in the grass, I thought to myself, when I am a mother this is how I will feed my babies.
And then I will not be ashamed.
Because I believe that birth is a mostly natural process and bodies mostly know what they are doing, I planned a nice intimate homebirth. Because I know that things don’t always go according to plan, I went to the hospital when it became clear that I needed to. I ended up having a C-section. I do not regret it.
But of course I had fantasized about the moment of my child’s birth. I had tried to imagine what the rush of emotions would be like. I would be on or near the big cozy bed my wife and I share with our herd of cats, the midwife and my mother would be in the background, offering encouragement, and Chelsea would catch the baby in her arms and then pass him up to me. His first cry would pierce through the quiet in the room, it would pierce my heart with it’s beauty and strength, and Chelsea and I would laugh and cry together just like we did the day we found out I was pregnant.
Instead, my wife stood near my head in a spacesuit made of dryer sheets, peaking over the curtain that protected me from the gore, while a doctor I had only met once an hour before cut into me. The drugs made me feel sick and made my teeth chatter, and my only defense was a kind of cold detachment. I only knew our child was born by the sudden change in expression on my wife’s face, and when she said “did you hear that?!?!” I realized that I had missed his first cry entirely. I was too spaced out, and the chattering of my teeth was too loud.
After that, I became sort of obsessed with breastfeeding.
At the hospital where I gave birth, the pediatrics team started talking about supplementing with formula before my milk even came in. It wasn’t even late. I had more colostrum than anyone I’ve ever heard of. And yet they thought supplementation “would be best.”
I had to fight. When he had to go to the nursery because of his jaundice, they assured me they would bring him to me to feed every two hours, but instead waiting four. I had to set an alarm for every hour and a half at night, and call a nurse and ask for my child to be brought to me. They were impatient when it took us time to get the latch right, or when he nursed for longer than average. But I held my ground. He ate from my breasts, and then my milk came, and then he started to grow.
Why was it so important to me? It’s complicated. But I had read birth stories, and imagined that his birth would be a triumph of my physical ability. And then it wasn’t. And feeding him felt like the only thing my body knew how to do. And I wasn’t going to give that up, not unless it was necessary. And it wasn’t. So I didn’t.
The first time I fed him in public was at his pediatrician’s office. I was five days post op, and one day without my pain meds. I could barely see the pain was so intense. I was so anxious I didn’t want people even looking at him, everything felt like a threat.
But there he was, hungry in the waiting room. I asked Chelsea to help me cover up with one of his blankets. It made the whole procedure more complicated, and it fell down twice.
The second time I fed him in public was in the emergency room. I was four weeks postpartum, and I was having my third gallbladder attack. My mother was there to help look after the baby. Several emergency room workers told us it was the busiest ER day they had ever seen. The place was packed. And as my case was not a life or death situation, I kept getting bumped back.
And my baby needed to eat. And we were sitting across from two women if full burkas. They kept smiling at us and telling us how beautiful our child was. I wasn’t sure if they would be offended by my breasts or not. I wasn’t sure about anything, truth be told. I let my mother help me arrange the blanket. Two days later I was still in the hospital, and he had to have formula for the first time. I was so afraid of losing my supply that I pumped too much while in the hospital, and when we were reunited I had way too much milk.
In the dark, in our big bed, his small body is snuggled against mine. He is holding on to my finger as tightly as he can. I feel like the most powerful person in the whole world.
I am hungry all the time.
My mom came to take me to my six week postpartum follow up appointment, by that point Chelsea had already taken way too much time off work, so it was me, mom, and the baby. When he started looking for a nipple on my mom’s neck, I knew it was time to feed him. She handed him off to me, and I started to get him into position.
“Do you want me to get the blanket?” she asked, trying to be kind.
“Oh, that’s ok, I don’t need it.” I said.
There was a pause. And then I felt her drape the light cloth over me. I saw my son’s face disappear. And I felt the shame. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.
The week before last, I was finally strong enough to put him in the wrap and take him for a walk. I was proud to be the one carrying him, while Chelsea walked beside us. Only I was so excited, I pushed myself a little too far. I ended up tripping over my own foot and skinning my knee on the sidewalk. For one horrible moment I thought I was going to fall on top of him.
Afterwards we were both so scared, we needed to sit down. For a moment I looked around in panic. And then I saw that we happened to be right next to a little park.
Without thinking about what I was doing, I found a bushy tree to sit under. And then I sat there on the grass, and I fed my baby.
Note: I started writing this last week, for world breastfeeding week, but of course I didn’t finish it on time because I have a real live baby. Apparently it is still world breastfeeding month though? Happy world breastfeeding month I guess!