Weaned (World Breastfeeding Week, Without Breastfeeding)

This is going to get emotional.

When I was pregnant, I knew I wanted to breastfeed. I also knew that lots of people struggle with breastfeeding, and that I had basically no idea how it would go for me ahead of time. I wanted to believe that since breastfeeding is *natural* (I have feelings about that word, y’all) it would just work itself out. I wanted to believe that my body would know what to do! But I didn’t know for sure, and I didn’t know how it would shake out with work, and I didn’t know if I would love it or hate it. But I was determined to do my best. I told myself that I would breastfeed for a year, and then we’d check in and see what to do next.

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My body, the one that I wanted to believe would know what to do? Turned out it didn’t know how to give birth. I ended up being in and out of labor for a week, miserable and exhausted, and finally having a c-section. Then, we started trying to breastfeed. Latching was almost impossible, no matter how many times the lactation consultants showed me what to do, I couldn’t get my nipple into my child’s mouth without backup for almost two whole days. We kept trying. I was scared. I was scared the nurses would sneak him formula. I was scared he would actually need formula and that my body, the body that had failed at *natural* birth (there’s that word again) would also fail at breastfeeding. Then, somehow, me and the baby both started to figure it out. My milk came in, more milk than I had ever dreamed of. It turned out my body was really awesome at one thing: breastfeeding.

I loved it. I became obsessed. I wasn’t ready to try to process my feelings about the birth, so instead I just clung to the one part of motherhood that made me feel capable and whole, and that was feeding my kid. He was an enthusiastic eater, an I never once turned him down when he wanted a snack. Then, when he was three weeks or so, my gallbladder went completely bananas. In a hellish amount of pain (anyone who has had a gallbladder attack can tell you) I first headed to a nearby emergency room. After ten hours of medical neglect, milk streaming from my breasts like great waterfalls, I left that hospital against doctor’s orders to go feed my baby. When I had another attack, I headed to a different hospital, the same one I gave birth to him at, and this time I brought him with me. In excruciating pain, I nursed him in the waiting room. On a hospital bed in a tiny room in the ER, I took turns nursing him and letting my mother and wife bottle feed him, from my minuscule supply of pumped milk (remember, he was three of four weeks old). But when they took me upstairs to the surgical department, he was not allowed to go with me. And they put me on morphine, so my milk was no longer safe for him.

So for three days, I was in the hospital, with an alarm set on my phone for every three hours. When it went off, I would ring for a nurse and ask for a breast pump. They would bring it to me, and ask cheerfully if they should store my milk for me. And I would have to hold back my tears as I explained over and over again that no, every drop of my milk had to go down the drain. At his grandparents’ house, my kid finished my pumped supply, and then some donated milk as well, and I gave the ok for him to have formula. On the day he turned one month old, I had my gallbladder removed. The next day, I went home, and I had the ok to try to nurse him again. I was terrified it wouldn’t work. I was terrified he would not remember how, would prefer the bottle, that after all I would fail at this too and now I was going to have to figure out how to navigate the world of formula.

But by some miracle, it was easy. The only problem was that my oversupply had actually gotten worse, because I was so afraid of losing my supply, I had pumped more than I needed to.

We never had a problem with breastfeeding again. I lost my job, so I was home to feed him 24/7. At four months, he decided bottles were the actual devil, so we started occasionally giving him a sippy cup. At six months old, we started solid foods (via the baby lead weaning method) but if he decreased his nursing, I didn’t notice. On his first birthday we took him out for sushi and ice cream, and he ate all of it with enthusiasm, and then asked to nurse. The waitress wrote me a nice note about how I was doing the best thing for my baby.

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I didn’t dream of weaning him at one year. By that point, I was firmly in the “I’ll nurse him until he’s five, I don’t care” camp. He loved nursing, and I loved doing it. It helped me to feel useful, it helped me to feel connected to him, and it gave me much needed down time with an increasingly active toddler. He usually wanted to nurse more than I wanted to, and sometimes I complained about the frequency, but on the whole the pros outweighed the cons for me.

Then, on New Year’s Eve, when he was 19 months old, it suddenly stopped.

I still struggle to write about it. The details are that the whole family got the flu, and then he got his very first ear infection (which I also got). It hurt him to nurse, so he stopped doing it. Then he became terrified of my breasts and didn’t even want to see them. Everyone, from two lactation consultants to the nurses at the children’s hospital, told me the same thing. Most likely if he had been an enthusiastic nurser before, it was just a nursing strike, and he would come back to it as soon as he felt better. However, they all added, some children do self-wean at this age, and it’s perfectly safe and normal, and I should be ready for either outcome.

I was not ready for either outcome.

He never breastfed again.

When you wean a child, there is a huge hormonal shift that happens for the nursing parent. Typically, if you were intentionally weaning, you would try to do it slowly. But my child went from trying to nurse constantly on Friday (because he wasn’t feeling well) to not nursing at all on Saturday (because he couldn’t). My body was in shock. My hormones were out of wack. I was thrown headlong into a depression that was every bit as bad as postpartum depression, only now I had a toddler to take care of. The only positive to the experience was that it finally forced me into therapy. Slowly, my milk dried up. Slowly, the idea that he would never nurse again became normal.

I am not supposed to be sad about this. I am told over and over again that “at least you made it to 19 months, most people don’t do half that!” as though it were a contest. I am told that if he weaned then, he was ready, even though I know he weaned in sadness and anger and fear. I am told it is not about me. I am not supposed to be sad about a child weaning at 19 months, but I’m especially not supposed to be sad about it now, seven months later. It’s fine, he’s happy and healthy, we still cuddle and play and talk, he’s an amazing kid and I’m lucky to have him. Except I am sad about it. I am sad about it every single day.

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I am sad about it when I see my friends breastfeed their children. I am sad about it when they notice the look in my eye and apologize to me for feeding their babies in front of me. I am sad about it when he wakes up in the night crying and I feel helpless. And I am sad about it when he sees me change my shirt, and confidently says “oh! mama MILK!” because he still remembers. I cannot turn off this sadness.

***

It’s World Breastfeeding Week again, and I got invited to a march for breastfeeding awareness. Reading the invite I thought “oh, I am aware of breastfeeding.” I cycled through the familiar heartache, the pain that it ended the wrong way, followed by the self loathing and fear that I am somehow selfish for feeling this feeling. The invite specified that the event is for all, not just those who are currently breastfeeding. But I know I cannot go. I can’t handle being around that much awareness right now.

I was extremely luck that I got to breastfeed my kid for as long as I did. And it’s over. And I’m still sad about that, and goddamnit, I get to feel that.

So this is for all the parents who wanted to nurse but couldn’t. This is for all the parents who had to stop sooner than they wanted to. This is for all the parents who had to stop too soon. For everyone who had to switch to formula because of work, or supply, or sleep, or whatever… for everyone who feels messed up and messy about feeding babies… I see you.

If you are all for breastfeeding awareness, and your life is currently filled with breastfeeding images, and you aren’t breastfeeding anymore, I’m with you. If your heart is breaking wide open all over again, I’m with you. If you too are sitting at your computer, crying about the fucking concept of breastfeeding, and you think no one would ever understand this pain… I’m with you.

Maybe it’s true that we still need more breastfeeding awareness on a larger scale. But the rest of you will have to forgive those of us who are desperately trying to be a little less aware of it right now.

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Gender Is For Toddlers, Apparently

I bet you thought we were done talking about gender for awhile. Maybe you even hoped we were. Maybe you thought that we had exhausted the topic of how gender affects babies who can’t articulate gender for themselves and we wouldn’t have to talk about it again until the child was three or four and asking questions about it. I sort of thought that.

But I should have known better.

Today, I have two vignettes for you beautiful humans, all about how gender, or rather gender assumptions, play out in our lives now that we’ve entered The Toddler Years.

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***

Part One
No Shirt No Shoes No Pronouns

For those who might be dropping by the blog for the first time, let me lead with the fact that my kiddo is a little over a year old, is apparently male (I say “apparently” because the way we define biological sex is tenuous at best) and wears a variety of colors, including blue, green, orange, purple, and yes, even pink. I’ve written extensively on the subject of babies and gender here in this blog, and why his mother and I think it is important to give him as many options as possible.

When he started walking, he got a snazzy new pair of sneakers. Since he is actually beginning to show an interest in choosing thing (what to eat first for lunch, what toy to play with, etc) I thought it would be nice if he had a hand in picking out his own shoes. As it happened though, the only ones he was really excited about were a pair of pink glitter covered mary janes, AKA dress shoes. I felt for him, I mean, those are probably what I would pick too! After that he decided he just wanted literally anything that came in a box. In the end, we ended up with a three-tone pair of athletic shoes. They’re pink, blue, and electric green, but of course because they have pink in them they are “girl shoes.” He’s still on the fence about wearing them, and so we’re trying to get him more used to them by putting them on him for short bursts.

So recently, the whole family was at the drugstore, and we had a bit of a wait. He was wearing dark blue baby jeggings and a black and white striped shirt. The shirt happened to be from the girls’ section, and if you looked closely you might notice that it has slightly capped sleeves, which aren’t really a feature of boys’ apparel. But we’ve found that since male is considered the default in our culture, and since so many girls his age are dressed with multiple gender markers (parents add a headband or a flower hair clip, pants are pink and have ruffles) that oftentimes he reads as a boy even when he’s dressed in clothes that would feel too femme for my wife. He also, and this is the important part, wasn’t wearing his shoes.

A store employee, a woman, walked by and smiled at him. “Oh what a beautiful little boy!” she said. My wife thanked her, and that was that.

Soon after, he wanted to walk around, so we wrestled him into the shoes. Then, in the kind of desperation that I’m sure other parents of toddlers know only too well, I ventured to the kids aisle to see if there was a book he could pretend to read. There were only three board books.

Disney Princesses
Pirate Jake
and Doc McStuffins

We don’t really do the TV thing, but I’ve heard decent things about Doc McStuffins, so I grabbed that one. He was thrilled.

The same store employee then walked by us again.

“Oh are you reading, little one? How precious!” and then, turning to address the grown-ups, “she’s not talking yet, is she?”

He kind of is, actually,” I responded, and then gave a short list of words he currently knows. I’ve learned from experience that it’s important, in these circumstances, to use male pronouns repeatedly until they hear you. People get extremely embarrassed about misgendering children, and if you aren’t explicit, they often feel you’ve deliberately misled them.

Only she didn’t seem to notice. In fact, we saw her three more times before we got out of the damn store, and each time, we carefully used he/him pronouns, and she explicitly used she/her. My wife and I kept raising our eyebrows at each other, wondering if and when she might catch on, but also not wanting to make a huge deal out of it. I mean, why should it have to be a huge deal? But it just kept happening. It was like, once she saw the pink shoes (they are also blue and green!) and the cap sleeves, and the pink book in his hand, her brain got the GIRL message, and that message wrote over everything else, including our earlier conversation with her, and also what we were currently saying at that moment.

I don’t think most people take it quite that far, but it did get me thinking about how our brains cling to gender expectations, and how we articulate that. One time, I saw an infant in a stroller, wearing a perfectly gender neutral outfit, and yet without asking I exclaimed “oh she’s so cute!” The baby’s father said “actually he’s a boy, but don’t worry, we get that a lot, it’s because his hair is so long.” Was that what I was responding to? I have no idea, but I think about that day a lot as I raise my own kid. Because the fact is that our culture is so invested in the gender binary, that we, without thinking, studiously examine tiny little kids for gender markers, and then we use those markers to decide how we talk to them. In some cases, maybe the gender markers are louder in our brains than anything else. And while we may feel that we need them to assign “appropriate” pronouns (most people still wouldn’t default to using the singular they with a little kid) I always wonder what else we are assigning to them.

When I headed to the cash register with a lipstick, as well as our other items, our new friend said “oh did she pick that one out for mommy?” And I found myself wondering, much later, if the same question would have been asked had she assumed (or remembered) that our child is male.

Which brings me to our next story.

***

Part Two
Size Matters

We were taking the kid for a walk in the stroller, when a woman sitting on a porch said hello, and then followed it up with “what a cutie! Say, how old is that baby? Seven months?”

My wife and I both suppressed chuckles. Seven months? It was my wife who answered her, “Nah, more like fourteen.”

Fourteen? Well, she’s just a tiny little thing, ain’t she! Er, or he?”

We stared at each other.

When our child reads as male (which is most of the time, honestly) people are constantly telling him what a “big boy” he is, and how large he is for his age, and how you can just tell he’s going to be huge. And while I’m sure these comments have always been somewhat gendered, I usually don’t think about them too deeply. The thing is, he has been on the larger side for his age most of his life. When he was around six months old, he stopped being able to receive hand-me-downs from babies we knew who were six months older than him, because he was currently wearing the same size as them anyways and their old clothes wouldn’t fit him.

As we walked away, my wife said “wow, I’ve never heard that one before!”

“I actually have!” I replied. And then I realized, that the last time my child was called tiny by someone who had just asked for his age, I was out with him alone picking up supplies for his birthday present, and yeah, he was wearing “girls'” pants. I looked down at my kid in the stroller, sure enough, the size 2T pants he was wearing were bright pink.

People only call him small when they think he is a girl.

What.

And it actually makes absolutely no sense. Look, if people expect girls to be smaller (and according to the weight charts, baby girls are, on average, just slightly smaller than baby boys) than if they think my kid is a girl, he should look even more surprisingly huge to them, right? And yet, the opposite is true. They assume my kid to be a girl, inquire about age, I tell them, and they reply with “oh she’s so tiny!” Then, when I say “actually he is in the seventy-five percentile for boys weight for his age” or whatever, they dig their heals in. They are convinced my child is small, and nothing I say will sway them, so I just shrug and move on. Now that I think about it though, the really odd thing about these exchanges is that once the person knows my child to be male, they no longer say “tiny” affectionately. No, they suddenly sound worried.

It’s almost as if being small, being diminutive, is considered a characteristic of femininity in our culture. Little girl, big boy, girls are small people! So they attribute that characteristic, and it’s related adjectives, to my child, without really seeing him. Because girls are small. Then, once they realize that their gender assumption is incorrect (well, maybe it is! My kid could be a trans girl! Literally none of us know yet!) they can’t back down on the size thing. So instead they assure themselves, “no, I’m positive that baby is to small to be a year old.” That part makes a certain amount of sense. Who wants to admit their implicit bias? Who wants to admit they thought a person was one size, but now that they know that person has a penis, they can see that they are a totally different size? Nobody.

We don’t want to think we’re sexist. We especially don’t want to think we’re sexist when it comes to children. We are deeply invested in convincing ourselves that we treat boys and girls the same, yet we almost never actually do. My parents came very close to treating me the same they would have treated a son! My mother was practically famous for the level of tomboy she achieved in childhood, and she sure wasn’t going to push her girls to be feminine. And yet, a son would have been pushed harder to play sports. A son would not have been told he would make a beautiful bride one day.

I had to look up the stats on toddler sizes for this post, because writing this, it feels like I’m losing it. It feels a lot like gaslighting, and I find myself questioning my own perception of my child. “Well, maybe he’s not that big.”

I looked it up. He hasn’t been weighed in a bit, but he was exactly the average size of a fourteen month old boy two months ago. A seven month old girl, which is what that woman guessed my child was, weighs at least five pounds less than my kid.

***

So here we are. My child is growing and changing. He loves throwing a ball as hard as he can at the hardwood floors, and he loves cuddling his baby doll and giving them their bottle over and over and over again. The older kids on the block love playing sports and other “boy” games and I am bracing myself to end the world of childhood athletics way sooner than I could ever possibly be ready for.

But I also can’t stop noticing this stuff.

I don’t want to turn this into a blog about my kid’s gender. Partly because it’s his gender, and he is the one who gets to decide what he wants to do with it and how he wants to talk about it. But I do want, and on some level I think I need, to share my gender related observations. Because if you just accept it as normal, if you take it as a given, you are going to miss things. And what the hell is that doing to our kids?

 

Ok, next week we’re talking about food.

Hello I Am Here To Write About Breastfeeding Thank You

Yesterday morning, I posted a rant about breastfeeding on Facebook. I was complaining. I like to complain. I’m often annoyed in life, and for some reason (probably how well adjusted I am) I derive a real satisfaction from sharing that annoyance with others. Especially if other people find it humorous or relatable. Look at me, I’m connecting with people!

I can really see how the nursing habits of SOME toddlers might convince people that self weaning is a myth and OMG what if you are nursing this kid until he goes to college?

Just another day, just another exhausted mother lifting up her shirt every ten minutes because when she does the calculous of “if the too tired to nurse feeling more or less strong than the too tired to listen to the baby scream?” she can’t actually finish the math because the baby is too loud and she will actually do anything to make it stop. Just another LOLSOB moment to share with friends because hey at least you can use the internet on your phone while you’re nursing, right? I mean, until the kid kicks it out of your hand and across the room, and then kicks you in the neck, and then starts laughing.

I actually really love breastfeeding. I love it a lot, I love it so much I’m maybe embarrassed to talk about that.

But it turns out I complain about breastfeeding kind of a lot.

It also turns out that this week is World Breastfeeding Week.

***

When I was in the hospital, after my child was cut out of my body by a stranger who forgot him immediately, an army of lactation consultants helped us learn how to get him fed. My wife slept on the little sofa in the room and changed almost all of the diapers (we didn’t ask for permission for this arrangement, it simply was) and I slept in the hospital bed and continued to try to put boob and baby together. I didn’t love being in the hospital, but I was grateful for the support, grateful for expert hands that pushed my nipple into my kid’s mouth while I was still confused about getting the angle right and treating him like he was made of glass.

I was exhausted from the long labor and the birth and the drugs, and they were concerned that I was nursing enough, and for long enough. Their faces blur together in my mind now, but I can hear them saying “at least ten minutes on each side” over and over and over again.

At some point, we had what I considered to be a really successful nursing session. I proudly told that next lactation consultant to grab my breast that our last nursing session had lasted way more than ten minutes on each side! “It was more like twenty on the one side, honestly it might have been longer.”

“Oh no.” she was suddenly stern, “that’s too long.”

I felt like it was probably fine, and the next lactation consultant in the army confirmed that it was probably fine. But it turned out to be foreshadowing, in a kind of way. Because my child eats a lot. He eats a lot, he eats often, and he eats for long stretches. And sure, it’s varied throughout his life, but more or less, it’s always been this way.

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***

Breastfeeding, or chestfeeding, as many nursing transgender and gender nonconforming people prefer, is a choice. It isn’t a choice everyone has the luxury and privilege of making, especially here in the States where crappy parental leave policies and hostile work places often make it a non-option. Paradoxically, in other parts of the world, lack of access to clean water and formula makes it a choice many don’t have the luxury of making as well, just in the other direction. But for me, and for many others, breastfeeding is a choice. It should be a choice. No one should be required to do something with their own body that they don’t consent to, and my friends who have chosen to feed formula instead are every bit as wonderful of parents as those of us who feed our children from our own bodies.

It’s also a choice that’s highly politicized.

Other people have written about this before, have written about this better than I will and better than I ever could.

On the one hand, we have the constant “breast is best” rhetoric and the constant pressure birthing parents face to breastfeeding. On the other hand, we have basically zero institutional or cultural support for breastfeeding parents. When a parent chooses not to breastfeed (often because they have to work and they have the choice ripped from them, or because our culture has shamed them so deeply for the crime of having a body that they feel self conscious and gross feeding their own child) our culture cleverly deflects attention from the real problem (that is, our culture) and tells us instead that we have to support that parent’s choice to formula feed and if we don’t, we’re perpetuating the literal worst thing in the universe: Mommy Wars.

It isn’t individual parents who decide, for whatever reason, that formula is the better option, that I have a problem with.

It’s formula companies pushing the stuff on exhausted new parents. It’s policies that make it almost impossible to not formula feed. It’s an entire culture that, despite the breast is best rhetoric, continues to normalize formula feeding and treat breastfeeding as bizarre and animalistic. It’s the fact that I would breastfeed almost anywhere, except the city bus because I’m afraid that a dude might actually grab my tit if I try it.

I live in a culture that wants me to breastfeed, but really only if I can manage to do it without having breasts or drawing attention to them.

***

So like I said, I like to complain.

The first time I complained about breastfeeding, I was immediately advised to just do it less. I was told that if I just limited my infant’s nursing, he would “figure it out” and nurse more efficiently when he had the chance. The idea of asking a really young baby, who just wanted to eat and snuggle and feel safe, to just “figure it out” seemed weird to me and unnecessarily hostile. When I told my spouse that, she pointed out that the person was likely just responding to the fact that I was complaining. I seemed bothered by the amount of breastfeeding I was doing, and this person was merely offering a helpful suggestion.

So it goes, basically.

My kid, who has always loved to nurse, occasionally goes through a growth spurt or a bout of teething (thank your lucky stars you can’t remember growing molars, friends) and then he nurses even more. And there I am, bending down to give him a hug and instead he rips open my shirt. And so I complain. Of course I complain. If he’s nursing every three hours when he’s distracted, every two hours on average, and then it suddenly jumps to every half hour or really just as often as he can get it…. that’s overwhelming. And when I tell people about it, their eyebrows raise.

And someone is always there to remind me that I have a choice. I could choose to nurse less. I could choose to say no.

Honestly, sometimes I have appreciated these reminders.

But I know what my choices are. If I was looking to nurse less, I would just do that. If I was at the end of my rope and needing to wean, I would just do that. I’m not there. Where I am, though, is really really freaking tired, and needing space to be honest about how hard this is, sometimes.

And I do make choices. I make the choice to continue nursing. I make the choice to continue nursing on demand, without a schedule. And sometimes I make the choice to say “not now” and “not yet.” I made the choice, months ago, to cut down his night feedings considerably, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. And I make the choice, I make the choice every single day, to continue a nursing relationship that is sometimes hard, sometimes complicated. As he gets older, as he becomes more and more of a toddler, I make that choice knowing full well that it is not always going to be considered normal, not always going to be supported.

So I don’t, necessarily, always need to be reminded that I could be making another choice.

***

I complain about breastfeeding, but I actually really like it. I find myself talking about how much I like it less, maybe less than I should. Partly, I think, it’s because I’m embarrassed about it… our culture asks that we breastfeed without drawing attention to our breasts, it asks that we breastfeed for nutritional and health related purposes exclusively and never acknowledge that nursing is complicated and emotional and social. But partly it’s just me. I’ve always found it easier to gripe about what’s wrong than to talk about what’s right. Who wants to talk about how lovely the world is? It’s boring.

***

I adore nursing my child. There’s very little I can say about it that won’t sound cliche and flowery and stupid. There’s very little I can say about it that won’t just be more of the same, more of what you’ve already heard.

But this is the thing.

I adore breastfeeding so much that I am choosing to persevere through a very week of nursing. I adore it so much that despite how trying it is, I still feel incredibly lucky and privileged that this is the problem that I have. I adore it so much that even when he’s begging to nurse for the third time in one hour, sometimes I still laugh, and smile, and say “oh just come here, sweet baby!” and I roll my eyes while I do it but I secretly feel like a superhero. And I am overwhelmed with emotion. I am overwhelmed with tiredness, too, and thirst. But I am overwhelmed with emotion. The feeling that I know, deeply and completely, that he is getting all that he needs. If we are out and I forgot to pack a snack or a drink for him, I know he isn’t screwed. And I know he’s happy.

I know he’s happy because he smiles at me, he hums, he laughs.

***

Breastfeeding is a choice. It is a choice I am making every single day. Some days, it is a choice I am making fifteen or more times a day. It is a choice I am sometimes making joyfully, sometimes despondently, sometimes ambivalently. But it is still a choice that I am making, and in that, I am lucky.

The goal, to my mind, of breastfeeding advocacy is to make this choice available to everyone. They may have perfectly good reasons to choose something else, and that’s fine, but I want them to have that same opportunity to make a decision that I had, and continue to have. In order to do that, we have to stop passing the buck. We have to hold institutions, employers, our government, and our culture, accountable for their massive role in taking away that choice.

When a new mom says she isn’t breastfeeding because her work won’t allow her space to pump, we need to recognize that she isn’t really being given a choice and advocate for her. Rather than trying to pressure new parents into “choosing” the right think (AKA breast is best) we need to be working our asses off to make sure they have the same choices I do.

 

 

And Now For Something Lighthearted: Marsupials Creep Me Out

Note: For this week, we’re dusting off an old draft that’s been chilling unfinished in the drafts folder since back in the dark ages of my second trimester. I’m leaving it all in present tense, so if you’re like “hey is she pregnant again?!?!” the answer is a hearty “nope!” I am, however, still creeped out by marsupials.

 

It is common for people to feel, during pregnancy, more connected to other people who have been pregnant in the past, especially one’s own mother. The trajectory goes something like “wow, I can’t believe my mom did this for me… and my grandmothers… and my great-grandmothers… and… holy gestation batman! Actually a lot of people have done this really hard thing! Heroes, they’re all of them heroes.”

I’ve definitely had this feeling more than once during the last joy filled 24 weeks. Particularly since my own mother had difficult pregnancies, and I am also having a difficult pregnancy, I’ve been feeling a lot of solidarity with her. But for me, it goes beyond family members and other humans, and I find myself also identifying with a wide range of birth giving mammals.

This probably makes a lot of sense, given my personal history and general outlook on life. Once upon a time, after reading up on feral cats I got involved in TNR because I couldn’t help but look at young female cats having up to three litters of kittens a year, and think “oh, this is a feminist issue.” Mammals have a lot in common with each other. And for the vast majority of female mammals, pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing, these things are just part of life. Sometimes they are a very difficult part of life.

Which brings me to a slightly comical side affect of all this togetherness and connectedness. Because while I watch the pregnant squirrels eating cat food on our back porch and think “girl, it is rough, I get you,” there’s another class of mammals that I’m suddenly finding extremely unsettling to even think about.

Marsupials. I’m creeped out by marsupials. I mean what is their deal, anyways?

kanga roo

It’s in or out, baby!

Pretty much everybody knows that the thing about marsupials is they have a pouch. Well, the female ones do, anyways, and it is a pouch for babies. The babies get to ride around in the pouch, which is oh-so-cute if you happen to be a cartoon kangaroo. I learned from watching David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals that marsupials are some of the first mammals, and also utterly disgusting and creepy. I re-watched the kangaroo birth scene to write this point, and I have some very serious feelings about it and all of them amount to “NOPE.”

Here, now you can be grossed out too:

 

Here are my feelings, as a female bodied mammal person:

1. ONCE THE BABY COMES OUT IT DOES NOT GO BACK IN WE ARE DONE HERE THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

2. The part where the mom is just sort of vaguely watching it climb up her? No. That is absolutely terrifying to me in a way that I cannot describe. Like maybe I want her to be helping and not just watching, but also I cannot blame her because that thing looks gross and I don’t want to touch it either.

3. It latches on to the nipple and then IT DOES NOT UNLATCH YOU GUYS. A fun thing about being a breastfeeding human is not doing it (quite) 24/7.

And it’s not only kangaroos everyone, it’s all of them. Maybe you think the whole pouch thing is sort of cute, but we aren’t talking about a snuggly sleeping bag here. We are talking about a skin pouch on the mother’s body forcing her to have even less bodily autonomy than the average birthing mammal. And now that I’ve identified with the mother kangaroo, I can’t look back. The pouch is a cruel trick of evolution and I am glad that our branch of mammals chose to do away with it entirely in favor of the placenta.

Ok, here is a picture of a cat, another mammal that has the decency not to have a pouch.

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On “Good” Babies, And The Other Kind

Our child is now ten months old (which I really can’t believe most days) and this past weekend all three of us (mama, ma, bae) went to visit my older sister. We took the train, and we had no idea how that might go with a baby, especially a mobile baby who is inching towards toddlerism.

It was fine.

On the way there, he was well rested and excited about getting out of the house. He loves going to new places, and since I’m a little bit of a homebody, he doesn’t always go out into the world quite as much as he would like. At least in this stage in his development, he’s an extrovert, and he can become bored and frustrated at home.

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So we got on the train and he laughed as be discovered things about it. He touched the fabric on the seats, looked out the windows, climbed back and forth in our laps, nursed, napped, and LOVED the cafe car (what kid wouldn’t love a moving restaurant? I mean THEY don’t know the food is crap and overpriced), and nursed again. He was a little frustrated that he couldn’t crawl around, but only a little and he didn’t make a stink about it.

And we got a constant stream of compliments from our fellow passengers.

“What a good baby!”
“I can’t believe how well behaved he is!”
“He’s being really good!”

When other adults compliment your child, especially in a way that seems to also compliment your parenting, it gives you a kind of glow. By the time we got off the train, we were feeling smug as hell. Our child was just inherently wonderful, and everyone could tell, and we were great parents doing great parenting.

“Oh he’s so good!” Someone would say.
“Yeah, he’s loving this.” We would beam back at them.

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But the way home was another matter.

Our train home left at 7:20am, which meant leaving my sister’s apartment at 5:30 to get there on public transit in time for pre-boarding. Which meant waking up at 4:15. On top of that, he was having some trouble sleeping with the unfamiliar surroundings. So we boarded the train with a confused, overtired baby, who was thoroughly sick of being moved around the world. Even with all that, though, when we boarded he enjoyed making faces at the straight couple across the aisle from us. The woman smiled back at him, and shared that they had spent the weekend away from their seven month old daughter, and were on their way back to her. “How did he do on the ride here?” she asked, and of course we beamed at her and told her of our great success riding a train with a baby.

But we wouldn’t get a single compliment during the journey home.

As a parent, I can say that his behavior was only a little bit “worse.” But the fineness of that line didn’t matter to anyone else. He cried several times. He screamed during diaper changes. When he couldn’t get other passengers to interact with him, he tried raising his voice, as if maybe they just couldn’t quite hear him. But he napped really really well, and still enjoyed the cafe car, and bobbed his head to the sound of the train. However, the reactions he inspired from other passengers were totally different. Instead of gushing compliments, I overhead one man tell a fellow traveler that he was moving seats to avoid he “whiny baby.” In the cafe car, as he was merrily eating bits of soft pretzel, a family with an older child looked over in disgust at the mangled bits of pretzel he dropped on the table top.

We had become the annoying people with the baby.

It did not feel good. I was not glowing.

I’m not breaking any new ground here, but all of this left me thinking about the way we talk about “good kids” and “bad kids” as a culture. Good kids appear to be kids that adults do not have to interact with when they don’t want to, kids that are quiet, and especially kids that are not complaining. Adults who are vocally horrified by the phrase “children should be seen and not heard” still don’t hesitate to label quiet children as “good” and turn up their noses when children are loud. To tell the truth, I’m not sure I’m immune to this kind of thought myself. Have I ever congratulated my kid on being “good” when he refrained from fussing (and this made my life easier)? Probably.

But it still bothers me. Especially when we are talking about very young children, often when we talk about quietness what we’re really talking about is a lack of communication. Babies communicate by making sounds. Those sounds can sound like coos, like cries, like shrieks, or like whining, but they are often loud and they can be very grating. A baby does not have a way to tell you something is wrong quietly and unobtrusively. Whether they are hungry, tired, bored, or wet, the result is the same: they get loud.

I am now going to talk about baby poop. One day, no doubt, my child will hate me for having shared this, but it’s illustrative of a point.

Now that he is mobile and playing all the time, our baby rarely tells us when his diaper is full. He’ll just poop and keep right on playing. This is a huge problem, because it means that sometimes I don’t find out that he has pooped until it has dried to his skin, which leads to a pretty awful diaper change experience for all involved, and diaper rash. Now, I still don’t think he’s a bad baby for being too busy with his blocks to give me a heads up, and it’s my job as his parent to check his diaper often because I know there could be “stealth poo” at any time. But there’s no denying that it’s a case where a little more communication would be useful!

And yet, according to the conventions of goodness and badness in children, he’s doing the best thing he can do by keeping quiet and not bothering me.

I hate that.

I want my child to communicate with me. I want my child to know that be can always come to me with whatever is going on with him. I want him to know that he can communicate even when it is inconvenient for other adults. I want him to know that I am confident enough to handle the disapproving looks and lack of praise.

He was a good baby on both train rides, because he was sharing how he felt with his parents in the only way he knew how. It’s just that on one of those train rides he was more content, and on one of them he was more stressed, and that has to be ok.