Places I’ve Lived part 19: feeding C

Manhattan Avenue and Freeman Street
G train, Greenpoint Ave. stop

We’d gone out that night, Dave and I. We’d gone to see Soup Show, on at HERE in the West Village. Soup Show was a ladies bildungsroman style three woman show about growing up with female bodies and deep thoughts in America. It was a compelling piece of theater, performed by three incredible women that I will never forget, because that was the night I gave birth. When Cara Francis performed her upturned vagina fountain in a kiddie pool, I had no idea that I’d be in my kitchen only two hours later, experiencing something very similar but much less voluntary. My water broke within minutes of us getting home to our one bedroom apartment on Manhattan Avenue, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

We took a car service to Methodist Hospital, the driver keeping up a steady stream of banter about his wife’s pregnancies, miscarriages, and stillbirths.

From the moment I found out I was pregnant, nothing about motherhood was how I expected it to be. I didn’t think that, upon hearing the news, I would break down in tears that were not exactly joyful. I didn’t expect that I would suddenly feel an insatiable urge to flee the country and my life.

When I called Dave to tell him that I might be pregnant, I did not feel like a married, 34 year old woman with a steady job, a loving partner, and a safe, comfortable, home life, I felt like a 16 year old who’s afraid of her parents.

I had a professor in undergrad, Rosette Lamont, who was brilliant, French, wore leather pants. Rosette and I ended up on the same train out of Bronxville a couple of times. She told me that she and her mother focussed on her career, and her professional life, exclusively. She said that her one regret was never having children.

Our decision to conceive was more of an unwillingness to say no to the potentiality of love than a want to raise children.

From the time I was injected with demerol to when I finally woke up in the the next day in the hospital, nothing in the birth experience had gone according to my expectations. My son was breech, a fact we’d only discovered a few days before. We were meant to go back to my doctor’s office to schedule a c-section for late March. The c-section delivery was not a surprise, but my having eaten a full meal before my middle was cut open, was. Despite the narcotics, I could feel the pressure of every incision, every slice. There was a sheet between me and the rest of my body, and Dave, who was with me the whole time, looked stricken and scared. I didn’t like being cut off from my lower half, it felt like they were removing not just my son but my hips, my legs, my mobility. I was freezing, and Dave authorized the doctors to put me under. Later he told me that my body was shaking too much for the doctors to do their work. He says they brought C to me and I kissed him, but I don’t remember that. I remember seeing him being whisked by to a heat bed, asking if he was okay, then passing out.

The next thing I knew I was vomiting. I couldn’t stop. I was in some room that was not where C was, and Dave wasn’t there either, and they wouldn’t let me see them. The nurses said they’d transport me to a proper room once I stopped vomiting for some period of time. So I tried to keep it in, but I had no control over what was happening to me. It was at least 8 hours between delivery and being moved to a proper room. I thought my son would be there, but he wasn’t. I kept asking for him, but apparently the nurses had to count children or something. I kept asking, growing more and more scared that he wasn’t there, or that something was wrong, or that the hospital administration was just incompetent.

By the time I got to hold him in my arms, he’d already been fed formula, with a bottle. Dave told me he’d authorized it, the doctors said C’s sugar was low, and asked Dave if it was okay to formula feed him. Dave told me about this later. “Why are they asking me?” he thought, “what fool put me in charge?” Then he realized he was the dad, and he had to do what needed to be done. Dave made the right decision in giving the go-ahead- he didn’t know how long I’d be out of commission, vomiting in some hidden room- but that doesn’t mean I didn’t blame him for it. I wanted to nurse. It was super important to me. There was nothing I wanted more than to nurse this child of mine.

I tried. I tried to nurse him. I followed the advice of the lactation consultant, and the nurses. But they all contradicted each other. I asked the doctor, who said something different, and meanwhile C was losing weight. Dave said not to worry about nursing, that he and I were both raised on formula and we turned out fine. I suggested that perhaps we were not fine, and that C needed mother’s milk. I would try until I nailed this nursing thing.

I would try and try and continue to fail. I would try to nurse. Then when it ended with C screaming and unable to make the latch, I would feed him a bottle of milk I’d already pumped. We did this eight times a day, we did this as many times as he needed to feed. We’d try nursing, for an hour sometimes, then fail, then he’d drink a bottle of my milk, then I’d pump more milk. I pumped to keep up supply, and I pumped to make sure he always had my milk instead of formula. I had plenty of milk, I just couldn’t get C to drink it directly from me.

I cried every single time we failed at this. I cried eight times a day. I tried not to. Dave said to not worry about nursing. He was frustrated by the whole enterprise. So was C. I was just miserable.

Try to nurse. Fail. Cry. Bottle feed with expressed milk. Pump milk while crying. Two months went by, and the routine became entrenched.

I didn’t expect that I wouldn’t be able to nurse. I thought it would be easy, I thought I could bring C to the breast and he would just nurse.

My mother told me that I preferred the bottle to the breast, and that I was basically formula fed, and I turned out fine. What is this obsession with how ‘fine’ everyone turned out?

After two months of him turning away when I would bring him to the breast, I gave up, and pumped exclusively. Even though we’d failed at nursing, I had plenty of milk, and wanted to make sure he would have it. I tried to forgive myself. But I would catch myself crying about it, in the middle of the night, pumping milk while watching Murder She Wrote, then Magnum P.I., then Veronica Mars, on Netflix. Dave didn’t understand why I couldn’t be comfortable with formula feeding, but I wasn’t.

I wish I could have pumped for longer, but at four and a half months, my back gave out. I’d never properly cared for myself after giving birth via C-section. In retrospect, I didn’t realize that it had been a major surgery. My muscles had been cut during the surgery, and I’d put all the pressure on my back without realizing it. My body realized it though, and collapsed. I ended up on intense pain killers, and had to pour out all the milk I was pumping while C was fed formula. Tears were basically a constant presence, in my eyes, on my face. I cannot even express the extent to which I felt like a failure as a mom, as a wife, and as a woman. As I diligently worked through physical therapy, unable to pick up C off the floor, unable to pump non-poisoned milk, unable to walk without pain, I knew that he even if he could made it on formula, I couldn’t live with myself.

I started him on solid food at four and a half months. I knew it was a tad on the early side, but organic, pureed blueberries and sweet potatoes was something I could control. Baked apple french toast mush, pureed parsnips and carrots, wholesome cereals, these were things I could feel good about feeding him, while formula just made me sad. It was important to me that he eat right, eat healthy, and sugar free.

But my expectations would continue to be shattered.

C had been born with a skull deformity called craniosynostosis, a condition that basically means the plates of his skull were prematurely fused. He would have to have surgery to separate and reshape his skull, and it would be at about 6 months old. At about four and a half months old, we started spending alot of time at Montefiore Hospital.There was testing, blood drawing, all kinds of prep stuff for the surgery that was to follow. C was ferocious when having his blood drawn, and to help him get through it, the nurses would dip his pacifier into sugar water and let him suck on that while they looked for a vein and drew blood.

Sugar. SUGAR! Sugar had been my last stand, and I lost.

All I could do was hold him tight, hate myself, and wait for his pediatric neurosurgeon to cut his head open.

Dave and I were freaking out and taking deep breaths. We tried to not freak out. My method was ice cream and Agatha Christie novels. Haagen Dazs chocolate peanut butter and Poirot, to be precise.

We got through it. We got through it and C is just fine. (Maybe ‘fine’ is a hope, not a condition of reality.)

I’d like to say that I have a better relationship with my expectations for myself, for my son, for our lives. And I think I do. I’m not holding them over myself anymore. I’m not comparing myself to my expectations quite so religiously. I don’t live in the moment, I’m not even into that as a concept, but I live to hold my son, I live to love, and to be held on to. I live to work, to make art. My humanities education taught me that there’s value to leading the examined life, and I always sucked down that sugar pill. For a while after grad school I got obsessed with the idea of success, trying to understand why I’m not successful (according to my own luxuriant and ever morphing standards). Then I realized that these amorphous goals were never my own, and trying to integrate them into my world view was making me miserable. Those expectations that rise higher and higher like a cresting bird, always out of reach, are not worth having, and I won’t get sucked into their thin, breathless air any longer. Dave and C taught me that.

Right before I found out I was pregnant.
Same garden party. Me and Ali.
First family picture. photo credit: Nicolas Emmons (aka Uncle Nick, my brother)
C and his Great Gram, aka Nonna.
Finding new ways to work.
Motefiore hallway.
The day of the surgery.
Same day. C was such a trooper.
Once we were out of ICU, and the bandages came off. C and my dad, aka Buppa.
C and my mom. My mom and dad switched off being with us the whole week. They were amazingly supportive.
Going home!
Back at home in Greenpoint. Proof that we’re recovering.
Still wants to play.

And just like that it was over, and C was doing all the things little guys are supposed to do. Then we went to the Zoo.

next in the series

7 thoughts on “Places I’ve Lived part 19: feeding C

  1. You know what? You are fucking awesome for pumping for 4.5 months. It doesn’t matter how that breastmilk made it into his body, the antibodies it contained protected him the exact same way. And probably did a hell of a lot for him because he was exposed to so much during the hospital visits.

    It is awful when Mothers do not receive the support they need and ask for. It is heartbreaking when our plans don’t turn out like we dreamed. But how we feed our children does not dictate what kind of mothers we are. A woman who effortlessly nurses might be neglectful or abusive. I wish there was something I could say to help take some of your pain away. But as much as I believe that you didn’t fail him or yourself in any way I understand. Any mother would understand. We expect perfection from ourselves.

    On a completely separate topic–your writing takes my breath away. I’m so glad we are back in touch.

    1. your support in this realm has been really heartwarming for me. I felt so ashamed of being unable to nurse. I wouldn’t even tell people, outside of my immediate family group, that I was doing it. I didn’t realize that it’s hard for lots of moms.

      1. I think we all feel ashamed in some area of motherhood. I still feel ashamed that I miscarried. I felt like a failure and worthless because my body was unable to carry the babies to term. A number of years earlier a friend had miscarried and felt the same way. And I did not understand at all why she blamed herself. The way she talked about herself horrified me. As soon as I miscarried I called her to tell her I understood. Still didn’t think it was her fault, still hated that she blamed herself, but I understood.

        And if it wasn’t for an army of lactation consultants, a doctor invested in my success, my mom, and Z (his mom was in la leche league in the 70s so he has always thought breastfeeding was the norm) I wouldn’t have been able to do it. You didn’t fail at nursing. You and C were failed by the medical profession. Honestly, providing breastmilk for him for 4.5 months is the opposite of failure.

  2. Now concerned about my last comment–I don’t mean to indicate that not providing breastmilk at all is failure. If you are feeding your kid formula-safe, nutritious formula, you are not failing them either. You are meeting their needs in a completely appropriate way. Formula feeding is not “bad”. What is bad is wanting to nurse and not having the support to achieve a goal that is far from intuitive.

    1. It’s so hard to know what the right thing to do is. I felt pretty strongly that breast milk was necessary. It’s funny because you say that I was failed by the medical establishment, and while intellectually I believe that’s true, I can’t shake the feeling that feeding C was my responsibility alone, and my inability to do it naturally is my failing. Also I think if it were the old west or wherever, we’d have died in childbirth, which is terrifying.

      1. The old west dying thing is a big reason we aren’t having a third. I had retained placenta after T, an incomplete miscarriage, and then hemorrhage after C. My uterus is pathetic.

        Did you see this from last month?
        As American woman we are conditioned to think we must be supermom and perfect in all other areas of our life. Pardon my French, but it is bullshit. Bullshit.

      2. That’s a great reason to stick with the two. Not at all the same is when we had two cats, and then we rescued a third. The difference between two cats, which was manageable, and three, may as well have been the difference between two and two hundred.

        I did see that article, and the Times one. Total. Bullshit. Also I hate this trend in articles now about stay at home dads, and how they’re realizing the value of rearing children, and following your bliss and all that crap. Not because I don’t also have an “opt out” view of success and happiness, but because, and this is in every article, the wife/mother is always getting in her car and driving off to work where she can fulfill herself in the fucking rat race while the dad/husband and kid get to stay home and build pillow forts. Fuck you media, for telling the women, when they stay home, that now they will be unfulfilled as women for staying home OR GOING TO WORK, but dudes, hey, go by some finger paint man, get in touch with your inner you, your wife Wants to work her ass off and pay all the bills for your domestic chill fest. But when women stay home, the media acts like it’s drudgery. Fuck. That.

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