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.