On Not Breastfeeding

I’ve started dreaming about breastfeeding.  In these dreams, we are out of formula, and there are no bottles.  I put my son to my breast, and he drinks.  My milk flows, and it dribbles down his chin.  When I wake from these dreams, my breasts feel empty and useless.

In the first few weeks after Michael was born, I made milk; I was proud of the milk that I made.  After spending 30 minutes in a cold, sterile little room at the hospital, I’d emerge with one or two or four little bottles in my hands.  Walking to the freezer, I’d hold them up near my chest, proud of my output.  I asked the lactation consultant about getting bigger bottles, since I filled up so many of the small ones.  I had the nurses label an extra drawer for me in the freezer. 

It felt like life had stopped, except for pumping.  I sat in the back room of my in-law’s house, where my husband and his friends had set up our couch and TV before he’d deployed to Afghanistan, watching TV and letting the pump slurp away.  At first, every three hours:  get a glass of water, get comfortable.  Assemble the pump, open the sterile bottles that I’d use to collect the milk.  Bare my breasts, attach the double pump.  Breathe deeply and zone out while my breasts emptied themselves into a clean, plastic vessel.  Oftentimes, I wept silently.  Weeping helped my milk flow.  After 30 minutes, my milk slowed, and I disassembled the pump.  The bottles, labeled, went into a lunchbox in the refrigerator to take to the hospital, and the pump pieces were cleaned. 

At the hospital, my pumping routine was very similar.  There, however, I had to pull myself away from beside my son’s isolette before pumping.  No matter how long I’d been there, it was both difficult to leave and a relief to be gone. 

Michael’s weight increased slowly over a week, then jumped all at once.  Extra calories, formula powder, was added to my milk to help him gain quicker.  He excelled at breathing; when another baby near his age still had a breathing tube shoved down his throat, Michael was almost ready to breathe on his own.  Michael excelled at digesting:  there was almost never any food left in his belly when a nurse used a syringe attached to the end of his feeding tube to pull out the contents of his belly.  He did not excel at gaining weight.

Eventually, he was ready to try a bottle.  I had made a nurse write a note on Michael’s file when he’d first arrived that I wanted to be the one who gave him his first bottle.  As he got closer to being ready, I agonized over it:  What if they fed him without me?  After I’d spent so much time expelling and packing the milk, it seemed only fair that I should be the one to help him learn to drink it.

His nurse that day warned me the day Michael tried a bottle that he would not drink it all, that he would choke, that his machines would beep because he would stop breathing.  But he did it:  he drank most of the bottle.  And six hours later, after he’d rested and received a feeding through his tube, he drank another.  It was beautiful.  He was almost a real baby.

Michael drank more bottles every day, but he still gained weight slowly.  Since I was spending more time at the hospital, I was pumping less and exhausted more.  As he got closer to coming home, I was almost in a panic.  For three nights, I barely slept.  The house was ready.

And then, suddenly, Michael was home.  My husband and I were real parents.  Every three hours, we woke Michael up and fed him.  Then I assembled the pump, pumped, disassembled the pump, cleaned the pump, stored the milk, and held Michael again.  At night, we put him in his cradle and left a lamp and the radio on.  It took a week to wean him from light and sound, seven nights before he didn’t cry when the room got dark and quiet.  We got used to sleeping in the light, and I appreciated how easy it was to jump out of bed and peek at Michael to be sure he was still breathing. 

After a few days, pumping no longer felt like an option.  It was agonizing to decide to quit, but I was only producing 4 or 5 ounces a whole day because I was exhausted.  It was less painful, however, than having to put Michael down while I pumped.  I had been offering my breast to Michael all along, but he did not seem to be interested.  I kicked myself for not giving him more time before I tried the bottle.  But if we’d waited, he would not have come home as early.  It’s one of those terrible circles that my mind gets stuck spinning around inside.

“But it’s for his own good,” my husband said, of letting Michael fuss while I pumped.  But I couldn’t do it.  I’d spent 11 weeks visiting my son in the hospital, asking permission to hold him, and only moving as far away from his isolette as the wires and tubes allowed.  Putting him down now was not an option.

With the knowledge that I had about five gallons of breastmilk stored in the freezer, I put the breast pump into storage.  My breasts were now filled with relief and guilt, not milk.  Within a day, we discovered blood in Michael’s poop.  His pediatrician thought Michael might have a milk intolerance, and she suggested a special formula, since I could not retroactively remove dairy from all the pumped milk.  Within a day of having the formula, Michael was a different baby.  I hadn’t realized that he fussed so much until he stopped, and he started sleeping more soundly.  His weight gain, that first week on formula, was four times the weight gain he’d had the previous week.  It seemed like the best option.

Before we moved a few months later, I’d tried to contact a milk bank to donate the milk I’d stored.  Unfortunately, I did not finish the application process in time.  I cried while my husband emptied the freezer, bottle by bottle, into a thick black garbage bag.  I know that he threw them away, but I can’t help but imagine that black bag buried in the backyard, filled with useless nourishment. 

Breastfeeding mothers make me feel guilty.  Feeding Michael a bottle in public makes me feel guilty.  I am not looking forward to stopping feeding him bottles, but I look forward to the moment when I know that I am not not breastfeeding.  He is still underweight, although now it is at least partially because he is always moving.  I try to sneak extra calories into his food:  olive oil on his vegetables, extra cheese on his black bean quesadillas.  He is a good eater, and he chooses nutritious foods when he gets a choice; also, he will not eat after he has had his fill, not matter how tantalizing his options might be.  Today, for the first time, he announced, “All done!” when he did not want to eat more.  And today, for the millionth time, I tightened my eyebrows together, wishing he’d have just a little more.

But I guess that’s just how it will always be:  a mother must always want more for her child.

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