breastfeeding

Looking for a Hole in the Space-Time Continuum

Summer has ended and already I’m tired.

Last night Stump woke up at 3 am and remained awake for two full hours, insisting Nurse? Nurse? Nurse? every moment I wasn’t nursing him. When I woke up at seven, he was still nursing, his hair all sweaty beneath my armpit. When I finally got up, Smoke decided to show his love for me by smacking me repeatedly on the butt while I packed his lunch. Meanwhile, Stump spent the next hour attempting to raid Smoke’s marker stash; he screamed in agony every time I forcibly removed a marker from his death grip. The moment before we left, I discovered red scribbles all over our white kitchen chairs. I have no idea how he managed this; he hadn’t left my sight for a moment.

One small thing that helped: on the way to work, as Stump was fussing the backseat, whining for another cookie and another cookie and another cookie (the daytime equivalent of Nurse, Nurse, Nurse) I drove by a man with a beard who was riding a motor scooter and wearing a long floral print dress that fluttered in the wind.

At this point, I’ve given up all hope of getting ahead, of managing the exploding messes in my house, of getting my teaching tasks preemptively in order for next week when the papers roll in. But I’d like to catch up on sleep, on reading and TV—these are small missions I began over the summer but haven’t completed. The other day I realized that all of this would be possible if only I could find a time warp somewhere. Ever since then I keep dreaming about it, as if it’s a distant but actual possibility like winning the lottery or landing a book deal.

A stellar-mass black hole in orbit with a companion star located about 6,000 light years from Earth.

Last week as Kellie watched the show Cosmos, I heard Neil DeGrasse Tyson explain that if you wandered into a black hole you would most likely die by spaghettification, your body stretching until it snapped. But if you were lucky and entered in just the right spot, in theory you might survive.

Would there be room for a bed in there? Could I bring a backpack with some toiletries,  some books and chocolate and beer?

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In which I learn that my lactation superpowers have limits

I never wanted to be that parent on an airplane, the one with the baby who screams and won’t stop, and up until yesterday I hadn’t been. I thought I had it figured out, that my choice to practice extended breastfeeding meant that I always had the proper tool to quiet my little ones. But if there’s a cardinal rule of parenting it’s this: the moment you get cocky about anything is the moment you dig your own grave.

Yesterday we flew from Seattle to Boston—a five-hour flight—and Stump, who is currently eighteen months, screamed for an hour straight. I’m worried that an hour sounds unimpressive, so allow me to add a little detail.

It began only a few minutes after we boarded, probably around the time that Stump figured out the airplane was going to be his temporary prison, that he would be loosely confined to my lap for an indefinite period. It was nap time, and he’d already been confined to the car seat and later the stroller since he’d awoken at six. And so, he began screaming and thrashing with all of his bobcat strength.

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“Ten minutes,” I told myself, trying to restrain him so that he wouldn’t kick or head butt the large elderly man who shared our row—did I mention I was traveling sans partner? I figured once the plane started moving, Stump would settle. I’d nurse him (awkwardly, hiding from the old-man-neighbor), and he’d easily fall asleep. Whatever passengers he was annoying would calm down, wipe their foreheads and think: that baby’s not so bad.

The plane started moving. I tried to nurse him. He complied for a moment, then bolted away, arching back and screaming. I rushed to cover up my nipple. We repeated this at least four times until I gave up on the power of lactation to calm him. In my world, this is the sign of a serious problem. I held him and rocked him and begged him and shushed him and tried not to break down and cry. “You have to go to sleep,” I hiss-whispered.

“He’ll give it up eventually,” the old man reassured me. I wondered: what if he didn’t? What if he cried for the entire five hours and eight minutes? I told myself that even if this happened, the flight would end eventually, but I knew that every hour would feel like a decade. Those five hours would add up to longer than I’ve even lived.

The old man got up to use the restroom, and on his way back I overheard a woman offer to trade seats with him so that he could relax. He told her “Oh no; it’s fine.”

Stump was still screaming when I felt him fart through his diaper. It was an especially stinky fart for a baby, and it wafted right up into my face. It was then that I began to suspect that I understood the problem. Minutes later, I checked his diaper, and saw a tiny brown turd. He leaned into me crying. His crying was different than his screaming—it contained a hint of relief. He leaned into me, pooing, just letting it all go.

You see, Stump is a guy who poops on the move, not in his car seat, not in his stroller, and definitely not while his mom is force-nursing him. I wanted to get on the PA system and announce: “Fellow Passengers. He Just Had to Poop. Everything is Going to be Fine.”

Instead I dug through my bag for a diaper and wipes. Red-faced and sweaty, I carried my stinky baby to the bathroom and changed him on top of the toilet while he continued to scream. He screamed as I washed my hands and he screamed all the way back to his seat. But when I offered my breast he took it and instantly melted into a puddle of sleeping baby. My fellow passengers wiped their brows and collectively thought, That baby has issues.

What a teenage barista at Starbucks can teach us about lactivism

I was thrilled to come across this story the other day. (It’s almost as good as this one about the American student getting stuck inside a vagina sculpture in Germany.) To sum it up, a mother was nursing her 5-month-old baby at a Starbucks in Ottowa, when a fifty-year-old woman walked up to the counter to complain, referring to the action as “disgusting.” The barista, reportedly a teenage male, reassured the complainer that he’d handle it. He then proceeded to offer the nursing mom a free drink along with one of those sweet Starbucks vouchers for another free drink upon her next visit. To top it off, he apologized for the complainer’s poor behavior.

Win, win, win!

There is a lot to learn here, but I’ve got a couple of takeaways:

1. Supporting breastfeeding moms is good PR. I’m serious. You know that international breastfeeding symbol, the one that businesses can put in their window to let women know that it’s a breastfeeding-safe zone ?

When I was a first-time mom toting a newborn around, navigating a brand new world and unsure of  what reactions I’d get to my discreet but public nursing, these stickers reassured me that someone had my back. Of course these stickers might not have prevented anyone from harassing me as I ate breakfast with my right hand and cradled my baby’s head with my left, but they at least reassured me that the employees wouldn’t kick me out or demand that I cover up.* Stump is old enough now that I rarely nurse in public, but for the rest of my life I imagine I’ll see these stickers as a kind of endorsement, a sign that this business respects women and shares some of my fundamental values.

In the end, Starbucks got some decent press around this incident. The original Facebook post that featured this story has already collected 27,508 likes and 1,759 shares. Lactivists are loyal customers. Trust me, you want them with you, not against you.

2. Don’t hate the asshole; love the underdog. Who is this awesome teen barista, and how did he get so wise? If I had stood behind the complainer in line, I would have turned red in the face and called her out. In our North American culture, I see breasts featured everywhere all the time to sell things like beer and shoes and video games, but somehow when they’re used to feed an infant they’re suddenly “disgusting”?

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times

But our barista, in a flash, knew that there was nothing to be gained from engaging with this woman directly. He focused his energy on giving a mom and her baby the compassion they needed. And that, I’m learning, is what nursing advocacy should be all about.

*As a first-time mom, I did buy a hooter hider and used it occasionally for the first month or two, but in the end, there are some reasons why covering up doesn’t work for me and many of the other moms I know.

a. My nipple is bare for less than a second. I’ve never caught anyone looking at it. Apparently, the vast majority of people have the discretion to look away.

b. It’s a nipple. So what?

c. I actually kind of need to see what’s going on down there.

d. It seems kind of weird to hide your baby under a piece of fabric.

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Leaving Colorado Part 4: “All Your Friends are Here”

Image Courtesy of Berkly Illustration https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

Image Courtesy of Berkley Illustration
https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

On the way to Colorado, we had been a caravan, a family of travelers. My partner Kellie drove a Budget truck stuffed with barn wood and boxes. The truck pulled our little along Honda behind it on a rickety car trailer. The kids and I followed behind in Kellie’s diesel pickup. Because I’m too timid to drive either of these rigs, we’d drafted two friends, Dee and Heidi, to help us with the driving.

By ten in the morning, as we crossed the line from Oregon to Idaho, the day had already warmed to 104 degrees, and the road was even hotter. The air conditioning in the truck was broken. Dee drove the pickup with the windows down, the hot air whipping our hair in all directions. It was too loud to talk, so we kept our eyes on the road ahead, trying to make it till evening, praying the kids would keep their cool. But eight miles into Idaho, Dee and I watched as one of the car trailer’s tires exploded and fell to pieces on the highway.

Our caravan pulled to the breakdown lane. As we stood on sand and asphalt, vehicles whizzing by at momentous speeds, we instantly began to melt. The baby screamed. I hunkered down with the cell phone, navigating the maze of numbers to connect with roadside assistance. Forty minutes, they told us. No guarantees.

Dee decided to wait with Kellie in the heat while Heidi took over the pickup, ready to drive me and the kids somewhere cooler. “I know where the Whole Foods in Boise is,” she offered.

Boise Whole Foods would become the only thing I’d see of Idaho both coming and going. It was where I was headed now, day two of my journey with two boys and two dogs in a tiny, stinky Honda.

This time, there was no emergency. Or, to put it another way, we’d become accustomed to a constant state of emergency, the car too hot, the endless road, the baby always on the verge of meltdown.

But Boise Whole Foods was everything I needed. It was vast and air-conditioned. They had vegetables there. By God, I wanted a fancy salad and I was willing to pay thirteen dollars for it.

But more importantly, Boise Whole Foods featured something so practical it was nearly miraculous: a nursing lounge for mothers. It had a door that locked, a sink, a changing table, an outlet where I could plug in my phone. It featured a comfortable chair where I could nurse the baby, along with toys and books to distract my older son while I sat and nursed. To top it all off, its walls featured a series of prints by Berkley Illustration titled “All Your Friends Are Here.”

Image Courtesy of Berkly Illustration https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

Image Courtesy of Berkley Illustration
https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

Strangely, the appeal of the mothers’ lounge was that it was populated by these illustrations, and No One Else. I locked the door. I nursed. I charged my phone. I splashed water on my face. No one knocked. No one sized me up and shouted “Got your hands full there”—the line that was inevitably uttered at every rest stop.

I nursed the baby with my feet up, as my older son and I discussed which of the prints we each loved the most, and which one I should order at Christmas for Mommy Kellie, who was by now 700 miles away. We might have spent twenty minutes in the mothers’ lounge, but it was restorative in the same way that catnaps are restorative. We returned to the car, disoriented, groggy, but refreshed.

Image Courtesy of Berkley Illustration https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

Image Courtesy of Berkley Illustration
https://www.etsy.com/shop/berkleyillustration

*Thanks to Berkley Illustration for permission to use these images.

Our Bodies are Connected

I arrived at the conference groggy and spent, the glands in my throat two swollen tender lumps. Both Smoke and Stump had been sick the week before with pink eye and a nasty cough, and now my own body hosted their germs. Stump had kept me up for half the night before, squirming and crying, and then I’d risen at five to catch my flight to Utah.

I traveled with five other colleagues, people I knew only from committee meetings and all-campus emails, and as we approached the hotel it began to snow. This was only last Tuesday. This was June. At first it was a joke—a few flakes mixed with pouring rain—but minutes later it was falling in earnest. It accumulated on the grass at the edge of the highway.

In my disoriented state, I was relieved to make it to my room alone. Here before me were the things I had dreamed of for months. Two beds with clean sheets, all to myself. A television. A heated outdoor pool down the hall. But it wasn’t the moment it should have been. I had no idea what to do with myself.

Snow, Utah, June. This is the view from my window.

Snow, Utah, June. This is the view from my window.

We were here for a conference and I’d given myself permission to miss the opening address. I was nursing a cold, after all. But already I felt torn between duty and self-care—the very feeling I was hoping to escape from.

I talked myself into taking a long shower, and once that task was through, I remembered that I needed to pump. I sat on the bed farthest from the window, and held the small plastic contraption to my left breast. The last time I had fed my son was this morning on the opposite side. He was in a strangely quiet mood, and he nursed with his eyes wide open, silent and content.

When my milk let down, a sigh went through me. I wasn’t crying, not really, but my eyes felt the pressure of tears and my body felt the pressure of longing and it was such a strange thing to be emptying my left breast into a plastic contraption so that I could continue to be away from my child for another three days.

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 For some reason, I began to think about women who lactated for babies they’d lost.

A week after my fist son was born, an acquaintance came to visit and she told me that she had a stillborn child many years before. “No one warned me that my milk would come in,” she said. Only two feet away, Smoke lay sleeping on my bed. “It was such a strange and terrible thing to have lost a baby and then to be making all this milk.”

My morbid thoughts were absurd. My baby was and is alive. He walks and talks and eats and demands every ounce of milk and energy I have. But I was sharing with a machine an event that I normally share with my child, and for that moment I felt somber and haunted.

And then the moment passed. I put on my pajamas and turned on the TV. I piled up the pillows made a spot for myself on the impeccably clean bed.

Over the next three days, a part of my brain held a constant awareness of the 900 miles between my body and my sons’ bodies. Since I wasn’t there to keep them safe, I prayed that they would be intact on my return. I tried to tuck this awareness deep into my brain, so I could Do Work Things, and when I wasn’t doing work things I flitted like a hummingbird from blossom to blossom, sampling all of the sweet uninterrupted pastimes I long for when I’m home caring for my boys.

When I returned, the baby walked to me, alone, arms open, saying “Mah. Mah. Mah. Mah.”

Leaving Colorado (Part 1)

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I left Colorado at four in the morning, when the sky was still starry and dark. I left in a ’93 Civic that I’d loaded with boxes of toys and clothes the night before. I had carefully attached two dog leads to the passenger’s seat. I wanted to be prepared.

Ten weeks earlier, we’d caravanned to Colorado from Washington. The idea was to spend a summer in wilderness, to see if that was where we were Meant To Be, but I still didn’t know. I only knew this: a) wilderness problems were different than city problems and b) in the city I had a job.

And so, I was about to return to that job with both dogs and both sons, while my partner stayed behind, attending to commitments. I dreaded the journey. To be responsible for four living things while driving across four western states struck me as only barely possible. I knew we’d make it home in the same way that, during childbirth, I knew that my sons would make it out of my body alive.

In the morning I loaded the dogs. Also, I loaded my sons who still slept, but who woke at the morning air. I kissed my partner goodbye and drove down the mountain over rocks and bumps and ruts. My sons were awake.

The idea had been that both boys would sleep soundly for hours as I drove. But now the baby was screaming and my older son was already demanding snacks. The dogs refused to settle; they turned in their spots obsessively, unhappy with the space I’d allotted them. We had twenty-one hours to go.

I could not hear my music through the screaming, but I tried. I tried to relax, but I couldn’t see. The night was so dark. Even with my brights on, I leaned forward towards the windshield, trying to see where I was going. Each time I approached a corner, I imagined swerving to avoid a bear.

That baby, he wasn’t going to sleep. My older son quietly placed his hands over his ears.  It was quarter to five and still pitch black when I pulled into the empty parking lot of a grocery store—the one we’d been shopping at all summer long. There were lights on inside, a delivery truck outside, a man emptying palettes of bread. He didn’t seem to see me, though I felt conspicuous, a small car alone in a big lot.  I rearranged some bags so that I could sit next to the screaming baby’s car seat. The dogs rearranged themselves too. I leaned over the baby and pulled out my left breast. He drank. He quieted.  He slept. I put my breast away. After returning to the driver’s seat, I drove on.

From there, the roads widened. The edge of the sky grew light. I listened to music. In the rearview mirror, I watched my older son fall asleep.

A hawk flew alongside me for a spell. Ahead of me were yellow hills and a pinkening sky, but behind me were the mountains I was leaving. The end-of-summer sun rose above them turning the clouds crazy shades of orange. I was heading towards Utah, but Colorado, behind me, knew how to put on a show. I wanted—I needed a photograph. I could not safely take one.

It occurred to me that everything good—my sons, my dogs, my partner, the mountains—everything good was behind me, visible mostly through the slice of view afforded by the rearview window, some of it not visible at all.

I Will Probably Stop Breastfeeding Someday

ImageI breastfed my first son until he was nearly three. I had felt ready to quit for about six months before we actually quit, and once he was fully weaned I relished the freedom. I could wear dresses again, and put my son to bed with just a bedtime story and a hug, but most of all I enjoyed being in my body and not having to share it all the time.

When we decided to have a second child, I wasn’t so excited by the prospect of starting all over again—buying the nursing tanks, setting up the pump, drinking all that water, leaking all over my shirts. And, if I’m going to be honest here, what I truly dreaded was the feeling of being sucked on all the time. And so, I made myself a promise: if I wanted to, I could wean the baby at twelve months. I live in a community that supports extended nursing, and I’m a believer in its benefits; but I also believe in paying attention to my own limits, so  I decided that a year was good enough.

However, my son is twelve months now and we still nurse all the time. In spite of the fact that I have my own permission to wean him, we seem to be going strong.  Right now, as he sleeps, I’m taking stock of the various ways I feel about that.

1. Stretchy: Now that my baby is strong and mobile, nursing sometimes has this acrobatic element. In the mornings, he often wakes at five and I nurse him to see if I can get another hour of rest. Sometimes it works and we doze together, but just as often he squirms and pulls. I am both impressed with and horrified by how far he can stretch me.  I’m thirty-seven years old, which means that my self-image depends on maintaining some illusions about my own body. I try not to take stock of myself when I’m in unflattering positions. But when the baby is able to stretch my left breast to the next room, my vanity dies a little bit.

2. Lazy: One of the major reasons I won’t wean this month or next is that nursing is just too convenient. When the baby bonks his head, or just decides to be cranky we can plop down on the couch and check out for a minute or two. Bedtimes are easy. My partner can put the baby to sleep, but it takes actual work for her—twenty minutes of crying and rocking. For me it takes ten minutes of nursing while I sit on bed and scroll through my Facebook feed on my iPhone. And on the rare occasion when it doesn’t work, I have this excuse: since I nurse him, he won’t go to sleep for me any other way. I get to hand him off to my partner for Bedtime Round 2.

3. Tired: It’s true that I might be sleeping better if I night-weaned. Two months ago we moved the baby from our bed into his own crib, and surprisingly he seems to love it there. Still, he wakes up to nurse as soon as I come to bed, and then sometimes wakes me up a second time, reminding me to move him back to his own crib. Often there’s a third time and a fourth time. I’m willing to believe that he would now sleep through the night if he knew there was no milk in store for him. But refer back to #2. I’m too lazy to take this on.

4. Totally Awesome: I have plenty of shortcomings as a parent. There are days when I’m distracted, and days when I let my older son eat gummy bears with breakfast because I don’t feel like putting up a fight. The baby can’t tell me if he’s too hot or too cold, and so I tend to assume he’s just fine when maybe I should worry. But nursing is something I can do, and I like to think that it’s a trade for all of the things I can’t or don’t do. On the days I don’t offer the baby broccoli, at least he got some nutrients from my milk. On the days I don’t make him wear a hat, at least my milk will help him fight the cold we’re about to catch. And on the days I stay at work too late, or get annoyed because he’s whinier than usual, at least I can pull him up against me and together we’ll have one of those long nursing moments where we look at each other, and then off into space, and then at each other again.

enhanced-3642-1391392838-15image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/82329524@N00