They told me breast was best. The lactation consultants.
I believed them.
They said try.
So I did.
The first night we brought Rafael home from the hospital was sweltering. My newborn baby cuddled close to my bare chest, hot and sweaty, and wailed. I couldn’t comfort him. My husband also cradled him, cooing and patting his tiny back. I could see his curved spine, arched like a baby dinosaur. His mouth opening, seeking something. I tried repeatedly to latch him onto my breast. First the left, then the right. He sucked briefly, and then would wail in anger.
Or was it pain?
How was I supposed to know?
My mother-in-law came to the bedroom door. Her graying hair billowed around her. “Can I help?”
Tears streamed on my face. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.” I repeated, as though I was a talking doll that someone kept pulling the string. Like Woody in Toy Story who calls out, “There’s a snake in my boot.”
There was a baby in my house. And I didn’t know what to do. My breasts weren’t plump and hard. They remained flabby and soft. Trickles of clear liquid passed through them, but not the abundant supply I’d heard so much about.
Dread filled my bones. I felt broken.
Rafael cried until 3 a.m. He finally fell asleep, exhausted by this strange, hot, new world he found himself in.
I remembered the formula that my friend Sara had given me. It was in Rafael’s room, unopened. But they said no substitutions. No replacements. Just the breast.
When morning finally broke, and my bleary-eyed husband phoned the doctor, the nurse told us to come in immediately.
The pediatrician listened to my croaking tale of woe. Her brown eyes reflected sympathy.
“Has your milk come in yet?”
“I don’t think so. I think it’s just the colostrum.” (the pre-milk liquid)
“I’ll be right back.” She said.
Rafael still whimpered softly. His newborn onesie hung loosely around his tiny arms and legs.
The doctor returned to the room with a tiny bottle in her hands. She cradled Rafael’s head, lifted the bottle to his lips. He guzzled its contents.
“You’re baby is hungry.” The pediatrician stated simply. “I’m going to give you formula for supplementing his food until your milk comes in. But even after your milk is in, feel free to give him formula if he is still hungry.”
That was it? This little 2 oz bottle was all he wanted?
But there was more.
We brought Rafael home for the second time. We armed ourselves with the tiny bottles of formula. I persisted in giving him my breast. I wanted to feel the gentle tug of his lips against my skin and thrill with the knowledge that my body was feeding him. I wanted him to be nourished from me. I wanted to achieve in this part of motherhood.
It wasn’t to be.
When Rafael was 2 weeks old, and my eyes were swollen from not sleeping at night, I took him to the doctor again. The doctor was around my mom’s age. She had a purple streak in her otherwise gray hair. I retold our story.
“I’m a breast specialist,” she said. “I’ve spent the last 20 years researching women’s breast, in particular, as related to breastfeeding.” She then proceeded to ask me questions about my breast development.
My breast, apparently, when growing in my teen years, didn’t develop milk ducts, but fatty tissue instead. So I had only 1 or 2 milk ducts versus the 6 or 8 that an average woman had.
My body couldn’t feed my baby properly. That’s why he was crying so much. That’s why neither of us was sleeping. That’s why my breasts never felt swollen. That’s why I never leaked everywhere.
I faced a choice. One, I could bury my head in my pillow and mourn for my body’s lack of ability. Two, I could feed my son.
I chose the latter.
I won’t lie and say I didn’t feel defective those first few days after finding out about my breasts. I cried a lot. I questioned my worth as a mom. I fought self-loathing. I worried about my son’s health.
Breastfeeding is ideal and beautiful and wonderful for antibodies. Breastfeeding is a miracle of creation – that a woman’s body can produce milk for her baby’s life is amazing.
But sometimes, bodies malfunction. Sometimes, we need a little help.
My help came in the form of powder in a can.
It was my first lesson in inferiority in parenting. It won’t be my last. I’m bombarded every day with what I am not “doing right” in motherhood. Despite every child being different, and every parent being unique, somehow society expects parents to adhere to a certain unspoken standard. We have to be the best. We have to give the best. Parenting has become another checkmark on our long list of achievements.
Well, as Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
That applies in parenting too.
Just like I don’t want my relationship to God to be pigeonholed to a list of “do’s and don’t’s”, so I don’t want my worth as a mom to be reliant on what society is telling me I should or shouldn’t do. With love, grace, some trepidation, and a lot of messing up, I’m going to parent my son. I’m going to partner with my husband. I’m going to ask for advice and help. I’m going to pray a lot.
And when a technique doesn’t work, or advice isn’t good, I’ll move on.
I’ll realize I’m going to be okay.
My son is going to be ok.
The formula did its work: Rafael’s turning 2 in a few days. He’s healthy, strong, and growing.
Grateful for the modern age.
Grateful for the lesson in failed boobs.
And grateful for the chance, every day, to be Rafael’s mom.