ALYSSA WITBECK ALEXANDER
For days after my son’s birth, he drank contaminated formula. My husband and I didn’t know, despite my extensive note keeping of all casual tidbits doctors and nurses told us about caring for a baby. Still, so many gaps remained. How to properly prepare infant formula was one of them. At six pounds and two ounces, we fed our small baby through a syringe. He struggled to suck on my breast, and my body produced too little colostrum to fill his tiny tummy, so we plunged formulated milk past his gums and into his mouth. Droplets of white liquid slipped out of his barely open lips, and we scraped the remnants back onto his tongue with the edge of a syringe.
The nurses congratulated us when our baby sucked up twelve milliliters of formula instead of six. They called my husband and I “mom” and “dad.” We wanted to be good parents. Although I intended to reconcile using formula instead of breastmilk, I worried with every drop that slid down this throat or out of his mouth. Though my body grew him, it may never nourish him again.
The lactation consultant mentioned that mothers who undergo c-sections are less likely to breastfeed. Unsettled, I took to the Internet, searching for an answer to the unknown gaps of parenting. One theory is that the placenta expelling through a mother’s stomach rather than her vagina may not signal the hormones estrogen and progesterone to decrease quickly enough, which in turn, prevents the hormone prolactin from unblocking and allowing milk secretion. Immediate skin-to-skin contact with the mother after a baby’s birth releases oxytocin, and oxytocin improves milk production. Because I birthed my child through an unplanned c-section, the nurses took him from my body and set him on a sanitized table instead of on my chest. They spent the first several minutes of his life inspecting him before I held him, which bumped my son and I from the category of “immediate skin-to-skin” to “early skin-to-skin.” I read that any delay in skin-to-skin may lead to reduced suckling ability, less infant receptability, and less milk production. Those mothers and babies often experiencing a shortened breastfeeding journey.
I worried that those first few minutes—the ones I twisted my neck to see my baby who rested on the table instead of in my arms; those moments I ignored the anesthesiologist asking if I felt pressure or pain and instead craned for glimpses of my baby that only seconds ago lived inside of me—ruined any further chance of my body feeding him. Doctors pulled my son from me, but I longed to breastfeed him and maintain some form of bodily connection, to bridge his existence inside of me to his existence outside. Instead, I held a syringe to his lips, relieved when he finally stirred awake enough to suck.
A few hours after our son’s birth, one of the lactation specialists explained that the shape of my nipples may lead to an undersupply of milk. I sat bare chested in the hospital bed, a crying and hungry baby on my lap. She notified the head lactation consultant at the hospital of our situation. When the head specialist entered our room, she offered extra cream for my already sore nipples and promised to help me breastfeed. I flinched a little every time a new person stared at my breasts, uncomfortable with both my immodesty and their scrutiny. While I held my infant to my chest, the consultant adjusted my shoulders, and I twinged at her touch. Wincing with slightest movements, I held my breath to keep from yelling in pain. Finally, my baby latched for a few moments. I saw his lips sucking, pulling the milk from me for nourishment, our bodies connected, pulsing, beating. I felt like a real mother.
We practiced breastfeeding at the hospital, but we continued supplementing with formula. My baby spit up a lot. Perhaps he’d developed an allergy, we wondered, or maybe he had a particularly sensitive stomach. We never considered that we somehow spoiled his food. We tried different formula brands, yet it still bubbled down his chin in half-digested globs. My husband and I realized our mistake on the third day in the hospital, when one of the lactation consultants explained the volatileness of formula. If a baby’s mouth touched the syringe and the syringe then touched the formula, it contaminated the bottle. The formula must be transferred to a separate bottle to be warmed, or it contaminated the bottle. Unable to find language to inquire about long-term effects from contaminated formula, or the severity of excess spitting up, or question why none of the nurses or doctors or specialists helped us earlier, I only understood that the formula that I resented giving my baby in the first place made him sick.
After discovering the contaminated formula in the hospital, I committed to exclusively breastfeeding. He latched, though incorrectly, and I stayed quiet about the deep bruising or the sharp pangs of pain for weeks because I refused to risk using formula again. When I eventually divulged the tenderness to the lactation consultant, she provided more healing products and adjusted his latch. I nursed every hour, and my baby ate for an hour each time, my body unfolding nutrients again and again.
For months after his birth, milk consumed our lives. Lactation specialists checked on us at our home, boxes of unused emergency formula took up space in the cupboard, and tiny bottles of breastmilk filled the fridge. The electric pump rested on the nursing pillow as the main decor of the living room, and nipple shields, leak pads, bottles, prescription creams, and soothing gels covered every horizontal surface of our townhome.
My baby stayed small. For the first few months, he maintained in the zero percentile for weight. The pediatrician explained that I may need to feed him more, or, he suggested, I can supplement with formula again. I cried at home. I could not understand how my body—the body everyone kept telling me was miraculous for birthing a child and producing milk—was not helping offering him enough.
The lactation specialist knocked on our door again. She sat next to me on the couch, told me to relax, encouraged me to breathe. A mother’s stress may prevent oxytocin release and stop milk flow. I breathed slowly on the couch, though relaxing proved difficult knowing that my stress may impede my milk production. The consultant encouraged me to close my eyes and visualize the milk coming down. I kept my eyes closed and my breaths even. My child nursed easily and nuzzled into my chest. The consultant tested the fat content of my milk and found that my milk composition contained too few calories in the night. She suggested I eat a little more fat before bed. The more calories I ate, the more calories in my milk.
I swallowed a spoonful of peanut butter nightly, the desire to feed my baby outweighing the voice of anorexia I’d spent six years trying to silence. Years before I birthed my son, my life was engulfed by eating disorder hospitalization, therapy, doctor appointments, workbooks, journaling, and sticky notes of inspirational quotes and interventions. By the time I became a mother I ate, more or less, like an average person. To avoid the continual temptation to backslide into an anorexic relapse, I accounted for triggers and logged pictures of each meal and snack for my dietician, whom I still saw weekly. After years of anorexia, I was unsure whether I’d ever be able to conceive a baby at all. When the lactation specialist noted that my low-fat milk, I committed to eating anything for my baby, hoping to resist the urge to mask my new stresses of motherhood by restricting intake. I knew that an inability to consume the calories needed to help my baby gain weight likely meant a need to supplement with formula again for his health. I added another scoop of avocado to my toast and smeared it across bread.
Somewhere along the way, once my son finally began gaining weight, once he made it to the second percentile, once my evening peanut butter no longer startled me, once my nipples healed and my cesarean scar became less tender and he latched naturally and cooed and looked into my eyes while he nursed, I love feeding him. My milk sustained him, and he grew in my arms. We were both healthy and healing. We helped each other eat.
Many moments existed just between him and me. We sat alone together, in the dark, in his nursery. The uncertainty of pregnancy and the fear of his weight lived only in memory. By then, my child in my arms drinking my milk became our only predictable routine. We stayed awake for most of the night together. His eye lids flickered in the dark, and I watched him fall nearly asleep while he sucked. His sound machine hissed a white noise that sounded like ocean waves. I chose the ocean setting because I hoped that maybe one day we’d live by the water. Maybe when we did, he would hear the frothy whoosh of the waves and know that he was home.
He cried whenever he laid in his bassinet and not in my arms, and one night, after hours of rocking and cuddling only for him to wake again the moment his sheets held him instead of me, I relented and brought him to my bed. Doctors and blogs and friends all talked about the dangers of co-sleeping, and I followed every snippet of advice to keep my baby safe. Doctors and blogs and friends all discouraged nursing babies to sleep to avoid a dependency on needing milk to fall asleep and instead recommended offering the baby the gift of independence and self-soothing. But, in the middle of the night, when both my baby and I wailed from exhaustion, when I was so sleep deprived that I saw stars each time I lurched from bed, I gave in. I propped pillows around the mattress to prevent him from falling, wrapped him into my arms so that I physically could not roll over him, and then I let him suckle himself to sleep.
Lying with me, my son soothed immediately. He clutched my chest with his fingers, his small nails digging into my skin, a plea to never let him go, to hold him there, just like that, while life and time moved around us. That first night, I lay awake for hours, rehearsing images of him falling off the bed and me rolling onto him and SIDS and wondering how to keep my motherhood complacence a secret. I listened to podcasts and music, wrote poems in my head, looked through pictures on my phone, anything to keep me from falling asleep with my child beside me. I promised to place him in his bassinet the next night.
And yet, I loved it those hours together. He held his mouth against my breast all night, instantly calmed when he stirred and felt me there. His breath warmed my chest, and the tiny hairs on my sternum tickled from the touch.
Time chugged along, and my baby changed as he grew. He learned to sit for one minute at a time, then two. He moved by dragging his stomach along the carpet and pulling himself with his arms, and despite his initial clumsiness, within a few months he army crawled at shocking speeds. Amid constantly changing development leaps, feeding remained our consistency. Every two to three hours he cried or fussed or squirmed and only I, his mother, could comfort him. His huffing stopped the moment his lips grasped against me, he lowered his eyelids, his long eyelashes nearly dusting the tops of his cheeks and gulped as hard as he could. It embarrassed me at first, the gulping, other people hearing him consume his dinner. He kicked his toes out from the cover, crossing and uncrossing his ankles with each suck of milk. But the more apparent his satisfaction, the more I relied on it, on him. I could not sleep without his weight on my arm, our skin sweaty from touching. We depended on each other, mother and son.
Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as the “bonding hormone” and plays a major role in milk production. I didn’t know if it was the oxytocin, or the comfort of my finger tickling his soft belly while he ate, or the warmth of my skin against his lips, or the way he looked at me with his blue-gray baby eyes and long lashes, but both my baby and I preferred breastfeeding to bottle feeding. If offered a bottle of breastmilk, he clamped his lips and pushed the bottle away. He only drank from a bottle if someone other than me offered it to him, if I was out of sigh, away from home. During those absences my breasts filled with pressure and swelled, blue lightning veins darkening on my chest. When we were separated, my breasts became more engorged with each hour that passed, painfully full so that I could focus on nothing other than wishing for my baby. Some people experience fevers that lead to intense illness from breast engorgement, a mother’s body destroying itself, pleading for her child.
My brain missed my son when we spent time apart, and my body missed him too. The first time I left him for a couple of hours, I cried upon returning to him. Although he drank a full bottle of milk just minutes prior, he sucked immediately and we clung to each other, my chest pulsing. I tried to take a brief pause, switch breasts, but he flung his tiny arms against me, stopping me from moving, grabbing tighter with his mouth so that I could not let him go, not separate us, not even for a moment.
Aside from the brief stint of formula in the hospital, my body, and my body alone, sustained him completely for nearly fourteen months. For nine months of pregnancy, I gave my baby nutrients from every part of me—my teeth, my hair, my blood. After his birth, he exclusively nursed for four and a half months—every ounce he gained because of me, every spoonful of peanut butter I ate nourished him as well. I sustained him. I gave him life. And then, one day, oatmeal did.
I bit my lip while mixing the tablespoon of dry infant oatmeal into a couple tablespoons of my own milk. Perverting my own creation. Our pediatrician told us that at four-months-old he could begin eating whole food, though I postponed giving my son anything but me for a couple weeks. When I spooned the bit of oatmeal into his mouth, my husband recorded a video that I insisted we take for documentation. I celebrated when he swallowed his first bite, laughed at his grimace. We offered him a few more bites and after a couple of minutes of our son’s refusal, I took the spoon away. He was done. He hated it. We shouldn’t push something onto him that he wasn’t ready for, that I wasn’t ready for.
My baby grew to six months, then eight months, then ten-months-old. I slowly added more solid food into his diet, and with time, we both accepted his new form of eating. I fed him pieces of smashed avocado or banana and large pieces of bread for him to gum on. My milk transitioned from 100% of his diet, to 80%, to 50%. The role of solid food in his day transitioned from primarily a sensory experience, to supplementing nursing sessions, to complete snacks, to full meals. He preferred eating solid food with both hands and cheeks full, and he rolled food around in his mouth until it softened and then, when any food item resembled a disgusting blob of liquid, he swallowed. He breastfed after every meal to wash it all down.
By my son’s first birthday, he pinched full segments of orange between his thumb and pointer finger, then smashed them, open-palmed, into his mouth. He consumed most of an orange with this technique, sparing only bits of juice and stringy blobs of citrus that clung to his face, the highchair, and the floor. The bottom of our bathtub was seemingly permanently stained with tiny, tear-shaped juice vesicles. He ate full oranges in one sitting. Now, he ate solid food multiple times a day.
After his birth, I’d hoped to breastfeed until his first birthday. I assumed that after one year I would want my body back, my baby would no longer enjoy breastfeeding, and weaning would naturally transition him from infant to toddler. Yet with the arrival of his birthday, I’d come to terms with him eating solid food in addition to breastmilk, but I dreaded weaning.
Nursing a one-year-old was different than breastfeeding a newborn. He beamed, laughed, and clapped while drinking, and he unlatched out of distraction rather than sleepiness. I breastfed him less often—I no longer became engorged after a couple hours, and strawberries and oranges soothed him almost as well as milk did.
Our doctor told us that once our child turned one, he may drink whole milk if we chose. I delayed this possibility for six more weeks. The nutrients in my milk shifted with my baby’s needs—the vitamins fluctuated with his health and his age. When he sniffled from his first cold, my body changed for his and helped him recover quicker. The caloric value of my milk was highest in the mornings, the time he required the most nutrients. My milk fluctuated for my child, and the nutrition content adjusted in as little as a couple hours to match his current body. My body grew for him, shrunk for him, anticipated his next need, and created him out of myself. He only needed my milk. Not pasteurized milk in a jug from a cow that didn’t love him or know him, milk meant for a baby other than mine.
My hands shook a little as I poured the whole milk into a bottle. I only filled the bottle half full; I didn’t want to overwhelm him with more than two ounces of milk, and I expected him to only taste it and refuse to drink more.
I laid my son against my lap, the same way he lay when he nursed, and propped the bottle into his mouth. His eyes widened and then his eyebrows scrunched as he sipped, trying to decipher the taste. He chewed on the bottle’s plastic nipple rather than drinking, exploring the texture. And then, he pushed the bottle away, opened his mouth, and I knew he wanted my milk. I smiled, exhaled, felt chosen. But after a moment he turned from my breast and grabbed the bottle. He looked at me, then lowered his eyelids, his long eyelashes nearly dusting the tops of his cheeks and gulped as hard as he could. He slurped both ounces. I held him and his bottle in my arms, feeling betrayed but also a little silly for feeling betrayed, knowing that a good mother would welcome new developmental leaps and experiences for her child. Then I wept.
Although I knew that our breastfeeding journey continued beyond his drinking a bottle of whole milk—I still nursed him half a dozen times a day—I recognized the natural step toward weaning. Because soon, although I didn’t know if it would be weeks or months from then, the ducts in my chest would stop contracting, the veins sinking deeper into my skin, my breasts would shrink, and my body would not know my son’s needs before my brain. He would live as a being surviving without my blood, without my milk. A being who needed my nurturing and protection and curiosity, but not my body.
People often tell me that I don’t look like I had a baby, always meant to flatter me, but I grieve that my baby’s presence has slid from my body. The linea nigra faded, though I cannot remember when it dimmed from dark to light to missing. Even my cesarian scar settles across my abdomen a modest pink and not an angry red. I lost the pregnancy weight, and then some. Weight keeps slipping off, my body separating further and further from the one that carried my son. I tell my dietician that my weight loss happens unintentionally—that, at least consciously, I dodge the race to attain the impossible “pre-pregnancy body.” I’m eating, I promise her and everyone around me who is startled by my rapid weight loss. They believe me, though with wary. Everyone holds their breath, quietly suspicious that motherhood changing my body will trigger an anorexic relapse. Sometimes I think about what will happen when I stop nursing—worry that I’ll struggle nourishing my body just for own belly again. And yet, I cling to the motherhood showing on my being. My body nourishes my baby, and the bond of our connected bodies nourishes me. I resist my body changing. I resist the disappearance of the visual representation of our nourishment. I’m not ready to let go.
Soon, our bodies’ connection will end. Food will solely sustain his belly instead of me. Only one year into my mothering journey and I already see how much of parenting requires a continual physical act of letting go. Before his birth, my child tried to let go of my body too soon. I went into premature labor with him at thirty-four weeks and four days pregnant. Our bodies were ready too early. He’d showed no previous signs of early arrival, yet at 4am in the hospital, with a partially dilated cervix, the doctor and nurses told me to prepare to meet my baby. Miraculously, they postponed active labor with medicine. The contractions continued for weeks, but my baby stayed inside my womb. Two weeks later, active labor returned, though this time my child stuck against my pelvis, unable to budge for hours. A large deep bruise covered his forehead at birth, proof of his struggle. The same infant who nearly arrived six weeks early demanded to be cut out of me because of an inability to separate his body from mine. Our bodies held on tight to each other before his birth, but eventually, through external force, we both let go. Now, multiple times a day he latches onto me, and we stay for a while, existing and nourishing together, just like we did those hours he refused to be born. Tomorrow or next month or next year, my son will breastfeed for the last time. He will let go and never latch back on. We’ll decide together that it's time for our bodies to pull apart. And then we’ll find another way, my son and I, to hold each other, before we release again.