I was sitting in the lactation consultant’s office after my daughter’s birth, and I was crying. Debbie, a registered nurse, has already looked at my bruised, scabby nipples and uttered the exact right amount of sympathetic sounds. The nurses at the hospital, who were otherwise wonderful, had fitted me with pumping flanges that were several sizes too small, and not provided anything in the way of lubrication, so after one vigorous pumping, my areolas are covered in blisters. I actually peeled some of the blisters off when removing my bra, and the pain was excruciating.
Debbie fit me with larger flanges for my “extra-large nipples” and explained that I had a lot working against me. As a redhead, I have sensitive skin that my baby can easily bruise with one enthusiastic feeding. I had previously been unaware that my nipples were anything worthy of the Guinness Book of World Records, but apparently they are enormous by most standards. To compound matters, my little baby has a particularly small mouth.
“What a little rosebud!” everyone exclaims when they see her little lips pursed together. I don’t feel like an ogre at all, in case you were wondering. No sir, having nipples too big for an infant’s mouth is a GREAT feeling.
I’m an older first-time mother, at age 35, and older women commonly experience problems getting their milk in. I have thyroid problems, which can also affect milk production. The lactation consultant lists out these factors, these perfect excuses as to why I am unable to produce more than a few paltry drops of breast milk per feeding, and she is meaning to make me feel better, but all I can feel is failure pressing down on me.
The lactation consultant wants me to take tons of Fenugreek every day, and to pump my breasts at least 9-10 times per day. That’s roughly five hours out of every day if you consider prep, pumping, and clean-up. Five hours during which I can’t really hold my baby or even really interact with her, because I have to pump in the quiet of my bedroom so as not to make visiting family uncomfortable.
“If you pump 10 times per day, your milk might come in within 9 to 15 weeks,” says Debbie. “I wouldn’t stop pumping before 15 weeks are up.” I do some quick math. That’s 525 hours of pumping.
“The more you pump, the more milk you produce!” says Debbie, but that doesn’t appear to be the case for me.
Debbie shows us how to get a good latch with the baby, which is no small feat, and we buy a lactation pillow and bottles of Fenugreek and blessed thistle that Debbie says will make me smell like artificial maple syrup, but which actually make me smell like the inside of an Indian grocery store.
There are dozens of reasons why a woman might have trouble producing adequate amounts of breast milk. Advanced age is one. Thyroid problems are another. Delivery via Cesarean section can delay breast milk production. Oh, look, I’ve hit the goddamn trifecta.
Later my husband and I are driving home from the lactation consultant’s office. We’re stuck on busy 405 North, and my husband, who still has functioning brain cells nearly a week into parenthood, is telling me that being a good mother has nothing to do with breastfeeding.
“Just look at Aunt Hilda,” he says. “She breastfed all of her children, and none of them are talking to her now because she’s a horrible person who makes them feel bad about themselves. Your relationship with our daughter will be forged in your interactions with her, and that’s not defined by which type of nipple she has in her mouth.”
I nod, realizing that his point is valid. After all, our daughter has been on formula since she was born, when we had to feed it to her moments after birth to get her blood sugar back up. As far as I can tell, she recognizes us as her parents.
I have never liked my boobs. They aren’t particularly perky, although they don’t drop to my knees either. They aren’t the kinds of boobs that make people sit up and take notice. My nipples are kind of lazy, only showing themselves as distinct parts when they are pinched, suckled, or exposed to the cold.
More importantly, my breasts have never offered me anything in the way of sexual pleasure. Most women I know enjoy having their breasts touched. I don’t. I mean, I don’t actively dissuade my husband from playing with my breasts, but the process really does nothing for me. If you want to see me shudder with pleasure, tickle my neck. But don’t bother with my boobs. They just lack the pleasure receptors needed to make them useful as sexual objects.
That’s part of what makes my inability to sufficiently breastfeed all the more galling. My boobs don’t look good. They don’t feel good. The least that they could do is fulfill their biological imperative, which is to adequately nourish an infant. And they can’t even do that. My right breast, which is usually the larger of the two, produces no more than two or three drops of milk per feeding.
I’m shocked at how much formula costs. I’m also shocked at how much I am spending to try to breastfeed, largely unsuccessfully. I pay $100 to rent a hospital-grade breast pump, having been told by the lactation consultant that my Medela Pump in Style won’t do the trick. I take $20 worth of Fenugreek capsules and $30 worth of Blessed Thistle pills per month. Then there’s the Reglan prescription. There’s the steroid cream for my nipples, compounded by a local pharmacy for $40. There are the gel inserts that offer relief to my cracked nipples at $14 for a five day supply. I haven’t even bothered buying a nursing bra — I just can’t afford it at the moment.
There are the one-time costs. The nursing pillow and covers. The pump and all of its attachments. The pumping bra. The storage bottles and sterilizing equipment.
A friend of mine asked me a few days before I gave birth if I intended to breastfeed. I told her that I did, although that if I couldn’t for any reason, I wouldn’t feel bad about it. That’s because I never suspected for a second that I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed. After all, so much of my pregnancy had progressed just like my own mother’s — and my mother had breastfed both of us kids with nary a problem.
It’s our pediatrician who finally talks me down from the ledge. She asks how breastfeeding is going, and I tell her it’s really not.
“You know, I had trouble with breast milk when my daughter was born,” she says, “and they had me pumping ten times a day. At one point, I was pumping milk while my baby was lying on the floor beside me, screaming, and I couldn’t really pick her up because of the pumping apparatus. I finally decided that if the choice was between breast milk and paying attention to my baby, I was going to choose the baby.”
I barely pump anymore, although I can still feed my baby about an ounce of breast milk from one breast every other feeding or so. I’ve given up on my right breast — she’s such an underachiever. I’ll keep taking the prescriptions and supplements and keep hoping that I’m giving my baby girl SOME antibodies and nutrients, but for the most part, my child is fed, and yes nourished, by formula.
Like millions of other kids, who all grew up just fine.