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Failing at Feeding

By Paige Schilt

0-23Over the past forty years, I have achieved a number of failures. I’m not married to my first husband. I never became a tenured professor. I can’t play the guitar. However, none of these disappointments has the same sting as the failure to breastfeed my son for the recommended minimum of six months.

It comes back to me, as undigested humiliations tend to do, whenever I hear a conversation or read an article by a mother who’s reluctant to wean at one year … or two … or three … I couldn’t do that, I think, and my cheeks get hot and my stomach feels like I’m at the top of a rollercoaster.

My baby is now a hale and healthy tween, so why should breastfeeding still have such power over me?

In “The Case Against Breastfeeding,” Hanna Rosin argues that, in certain “overachieving circles,” a woman who doesn’t breastfeed for at least six months falls into “the class of mom who, in a pinch, might feed her baby mashed-up Chicken McNuggets.”

I recognize Rosin’s overachieving mom and her nugget-happy counterpart from the rogue’s gallery of maternal stereotypes. Like the welfare queen and the soccer mom, these familiar characters speak of race and class without naming social inequality. Like the stroller-pushing celebrity mom and the trailer park teen mom, these heroes and villains mark the boundaries of acceptable maternal behavior.

As an educated, middle-class white woman, I came to parenthood well-versed in breastfeeding literature and poised to join the golden circle of good motherhood. However, as a lesbian mom-to-be, I understood the instability of my status. Plenty of people would judge me for bringing a baby into a family structure that was (to quote Justice Scalia) newer than “cell phones or the Internet.” In their eyes, my desire to create a queer family was just as irresponsible as a woman who fed her baby McNuggets. Thus, before the first drop of milk dripped (or failed to drip) from my breast, the pump was primed for maternal shame.

 *   *   *

When Katy and I brought baby Waylon home from the hospital, my breasts had swollen to the size of grapefruits.  Our friend Ann, mother of three, ordered me into the shower to relieve engorgement. Then she tucked me into clean sheets and placed Waylon against my side like a fragile football.  As I struggled to connect his eager mouth to my nipple, Ann regaled me with stories of her own nursing days:

“I could shoot my husband with a stream of milk from ten feet away!” she crowed.

I doubted that I would be able to perform feats of milky athleticism. I am an angular person. I have a pointy nose, bony clavicles, and small, sharp breasts.  Prior to pregnancy, I could just barely fill a size 34A bra. I have never had the sense of abundance that I imagine to be the birthright of women with ample bosoms.

As the days passed, I nursed Waylon in every conceivable position at every conceivable time of day. A stack of books about breastfeeding towered at the side of the bed. When I wasn’t gazing at his sweet, round moonface, I was balancing a book on my knee and studying the sensation of “let-down,” when the baby’s sucking stimulates the milk glands to release milk in a steady flow.  Is this it? I asked, second-guessing every twinge and prickle.

At night, while Waylon slept beside us, I whispered secret fears. It’s not working.  He’s not getting enough. Katy tried to provide comfort. “You’re getting the hang of it” she said. “These are normal fears.” she said. “If he were hungry, he’d let us know.

Indeed, Waylon’s cries were insistent but moderate. He slept long hours for a newborn: five or six at a stretch. When he was awake, he had a habit of furrowing his brow and making his mouth into a little “o,” like a tiny Zen master.

But when I looked at him, he seemed to be shrinking in tiny increments that were discernable only to me.

At his check-up, Waylon had lost three ounces. I confessed my concerns to the pediatrician and was personally escorted across the medical center to the breastfeeding specialist, as if I posed a flight risk.

The nurse escort kindly offered to carry my diaper bag.  I trailed a few feet behind her, clutching Waylon to my chest and schlepping his empty infant carrier with my free arm.  With every step, the carrier bumped against my leg, making my progress slow and lurching. When the nurse stopped to wait for me, I was humiliated and yet strangely relieved. Now that my incompetence was known to the world, help would surely follow.

 *   *   *

The lactation specialist was a white-haired hippie named Robbie. Her office was festooned with calico quilts and needlepoint aphorisms about the joys of motherhood. She assured me that lots of babies have trouble latching on and invited me to nurse Waylon on her homey couch.  I obediently demonstrated a variety of holds.  In each position, Waylon sucked enthusiastically at first and then lost interest.

Robbie connected my breasts to the hard plastic cups of a breast pump.  She set the machine on low, then switched it to medium, frowning as she watched my milk dribble out. Finally, she asked permission to turn the wheezing machine all the way up. After 30 minutes of vigorous pumping, during which I mourned the perkiness of my modest bosom, she switched the machine off. I had produced a paltry four ounces of milk.

While Robbie outlined a detailed plan of frequent pumping between feedings, her helper fed Waylon a bottle of milk mixed with formula. I felt panicky, out-of-control. But this was no time to raise political objections about the medicalization of motherhood. Waylon sucked down the formula like a starving man and cried for more. After days of private calm, he was publicly ravenous.

 *   *   *

My doctor prescribed pills to increase my milk supply. For some reason, they had to be ordered from an Internet pharmacy in New Zealand.  I did not quibble, nor did I torture myself with Google searches of possible side effects.  I ordered that shit, whatever it was, and I took it religiously.

As per Robbie’s instructions, I pumped four times a day and nursed Waylon in between times. With the help of the mystery pills, I might, on a good day, produce eight ounces of milk in one sitting. Other moms had freezers full of eight ounce bottles.  They swapped stories about leaking milk in meetings, rushing home from errands to relieve their aching breasts with blissful nursing.  I nodded my head like I knew what they were talking about.

The new mother support group met at a member’s house, a quaint little cottage that had grown a two-story addition on its rear end.  The cheerful hostess greeted each woman in the foyer and ushered us down a long passageway into her earth-toned living room.

I claimed a spot on the gleaming wood floor and arranged Waylon’s toys on his play mat, hoping he wouldn’t be crabby or restless.  I knew that breast would be the pacifier du jour, but Waylon was increasingly accustomed to the bottle, which delivered milk quickly and reliably.  At three months, he had become a picky, impatient nurser.

I hadn’t yet decided whether to divulge my breastfeeding struggles, but I was encouraged by the mood of barely concealed desperation. Above the hummus and olive tray, the air was heavy with expectation—as  if, at any moment, the conversation would change from car seats and diapers to something very raw and poignant.

My sisters! I thought.

Then somebody opened the floodgates.

He hands her back to me whenever she’s fussy!”

“I left him alone with Bobby for three hours, and he watched television the whole time!”

“I just don’t know how long I can go on like this—he acts like he doesn’t know how to do anything.”

He sleeps through the night! While I’m awake with the baby!”

Husbands. The angst that I had sensed below the surface was about husbands!

My internal sensor hovered between alienated and smug.

I was disappointed to be outside of the conversation and yet glad not to share this particular problem. My wife called herself the “lesbian baby whisperer.” She prided herself on the ability to soothe Waylon to sleep. She had changed her schedule to stay home with him in the mornings, so that I could go back to work. The fact that I was pumping and supplementing with formula meant that we could split the feedings. When Katy gave Waylon a bottle, he snuggled against her chest and gazed into her face.  His fist clutched a lock of her long hair.

*   *   *

At four months, I drank Mother’s Milk tea until I felt like fenugreek was oozing from my pores. I tried relaxation, meditation, and visualization.  I ate more.  I ate oats and barley. I tried in vain to sleep more.

At the pediatrician’s office, a nurse quizzed me about Waylon’s eating habits.  “Still breastfeeding, right?”

I nodded vigorously, even as a lump formed in my throat.

“How many ounces a day, on average?”

I did the math out loud and quickly added, “I have to supplement with formula. I don’t have enough milk.” My voice sounded like a squeak.

The nurse made a note in Waylon’s file.  I wondered if she believed me, or if she was writing me off as a shirker. “Well,” she said, “breast is best, especially for the first six months. It builds his immune system.”

“Yes,” I said, “I know.”

Originally I had planned to nurse for at least a year. Now the nurse’s six month minimum loomed in my mind, an imaginary milestone that would save me from being a total fuck-up.

Then, at five and a half months, I got a cold.  It wasn’t a particularly terrible cold, but I felt so tired that I decided to skip the half hour of pumping that I usually did just before bed.  The next morning, when I woke up, my breasts weren’t engorged.  I nursed Waylon as usual, but—as I still wasn’t feeling good, I decided to skip the mid-morning pumping session in my office. Freedom felt so great that I skipped lunchtime and mid-afternoon too. When I nursed Waylon that night, he was restless.  I could tell that only a little milk was coming out, so I switched to a bottle. After months of feverish effort, I didn’t have the energy to keep going.

Thus it was that breastfeeding went out, not with a bang or a whimper. The failure I feared had come to pass, and I was surprised to feel relieved. Occasional bouts of shame were balanced by the knowledge that my connection to Waylon was sweeter, less stressed. We developed a ritual called “skin-on-skin,” where Waylon would lie on my belly or Katy’s belly to cuddle.  As I stroked his back in small circles, I could feel the good maternal hormones, the happiness of breathing as one, the touch that was helping my baby thrive and grow.

A month later, I was talking to my young friend Lynzee. She and her six-week-old baby were living with Lynzee’s mom. In order to provide for the baby, Lynzee had recently returned to work as a cashier at Home Depot. “How’s breastfeeding going?” I asked.

As soon as the question was out of my mouth, I regretted it.

“Well…” she said, looking away, “breastfeeding’s hard.”

Surely there is someone who knows how to give a breastfeeding pep talk without shaming the recipient. I just haven’t met her yet. In my experience, the laundry list of things-you-could-try can easily become a litany of reproach. For a moment, I felt tempted to launch into a speech about infantile brain development and good antibodies. But I stopped myself.

“Yeah,” I said, “I know.”

Paige Schilt is a writer and activist from Austin, Texas. Her blog,, chronicles the adventures of a gay, transgender, rock-n-roll family raising a son in the South.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

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