The Boob Tube
By Susan Vaughan Moshofsky
“Your nipples are inverted,” the nurse announced as she eyed me. Sitting in my hospital bed the day after I delivered Rachel, our first child, I hoisted each gargantuan breast into position to help our daughter “latch on.” At one day old, it seemed she’d sprouted teeth. I gritted mine through each brief breastfeeding session.
“You’ll need these,” the nurse explained as she handed me two clear, plastic nipple shields. Shaped like three-inch-diameter spaceships, their purpose was to help draw out my nipples, she explained while stuffing the little ships inside my nursing bra. Pre-pregnancy, I was a full-breasted woman. Now, I was practically a size 46 GGG: Wonder Woman without the waistline. At least with those qualifications, I knew I’d have no trouble breastfeeding.
Or so I thought. On my second day in the hospital, the nurse worried that Rachel was getting little, if any, milk, so she suggested formula supplementation. I refused, determined to succeed. New mom though I was, I knew that supplementing was the Dark Side. Would prevent bonding. A sure-fire way to shave off a few IQ points. A failure.
“Try tea bags,” one nurse suggested. I looked at her quizzically. “It helps with the pain,” she explained. Several cups of tea later, I dutifully applied the cooled tea bags to my nipples after each abortive attempt at nursing. After the tea bags grew cold, I replaced them with the nipple shields to make my introverts more extroverted. Another nurse demonstrated the “football hold,” but even that didn’t help. A few friends who visited shared their breastfeeding advice. “Oh, I could never get that close to my child if it was nursing time,” one friend reported. “My milk would let down all over the front of my shirt.”
Another asked, “Don’t your breasts hurt just before it’s time to feed your baby?” I rolled my eyes. They hurt all the time. Now I knew: breastfeeding is the female peeing contest.
By the third day, I had to admit my failure to the nurses, my OB/GYN, the pediatrician, visiting friends, and extended family. Could being discharged from the hospital help? Surely, breastfeeding would be more natural in the privacy of my own home.
But I was wrong about that, too. After a few more days of painful, home nursing sessions broken only by applications of cold tea bags, icepacks to the chest, and wearing the plastic spaceships, it was clear I would not be invited into the LaLeche League.
When Brett, my husband, insisted we call the doctor, sure it shouldn’t be this hard, our pediatrician warned that if Rachel didn’t have enough wet diapers, we should bring her in to his office. There, the doctor suggested we supplement with water until my milk came in. But a couple of days later, she seemed even hungrier—and angrier. And nursing hurt more than ever. It was time for formula and a lactation specialist, the doctor explained.
The specialist prescribed a Supplemental Nursing System, a contraption designed to stimulate milk production. The largest part of the device was an eight-ounce plastic bottle suspended upside down from a white, cordlike “necklace.” Two 1/16-inch surgical feeding tubes dangled from the neck of the bottle, each tube taped to a nipple. Rachel would nurse “normally” (if one could consider this getup normal) but would get formula from the tubes as her suckling stimulated milk production to such proportions that the contraption would soon no longer be necessary. Being rid of this “boob tube,” then, became my goal—every feeding, every day, for three long months.
Parenting books had pronounced nursing such a convenience: one could meet the baby’s need at any moment and in any location! Not with the boob tube! Before each feeding, I had to sterilize all parts of the apparatus by boiling them in a pot, fill the bottle with formula (after preparing that), remove my shirt and bra, dangle the bottle around my neck, get out the tape, tape a feeding tube to each nipple, grab Rachel, now purple-faced and screaming, from a helpless-looking Brett, hoist up a nipple, and finally, position her so she could latch on—over seven or eight times a day. No discreet feedings for me! I went almost nowhere unless I was guaranteed a private room.
After a few weeks with the boob tube, it appeared Rachel was taking less formula each day, but the lactation specialist felt we weren’t progressing quickly enough. To further stimulate milk production, she prescribed three-times-a-day hookups to a mechanical breast pump. Why not? We certainly weren’t entertaining guests under these circumstances! My life at the time was drinking tea so I could put the used tea bags on my nipples, wearing the Amazon-woman nipple shields, and looking like a permanent ad for a 48-hour bra. Add the seven or eight 45-minute boob tube feedings plus the thrice-daily breast-pump sessions, and I felt real sympathy for cows in dairies.
To pass the time one night while hooked up to the breast pump, I watched the movie “Frankenstein” with Brett. I felt like a freak myself, sitting on the couch, the funnel-shaped cone attached to my breast, and the hum of the pump’s motor muffling the creature’s roar in the movie. During a commercial, I reached proudly for the milk container to show Brett how much I’d produced (two ounces of milk after two hours of pumping!!)—and clumsily knocked it over. I watched helplessly as the precious liquid spilled onto the carpet. I know what it means to cry over spilled milk.
Desperate to reclaim any vestiges of self-respect I still had at the time, I vowed not to become some bathrobed slob, hair in curlers with nothing more to say at the end of the day than, “I fed the baby today, dear.” Though that’s all I did, I took pains to get dressed every day before Brett left for work. Then I’d boil the boob tube, prepare the day’s formula, and wait for Rachel to wake up so I could begin the arduous task of feeding her.
One morning I put the boob tube into the pot as usual, started the water to boil and headed downstairs to get dressed, but it was so cold, I decided to climb back into bed for just a few minutes. It had snowed the night before, and the heat hadn’t come on yet. Rachel was still asleep; the chilly house was peaceful and quiet. My plan: get warm under the covers while the boob tube was being sterilized, then run back upstairs and perform the morning feeding once the house had warmed up. Three months into this project, the lactation specialist now estimated Rachel was getting 80 percent of her nutrition from my breast milk—only 20 percent from the formula in the boob tube! With only 20 percent to go, I was determined to make the grade. But weeks of sleep deprivation pulled me into a deep slumber.
I woke to the smell of smoke. Racing upstairs through a gray fog, I rounded the corner to the kitchen, expecting flames. Instead, a black cloud billowed from the pot glowing on the hot burner. Grabbing the pot’s handle, I shoved open the deck door and sank the pot into the four inches of snow outside. I flung open every door and window and darted downstairs to find Rachel sleeping, oblivious to the danger.
I ran back upstairs, worried about the pot sitting on our wooden deck. It had melted all the snow it sat on. I looked inside the pot for the boob tube: nothing. Thinking the contraption had fallen out of the pot in my hurry, I retraced my steps but again found nothing. The boob tube must have melted; the black smoke, its cremation.
Without the boob tube, I couldn’t give Rachel enough breast milk. All my efforts would be wasted! I’d have to get a new device! And with the delay the snow might cause, I’d never get to the 100 percent point now, if it had ever been possible.
I squinted into the pot as if to find some insight. There, etched indelibly into the now-distended bottom of the pot was the word “Medela,” the brand name of the boob tube, and all that was left of the three months of turmoil.
Now it was clear. If ever I’d needed a sign to set me free from the prison of straps and tubes, free from the dread of hearing Rachel’s cry to be fed, this was it.
I reached into the cupboard for the formula and the one bottle we owned, feeling such relief. No more boob tube! No more hermitlike seclusion, sequestered away with Rachel and this odd contraption! I could now feed her with the bottle I’d been avoiding all along. Freed of the boob tube and the terrible mother-guilt that prodded me to exceed the limits of reason in my quest to properly nourish our child, I began to enjoy feeding her. No more wasted bonding time getting her “hooked up.” No more purple-faced, screaming baby. No more days measured by ounces, caught up in a competition with no winners.
Author’s Note: While I’m proud that I tried to breastfeed our daughter, it took burning up the boob tube to show me that motherhood is not a competition. I didn’t need to jeopardize my bonding with my baby just to prove that I could breastfeed, as if I were in some kind of Mom Olympics. Being freed of the boob tube helped me start that bittersweet journey of motherhood—that letting go of what I think is best to make room for what is truly needed.
Susan Vaughan Moshofsky is a mother, teacher, and writer who lives with her family of five in Portland. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child, Huffington Post, The Oregonian, and Seattle’s Child.