The Accidental Lactivists
The Breast Whisperer was at our door. It was day two home from the hospital after the birth of my first child, and no amount of reading or lactation class preparation could have readied me for the elusiveness of “the latch.” I had a small coterie around me: my parents, my husband, and squirming in my arms, my baby daughter. My father let her in, the city’s number one Lactation Consultant; she brought a “hospital grade” breast pump with her into our daughter’s room.
Having recently abandoned any sense of nursing bashfulness in front of my father, I struggled to hold my baby while balanced on an inflatable donut pillow on the seat of the glider chair. I hoped, in my sleep deprived haze that someone in the room would take notes on how to use this new machine.
After a natural birthing class, my husband and I had decided to go “all in” with exclusive breastfeeding for as long as I was able. But the “alwaysness” of breastfeeding on demand had been staggeringly exhausting. My own mother was sympathetic to my plight, but she had never used a breast pump herself, and didn’t have tips to share.
The first night at the hospital after our daughter’s birth, my husband sat alone on a glider, in the hospital nursery, chatting with the nurses and letting our baby suck on his thumb (a technique suggested by our birthing instructor). She fussed in his helpless arms but he held firm, telling the nurses we didn’t want to introduce formula, or a pacifier, for that matter, while I caught up on a few hours sleep ready to try again to nurse as dawn arrived.
Learning to breastfeed was difficult. Repeated tries with an improper latch had left me so sore it was painful to continue trying, but I tried with my Medela pump to extract enough milk to keep my supply from dwindling. For those few days prior to our Lactation Expert visit, my husband learned to feed my milk to our tiny one with a hooked syringe and, again, his thumb in between my attempts to let her nurse. She was like a small baby bird drinking from a beak.
That afternoon, the Breast Whisperer explained how to use the new, mint green contraption, which we then rented for a few months—it looked harmless, in all its pastel glory. Soon I was in the groove, producing an ample supply of milk.
Fear of the painful latch, however, threatened to thwart even my best attempts to breastfeed. I tried to tolerate my daughter’s nursing, even as I was nursing my own raw anatomy, with my husband crouched at my side. He tried to distract me by reading poems of Wallace Stevens. Those tender moments are some of my most cherished parenting memories.
My own dad was a different story. With my husband at work, my sister living overseas and my mother traveling, my retired father volunteered to come over every few days and spend time with me and the new baby—he’d hold the baby so I could pump, sit with her while I ate or keep her company while I got some much needed sleep.
When our daughter was five months old, a hurricane blew through town, knocking the power out in our suburb. We had decamped to the city for a few days, where luckily, there was still power. But most of my hard won milk was in our freezer at home. Fretting over the spoiled milk, my husband drove back in the horrible weather—with a cooler—and he brought back the milk stash, on ice. My knight in rain-soaked boots.
It’s easy to look back on these mammary memories now, sometimes in amusement. I didn’t know about thrush, how a nursing mother’s diet could affect the baby, about hand expressing or clogged ducts. So much is thrown at women at the critical juncture of birth and feeding, and there aren’t always supportive people around who advocate not to give up.
Lucky for me, the two most important men in my life kept me going until my daughter and I hit our stride and became a super breastfeeding duo. These amazing Dads taught me that sometimes men are the silent force behind the woman, stepping in when needed. I nursed our daughter until she was two and a half because of their early encouragement. Even though she was no longer the tiny infant, the glider was our favorite spot during those final years of nursing. It was also the place where I could reflect on the love that came from an early bond we all carefully nurtured, and created together.
Mira Saxena has read many an issue of Brain, Child with a sleeping baby in her arms. She writes often on parenting and motherhood and lives with her husband and two daughters in Washington, DC.