On Car Seats And Crisis

On Car Seats And Crisis

A father putting his baby daughter into her car seat in the car

By B.J. Hollars

In the days leading up to the big event, we received a letter from our sanitation service informing us that Bulk Item Pickup Day was just around the corner. My eyes widened at the news.

In my list of annual celebratory events, “Bulk Item Pickup Day” ranks high, second only to Christmas. And in some ways, it’s surpasses Christmas; rather than receive a bunch of garbage, we get to hurl a bit of it back..

Immediately, I take to the house to prioritize my junk. Which bulk item will I rid us of forever? I wonder. The half-broken bookshelf seems a logical choice, as does the ancient rocking chair. But moments later, as I make a sweep of the garage, my eyes fall upon another item, one I’ve long known would eventually end up on the curb.

It’s my children’s former car seat, a 2012 Graco something-or-other, complete with all the accouterment you’d expect of a 21st century “travel system”—straps, clips, harnesses, all of which, I assume, have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities I’d never quite mastered.

Frankly, I’m impressed I even mastered the buckles. After all, in the days leading up to my son’s birth—back when I was still practice-swaddling his stuffed animals and color coordinating his future bibs—I’d dedicated more than a little time working through the intricacies of that car seat. Yet my preparation hardly spared me from my recurring nightmare, one in which, upon leaving the hospital with our son in tow, I found myself baffled by the tangle of harnesses stretched before me, all of which constricted and elongated in the precise opposite manner I wanted them to. In my dream, it was the car seat equivalent of a Rubik’s cube, a contraption meant to make the user go mad.

Four years removed from the real-life version of that drive home, I find myself staring at the crumb-caked seat—reflecting on the miles logged, the trips endured, the many journeys we took together.

This was, after all, the seat that transported our son to Niagara Falls and our daughter to Duluth, the seat that carted them on endless loops to the library, the children’s museum, and the park.

How many holidays had our children sat strapped in their seat as we drove through the rain and the snow in our efforts to spend some time with our families? And when, I wonder, did we use this seat for the last time?

As best as I recall, that seat has been gathering dust for months, the result of a car seat upgrade for my son, which in turn led to a second-hand seat upgrade for my daughter. Since we have no third child—and there are no plans for one—we have no need for the third seat. And so, I sent it out to proverbial pasture (read: chucked it in the garage) and then conveniently forgot all about it. That is, until “Bulk Item Day” forced us to remember, to ponder, at least for a moment, how our lives might change if we had someone to fill that seat.

Though I’m willing to let the seat go, I have a harder time giving up what it represents: confirmation, at least for me, that there will be no third child, no future need for our second-hand-hand-me down-seat.

It’s just a bulk item, I think as I walk it to the curb. Just some garbage that needs to go.

But I don’t fool myself for a second.

That night, at around 3:00a.m., I wake to my dog’s full bladder. I hear her scratching at the bed, signaling me to rise, groan, and begin my zombie walk toward the front door. I leash her, give her ample time to do her business, and as we turn back toward the house I spot the empty car seat aglow beneath the streetlamp. The sentimental father in me is compelled to give it one last look, to run my hand over its plastic one last time just to remember the feel.

Between the first buckle and the last, I’d grown adept at my buckling skills, the result of the unspoken agreement between me and the seat: as long as I obeyed the owners manual it wouldn’t go out of its way to emasculate me on principle. It was an arrangement that satisfied both parties, ensuring not only my children’s safety, but my pride as well.

“Come on, girl,” I say to the dog as she gives one last sniff to the car seat’s crevices in search of wayward Cheerios. She’s rewarded for her efforts, granting her one last meal courtesy of my children’s shared inability to hold tight to a grainy ring.

“Come on,” I repeat. “Leave it.”

There, under the glow of that streetlamp, it’s all I can do to pull her away from that seat.

All I can do to pull either of us away.

B.J. Hollars is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. He the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit: http://www.bjhollars.com


The Best Parenting Advice I’ve Heard

The Best Parenting Advice I’ve Heard

Mother With Baby Suffering From Post Natal Depression

By Julie Vick

When my first son was a few months old, I was bouncing him on an exercise ball at 3:00 a.m. to try and get him back to sleep. It was the third time I had been up with him that night, and I was scrolling through an online parenting board on my phone reading posts from others in the same predicament. There were plenty of people lamenting their situations, but one post said, “Just cherish every moment, they won’t be that little for long.”

I understand where such thoughts are coming from, but reading them on a discussion board in the middle of the night only added fuel to my sleep deprived fire. I was going on three months where I had not slept more than a four hour stretch at a time, and even those four hour stretches were a rarity.

The humor and adrenaline that had carried me through the first weeks with a newborn was waning and the reality of my fragmented and sparse sleep was setting in. My mind felt fuzzy and jumbled during the day and my husband and I had both logged enough hours bouncing our baby on an exercise ball at night to earn us a spot in the Guinness World Records book for ball bouncing between the hours of midnight and 4:00 a.m.

I could have arguably stayed off my smartphone during these late night sessions (and one piece of advice I read indicated the light from the screen may be disrupting my baby’s sleep), but I found it comforting to connect with a web of other sleep-deprived parents in the same situation. My friends in the physical world who had babies all seemed to be sleeping just fine, and I wanted to find others who understood. And I did.

But some online commenters would inevitably try to spin the situation into a positive like, “I actually enjoy the few moments of quiet bonding time when the rest of the house was asleep.” This was not my experience. I was not enjoying 20 minutes of cuddle time once a night while my son ate and then peacefully drifted off to sleep; I was up multiple times watching the hours until I had to be awake for work tick by as I struggled with a wide-eyed three-month-old who would cry the minute I tried to lay him down.

In the early days of parenthood, it seemed like so many things were set up as dichotomies: breastfeeding or bottle feeding, bed sharing or having your child sleep independently, cloth diapers or disposable diapers. When I got frustrated, I often felt bad that I wasn’t just enjoying the fleeting moments of my kids’ childhoods more.

Then I heard an interview with the writer Cheryl Strayed. While discussing the advice column she had written, she mentioned that it’s okay to experience two opposing truths at the same time. While she wasn’t talking specifically about parenting, when I relate this advice to parenting it’s one of the most helpful things I’ve heard.

You don’t have to be in just a pure state of thankfulness or frustration – you can feel both at the same time. When you are up with a baby in the middle of the night you can be both frustrated at your current state and appreciative that they won’t be small enough for you to rock to sleep forever.

You can be disheartened when your toddler has another potty training accident, but understanding that it is one of the few things in her life she  is trying to have control over.

You can want to pull your hair out when your preschooler refuses to eat anything but saltines with no broken edges on them for dinner, but aware of the fact that he will likely diversify his eating habits as he grows.

Many parenting choices also don’t have to be so black and white. You can feed your kids both breast milk and formula. You can use cloth diapers at times and disposables at others. When you look for a middle ground, it’s often there.

Now when my younger son wakes up at night it’s rare, but my husband or I are still sometimes hanging out with him for a couple hours in the middle of the night trying to coax him back to sleep. When he looks at me with wide open brown eyes that seem to ask, “Why can’t we just get up at 3:00 a.m.?” I can be both frustrated and entertained.

Julie Vick is a writer living in Colorado and has been published in Brain, Child,  Washington Post On Parenting, CountryLiving.com, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. You can read more of her work at: http://www.julievick.com/


The Case Against Crowdsourcing Motherhood

The Case Against Crowdsourcing Motherhood

Surprised black woman sitting with computer isolated on white background

By Jody Allard

I came of age alongside the Internet. I used my first computer in eighth grade, a clunky Mac tower that mostly just gathered dust in the back of the classroom. My college years were punctuated by computer crashes and floppy disk failures that consumed entire papers and projects in an instant, and printing was always a perilous proposition. Rarely, if ever, did the cursed thing just print as it should. Even when it did, the dotted edges of the paper had to be torn off, and they almost never left smooth, presentable margins in their wake.

I had my first child before I reached adulthood. The Internet, too, was still in its adolescence. I read “What to Expect While You’re Expecting” as I watched my belly swell and press against my ugly hand-me-down maternity blouses. I stared at nipple positioning charts and tried to figure out how to breastfeed, or whether I even wanted to breastfeed, with only the guidance of those dog-eared pages and my mother’s voice ringing in my ears. I stumbled along, always trying my mother’s approaches first, but eventually I found my own way. Despite all of my missteps and mistakes—and that one time I forgot to buckle my baby into his highchair and was convinced his tumble had killed him—my son and I survived his first two years of life largely unscathed.

By the time my next two children were born, red-faced alien twins who surprised everyone by arriving as a pair, the Internet had also fully arrived. This time around, as I juggled a toddler and newborn twins who weren’t fond of eating, much less sleeping, I turned to the Internet for advice. I searched for a bulletin board for mothers and, just like that, I embraced my very first “moms group.” Pretty soon, we all began to gather during our babies’ naptimes to talk twins, marriage, food, and everything in between. When something good happened, I couldn’t wait to share it with my mom friends. When my son finger-painted the walls with his poop during a nap, two days in a row, I knew exactly where to turn for commiseration.

I don’t know when I began to doubt myself and my parenting but it happened somewhere along the Information Highway. Every day there was a new article to read about the best way to raise children and the risks to my kids if I messed it all up. All of the moms in my moms group had different opinions and approaches, and what had begun as a lifeline of support eventually led me to constantly question my own methods. “Know better, do better” became my mantra and I forgave myself my early awkward attempts at mothering while earnestly committing to be better.

I had wonderful intentions. Who doesn’t want to learn from their mistakes? Still, I was determined to give my children the very best version of myself, even if that perfect me was just a fantasy—and even if being that perfect me made me miserable. In a world of eternal options, it never dawned on me that my children just needed me: scars, flaws, mistakes, and all.

The Internet makes crowdsourcing seem sensible. I wouldn’t buy a printer without reading the reviews on Amazon so why shouldn’t I crowdsource my parenting? In an age of endless access to information, it feels almost foolhardy not to use it. The problem is that none of this information or advice made me a better mother. All it did was remind me of what I didn’t know while making me forget how I really learned to mother. No matter how many articles I’ve read and online posts I’ve made, I became a mother in a rocking chair in the middle of the night, sobbing as my baby screamed into my engorged breast. I learned to mother each of my seven children uniquely and individually, as they, and I, grew up.

I stopped spanking my children when I spanked my oldest son in anger and realized how easy it would be to cross that line. I pumped breastmilk for my children when I couldn’t get them to latch because my heart broke at my inability to nourish them. I’ve made thousands of parenting choices, and probably a hundred mistakes, but the best decisions I’ve made have always come from deep inside me. The mistakes I’ve made, like pumping for months past when it made sense to stop, came from my insecurities and fears; often, they stemmed from the advice of strangers I learned to trust more than myself.

The Internet tells me what science says about mothering, but it rarely changes how it feels to mother. When I spend long afternoons sitting on my friend’s couch as our kids wreak havoc, we rarely talk about the hot topics online. We don’t argue over breastfeeding or formula feeding, cloth diapers or disposable, and neither of us care that she unschools and I gladly send my kids to school. Our friendship is about each other, as mothers but also as women, and it’s watching her mother that makes me a better mother, not arguments about our differences.

Five years ago, when my youngest children were still infants, I went to therapy for the first time. It took me 13 years of motherhood to recognize my own needs and to consider myself as valuable and important, too. Therapy has given me the gift of myself but it’s also made me recognize how deep my need for external validation runs. Last week, as I told my therapist yet again about my fears for my kids, she said: “Jody, you always look outside yourself to find proof that you’re right and okay. You need to learn to reassure yourself that you’re right and okay.”

The Internet is by no means entirely to blame for my need for validation. My habits are rooted in my childhood to at least some extent. Yet, as I left my therapist’s office and texted my best friend to get her opinion of my therapist’s advice, I realized just how much of a role the Internet has played in my distrust of myself. I have amassed a decade of experience asking everyone but myself how I should mother.

I’m not the only mother struggling to find balance in the Internet age. Megan O’Hara, a licensed clinical social worker, explored the downsides of social media use for new mothers in an article for Christiana Care Hospital last year. In it, O’Hara cites a study that found 86 percent of mothers use social media and 70 percent of them believe technology makes them better mothers. Her own observations tell a different story. “Becoming a mother is a journey that comes with much uncertainty. It is quite natural to look to our peers for guidance and a frame of reference that tells us whether we are doing a good job,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, in this age of social media, what we see is not reality. What we are seeing is just a snapshot of a very complex reality full of failures and successes.”

After a few years of searching to find my parenting foundation, I left my mom groups. I stopped asking for advice on social media, and I created new accounts with only trusted friends and family members. Yet, even now, when I compose just the right snapshot on Instagram or tweet about my kids, I always keep one eye open for likes, comments, and reactions. I may have learned to stop asking for parenting advice, but I still haven’t learned how to reassure myself that I’m doing a good enough job. I don’t know how I’ll finally learn to stop crowdsourcing my sense of parenting self-esteem but I know I won’t find those answers online.

Jody Allard is a freelance writer and mother living in Seattle. She writes primarily about parenting, life with a chronic illness, and current events viewed through a feminist lens. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Time, Vice, and The Establishment, among others. She can be reached through her Facebook page.

Any Woman’s War

Any Woman’s War

By Sarah Konstantonis

Every Woman's War ArtNot much longer now, I thought while tucking my legs underneath me, perched on the edge of hospital bed.  Any moment and the doctor will come through the door and confirm our discharge, and I take a final moment to revisit the familiar decor, the blue painted walls and stick on cartoon characters surrounding me. I had remained at my infant daughters side for the past 48 hours, unable to hold her tiny body while she sunbathed under lights to decrease her billirubin levels, cruel looking patches protecting her delicate eyes. Now the jaundice has sufficiently decreased and I could bring Analise home where we will join my husband and small children and finally settle into being a family of six. Analise is ten days old and sleeping in the plastic bassinet next to the bed. I look down at her face, pale, smooth and slightly translucent, a roadmap of blue veins visible beneath. She has a mop of feathery auburn hair and I hope that her eyes fluttering beneath thin lids will stay blue, unlike her brothers and sister. I feel so blessed, two daughters and two sons, a loving husband, a life I had always wanted.

It’s early spring, and the dreary view outside the hospital window is of a grey sky with a watery sun over a rooftop parking lot. I was sorry to have only sandals on my feet to carry Analise out to the car, it looks so cold out there, and I shove my icy feet under the faded hospital blanket. Tired of the stack of magazines by the bed, of flipping through the channels on the miniscule pay-as-you-stay TV mounted in the corner, I let out a sigh. Let’s just get on with this, I thought, staring at the door, willing the doctor to our room. I want to go home.

Soon there was a knock and our doctor stepped in with a small smile. She was my age, mid thirties and dressed professionally, with long dark hair swept away from her face. We had met two days ago but already I felt very much at ease with her. I think that under different circumstances that we could have been friends.

“We’re all set.” I say after greeting her, eagerly putting on my shoes. I lift the baby to my chest, wearing her new pink sleeper with the puffy white lambs. After two sons her entire wardrobe was varying shades of pink, and I relished it. “I guess that we’ll see you tomorrow?” I ask, still sitting back on the bed.

The nurse had earlier explained that for the next few days we would have to return Analise to the hospital every morning until her billiruben levels were below an appropriate level. What a pain, I thought mildly. But, if it means that she remains healthy, it’s a small price to pay. We can get back to our schedules and rhythms, albeit with a newborn thrown in the mix. I wonder, absentmindedly, if I should pick up a pizza for dinner on the way to the house.

“Sarah,” the doctor begins softly, “there is something else that I want to talk to you about.” Something in her tone caused my heart to beat faster. She took several steps towards the partially open door leading to the nursing station and closed it. As I watched her it’s as if time slowed down while the air in the room billowed out just before it shut.

“Does Analise look like any of your other children?” she asked.

I found myself suddenly defenceless against something that I had pushed out of my mind over and over since her birth. Something that none of the nurses had noticed, that my midwives, family and neighbours hadn’t commented on. Something that I had almost convinced myself wasn’t actually there.

The truth was that Analise did not resemble any of us the instant she came into this world, three weeks early and within an hour. The midwife had laid her on my stomach while I caught my breath and she looked up at me, covered in blood and life sustaining matter.

Her eyes… I thought with sudden alarm, a sharp and unexpected strike into my heart. But it wasn’t because they were open so soon, or because they were so beautifully blue. It was because these eyes were so foreign and yet vaguely familiar to me. There was no instant joy with her arrival, only confusion and growing inner conflict. There were so many differences from the other babies; the small folded ears, the slope of her forehead. All around me people were welcoming and joyous. No one showing any signs of concern, my husbands’ face a mixture of happiness and pride. Surely what I saw would not raise any flags. This is my child, I thought, I love her.

“She looks like Mickey Rooney.” I whispered to my husband and midwife, and we all had giggled, an effect from the nervous and excited energy around us. I finally sighed with exhaustion and relief while Analise scored a perfect ten on her Apgar Test. We’re safe.

Now here in this room there was no escape back to that moment. I was being confronted with my suspicions and there was nowhere to hide, my worst fear right in front of me.

“It’s Down Syndrome, isn’t it?” I said in a throaty voice I hardly recognized.

The doctor gazed at my precious baby for a moment, sleeping soundly in my arms. I had been so eager to hold her, now that I had permission. My sweet baby girl to complete our family.

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” She said quietly.

A blood test ensued and I numbly agreed to genetic testing. Our doctor also suspected a heart murmur and we immediately went for an echocardiogram which revealed three holes in her heart, one having a fifty percent chance of needing surgery in two years. I called my husband at work to tell him the doctor’s suspicions and results. He said all the right things, that Analise was here and that we will love her no matter what. That she is one of us. We’re a family.

Once the lab left our hospital room with my baby’s vials of blood, I clutched her to me, gazed out the window and let the waiting tears flow down my cheeks. I wept for all the things I dreamed for her, entering a world that until one hour ago I couldn’t wait to introduce her to and now fiercely wanted to shelter her from. A place with words like retard and disability. A world that presumes to know her value and dismisses her potential. I cried because I felt so helpless, so small and alone, unable to protect her, unwilling to accept an inescapable reality.

That night in my own bed I was looking at my daughter’s face. It was the same but entirely different now and I wondered how my body could have betrayed me? It had given me a near perfect pregnancy. I had declined the indicative test that had been offered. My last son’s numbers had shown a higher chance for having a child with Down Syndrome and I had spent the remainder of my nine months worrying. I wasn’t going to do that again, I had thought. I would trust my body that all would be well. But it was my body that allowed this baby’s cell division to fail, that couldn’t put the pieces of her heart together properly. If only I had been stronger.

I read about a study once that a new mother could be blindfolded and choose her baby when it was held close to her face. She could instinctively recognize her infant’s scent from hundreds of others. Before now this finding had comforted me. Reflecting on it briefly while nursing my other children, thinking to myself, I would know you anywhere, little one. And now this person in my arms felt like a stranger to me. Her disability, our connection, was behind the curtain and all I felt was anger and fear.

It was another cloudy afternoon when I sat with Analise asleep in her bucket infant seat, waiting again for the doctor to tell me the result of our genetic testing.

“So, as we thought, Analise does have Down Syndrome,” she said conclusively, leaning against a small desk in a simple room. I knew this was true but a hidden part of me thought that maybe we were wrong, maybe there was hope.  I tried to ask a question that was rolling through the trenches of my mind.

“Was it because I…or because we…”I began but was unable to finish. Thankfully the doctor quickly responded after watching the tears pool in my eyes. “Neither of you are a carrier of the gene.” I bit the inside of my cheek, unwilling to cry, unwilling to react, other than to nod my head. At least I was not a traitor.

“One in approximately seven hundred babies is born with this disorder.” Our doctor said reassuringly “This could have happened to anyone.”

But it didn’t, I thought as I drove home that day. It happened to me.

How would I raise a child with special needs? My other kids seemed, by comparison, half way to adulthood. They could read, write and were quickly grasping issues such as world languages and currency. Both of my school aged children’s teachers had commented on their advanced vocabulary and creativity. I was behind enemy lines, uncharted waters. The next eight weeks were met with waves of thoughts and emotions from despair to tearful joy. During it all I grew to realize that my greatest ally was going to be my child, in those intimate moments that cause my heart to soar. I had to grow to know her, just as I had for my other children. Everything else would fall into place. We were in this together, her and me.

As we embark on this journey every milestone, however minute, feels more like a victory. Her first smile, gurgle, coo and giggle seem indicative of the amazing girl and woman she will become. There are times when miserable thoughts invade my day, oppositional fears for her future, but I am becoming better at ignoring them.

Some nights I wake in a hot bed draped in sweaty sheets. I am disoriented, shaking off the remnants of a dream I had of a daughter that was supposed to be. Like a missing limb, I can still feel her, or rather the idea of her, and I have to remind myself that everything will be all right. I reach out in the dark to touch the bassinet by my bed and listen to the small shallow breaths coming from within. This is my baby. Someone I would die for.

I realized there is a choice I have to make every morning, the choice to surrender. I surrender to the love I have for my daughter.

In the end we are powerless against things such as society, biology or a diagnosis. In the end we raise the white flag and pray. We find peace in the virtue of motherhood, that unending love, the primal bond that unites us to our children despite and because of our flaws. We hold on to our babies and to our faith that with every battle, we will come out the other side together, sometimes bruised, but complete.

Sarah Konstantonis is a freelance writer who has worked as a social programs manager and counselor in British Columbia, Canada. She enjoys writing short stories and is completing her first middle-grade fiction for publication next year. She now lives in Brockville, Ontario with her family and can be reached at skonstantonis@gmail.com.

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At The Pump

At The Pump

By Alexandria Peary

winter2009_pearyI’m lying on my side on hospital sheets low on thread count and high on antiseptics. The nurse presents me with my baby, a big-nosed reddish sleeper, while the progressive-seeming lactation consultant with dangling goddess earrings looks on. I am supposed to model different positions, and we are to see how well the baby latches on.

I fumble around, one breast angled out of the hospital gown, trying to arrange the baby around my still-engorged belly. All the while, I’m thinking, When else is it expected that one go topless in front of total strangers? This pink asterisk of my nipple seldom sees so much air.  It’s just assumed that a woman can seamlessly make the transition from a society of keeping covered to a place where she’ll be told to pull out her breast so that others can assess how good she is at using it.

“I guess I need a refresher course,” I tell her after a half minute of moving my breast like a joystick. I explain that it’s been two years between babies.

As the lactation consultant reviews the “football hold” and side-style feeding, I pretend to go along with it and make the motions. I feel like someone attempting reform, promising to eat healthfully but just waiting for the expensive diet coach or hawk-eyed spouse to leave the room to heave myself into the Godiva chocolates.

My breast actually aches—but not for my baby. No, it aches for its first postpartum bonding with the pump.

I’m just waiting for the lactation consultant to leave the room so my husband can dig out my breast pump, hiding beneath a pile of clean underwear in one of my bags. I feel like I’ve snuck a lap dog into the hospital. Although this baby’s waters broke three weeks early and I was unprepared, my hospital bags unpacked, I still managed to instruct my harried husband to find the breast pump. After my insurance card and meditation CDs, my Purely Yours was next on the list of crucial items.

Why don’t I tell her the truth? I wonder. That I don’t plan on breastfeeding at all? That I’m a full-time pumper? By the time this baby is six months old, I’ll have pumped (a conservative estimate) for fifteen days straight, and when I say “days,” I mean fifteen twenty-four-hour-day days.

For my first child, I pumped for seven months, and I’ll probably pump for nine months for this baby, which means I’ll have spent about 576 hours at the breast pump between November 2007 and August 2008. Like T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, who could measure out his life in teaspoons, I can measure my time by the books on tape I’ve listened to while at the pump.

For my first daughter, I splattered many a tome with breast milk, including War and Peace. For this daughter, I’ll have listened to the thirty-six tapes of Gone with the Wind in less than a week and a half. And I’ll also have listened to so many John Grisham and suspense books that the plotlines will become as obvious to me as the pattern on a plaid shirt. For Christmas this year, my husband and I will treat ourselves to a deep freezer, the type people use for spare apple pies and sale-flyer pot roasts, which I will completely fill with tubes and storage bags of milk by the beginning of February.

My milk will spilleth over, filling this huge upright freezer, plus a waist-high freezer, plus the one in the fridge. The milk will come in a variety of shades of yellow, like paint samples chosen by someone who wants to redo her living room but can’t decide which shade she likes best. The sunflower yellow-orange of early days nearest to colostrum, the flat yellow after carb-laden meals, and the pale skim milk when I had salad for lunch.

*     *     *

I became a mother who loves pumping more than breastfeeding when Sophia was born two and a half months premature and had to be tube fed during her lengthy hospitalization.

The medical community expects that a mother will stop breast pumping once her preemie leaves the neonatal intensive care unit. After all, it’s the baby accustomed to the bottle who is supposedly prone to “nipple confusion,” not the mother. You’re not supposed to fall in love with your breast pump, to mourn the end of your relationship with the machine, as I did when I had to return my hospital rental. You’re not supposed to feel that the last time you turn the knobs is as sweetly sad as the last time another mother nurses her baby.

The first time around, breast pumping meant I was able to do something constructive for my severely premature baby. Pumping was something that I alone could do, not the extensive staff of expert doctors, nurses, or therapists. It was a continuation of my pregnancy—it had that same privacy, that same power to help someone grow. Every time during that confusing summer that I pumped at two in the morning and again at four, I was reminded that I could do something right to counter the irrational guilt I felt about my pregnancy’s early end. I could fill the freezer in the NICU ward as well as the one in her second hospital; I could inundate them with my milk until they told me to hold off. Pumping was a symbol of hope—of the future when Sophia would be freed from the hospital.

With this second child, Simone, born healthy, it’s different. Pumping will become a way to increase the thickness of the rolls of fat on her stubby legs, to build on her natural good health. Like my mother covering the dining room table with an excess of food, pumping will allow me to see the abundance of yellow gold that my body produces, the food that will be Simone’s sole source of nourishment. I filled the NICU freezers, and now I can fill the freezers at my own home. Pumping will also allow me to continue pursuing my doctorate, to be away from home for extended periods of time, and to share with greater equity parenting a newborn with my husband. If it weren’t for the circumstances of Sophia’s premature birth, I would not have known the benefits of full-time breast pumping.

Given all these rock-solid reasons for pumping, why don’t I tell the truth in my hospital room? Well, even with the amount of supportive cheer pumped into the air by the maternity floor staff, I can sense that my preference for pumping will be challenged. I’m the anti-poster child for the La Leche League—or at least that’s how I feel around other mothers. (My three-year-old daughter will have watched so many pumping sessions that she will point to my chest and ask where mommy’s “breast pump parts are,” referring to my breasts.)

A belief in full-time breast pumping is not popular among the mothering circles I travel in—the liberal, critical thinkers, rather than the commercialized versions of parenting seen in most magazines. While it’s true that no one has ever said to me outright that I’m wrong to feed my breast milk to my baby from a bottle rather than directly from my body, the message is in the air. It’s present when another woman tells me how disgusting frozen breast milk looks or tastes. This strikes me in the gut, as though someone had unplugged the huge freezer holding the evidence of all the hours I’ve pumped.

No one ever says how beautiful—how maternal—the image of the woman at the breast pump is.  On the box of the pump I own, a woman in a business suit sits at her desk looking robotic, as though she could just as easily be hooked up to her adding machine or laptop as to her breast pump. She’s certainly no goddess-like woman cradling humanity.

And no poster celebrating breast pumping will be seen above the OB/GYN examination table. And yet I fantasize about such a poster, a Madonna-like figure in blue robes sitting with a breast pump (you pick the brand) attached lovingly to her chest, beaming and beatific. For I am just as dedicated to pumping as another mother would be to nursing. I, too, become irritated when someone impedes me (with a class held longer, with a lingering conversation, with bad city traffic) from feeding my baby—that is, from pumping every three hours.

No one will come into the hospital room after I give birth and ask me about my pumping plans. I won’t readily find an extensive support group or service for the breast pumping, so if the pump suddenly fails because of a microscopic slit in valve, I may think it’s a problem in my milk supply and give up.

After giving birth, a woman is frequently asked whether she intends to nurse. The seemingly benign question hangs in the air. Once the desired response is supplied—Yes, of course!—it’s as though a curtain is parted from around the patient’s bed. The beaded chains rattle, and the patient is allowed entrance into the land of golden good mothering. Until the moment the question is answered, however, there’s the distinct possibility that the woman will end up on the other side, that of not-so-good-mothers, a landscape of pollution, television, and cheese-flavored snacks.

Breast pumping gets only half of that good-mother equation right. You’re making the milk, but you’re denying your child of the psychological benefit of your closeness, a benefit provided, the true believers insist, only through nursing.

My baby daughter seems not to have received that message. She’s oblivious to any concerns about her way of dining and happily “tops” bottle after bottle of my breast milk with a little smile on her face. And although our way of feeding the baby means my husband is frequently the one who is up at two in the morning, he feels he’s had more opportunity to bond with his daughters than most dads whose partners breastfeed exclusively.

And when he asks why I worry so much what the lactation consultant, my relatives, or the nurses think of my pumping, I have an unexpected answer. It’s not that I particularly care what people think of me. It’s that I’m protecting my pumping from them. I don’t want my breast milk to be contaminated by their conservative attitude—an unacknowledged contributor to centuries of others telling women exactly how to be women.

If I can just get out of the hospital with some pumping initiated, I will be free to do as much pumping at home, at the office, and in the car as I like, with no one to judge me except the occasional female acquaintance or relative. I won’t have to answer the phone when the nice lactation consultant makes her several follow-up calls in the week after I return home. I can sit at the kitchen table with two-year-old in high chair, a two-day-old in her bassinet, and a breast pump churning at my chest as the consultant’s voice fills the answering machine. I can surround myself with the maternal trinity of child, baby, and breast pump.

Author’s Note: While writing this piece, I discovered at iVillage.com a whole online community of mothers who exclusively breast pump. Like me, these women have experienced personal and professional blessings from exclusively pumping. I’m still pumping, several months after I had expected to be done (in fact, I’m pumping while I type this sentence), but I’m at the tail end of it. I’m trying to deal with the sweet sadness that comes from the prospect of ending.

Brain, Child (Winter 2009)

Alexandria Peary is an Associate Professor and the First-Year Writing Coordinator in the English Department at Salem State University. She is the author of two books of poetry, Fall Foliage Called Bathers & Dancers (2008) and Lid to the Shadow (2010). The latter was selected for the 2010 Slope Editions Book Prize. Her work has appeared in The Denver Quarterly, New American Writing, The Gettysburg Review, jubilat, Massachusetts Review, Fence, Crazyhorse, Spoon River Review, Verse, Literary Imagination, and Pleiades. 

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