By Kelly Feinberg
Sometimes it happens so quickly, so seamlessly, that I’m not even conscious it is happening. I’m standing in line for a smoothie and a sweet potato muffin at our local co-op, say, and I go to unsnap my wallet only to realize my eleven-month-old son has pulled my hand up to his mouth and is sucking on my finger. Or I’m talking to a stranger who has stopped me to compliment my baby’s big brown eyes, his welcoming smile, and suddenly I’m aware of a line of drool sliding down my wrist. Embarrassed, I try to pry my finger out discreetly, but this kid’s had a mean suck since the moment of his birth. And it’s not a quiet, discreet suck either. When he takes my fingers to his mouth, it’s like they are his own and he’s just enjoyed a satisfying meal of barbequed ribs. There are sound effects and facial expressions. Whenever I try to take back my dripping digits, the result is often a sharp tug to his clamped little jaw or a loud popping sound and a spray of saliva. These are not mothering moments I’m proud of, so I often let the sucking continue while trying to make a quick getaway, mumbling something about teething.
When our son was about six to nine months old, my husband and I justified the whole finger-in-mouth arrangement because we believed Ari, who showed no interest in a pacifier, needed to suck on our fingers to ease the pain of incoming teeth. “Those poor little gums!” we’d soothe while rubbing the hard ridges that signal incoming teeth. Yet now all four front teeth are securely in, our son has grown into an accomplished eater, and still, as he reels toward his first birthday, his desire to forcibly take a finger and work on it like a peppermint stick only increases in fervor.
In part, I blame Dr. Sears for getting us to this point. If we had known that his advice to slip a finger into a breastfeeding baby’s mouth while transitioning to sleep would get us to this point, I don’t know if we would have taken it. My newborn barely napped during the day. Was it really that bad to let him soothe at my breast while sleeping? In the middle of the night, I never tried to release my baby from my breast; I just slept peacefully and soundly through nighttime feedings and (what was often) all-night nonnutritive sucking. I even enjoyed it. So why did I need to trade breast for finger during the day? We love Dr. Sears’ parenting philosophies, but we’ve pored over many of his parenting tomes and we just can’t find the next step—how do we now get our fingers back? I’m not the nervous, first-time parent type, but I have to admit, I’m starting to get worried.
When I’m able to step back and understand Ari’s sucking as an emotional need rather than a reflex or developmental stage, I feel tired, more than just from lack of sleep. I feel the weight of all that’s happened in the past five months, nearly half of his young life. When Ari was only seven months old, I was forced to wean him from exclusive and happy breastfeeding when an enlarged milk duct turned out to be cancerous. Due to my age, treatment needed to be swift and aggressive, involving a bilateral mastectomy. One day I breastfed Ari on demand, wore him wrapped tight against my chest, and slept with him skin-to-skin; the next day I mixed bottles of formula to hand over to my husband and moved to the other side of the bed, out of reach. Between the pain of weaning and recovering from the surgery, it was a good three months before I could swoop my baby up into my arms again and hug him close.
Through all of this, the Aerobed stayed inflated in the nursery as friends and family arrived in shifts; I simply couldn’t be alone with my baby. On top of it, right when I was really healed, my husband left for a month-long research trip and our presence in Ari’s life reversed again. Daddy was now out of reach, and Mommy was the constant. This might explain why “I need to suck on a finger sometimes,” which had always been directed at the closest warm body, has evolved into “I need to suck on Mommy’s finger at all times.”
Over the last few months, how I feel and how I react to my only baby’s favorite pastime depends a great deal on my own physical and emotional state. Pad over to me in the morning after a decent night’s sleep and a cup of coffee, and I’ll gladly let you lay your sweet little face against my leg for a quick sucking session between block play and a game of hide behind the curtains. Keep me up from two a.m. on by rolling over constantly and arm wrestling my finger to your mouth until it feels raw like a skinned grape, and I’m not so generous. I may snap and say things aloud I’m not proud of like, “Why don’t you suck on your own finger!” or “Do you want to sleep in your crib?” It’s not the questions themselves that I’m ashamed of really; Ari has been known to suck his own finger on occasion and he loves his crib, gladly taking his afternoon nap there every day, stretched out on the soft polka-dot sheets. It’s the angry, desperate tone I use when I get to the point where I’m offering ultimatums to an eleven-month-old that bothers me.
When the ultimatums during a night like this don’t work—as of course they don’t—I may do something drastic to avoid more relentless sucking during morning nap. Something crazy that I would be ashamed to share among the home-birthing, baby-wearing, attachment-parenting set I aspire to be a model member of. Something like, oh, maybe pulling a gardening glove printed with tiny watering cans over one hand like some deranged Michael Jackson impersonator in order to deter the relentless suckerfish. When the glove gets in the way of Ari’s mouth, he lets loose a terrible sobbing cry; his chubby baby fists pinch and swipe. When wrapping him up and wearing him doesn’t work (his reach is impressive and he doesn’t mind wrenching my wrist to get fingers into their proper angle), I try to soothe him in different ways that I remember from my days working in a daycare. I rub his back and swirl his soft baby hair, I shush him softly, I put on the new lullaby CD his grammy gave him. Over and over I say the mantra I’ve been whispering since I first held him in my arms. Mommy’s right here. Mommy’s right here with you. But to him I’m not really there. Not all of me anyway, not the part he wanted and needs to feel secure and to drift to sleep. Ultimately, I pull the glove off when I realize that we’re both crying, that we’re both feeling angry and desperate and out of control. I give him my finger and together we give in to much-needed sleep.
* * *
The hardest part about parenting a baby with an intense sucking need, whatever the cause, is other people’s responses. There’s obvious and unhelpful advice like “Have you tried a pacifier?” and “As long as it’s only occasionally…” There are the judgmental sideways stares from the childless woman on the small commuter plane (she visibly and audibly expressed her displeasure when I sat next to her), and there are the sympathetic and depressing half-smiles of other women in the waiting room of my breast surgeon. Most of the time, I’m sure, I have only imagined a public response that I then internalize and fret over the next time Ari grabs my hand. I have blushed hot from embarrassment while Ari sits in my lap at a restaurant, sucking away while I try to finish my dinner, and I have ended conversations with neighbors on my own front porch because I felt exposed, as if it wasn’t my finger in my baby’s drooling mouth, but instead my full, naked breast leaking milk down his chin.
And what if it were? Didn’t I breastfeed this same baby on a ledge, crowded with midday shoppers, overlooking a public market? Didn’t I pull up my shirt and offer my breast at a baseball game, just off the path on a hike, sitting in a hard plastic chair at Target? Then, I felt important breastfeeding in public, a champion of all things natural and best for my baby. Now I just feel sad. My finger is a poor substitute for breastfeeding, and my baby and I both know it. It is evident in his continuous, never-satisfied suck and in my impatience.
One day, while I’m chatting online with a friend who doesn’t think she wants children (and who isn’t keen on hearing what other people think about someone else’s parenting choices), I mention that Ari continues to suck on my finger. Christi was one of my first caregivers after the surgery: a nursing student, longtime friend, and someone I admire for her intelligence and fearlessness. “I’m just so worried that Ari’s going to be screwed up because I had cancer,” I type. “There was a two-year-old in my toddler class once who made herself throw up the whole time her mom went through chemo. What if this never goes away?”
Christi’s answer is humorous at first and I appreciate the chance to laugh. “I sucked my thumb until age twelve and I’m fine,” she writes. But then she adds that we’ve all been through a lot as a family. “You’re doing a good job,” she reassures me in that small text box at the bottom of my screen, “an unbelievable job managing it all.”
I read her instant message—filled with typos as our notes back and forth always are, we’re so eager to talk to one another—and I just feel better. Maybe that’s all I need, that stamp of approval, that understanding of our particular situation that I can’t get from a Dr. Sears book or from a stranger who happens to be sitting at the table next to me in a restaurant. If I can just let go of the feeling that I failed my son when I stopped breastfeeding him and that my body failed me when it fed cancerous cells, then I wouldn’t worry about what we look like in public.
If anyone asks why my one-year-old is permanently attached to my hand, maybe I should just tell them the truth—that I’d prefer to be breastfeeding but can’t. That breast cancer sucks, that weaning a baby before you’re both ready sucks, that not being able to hold your next baby to your breasts sucks, and that being hard on yourself for your parenting choices sucks, thanks for asking. And then I’ll go back to adoring that little boy in my lap who only knows how wonderful it is to suck; how dreamily soothing and simple.
A note from Brain, Child Editors: Kelly passed away on Friday, May 14, 2010, about three months after writing “This Sucks.” The essay won a 2010 Pushcart Prize posthumously.
Brain Child (Spring 2010)