Failing at Feeding

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.

Our Social Experiment

Our Social Experiment

By Paige Schilt

fall2010_schiltLast Christmas, we decided to splurge and spend a few nights at a fancy beach resort. From the moment the clerk ushered us into the “VIP check-in room,” I knew we were in for an adventure. Our five-year-old son, Waylon, plunged head first into a butter-colored club chair. “Honey, please keep your shoes off the furniture,” I said, feeling my class insecurities creep up like a slow and annoying blush.

“But, Mama, I’m a seal.” He rested his front flippers on the marble floor.

I scanned the clerk’s face, hoping for the knowing look that tells you you’re in the presence of Family. Nary a blip on the old gaydar. His eyes were resolutely glued to his computer screen.

My wife, Katy, was not helping. Early that morning, she’d loaded up our vacation baggage. Then she’d navigated the car through hectic holiday traffic. Now she slouched in the chair beside me, tattooed arms folded across her pecs, head tilted back in a caricature of repose. Mirrored sunglasses shielded her eyes. She was ready for a nap.

I gamely answered the check-in questions, keeping one eye on Waylon, who was maneuvering across the floor on his belly. Like his parents, he was clad in black. His t-shirt was emblazoned with an electric guitar and the words “Toxic Waste.” I wondered what the clerk made of our tousled entourage. Perhaps he thought that only the truly rich and famous would be bold enough to despoil the Sand Pearl Resort with such dishevelment. Did he think we might be rock stars?

Apparently, he sized us up and designated us “Mr. and Mrs. Schilt.”

As in, “Well, Mr. and Mrs. Schilt, we hope you enjoy your stay.”

“The bellman will get those bags, Mr. Schilt.”

“Can I get you some ice, Mrs. Schilt?”

Thus registered in the hotel’s central database, we seemed doomed to pass the remainder of our holiday as hapless characters in a comedy of errors.

*   *   *

When Waylon was three years old, we started trying to include him in the ritual of holiday gift giving. “Waylon,” I began, “what do you think Mommy would like for Christmas?”

“Trains,” he said, without missing a beat.

“What do you think Grandma would like?” I persisted.


“What do you think we should get for Auntie?” By this time I was just testing.


Waylon is a boy with a single-minded passion for wheeled vehicles. When he got his first train set, he didn’t sleep for three nights. Eventually, in the kind of problem-solving that emerges from intense sleep deprivation, I found myself napping on the couch at three a.m. while Waylon navigated Thomas the Tank Engine around the track.

By the next Christmas, Waylon’s allegiance had switched to cars, but gift-giving was still largely an exercise. With lots of not-so-subtle encouragement from his parents, Waylon strung some necklaces for friends and family, but he hadn’t really developed the capacity to imagine another person’s needs and desires. Most of his handiwork looked like a random aggregation of begrudgingly selected shapes and colors.

Ironically, the one bright glimmer of hope was the necklace Waylon made for my sister, an old-school goth with a penchant for black tights, ripped crinolines, and creepy Victorian bonnets. When he sat down to make Auntie’s necklace, Waylon carefully selected the darkest and most macabre beads in his little craft kit. Heartened, I consulted my childrearing bible, a tattered copy of Touchpoints, which reassured me that empathy—the capacity to imagine another person’s needs and feelings—develops along a slow and uneven trajectory.

*   *   *

One day, not long after Waylon made his aunt a gothic necklace, Katy and I were stretched out on the couch of our couples therapist’s beigely appointed office. (We jokingly refer to our therapist as Guru—partly because of her preference for New Age shawls, and partly because we truly believe that she is brilliant, compassionate, and wise.) On this particular day, we were talking about parenting (our favorite easy topic), and I happened to mention some of Waylon’s ideas about gender.

Guru’s normally unflappable exterior betrayed a hint of concern. As her eyebrow arched upward, I moved defensively to the edge of the couch. Guru asked a follow-up question. And then another.

“We’ve always talked about my surgery,” Katy explained. “He knows that I never felt completely like a girl and that I changed my chest to be more comfortable in my body.”

“He has his own vocabulary,” I added. “He calls Katy a ‘boy-girl.'”

Our therapist seemed most concerned about whether Waylon believed that his own gender and sex might be malleable. According to psychoanalytic timetables, core gender identity is supposed to be consolidated by two or three years of age. Were Guru’s pursed lips suggesting that we were in danger of derailing our child’s development?

Part of me felt defiant, wanting to challenge the whole notion of static gender identity. Another (irrational) part of me was sure she was going to call Child Protective Services the moment we left her office.

Queer people have been told for so long that we are not fit to be parents. It’s impossible not to internalize some of the shame that is projected onto us, especially when it comes to our culture’s most hallowed idol, the family. So I felt the sting of my therapist’s troubled look. But I also understood that her reaction was rooted in the assumption that what’s normal is natural and good.

As queer parents, our gift is to remember all the coaxing, coercion, and even outright violence it takes to make normal gender development seem inevitable and desirable. By the logic of that trajectory, we did not turn out okay—yet we that we turned out okay. If we can hold onto this contradiction, if we can resist the shame, we can forge new family values that affirm gender diversity as a precious blessing.

*   *   *

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson likes to refer to gay and lesbian families as an “untested and far-reaching social experiment.” For Dobson and his ilk, the essence of the good family is adherence to gender roles: Men and women have certain natural strengths, which are divinely ordained to complement each other. In this view of history, the blueprint for family gender roles was spelled out in Genesis and remained virtually unchanged until the lesbian baby boom.

But contrary to what the promoters of traditional family would have us believe, queer people are hardly the first to tinker in the laboratory of gender development. Back in 1962, Katy’s mother was determined to produce a baby girl. Donna and her husband, a small-town Texas football coach called Big Phil, already had two strapping young sons. But Donna yearned for a soul mate, a confidante, a fashion plate. In a word, she wanted a daughter.

This was before the advent of routine prenatal ultrasounds, but Donna was undaunted by the lack of reliable information about the sex of her fetus. A hardy optimist with a penchant for bullet bras and blond wiglets, Donna put her faith in the power of positive thinking. She taped a picture of a baby girl to the Frigidaire. She tied pink ribbons to lampshades and chairs, where she could see them as she dusted the end tables and vacuumed the dining room.

In order to enlist the help of the community, Donna threw a “Think Pink” shower. Her friends served pink cake and adorned Donna with a pink corsage. They brought pink presents. Hand-smocked dresses with tiny petticoats were laid in the dresser in the nursery, which was (of course) pink.

When the due date finally arrived, Donna had a bad case of pneumonia. She arrived in the delivery room heavily drugged. The family doctor, an unassuming sadist named Grundy Cooper knew how badly Donna wanted a girl. “Oh, he looks real good, Donna,” Grundy teased from behind the modesty curtain that bisected her upper and lower halves.

“Shut up, Grundy, she is not a boy,” Donna growled.

After the final push, Donna shouted, “Let me see her genitals! Let me see her genitals!” Grundy took his sweet time, holding the baby upside down, delivering the breath-inducing spank, and finally placing the tiny body on the scale where Donna could see it. When the fluorescent lights reflected off the shiny steel cradle of the scale, Donna’s drug and hormone-addled eyes noted two things: a vulva and a hazy white halo.

“She’s an angel, Phillip,” she said to her husband, who had been hastily summoned from the waiting room. “She’s an angel.”

*   *   *

Nine years later, my own parents were speeding toward the hospital in their purple Volkswagen beetle. Mom was breathing “hee, hee, hoo” as the contractions came closer together. She’d planned a natural birth, without drugs or modesty curtains; she very nearly had a natural birth without a hospital. By the time the car pulled up at the emergency entrance, she was too far along to sit in a wheelchair. She had to waddle into the delivery room on her own. Nurses rushed my father into a gown so that he could fulfill his duties as labor coach.

Although my parents’ milieu of Lamaze exercises and hippie cars may seem worlds away from Donna’s East Texas, my mom and dad had at least one thing in common with Donna: a determination to shape their child’s gender identity and expression. But while Katy’s mother dreamed of birthing a tiny beauty queen, my parents aspired to raise the next Bella Abzug.

Instead of frilly dresses, my parents gave me a pink plaster plaque that said “Girls Can Do Anything!” They bade me goodnight with the affirmation, “You can grow up to be the first woman president.” And they bought me the Sunshine Family dolls as an antidote to the bimboesque influence of Barbie.

The Sunshine Family lived in a cardboard craft store, complete with a spinning wheel and pottery kiln. Sunshine Mama (whose name was “Steffie”) wore a calico maxi-dress and a baby on her hip. Her barefoot feet were realistically flat. But Steffie’s half-inch waist and candy floss hair were pure Mattel fantasy. In my imaginative play, her husband, Steve, worked the cash register, while she pricked her finger on the spinning wheel. Despite Steffie’s hippie accessories, the horizon of her liberation was circumscribed by marriage and motherhood. My parents’ good intentions were no match for the internal contradictions of mass culture.

Thus, although Free to Be You and Me was in heavy rotation on my plastic ladybug record player, I grew up convinced that marriage or the convent were my only possible destinies. By the time I was eight, I had already concluded that I was too brunette and substantial to inspire romance. I regret to say that I did not indulge in proto-lesbian fantasies about convent life, but rather viewed the nun’s habit as a badge of failure, a kind of scarlet V for unwanted virginity. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series consoled me with the thought that a strong work ethic might make me worthy to be some man’s wife.  My solitary twin bed was the site of vivid fantasies about scrubbing his shirts on a tin washboard.

*   *   *

On one of our first dates, my future wife brought a tape of her family’s home movies from the mid-’60s and a joint. I think Katy guessed that my feminist consciousness was going to need expanding if we were to swap childhood stories in the way that new lovers do. She’d dated enough women’s studies majors to guess that “the cultural construction of gender” would be my mantra, the magic words that were supposed to save me from the depressing determinism of biology as destiny and the one-size-fits-all essentialism of universal sisterhood.

Savvy as she was, she could hardly have anticipated the intensity of my views. I leaned fervently, incontrovertibly toward the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate. If anyone spoke to me of gender as something innate or remotely natural, I did the intellectual equivalent of covering my ears and shouting “la, la, la, I can’t hear you!”

In my heart, I believed that acknowledging a biological component to gender was a slippery slope that would land me right back in front of that washboard, scrubbing collars.

Now, in reel after reel, I discovered Katy at two, three, and four—already miraculously masculine, already chafing like a football player in frilly dresses, already looking dejected when she unwrapped yet another doll from underneath the Christmas tree.

Suddenly, the whole notion of nature vs. nurture ceased to make sense. Her pintsize Texas swagger was culturally correct—and a total violation of the prevailing gender system. It was incongruent with biology—and undeniably physical, emanating from every muscle and gesture.

The highlight of the home movie festival was the moment when Little Katy appeared in buckskin hunting jacket and coonskin cap. She posed next to the Christmas tree, clearly delighted by her freewheeling duds, but she was distracted by a large, rectangular package in the pile of presents. A second later, the wrapping paper was off, and she was jumping up and down, triumphantly brandishing a new BB gun.

Having grown up with the peaceful Sunshine Family, I was hardly used to celebrating childhood gun ownership … and yet, I found myself strangely un-horrified. There was something undeniably liberating in her joy, something that forced me to reach beyond my usual knee-jerk reactions. Maybe it was the pot. Or maybe I was falling in love.

“Dude,” I said, “this is blowing my mind.”

*   *   *

Just before our trip to the beach last December, we went to Target to find a gift for Waylon’s friend Laila, whom he’s known from infancy. As I was hefting Waylon into the cart, I asked him what he thought Laila would like, fully expecting him to list his latest vehicular obsessions.

“Umm, I think … Barbie.”

Has ever a parenting moment been more bittersweet? I hugged him and showered him with praise for thinking about someone else’s feelings.

Privately, I was imagining my white, blonde, blue-eyed son delivering a Barbie to his brown-skinned, black-haired girl friend. It looked like a tableau with the caption “Gender and Imperialism.”

Luckily, at that moment, Katy arrived from parking the car and settled the matter with a quick phone call to Laila’s aunt. It turned out that Waylon was right; Laila was expecting a Barbie Dream House from Santa. And she needed furniture. Relieved that we would not bear the responsibility of introducing our young friend to Barbie, I followed my family to the toy aisle, where we proceeded to ponder tiny pink bedroom sets.

*   *   *

A few days later, we were installed at the fancy beach resort. It was beginning to dawn on me that two hundred dollars a night buys an alarmingly frequent level of personal contact. The entire staff seemed to be connected by walkie-talkie; as we passed from reception to the lobby to our room, we were repeatedly greeted as “Mr. and Mrs. Schilt.”

Although her identity is somewhere between genders, Katy is quite content to pass as male in such situations. It’s her voice that usually gives her away. That evening, in the time it took for the waiter to unpack our room service order, she had gone from “Mr. Schilt” to “ma’am.” We joked about it on the way home, imagining a one-woman show called “From Mister to Ma’am.”

Not to be left out of the joke, Waylon said, “Yeah, he didn’t realize that you were a girl-boy,” in a tone of five-year-old comic exasperation.

“Wait, I thought you called Mommy a ‘boy-girl,'” I said.

“No, that was back when I was only thinking of myself, so I always put ‘boy’ first. But now I’m thinking of other people,” he explained.

Sitting in the front seat, I felt my heart swell.  It wasn’t just because Waylon was giving Katy a precious gift of recognition. It was because he was so proud of his ability to consider someone else’s feelings.  He is compassionate.  He is kind.  As far as I’m concerned, this social experiment is turning out just fine.

*   *   *

Author’s Note: This past Mother’s Day, Waylon made a homemade card for my mother. It read: “Dear Meemaw, when I am with you, a door in my heart opens like never before.”  I was a bit taken aback by the heightened diction, but I remembered that his first-grade class had just finished a unit on poetry.  “Did you hear those words in class?” I asked. “No,” he answered, “my heart told it to me.”

Brain, Child (Fall 2010)

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.