Moments after he was born, I lifted my newborn son to my breast. He nursed beautifully for fifteen minutes, the perfect end to the perfect birth. Ha! Somewhere in those blissful first hours, the nursing know-how came and went, because he didn't nurse again for three days. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.
We didn't worry much about his lack of interest for the first twenty-four hours or so, but as my breasts became increasingly engorged, and he grew increasingly hungry, it looked as though something ought to be done.
I was propped up comfortably in a quiet, dimly lit room. I had a huge glass of water by my side, a few sips of wine, bulging breasts, a hungry baby, but no action. He fussed at the nipple, took a few angry sucks and broke into hysterical wails. Confusion set in. I thought they were born knowing what to do - and he was - he did it the day before!
My midwives came to the rescue. They pinched my nipples into shape and made revisions in my positioning, all in vain. As day two came and went without a successful nursing session, we were all starting to get nervous. The baby was losing weight and was jaundiced. He gazed up at us with yellow eyeballs, tried a few sucks, and wailed at the lack of results. Was the fault in my nipples? In his suck? He sucked strongly when offered the midwife's breast.
Another night came and went. Day three. A nervous morning became an afternoon of terror. The baby needed to eat. This child, who seventy-two hours ago I held in my arms as his cord disappeared, pulsating into my body, now felt like a strange alien. Our beautiful bond, and our quiet, joyful hours together, were gone.
My midwives called in leaders from our local breastfeeding support group. For the rest of the afternoon, three women manipulated me, my breasts and my baby in every way imaginable. They sat me up, laid me down, wined me, watered me, pinched and shaped my nipples while forcing my shrieking son's mouth down on my engorged breasts. When they left me three hours later, I was sore, sobbing, wearing breast shields (to encourage my nipples to stick out), and facing a 2½-inch pile of literature to read that promised to solve every breastfeeding problem but mine.
I felt violated. I hadn't wanted strangers to invade my home, manipulate my half-naked body and handle my beloved baby in such a rough and forceful way. But how could I protest? They had come to help. They had experience and knowledge; I had floppy nipples and a starving baby.
I begged my midwives to let me "monkey it out". I felt sure if we were left alone together to rebond we could make it happen. They understood, but felt we couldn't take that chance. The baby needed food. One suggested we bring the baby to another nursing mother and get some milk into him. I was crushed; I couldn't fulfill such a basic need as food. In tears and resentful anger, I took my baby to the full and functioning breast of another woman. I watched as he easily attached to her nipple. The stiffness left his body, and the hysterical look melted from his eyes as the milk filled his belly. It was awful.
Then she spoke - that other woman my son clung to in sleepy delight. She told me something no one else had. She told me I was a beautiful, capable woman; that I had everything my son needed and that I knew him better than anyone. She told me we were going to work it out. She told me everything I needed to hear, everything I felt in my heart but had been denied by my experience. Then she laid my milky, peaceful baby in my arms and wished me well.
Exhausted and confused, I went home to bed, dreading the inevitable - that my baby would wake in a few hours, hungry and wailing. My midwife went out to a twenty-four hour drugstore and picked up a bottle of formula. It went against all her principles, and ours, but in my emotional state it seemed the only solution.
Three hours later, my husband and I were awakened by the hungry cries of a newborn. We looked at each other. "Go warm the bottle." I said. He frowned, but I pushed him toward the kitchen, and reluctantly he went.
I took that little baby in my arms and I spoke to him. I told him we needed to get this together - that we needed to get back to where we'd been three days ago, in love and in sync. I told myself the words of that woman. I knew my baby better than anyone. I was beautiful and capable and I had everything my son needed. And there in the corner, my husband found us - mother and son - a successful nursing couple. The three of us fell asleep very relieved and very much in love.
This is not the end of our story or our trials, but it was the beginning of a pretty good two-and-a-half-year breastfeeding relationship. I'm in the tenth month of nursing my second son. It's been a smoother ride - due in part, I'm sure, to the fact that now I know what that woman said is true. I am beautiful, capable and I have what my babies need. Still there are days it helps to be reminded.