When I was out walking with my neighbor last weekend we got to talking, as we sometimes do, about those early days of parenting. She has two kids, ages 3 and 4 1/2 (yikes) so one could argue that she’s still in those early days of parenting. But we were talking about the early, early days—those giddy, surreal, exhausting, anxiety-laden days when you first arrive home from the hospital, babe in arms, and you’re on your own. There are no nurses to hand your baby off to, no lactation consultant to help problem-solve latch-on difficulties (who knew?), no doctors on hand in case, god forbid, you mess up big time. I've talked with so many friends about all this that I'm certain now that in those early days and weeks every new parent confronts some terrible fear; some obsessive worry that wraps around them in the wee hours of the night, when they're awake and rocking a crying baby, or during the day, when they're alone, with this new being who demands so much, and expects so much, and you worry, how will I do this?
My neighbor confided in me that in those early days when she was home with their youngest she lived in terror over the idea that she would mess up the parenting business so badly that her baby would actually die due to some terrible error on her part. She was scared to go up and down the stairs with her baby in her arms, scared to be alone with her. I confided in her that in those early days (months, actually) of learning to parent L. I was deathly afraid that he was slowly but surely starving to death.
And it was all my fault.
It was my personal obsession, my heavy burden. I would look at my baby and think his legs were too skinny, his arms too stretched-out looking. In my mind babies were supposed to look all rounded and dimpled, with rolls of baby fat hanging off in charming ways. To me, L. didn't look like that. He wouldn't nurse right, either. He'd latch on and suck for a few minutes then wiggle away, thrashing and uninterested. He'd snack and fuss all day long if I let him. Looking back I see this is the way he's always been and I derive some strange comfort from knowing this. Still, as a new and frightened parent, I was certain that it was all my fault. I wasn't producing enough milk. My milk was bad. I was failing my child. He wasn't getting enough to and this was why--it must be--he never slept more than 30 or 40 minutes at a stretch. We took him to his pediatrician countless times, met with a lactation nurse, talked to relatives (well, have you thought about switching him to formula?) and, in the end, I weaned him at three months.
I did it abruptly, the wrong way, but I lay in bed that first night, my breasts aching and throbbing, and I felt the pain was just the price I had to pay, for my son, for his health, for my sanity.
The first time I fed him a bottle I felt so good inside. I was sure he'd suck the whole thing down in record time and fall asleep, a dribble of formula running down his chin. But, instead, he fussed. Snacked and fussed. Snacked and fussed.
Back in upstate New York, we were the typical struggling, poor graduate students except we now had a new baby. After some research, we decided to apply for WIC benefits, and as part of the process we had to meet with some feeding specialist lady at an open house for WIC applicants one bitterly cold October morning. At that point it had been a full two weeks since I'd weaned L., and he was still snacking and fussing, and the burden of my failure still weighed me down, and made me ache sometimes--at night, when I'd lie awake, my hand to my chest, and wonder why it was all so very hard, meeting the needs of this little person.
The lady was a brown-haired efficient type of person, and she looked at me hard as I sat down on the metal folding chair in front of her table. I explained that I had questions about formula and WIC benefits.
"Why did you wean your baby?
I hesitated. Was this really any of her business? I explained as best I could.
"You know, breast IS best," she said, in a matter-of-fact, but condescending voice.
I stared at her blankly.
"How long has it been since you weaned him?"
"Two weeks," I said.
"Hmmm..." she said. "You could probably try re-lactating."
I froze, and didn't answer. Even the very thought of opening that door again, trying to turn back the clock, trying to salvage the experience was so painful to me that I literally had no answer for her. When we left that place, our WIC information sheets clutched in Scott's hand, all my words came flooding back to me and I wanted to turn around and weep and rage at that woman, that woman who had stripped me bare in front of her, had offered no help at all, had made me feel like the smallest of small things, fragile, incompetent, unsure, afraid.
The way I already felt.