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Week 35

The Breast-Feeding Class

It’s funny, how little we girls know about our own anatomy…at least until you have a kid. Then you are suddenly forced to learn all about your vagina, the cervix, and then, your boobs? I had no idea there was anything more to learn about my breasts: they exist; they have nipples; and boys like them. Au contraire, my friends. Au contraire.

            Did you know, for example, that nipple stimulation in the third trimester can trigger contractions? Did you know that a breast-feeding baby’s lips should cover much more real estate than just the nipple itself? And did you know that there are 15-20 milk duct-openings on each nipple? Such were the facts Clint and I took in at our very last educational seminar before we meet our little un-named girl.

            I learned all about the football hold, cracked and blistered breast tissue, nipple confusion and the necessity to buy a breast pump—just one more thing to add to that list that never quite gets accomplished. But a two-hour seminar is like theology. It doesn’t do much good unless you have experience to back it up. So, like good children, Clint and I took notes, played footsie, and pretended to be completely unfazed by the boob talk. Lanolin. Whatever.

            Then I decided to watch some YouTube videos last night. You know, psyche myself up for the birthing process. After all, the videos we watched in our birthing class were for shock value. At least that’s what I told myself. Let me see some real births and I’ll be prepared for my own.

            Well, well, well. I do not suggest this kind of educational tactic for, like, anyone. The Blood! The Views! The REALITY! How were some of those women remaining so calm? I concluded that drugs are certainly a necessity.  Other women were really lettin’ it loose; one woman’s face and stomach were so red and blotchy I wondered if she hadn’t contracted a bacterial skin infection during the labor process. As doctor after doctor pulled squirming grey babies out of various womans nether-regions, I began to silently cry. Big wet tears rolled down my cheeks as my chins began to quiver. I sucked in quick breaths and snorted—awe hell—I let loose.

            “I don’t want a baby! I don’t want to do that!”

Clint came rushing over to my office desk, took one look at the current YouTube video playing on my screen and immediately shut the laptop with a ferocious click.

“Don’t look at that! That’s horrible!”

“I KNOW!” I wailed, “It IS horrible! I can’t do it! I don’t want to do it!”
            “I mean, don’t look at other people’s births—they are not you,” he said.

“But it will be me! And it’s (hiccup) aweful! Did you see their bloated faces?”

Clint put his hands on my shoulders and pulled my chin up until I was looking into his eyes. “Josie, I love you. You’ll be fine.”

Now that, contrary to the videos, seemed a very sentimental and overly-dramatic reaction to my pain. I laughed. “Okay.”

            “But you might consider re-reading that breast-feeding pamphlet. You were goofing off a lot in that class.”

Oh. Thanks, hun. Love you too.

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“Ooh, let’s go!” cried Irene, the bespectacled labor and delivery nurse/miracle worker who had quickly endeared herself to me during a traumatic 20-plus hour labor and emergency C-section. “We don’t want to lose this great feeding reflex.”

Irene set down the video camera she was pointing at my husband and newborn daughter, whose tiny lips were anxiously pursing. She took Sarah from Dan’s arms, and positioned the swaddled baby at my chest.

As I tried to steady myself from the physical and emotional shock of the last several hours and two days without sleep, I tried to help Sarah latch on. Again. And again. And again. And again. I fumbled with her little mouth, trying different positions that might encourage her to nurse. (The traditional cradle is hard to manage just after a C-section.)

What happened to my boobs over the course of the next few days was, well, painful. Bleeding. Cracking. Scabbing. Soreness. Adjectives no woman – or man, for that matter – ever hopes will be associated with her nipples.

I was introduced to products I’d never heard of (nipple shields, anyone?) and had many kind women (all nurses and lactation consultants – I hope) alternately squeezing and pressing on my breasts to encourage that new milk, a.k.a. colostrum, to debut. I learned that my right side flowed much faster than my left, often causing Sarah to choke on all that milky goodness. I diligently charted every feeding on my hospital clipboard – how long she nursed, and on which side.

It was work. Challenging and exhausting work at first, and it extended from the few days postpartum in the hospital to the few weeks recovering at home. But I kept at it, knowing that breastfeeding was good for Sarah and good for me, physically and emotionally.

What I didn’t know was how much I would come to rely on breastfeeding, and how those boobs would soon become my baby’s best friends and arguably THE most important resource I had as a new mother.

Sarah and I became experts at the nursing game, especially since she’d never take a bottle (a different story for a different day). I could nurse while I was loading the dishwasher, nurse while eating dinner out, nurse while watching “The Sopranos” every night on Netflix with Dan for the first three months after Sarah’s birth. Heck, I could nurse while I was sleeping. Awesome.

I also found that nursing could calm almost any physical or psychological ailment Sarah suffered. Sore gums? Boob. Feverish? Boob. Just got vaccine shots? Boob. Got weirdly freaked out by the octopus on TV and couldn’t stop crying? Boob.

Breastfeeding became my best friend, too. The fact that Sarah wouldn’t take a bottle was honestly only an occasional inconvenience. I nursed her happily, and well into her second year. She was 18 months old when we found out I was pregnant again, and even then I nursed (with my OBGYN’s blessing) into my second trimester.

When our second daughter, Rachel, was born almost eight months ago, nursing again was a breeze. Sure, she and I had a brief learning curve together, but it didn’t last more than a day or two. Lactation consultants stopped into my room this time, but would smile and say it looked like we were doing just great.

I’m reading a book right now by psychologist Robert Karen. It’s called “Becoming Attached,” and in it Karen describes an early child development psychologist named Melanie Klein who studied babies’ relationship with those miraculous breasts.

“Klein assumed that during early infancy the most fundamental ‘being’ in the infant’s world is the mother’s breast,” he wrote, also noting that “in the early months, before whole persons exist for the child, the breast is felt to be omnipotent and the cause for all that’s good and bad in the baby’s world.”*

I laughed reading that, but I think it’s probably true. I’ve studied my newborns’ faces as they got closer to the boob, and seen that look. “Ahhhh, here it is. Here it is. Everything is going to be okaaaay.” Shortly followed, of course, by the serenely closed eyes, and the mouth that’s smiling even as it’s nursing.

To be fair, breastfeeding can’t fix EVERYTHING. Rachel had terrible gas pains and screaming bouts in the hospital that were slightly relieved by the boob but only truly solved when she finally took a giant poop. We had a rough night last week, when her poor, swollen gums just hurt too much. She didn’t want anything, not even to nurse. Just needed Mama to hold her and sway and sing for a few hours.

Still, I have to hand it to people like Nurse Irene, the parade of lactation consultants, the lady who taught my breastfeeding class, my mom, and even Dan, who supported me through the rough patches when I was crying and tired and beyond frustrated with the whole thing. They knew the work would be worth it, and helped me realize that two of the most valuable tools of my new trade were right there under my shirt.

*Karen, Robert. Becoming Attached: Unfolding the Mystery of the Infant-Mother Bond and Its Impact on Later Life. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1994.

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