When our nearly
four-week-old son weighed seven ounces below his birth weight, I was
terrified. I wanted to be able to nurture, to nourish my own child, who
was not feeding well. His gums were razor sharp-no one had mentioned
that babies could induce pain so long before their first teeth poked
through-and he gnawed at my nipples. He tired easily, falling asleep at
the breast quickly, as if imbuing a magic slumber potion. As a result,
he'd never brought the milk in, fully. I felt inadequate, a failure, and
determined, all at once. I was a Mama Lion fighting for her cub.
A lactation consultant laid out a harsh regimen to preserve breast
feeding: a supplemental nursing system that combined breast milk and
formula. That meant nursing and pumping-eight times a day. So on a
Sunday morning, we surrounded ourselves with seemingly random bits of
plastic: clear tubing, bottles, yellow tops, cone shaped pieces
resembling funnels, small cones lay in front of us on the floor. The
pump itself was boxy and blue, and heavy to pull from its blue metal
case. Following the instruction manual, we got it set to go.
I pulled my shirt off and placed my stinging nipples into the plastic
cones-a sort of mammary guillotine-and turned the machine on. The pump
wheezed, hissed, and emitted a convulsive drone. As it pulled my nipples
to a cone shape and the milk squeezed out, it tugged and pulled, a
strange sensation that made my body feel not quite mine. I remembered
that as an abortion counselor, when I described the suction during that
procedure, I'd used the same euphemistic words, tugging, pulling,
strange sensation, but not necessarily painful. The words were not
untrue, but they did not begin to describe the violation of giving over
one's body to a machine, especially parts of the body deemed private,
and therefore, sacred. My breasts were not my own; they did not even
belong, just then, to my baby. My breasts were at the mercy of the pump.
My skin was being pulled. My nipples, smushed and cramped in the plastic
cones, were being kneaded. My breasts felt heavy and malleable.
To give up on breast feeding did not occur to me that hellish weekend. I
needed milk; milk was white gold, pure, critical nectar. With
desperation, I watched drops of milk dribble into the bottles, barely
making shallow pools. All of that work for nothing, or so it felt, but
three hours later, I was parked at the pump again. And again three hours
after that. The continuous pumping was critical to keep supply up.
Milk ruled my existence. How much could I produce? How much weight did
he gain? Always, always, the nagging worry: was it enough? A collection
of ceramic cows filled a shelf by the pump, for inspiration.
The books about breast feeding suggested that if a woman was pumping,
say, at the workplace, she should bring in a photograph of her baby to
stimulate milk production. All hunched over with a bottle in each hand,
watching the milk drip drop-by-drop into a plastic bottle with a
wheezing electrical sound as background, it was hard to think of my
baby. It was easier to envision a cow. I'd become a cow; I was a cow.
Eventually, the actual pumping became easy. I learned to use it as a
quiet time-to watch television or return phone calls, read a magazine,
close my eyes-it no longer felt uncomfortable, or alien. Milk became an
opaque teacher, guiding me in meditation about surrendering to the
vagaries of motherhood, which included a kind of selflessness I'd never
known before. I was not unhappy to have made the choice to breast feed,
even though it was arduous.
But the thing is, I'd always thought my body had been created to perform
the most female of tasks: menstruation, childbearing, breastfeeding. It
was a shock when my body let me down; my femininity was at stake,
somehow. What was the point of breasts, if they couldn't do this job?
Still, I was proud to have persisted, and grateful to the machine that
had allowed me to breast feed. I resented the self-righteous, feminist
notion about nursing and about using breast milk over formula. After
all, it was formula that saved my son's life.
I returned the pump when the baby was about ten months old. By then, he
ate solid food. But before bidding that big, blue box adieu, I decorated
it with streamers and confetti, and threw a Retire-the-Pump party, where
we served cookies . . . and, yes, milk. The biggest reward for
persevering through my milk crisis was that second, easier, much more
peaceful year of breast feeding. I nursed Ezekiel until he was two.
© Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser has had essays published in Gadfly,
Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies, Mothering Magazine, & Jewish
Currents. Her short fiction has appeared in various literary magazines.
Ezekiel is now six. His brother, Lucien, nursed for two & a half
years-without supplemental pumping.
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