Things I “knew” but plainly admitted were beyond comprehension until they have been lived:
- It is a crazy and instantaneous kind of love. The story of the birth is that I nearly had a full on panic attack in the OR. There is so much noise and commotion, bright lights, nine different people all working on you at the same time – put your leg here, slouch your back, move your hands out to your side like Jesus on the cross – and all with a giant drape crowding your breathing space. I had this terrible fear that the spinal block would not work and I would feel them cut me or that the risk of placenta accreta related to my uterine scarring before this pregnancy would become real and I would start to hemorrhage or lose my uterus. My cousin has been a life-saver. She flipped her entire schedule around at the hospital to work in the OR for my section, and if it hadn’t been for her reassurance and narration, I might have literally hyperventilated. That said, the moment they brought these lanky, shell-shocked babies from behind the curtain, one at a time, and placed their clammy bodies on my bare chest, I felt this hot rush of, God, I don’t have words for it: relief, love, some wild sort of rightness like those games we played as children where we had to find the star-shaped peg to place in the star-shaped hole, as if this warm, fleshy armful of children almost literally filled a dark, haunted cavern in my heart in one split-second. During the days in the hospital, I was encouraged, as they say, to sleep when they babies sleep, but I found this really hard. Their waking time was filled with nurses and doctors poking and upsetting them or pragmatic matters of feeding and diapers. In the moments of calm, I wanted them back on my chest. It ached to see them across the room alone, and so the opening act of motherhood sent me on a spin of weepy sleep deprivation that turned the world into a carnival house of mirrors. But what was totally surreal a week ago is now rocking sleepily eight feet away, and I just want to eat their sweet little faces. Farts have suddenly become joyous, poopy diapers a boon, and the sound of their wails flips a biochemical switch inside of me that I cannot tolerate. It’s not that the love is greater or less than (certainly I love my husband as much as I love them) but so unlike anything I’ve ever known because it isn’t the slow-growing intimacy of virtually every other relationship. It is a primal need to nurture and protect that blooms with urgency as soon as they exist.
- Breastfeeding is hard. I had always heard this. My friend Allie, steeped in San Francisco’s militant earth-mama narrative, went to such heroic lengths to establish a supply over the course of her son’s first month of life that it nearly broke her. Her husband ultimately intervened to say: You have done everything and now you have to absolve yourself and move on. I had some anxieties about my ability to nurse but pointed fingers at my infertility-induced post-traumatic stress wherein I carry an established fear of my body failing me into any reproductive circumstance. This was, of course, a theme for the entire pregnancy, as so many of you know, but during the pregnancy, these fears were never realized, and in nursing they have been. I am not producing milk. I produced a low amount of colostrum for the first two days, and it took multiple nurses and lactation consultants at the hospital to help me hand-express tiny droplets into plastic spoons to feed something to the babies while they lost weight. Then it turned thin and white, which should have been a signal that my milk was coming in, but the volume never increased, and I felt I was watching my 6-pound peanut wither away and my stronger baby scream in hunger and frustration as I offered her a limp, empty breast that failed to yield the milk she was demanding while ten different people told me ten different things about what to do. This has meant “supplementing” while trying to “establish supply,” which, if you don’t have a concrete idea of what that looks like, let me give it to you straight. Newborns need to eat about every 2-3 hours starting at the beginning of the feed. I have two borderline premature babies with poor latches (one because she is small and the other because she is tongue-tied) and it takes about an hour of constant stimulation and re-latching while also holding their heads to keep a good position; since I only have two hands, this usually requires the help of another adult. Then we give formula, followed by a half hour of pumping, which all cumulatively takes almost two hours, and if we add the time for burps and diaper changes, the result is that it is already time for them to eat again and there is zero sleep ever for days on end. I have cried countless tears over this already and the girls are less than a week old. The pediatrician asked me yesterday, after seeing me in the hospital and again at the office, if she needed to worry about PPD because I have been a puffy, red-eyed mess who dissolves into tears every time we talk about feeding. I am honestly shocked by how quickly this has brought me to my knees (*see earlier reference to sleep-deprivation and the carnival house of mirrors) but the visit to the pediatrician yesterday was very sobering, and a small but critical epiphany managed to cut through all the fog and hype and baggage: this is just food. I am bringing something else into this, some vestiges of infertility and loss, which left me feeling that my body was a tomb and I was a failure as a woman because I could not produce a healthy child, and here, with nursing, I feel that failure compiled and magnified and heaped symbolically into the image of my baby’s skin turning papery from weight loss while she sucks happily on an Enfamil bottle. I texted with Allie, and she said, “I would spend hours thinking [my baby] would starve if we were primitive” and I realized that there are many mothers out there suffering from this rigid La Leche League mantra. I drank a beer last night with my infant in my lap while I looked at pictures from my 10 year-old niece’s lacrosse game on Facebook, and the “breast is best” illusion started to crumble. Formula is a six-month compromise. These girls are incredible gifts that came after seven execrable years of heartache, and they are my forever. Motherhood and womanhood extend so far past what can be sucked out of my nipples, and I am going to be a damn good mother. I already am. This is just food.
- I love my husband even more than I did a week ago, if that’s possible. We have been together for almost fourteen years, and, despite the strain long-term infertility and treatment puts on a marriage, we have weathered this crisis and come out the other side on even stronger ground. He wrote a song that shares a name with one of our daughters in which he sings, “There’s no one I’d have rather spent this season in hell with than you.” There it is, and now that season has passed; it’s spring, and the crocuses are pushing up from the ground. I have two cooing infants in my living room, and my husband is such a devoted and loving father already that my heart seems to swell to bursting when I see him lay our babies on his bare chest or scramble around in his own sleep-deprived state to pick up anti-gas drops from the drug store or run a dishwasher full of bottles and breast pump paraphernalia or decide not to wake me at 1am for my shift while he rocks a colicky baby and changes diapers all night because he knows I desperately need sleep. I am so incredibly lucky in spite of the ways I have been unlucky that I feel myself counting my blessing this morning.
Now, I’m signing off so I can feed bottles of formula to two of those blessings and swat away the dark thoughts that threaten to steal and pollute the joy of this precious and fleeting phase of their lives: sleepy little dumplings in diapers who will let you hold and kiss them all the live-long day. Happy Monday ❤