Parenting Perspective: The First Failure
SPOILER ALERT: If vivid descriptions of breast-feeding bother you, then skip this post!
From the moment I became pregnant, I looked forward to breastfeeding. I read What To Expect When You’re Expecting forwards, backwards and sideways. I took prenatal vitamins, snacked on fruits and vegetables. As the due date approached, I bought all the necessities – diapers, stroller, crib. But I told my husband not to bother with formula. I knew with absolute certainty that I would be a Poster Mom for breastfeeding.
Within an hour of giving birth, my chest began to feel strange. An uncomfortable sensation of heat spread and I smiled, feeling a bone-deep connection to the tradition of mothers who have been breastfeeding their children through thousands of years. The heat in my chest intensified, followed by an odd “filling” sensation. I said something to my husband about the wonders of my post-partum body.
Then the pain hit. My breasts were unrecognizable – rock hard, gigantic, so painful that the weight of the hospital gown was agony. The tiniest movement, including breathing, hurt terribly. I had no nipples for a baby to latch onto, just a marble-smooth surface. I was alarmed, but the doctors and nurses reassured me that all was well. Yes, my breasts were “more engorged” than they had “ever seen”. But I shouldn’t worry. I’d be fine by the time my child grew hungry.
Two hours later, my son was screaming for a full meal. My boobs had morphed into bowling balls and worse, had missed the memo on timing. My baby was hungry, and my nectar-of-maternal-love-supply was non-existent. I hadn’t been a mother for 24 hours, and I was already a failure.
Enter the parade of specialists. Breast feeding experts, newborn specialists, La Leche League reps, post-partum nurses, parenting advisors, nutrition coaches. They scrutinized my every move as I tried (and failed) to feed my child. They examined every inch of my impressive chest, adjusted the way I held my baby. They checked my newborn’s mouth and tongue to make sure he could suckle effectively.
Most of these experts were sympathetic, but not all. Some grew frustrated, and one left the room yelling at me (a gut-shot for a mom brimming with post-partum hormones, holding a screaming infant, sporting a chest the size of a small planet). All acknowledged that my boobs were, to quote one specialist, “in a league of their own”.
The most creative expert was a nurse — kind, funny and determined to outsmart my uncooperative breasts. She rigged up a complicated system which included a test-tube of formula taped to my shoulder, with a thin straw to drain into a plastic nipple, which had a strategically placed hole. The theory: my baby would drink a mixture of colostrum (the prelude to mother’s milk) and formula. In a day or two, my boobs would become bored with being engorged, we would subtract out the formula, and my son would become entirely breast-fed.
I held my child to my breast, with my rigged up formula and my faux nipple. I barely breathed, hoping this would do the trick. Then my baby reached up with his little fist, and bonked the test tube smack off my shoulder, knocking the straw out of my plastic wonder-nipple. The formula in the straw dribbled down my belly, pooling in my navel. My firstborn then thoughtlessly batted his arm, and my plastic tit flew across the room. I tried to sort out the confusion, reach for a towel, cradle my son, but by then he was yelling in frustration, his food supply cut off. Hearing the wails, my husband rushed in to find his wife and first-born both in tears.
The next nine days were a haze of hot packs and cold packs, attempts and failures, formula in bottles always followed by feeling utterly defeated (me) and peaceful slumber (my son). Finally, on the dawning of Day Ten, I woke up and realized I was breathing without pain. In a few hours, my breasts reverted to normal.
I would have loved to breastfeed from the start, and maybe the next expert would have figured out the solution, but I wasn’t going to let my child suffer, hungry for 9 days. At the time, I had no perspective, no sense of humor. Although my son was thriving on bottle-fed formula, I still felt flattened, a failure. Breastfeeding was supposed to be a natural process. The conclusion was obvious: I wasn’t a “natural” mom.
Now I look back with the perspective of a mother whose three children range in age from 18 to 23. With each new baby, the same pattern followed: my boobs became bowling balls for nine days, and no specialist was able to figure out a way to jump the track. To my disappointment, all three grew attached to the bottle during those nine days, and only breastfed briefly. I tried to express milk, but my supply tapered off. I worried about long-term effects, but they all grew up healthy, productive members of society, and showed no signs of being morally compromised.
Since those first nine days, I’ve “failed” more times than I can count. I’ve struck out, missed the obvious, and just flat got it wrong. But there were also the times I got it so right I’m amazed. My perspective on parenthood has changed since those introductory days. I now understand that every stride, every step, every stumble — every failure, every success — are parts of the parenting process.
To all of you new moms and dads: I can guarantee that you’ll feel like a failure at times. Your boob may fly across the room. An “expert” may storm out screaming, “Something’s Wrong With You!” When you become a parent, failure is not an option; it’s a given.
And it’s okay.
Welcome to parenthood.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, deals with homophobic bullying in high school, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship. Her second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor working to guide the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case.
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