Growing up, I heard the same story about breastfeeding many times from my mother. She talked about trying, about me, my pitiable cries and lack of growth. She was nineteen. She blamed her youth, her lack of experience, her unsupportive husband. But mostly, she blamed her small boobs. Her tiny titties. Her flat chest. She could never make enough milk.
When I became pregnant, I was determined to breastfeed. I read the books about the womanly art and I attended the class at the birthing center. I remember the instructor telling the class, “anyone, unless they are very ill or have a medical condition can breastfeed.” I swallowed that whole. I printed it on my heart in capital letters. I told my mother on the phone, “Anyone can breastfeed. I will breastfeed.” I remember that phone call, I was walking around the neighborhood with the dog, trying not to trip over the leash as she looped my legs. The silence stretched out buzzing on the line between us and I waited for her to say that my boobs were too small, that I wouldn’t make enough milk so I could defiantly respond, “breast size doesn’t matter.” Of course I learned this in the class, from the woman who told me anyone can breastfeed.
Then I had a baby. My sweet girl. The birth was long and she had to be taken from the birthing center to the children’s hospital for a few days with a pneumothorax. I lost a lot of blood and my husband was pushing me around in a wheelchair while we waited for her release. I hadn’t planned on being gone more than a day or so and I ended up in the hospital without a bra, which apparently I lost somewhere, wearing a giant green pajama shirt. The NICU nurses would ring our room every few hours and in my paralyzing exhaustion, I would rouse Shane and he would roll me down to our little bug all surrounded by wires and I would try to nurse. I snuggled her in with the t-shirt flapping around her face, pooling around her little arms. Those were the only moments I felt anything besides numb. Her little warm face, her black hair, bright eyes, sharp arching eyebrows. When she finally latched, it felt like we were two magnets finding each other with a satisfying click. I felt like a mother.
I met my first lactation consultant. She came with jelly nipple covers and a simulated nursing system to add formula while I still tried to build my milk supply. I learned to use it. To pretend that I could nourish my baby and to run the little tube down from the syringe, past my nipple and fill my daughter’s tummy. With every new person in the room, I was told something less and less clear. The layers of conflicting information was a fog settling over me. It was okay that she had lost some weight. That was normal. She had lost too much weight. That was not normal. That I should absolutely keep trying to breastfeed and then the next minute a bottle of prepackaged formula appeared, beige in a neat little plastic bottle with a nipple to match. I was still telling myself that anyone can do it. Anyone means me.
When we got home, my loving mother-in-law had heated the house to 80 degrees. It was neat and clean, dinner on the stove. The baby cried and cried. The only way I could get her to stop was to sit on the edge of the bath tub with the water running. I stared at her like a constant question mark. Is she hungry? Or too full? Or gassy? Or maybe she misses the roaring white noise of the NICU.
People keep asking me if I was sure I wanted to breastfeed, why it’s so important, and if she’s still hungry. I add more formula, filled with doubt and disappointment, dripping it all over the my breast friend pillow, puddling beige to match my nursing bras. The whir of the pump and the roar of the water filling those first days. I want to tell someone, anyone, that I am hungry too. I feel it like the harsh whiteness of bones, the inside of my ribs empty and hollow. Hungry for certainty. Hungry to be sure that I am enough. That I can feed my own child. I don’t say anything. I just keep pumping. And pumping. And pumping.
The birthing center sends their lactation consultant to the house. She finds me in only my underwear, alone in my bedroom, holding my beautiful baby to my breast and praying like hell that she is getting enough food. She is a tiny woman with long hair and she enters my bedroom like she is my own grandmother. She plopped down next to me, her face warm and kind. She grabbed my right boob, squeezed it, and a spray of milk came out of the nipple. “That’s your producer,” she told me. And I was filled with joy and an embarrassing amount of pride. I had a “producer.”
I can’t tell you how many times I took my daughter in to be weighed. Driving to the breastfeeding store to have her weighed before and after a feeding. Trying not to look enviously at the women in the nursing room. Imagining their babies stuffed full, burping joyful, satisfied little burps. Confident in their mother’s abilities and in their love. Using my simulated nursing system to add formula, I was still mostly succeeding in dousing myself and the couch. I would only buy little bottles of formula because I was still telling myself that maybe, just maybe, I might not need it soon. I was ashamed. I didn’t want anyone to know about my trouble. My anxiety sometimes made it hard to breathe. I nursed under my cover and I hoped no one would ask me how it was going. When strangers commented on her size, I would have to excuse myself to the restroom to cry. I was so tired that I would forget advice as soon as it was given. I took so much fenugreek that I smelled like a pancake breakfast.
At my final checkup, I told one of the midwives about my trouble. Expecting her to tell me to pump after each feeding as I had been told about twenty times by then. Instead, she stared at my breasts, far apart with a flat expanse of sternum and rib between them. “Oh, I could have told you that you wouldn’t make enough. You have insufficient glandular tissue.” She placed a hand in the space between. That was that. I should have known. Sounds like a special kind of tiny tits to me. Insufficient boobs. My mama was right. I went to the car and clicked in the car seat. Then, I had a really satisfying laugh-cry. The kind that just won’t stop once you start. Tears bubbling from giggles. I felt free, humbled, relieved and sad.
I never went back to the breastfeeding store again. I never spoke to another lactation consultant. I did speak to a therapist about my postpartum anxiety. I went to the grocery store, got a full can of organic formula and I threw away the simulated nursing system. I also kept supplementing with breastfeeding for the next 18 months. It took time but I found what worked for us and I decided I didn’t need or want any more advice. I have a list of what I know about my body, about my small breasts, my heritage from my own mother and about my own experience. How I can nurture my baby in more ways than just calories. How once I wasn’t so stressed out about weight gain and output, nursing helped me to bond with my daughter and to overcome the trauma of my first birth. How it didn’t matter in the end if my baby had formula. Having this experience helped me connect to other moms who have struggled and gave me respect for all different choices when it comes to feeding babies. Most of all, I was finally able to start giving my kid a mom, who wasn’t measuring her worth in ounces.
Images by Heather Gallagher Photography