My first baby’s face was rosy and round. “Like a doll,” people said. But this wasn’t enough to make my lungs work on a cold February day. No flower scent, no hug could bring me back. That day, I thought I was dying.
I opened the door and felt the cold air. I paced. Nothing helped. So I called my husband, John, at work. Even his easy-going southern drawl wasn’t enough. I called 911, and they came out and took my pulse. She was screaming in the pack and play.
The EMT looked at me. She offered to come over and help some time. “What did I think about that?” she asked. My mouth was dry.
We went to urgent care; they feared a blood clot. So, we went to the ER. “Does she usually have trouble talking?” they asked John.
They waited for me to speak. They were like the soft sleep sack for rest, the car seat that carries, but I couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t be lifted. I was not the Mary with the baby; I was the Mom who could not breathe.
It started with my breasts. After I gave birth, I assumed my body worked the same as other women. The child would shimmy up my puffy after-birth belly and latch on. Soon my breasts were bleeding from trying. And then it didn’t matter because we discovered that little to no milk was coming from the spigot.
Here I was—the blue-eyed, brown-haired middle-class girl who went to college and married and did all the things she was supposed to do, and my body couldn’t feed my baby.
I tried harder. It didn’t work. One day, the lactation consultant sitting in the pretty room with the soft pillows stared at my breasts. “Can I touch them?” she asked. Her voice sounded like Delilah on the radio. She is trying to be kind, I told myself.
But it felt weird—that voice, those pillows. I told her no. I left with a diagnosis of mammary hypoplasia: little to no milk supply from insufficient glandular tissue.
The consultant advised me to keep her at the breast several times a day and to pump eight times a day. Ok. I stared at her, wondering when I would eat or just be.
But I couldn’t fail. So I pumped and sometimes got a quarter of an ounce. Was it enough? Would my doll-face not be stupid, overweight or get cancer? I didn’t know.
I started checking to see if she was breathing in the middle of the night: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight times.
And then John nicked the skin cutting her nails, and the bleeding made my breath stop.
One evening, I stared up at the stucco shapes on the ceiling of our bedroom, and John said I needed help for postpartum anxiety.
“No,” I said. I will be fine. I just needed to do this or that.
“No,” he said. He emailed the therapist, and I sat in her office with my daughter. I was grieving, she said, because I could not feed my daughter from my body. I took pills.
John told me to quit trying to place her mouth on my nipple and to stop using the pumping machine.
One day, I placed her on my warm chest, my heart rapid. The baby had lived off my body for nine months, but it didn’t need my body anymore. I put the pump in the little black bag in the trash. I poured the powder into the bottles. Each day after, I stared at my doll-face, the flesh of my flesh. I prayed and nourished her, and she grew.
And my lungs filled again.
Hilary Covil has been writing stories and poems since she first shared her story about a giant over the school intercom at her elementary school. Besides writing, she enjoys hiking, teaching preschoolers and being with her two daughters, Claira, 3, and Abigail, 9 months.