On the third floor of the hospital, we arrive – some of us, awkwardly, with over-packed strollers, diapers and formula supplies oozing out – others with only child in a sling on our still bloated frames. Our eyes are hollowed, puffy, sleep deprived. There in the open room, we are guided through a line up. This way, please. A nurse’s arm reaches out like a chauffeur; it touches one of our backs and we wonder when someone last held our tender places. We move forward and follow the others, first disrobing our bundled infants, hefty diapers and all. It is crucial to get an accurate starting weight. Some babies’ faces scrunch and let out a whimper, others wail immediately, and some remain as silent as they began. All of them, naked and exposed are placed on a scale, a clear plastic tray that holds their day, week and month old bodies. Numbers are noted and fresh diapers are fastened. Onesies and leggings, still warm, slide over limber arms, legs and bellies.
We move forward, waiting for what’s next. Some of us sit with our doe eyes wide and bewildered. Others glance at nearby mothers and begin to chat. Some of us laugh. Some of us cry. Some of us laugh and cry at the same time, a mix of wet faces and unpredictable expressions. Each of us is here, some for the first and only time, others as devoted as holy churchgoers. For most of us, we carry our firstborns. Some of us have experienced this before and are back with the same hope and determination. We wear breast pads that remain as dry as they were when we first tucked them beneath the opening of our tunics. We envy mothers who ring our their breast pads. I can’t stop leaking! We desire for the ache in our breasts to be one of fullness and suppleness, not of an arid crackling, a deserted wasteland of blood and drought.
Some of us smell of maple syrup from the doses of fenugreek guaranteed to fill our breasts with the milk our children long for. Others take stronger pills, ones scribbled on tiny white sheets of paper and signed for a woman in a smock the same crisp color that will fill the prescription and advise us of its risks. The side effects are worth it. My production will go up. Many of us attach tubes to our breasts; milk from cows leak into the mouths of our hungry babies, open and eager like fledglings. Their tiny lips close around our breasts, but it is not us they drink – it is milk of another species. Some of us have tried making a coconut milk concoction. Others warily ask of milk from other mothers; the thick cream causes our children to throw up vigorously, their tiny tummies unaccustomed to such rich fats.
Let’s see what we have here. Two nurses move from woman to woman, child to child, and listen to their stories. Voices are strong. Voices are brittle. Breasts are exposed in pure sunlight. Some, sure to provide sufficiently based on size only offer a mere ounce, our large sand-dollar areolas taunting our babies. Other breasts, the size of tiny sand castles, are beautifully shaped. They are dark and light, large and small – filled with stories of failure and frustration. Babies suckle, but none gulp. Nurses slide their fingers against nipples and gummed mouths. They check for latching and tongue-tying. Their hands are delicate and determined, and their eyes never judge.
Hours pass and the process continues. Babies, now fed, are disrobed once more and weighed. There is a simple calculation: subtract second weight from first weight to see how much milk the baby receives from its mother. The numbers always vary, and the numbers are always low. The children, still hungry and agitated, are then given formula. Mothers whose breasts have offered one ounce more than usual, leave pleased. Others fill a bottle and watch our child’s belly rise as tears empty from our own eyes, the ones that are supposed to be strong and assured. Some will thank the nurses, hug another woman, brush fingers across the cheek of our child, and walk out of the room, knowing we’ll return next week. Others will leave as quietly as we came never to return, never to tell of our story. One will take a tiny blue pill the size of her baby boy’s fingernail guaranteed to lift her spirits. Another will give up all together – she will cry and cover up her breasts, let them dry and empty canisters of powdered milk until her child’s teeth have punctured through. One will find a way to dance through a blend of options – milk from others, from herself, from formula – and her son will nurse until he is able to run and skip, tell stories, and talk of his dreams. Another, though she knows she cannot fulfill her child’s hunger, will slip down the rim of her shirt each time her daughter cries; it will end her tears immediately, and that comfort pleases the mother. To her, she and her daughter are a success.
Some of us read stories of African tribes who drank American donated formula for the nutrients and continued to pass their children from breast to breast. We talk of these stories with women who were once strangers that now have become our closest friends. Some prefer to keep our friendships distant and join support groups online. Some cry to husbands. One husband cries with her, his compassion a mirror that holds them. Another strokes his wife’s hair. I’m so proud of you. One argues with the mother of his child and tells her to stop trying, to take care of herself and give formula guiltlessly. She tries to follow the advice but cannot. One carries her worries with her until her child has moved onto the pureed foods. Another never let it bother her. My body gave what it could. One of us wonders if it was because of the birth. Is there a correlation between cesareans and milk insufficiency? A few of us continue to track patterns, graph minutes between feedings, eager to find answers. Others never consider the ways things link. Some of us are just luckier than others. All of us roll our eyes when we are told at least your baby is healthy. We want to scream. We want to pound our fists and kick our legs. We want someone to understand we give all we can for the health of our children.
Some of our children were born with an APGAR of 2. Some suffocated in the tight canals of our wombs. One came in a rush of water at home. Another was an emergency cesarean. Each of them, as with their mothers, though tied to the universality of motherhood and life, arrived with their own story. And each of them will not know of the ways their mothers wanted to fill their mouths with the sweet love and nutrition of their bodies. That’s all we knew from the start – to carry a child wholly, with all of ourselves. All of their tethers will loosen as their hair lengthens and legs elongate. Their voices will deepen and speak of opinions learned and unlearned. Many will never ask if we breastfed. Some of us will share our stories with our offspring. Others will never mention that first year. All of them will dress, their boyish and girl breasts covered. We too will hide the skin that was so often exposed to the cool spring breeze, the two fat stores that quickly changed from pleasure to production. They will loosen and wither. They will drop and change. They will have arrived in one condition and leave, most certainly – like each of us – forever changed.
A writer of various genres, Jessica Malone Latham’s prose has been featured in Brain, Child, Literary Mama, Mamalode, Mothering, NPR’s local station, Speak Mom and Tiny Buddha, and her Japanese poetry has been published in various journals and anthologies. She is currently at work on her first novel, and a nonfiction parenting book for mother and child’s delicate first year. website: www.jessicalatham.com blog: www.rowdyprisoners.com twitter: @rowdyprisoners