Friday, April 29, 2011

In the blink of an eye

Wow. I can hardly believe that it's been 10 years since Everett entered the world.

No one could have prepared me for any aspect of this experience. Nothing they would have said would have any meaning until I had this experience myself. No one could have impressed upon me the instant appreciation I would have for my own mother, or how my own concept of love would transform.

I chose to breastfeed Everett after my sister, who had studied anthropology as an undergraduate, sent me two books which would forever change my view of the maternal role: Kathy Dettwyler's Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives, and Janet Tamaro's humorous So That's What They're For! (a book I would later share with any friend who even mentioned the likelihood of pregnancy to me).

The first book served to instill in me a certain appreciation for the historical and cultural importance of breastfeeding and how it strengthens the mother-infant bond. Apes do it, hogs do it, even educated dogs do it, so why couldn't I? I would be doing my child a disservice to do otherwise.

Tamaro's book would convince me that it was anything but natural. Formula companies and the nurses in the delivery room would do their best to undermine my efforts to do the natural. And, even if they didn't, there were a host of problems that might creep up which would make me want to run to the nearby Kmart and get some formula, if I didn't already have some land on my doorstep with the aid of the mailman.

And, that's pretty much how it went. Everett was born early on a Friday morning. I can't remember if I knew it at the time, but breastfeeding success is in large part determined by the mother-infant interaction in the first hour after birth. I didn't offer my nipple in that first hour, as I was having some, um, mending done. After two hours, I had tried to get him to nurse once, and the young childless nurse who was tending to me, in her gentle way, started to freak out. She said that if I didn't get him to nurse, we would have to give him some formula.

I couldn't believe that within two hours the subtle advertisements had already shifted to overt recommendations. Luckily, being somewhat informed, I was able to realize that I could request a breast pump. They did not give me an electric model; they gave me the Medela hand model. I actually expressed about two teaspoons of colostrum. The nurses were awestruck. They had never seen anyone do that before.

The next day, a lactation consultant came to visit us in the wonderful family recovery rooms they had at Kaiser Permanente Riverside Medical Center. She helped me nurse using the football hold, and then she showed me how to nurse laying down. She had just left the room, and I was thinking how wonderful it was going to be to be able to lay down and feed Everett when my nurse came in and started screaming that he was turning blue. His lips were blue, and apparently he had aspirated on some breastmilk. I was advised not to nurse him laying down.

It seemed like anything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. I had inverted nipples, and they were big ones. I would read later in studying for La Leche League Leadership that breastfeeding success is not as great in overweight women.

Erick was fortunate enough to be able to stay home with us for the first three days, with us both lamenting over each and every feeding, debating over whether to supplement with formula. On the third day, I became terribly engorged, and the pain was so great I was in tears. This prompted my first call to La Leche League, where I spoke to a very patient Leader who informed me of my options (nursing more frequently, as opposed to the every 3-4 hours recommended at the hospital, hand expression, cabbage leaves, frozen peas, and ibuprofen). Because I was still having trouble getting Everett to latch on, I drove back to the hospital by myself on the following Tuesday to get a surrogate baby, er, breast pump.

Erick had returned to work on Monday. The company which employed him had fewer than 50 employees, so they were exempt from the Family Medical Leave Act. He had saved up enough vacation time to take two weeks off, but they claimed they could not be without him for those two weeks. They did this on Monday morning.

I pumped every 3-4 hours, and tried to feed Everett from the breast between those times. On Wednesday, I finally went in for the New Mom Clinic that Kaiser offered. The one on the weekend had been full, so my visit with the postpartum nurses and lactation consultants was about three days after the usual. At that Clinic, I would finally learn how to sit and nurse, using the Boppy pillow. I was sure that women in Africa didn't need such things, but I had four left feet, and even with my new La-Z-Boy recliner, I had to make sure that I had a phone, remote, and water bottle before I sat down to nurse the baby, because once I sat there, it was going to be a while before I was able to get up again, and nobody was there to help me.

Because I had been expecting to be home with my husband and son, I asked my mother to wait two weeks to visit. Fortunately, my dear mother-in-law showed up unexpectedly that next Thursday (if I remember correctly), and did all the things a new mom's helper should do. She cooked for me, she cleaned, she changed diapers. All I had to do was lay around with my baby. Unfortunately, I wasn't wise enough to do that, so I think I helped troubleshoot the sprinkler system that weekend. Or something like that. (Hindsight is 20/20). I remember feeling really uncomfortable with my in-laws around, because Erick's mom had not breastfed her children, and, well, I wasn't very adept at breastfeeding, so doing it discretely around his dad felt like an impossible feat. When I nursed (which I would put off each time), I would go hide in the bedroom to do it.

Nursing in the bedroom was difficult for me.  I felt like I couldn't lay down, because I wasn't sure if he would be able to breathe. Was I going to smother him with my gigantic knockers? Would he spit up like a drunken college student and choke on his own vomit? So, I had to prop myself up, put my knees up, and nurse him in my lap. It felt totally unnatural, and my legs and back grew very tired doing this. Nonetheless, it was how I nursed him most nights, because I was too tired to get out of bed.

Shortly after Erick's mom and dad left, I was reclining on the sofa, watching Everett who was in a breastmilk-induced coma. I noticed that he did not breathe very often, and I became concerned. I started counting the number of seconds between breaths, and called the doctor, who recommend that I come in to see her immediately. This resulted in him being admitted to the hospital for a sleep study, where he was hooked up to machines, and prescribed medications to control his reflux.

My mother arrived on the third day we were in the hospital. When we all went home, my Sleepy, Sweet, Pukey baby had become the Baby Who Would Not Stop Screaming. We looked at the informational sheets given to us with the prescriptions, and found that the main side effect was headache. We deduced that the way a baby would respond to a headache might be by screaming, and decided to discontinue the medicines. Within a day, our Sleepy, Sweet, Pukey baby had returned. My sister came a few days later, and she and my mom were tremendously helpful. We did a lot of sitting around and resting, and just being with Everett.

About 6 weeks had passed before the pain from my baby egress port subsided enough that I could get up from and sit down on the recliner without wincing. Around that time, nursing was getting a little easier, too. Between 6 and 8 weeks postpartum is when the supply and demand tends to level out, though that wasn't what happened to us, since I was still pumping a couple times a day so I would have the ability to feed Everett a bottle when we would leave the house on occasion. We did, however, have the whole nursing thing figured out, finally.

Early on, I didn't know anyone else who was breastfeeding. It felt strange and unnatural to me, and I wasn't confident enough to do it in public. So, I pumped. What an inconvenience this was. It created an oversupply which certainly aggravated Everett's reflux, required me to purchase endless types of nipples for him to reject that would all eventually end up in a landfill, and use lots of electricity, natural gas, and water to continually sterilize the supplies. The really silly part of the whole ordeal was that only a handful of times did someone other than myself feed him a bottle! I rearranged my entire life as a new mother to pump daily to not risk offense to theoretical judgmental people who lack the self-esteem to allow others to choose to do as they wish.

Anyway, wow, could this little guy vomit like a champ! Both of us had to change outfits several times a day, that is, until I decided that spit-up smell was not as bad as having to do laundry constantly. As the weeks went on, the spitting up was not just spitting up. There was high-pitched screaming, and lots of Erick and I taking turns holding a clearly uncomfortable baby. He was happy in a stroller, riding in a car, and being held certain ways, but not much of the rest of the time. I remember calling my mother in tears, telling her that he was not happy unless he was being held. She gave me some wise advice, which I carry with me to this day: "This will pass. You won't be carrying him down the aisle at graduation."

For some reason, that advice made carrying him seem like so much less of a task, and so much more like a gift. This was a time that would pass quickly. I began to see it all as something I would desperately try to record in as much detail as possible. I would try to catch as many granules of sand as possible as they slipped through the hourglass.

And here, I can tell you, that ten years later, I still carry this advice in my heart. It feels like his beautiful soul came into my life just yesterday. Every day with him has been the greatest gift. All the early difficulties now feel so far away. All the Mylicon, diapers, loads of laundry, backaches, lost socks, and Cheerios are gone, just like that. In the blink of an eye, he has transformed from a helpless infant into the sensitive, curious, kind and just person he is today. I will continue to treasure each minute I have with him, because this too shall pass.