I had never felt anything like religious fervo..." /> LATCHED: Meg Lemke on Breastfeeding Troubles (and a Toddler) - Mutha Magazine


Published on September 3rd, 2013 | by Meg Lemke


LATCHED: Meg Lemke on Breastfeeding Troubles (and a Toddler)

I had never felt anything like religious fervor before having a baby. But I was converted to the myth that there is a right way to mother. When my daughter was days old, and she could not latch at the breast, I wrote “God forgive me for giving her formula.” In the terrifying sweep of postpartum exhaustion, I had fallen. God forgive me. I wept and wept.

But, you know, she is a pretty good kid despite those artificial ounces that she desperately ate when we desperately fed her. In the hospital, after 29 hours of labor and coming up on 48 hours of a newborn who couldn’t nurse, we gave her a little tiny medicine cup of Similac. She was hungry.   


This is not just a story about how I fed Lola formula and it was fine and everyone needs to calm down. That is also true. It is a mother’s responsibility to feed your baby. You do it the best you can.

My daughter is now over two years old and still nursing. Like, a lot. She is a nursling old enough to get stares even in Park Slope, Brooklyn. 

We worked hard; I lucked out. 

I was ultimately able to breastfeed because I forgave myself, in advance, if I ended up not sustaining the crazy effort it took for us. Mothers who told me they had made peace with supplementing taught me as much as the La Leche League leader who detailed her pumping exclusively for six months plus. The lesson of feeding Lola has been about acceptance and perseverance. It is a balance I hope to bring forward in my parenting.  

I couldn’t think months ahead without panic attack, but I was able to take it day-to-day, hour-by-hour. Rock the baby swing with one foot while hooked up. Pumping sucks (ha). I “protected my supply,” as we say, while waiting for Lola to grow. Babies will crawl to the breast from the moment of birth. Lola did that; she just couldn’t attach. We mixed the egg-yellow colostrum-y milk I was getting with formula. We practiced nursing, a heartbreaking acrobatic exercise. My husband would sit with me and help and feel helpless. The best advice I got was to stay calm. (I wasn’t able to follow it).

Pumping 8, 10, 12 times a day, I was often just an ounce ahead of my baby’s appetite. I drank cups and cups of bittersweet fenugreek tea. We kept formula in the cupboard, but after the first week or so, never used it again. I would open the can and stare at it. I would stare at my baby. She would sleep and wake, every moment a new wonder in her world. I pumped once or twice in the middle of every night. I knocked over the pump and sobbed hysterically over spilt milk. It is a living food.

Breastmilk in Bottle

Paced feeding to mimic nursing flow

We fed her with that medicine cup, then a syringe, then a tube taped to her father’s finger (while I waited nearby, pumping) and then (messily) to my breast. Then a bottle, and I was so profoundly embarrassed by it—that bottle. Friends would stop to congratulate us on the street, and I would interrupt “that’s breastmilk in there.” I was sure they were wondering.

When Lola was a newborn and scrabbling at my chest, the milk coming in, leaking down, but she couldn’t manage to get at it, it felt like both a betrayal and a failure. I was angry, deep, deep in my heart, though I held her closer and loved her so thuddingly. Little small babies are like animals. They are animals. They make squirrel noises and they root and paw. (They do not really love you back yet; you need to feed them a while first). 

The nurses at the hospital all had different tricks and ways of mashing me up and holding her sideways, but it didn’t take. We hired a lactation consultant who gave opposite advice. We used nipple shields, soaking them in warm water to stretch; sometimes they’d snap off and fly across the room. We cut Lola’s tongue at a flashy ENT in Manhattan; she was four days old. They put the baby to your breast directly after the snip, and the blood covers you. Nothing was covered by insurance. And her nursing attempts actually got worse after the procedure. They said Lola had to “get used to her new tongue.” Her father said to me “You never would have circumcised a son, yet you did this to her.” There’s a fad for frenotomy. Research and certainly anecdotes claim it helps many babies and mothers. But Lola may have just grown into herself. My husband, who has a tongue-tie himself, is sure she would have. (He nursed until he was three.)   

When you carry your newborn skin-to-skin, lull them to sleep with your breath, you increase milk supply. I used to balance Lola above the pump’s flanges while it chugged. 

The nursing toddler does tricks

Your children don’t always do what you want them to do. You love them. You wait them out. Nursing has been a pleasure for us much longer than it was a hardship. Lola wakes up now and she cries “Nuky! Milky SIDES!” (a phrase derived from “one side and then the other”). She laughs and does a little dance when I pull down the neck of my shirt. (Toddlers like routine; if I try to go under the shirt she gets p-i-s-s-ed).

We nurse through the dawn, I dream during. She nurses down for (almost) every nap. We used to nurse all night, hour upon hour. She nurses her babies; her kitty; her dino; she fishes my bra from the laundry, wrapping it around a few times “by her own-self” and snuggles the dolly in. I nurse her on the subway, in my lap at dinner, or during the lullaby in our music class. She says “milky ’puter (computer), milky couch, milky floor, milky bed,” wherever I think to sit. She literally stands on her head and nurses.

I still feel like we just got this thing going; some days it seems it might never end.

I want to capture that sense. You turn around and they are grown.

Baby with Baby in Carrier

She carries and nurses her babies “like Mama”

When Lola was born, I went almost daily to nursing support groups. A clinical circle of folding chairs at the pediatrician’s, everyone stunned in post-partum narcissism, surrounded by each other’s worry and glow. I did the elevator lift to stop her crying—raising her slowly up and down.  She was quiet—but she screamed again when I brought her to the breast. And the consultant told me she just didn’t know how to help me. I broke down. It felt like something was really wrong with my child.

The Tuesday group at the hospital, in an ugly back room, with an awesome Australian LC. You could weigh your baby before and after feeding—don’t change the diaper, it all counts!—and subtract the difference to see what they managed to take in. Comparing numbers with the other mamas, starting that cycle of sizing your kid up against their peers that never stops until you stop it. On Thursdays, a yoga studio where the consultant lectured us for a half-hour about politics–and Lola latched for one of the first times. My back against a rolled up yoga blanket, closing my eyes, remembering to breathe, the pain and the reversing contractions. The oxytocin hits like a deep sip of wine. I was finally (a little bit) calmed.

Before the first La Leche League meeting I attended, when Lola was a few weeks old, I wrote the leader because I was afraid to bring a bottle. But despite the ways LLL meets its stereotypes, there are more ways it doesn’t. She wrote back, “Please come… While you are working on the breastfeeding, you have to feed your baby. That is the #1 priority! So no one will dispute that.” La Leche League has a bias, and they honor a certain sacrifice. But while most clinics focus on ways to nurse efficiently, LLL teaches giving yourself over to the time it can take.

Time was what we needed. When Lola did start nursing, her latch was still shallow–I cracked and bled (and got thrush and vasospasms and blocked ducts). Then I still had to pump after every feeding. She would take 45 minutes or more to nurse and was hungry every 1-2 hours. I’d pump the 20 minutes in between. Sit dazed for ten. It was too much but it’s always too much when they are newborns, everything is too much. This was just our too much.

Now when we nurse it is a rest, a game, a ritual. What was claimed to be born natural, became natural. It took months, but got better when I stopped using the iphone app to track, when I learned to nurse her in the baby carrier and sling, when I could walk out the door with her latched. Lola’s first baby signs were “more” and “milk.” She learned to say “please” when I coached her to ask nicely for access. The beauty of nursing a toddler is that as insistently as they may want it, they don’t need it. It is an emergency when you can’t feed your newborn. Now Lola eats curry wrap and waffles and lentils and “cow-milk-in-cup, IN CUP. No! OTHER cup!” Nursing becomes a conversation.

It was mothers helping mothers that got me through. And fear of their judgment; shame and anticipated shame motivated me, unmistakably. I hate to admit how much. Breastmilk is best. I wish I could write that fact, without being sorry how much judgment it can carry. Best isn’t always an option. We need better support for mothers who are trying to nurse, and support when they can’t. We parent our “best” in degrees; we do the best we can.

When my daughter was born she was a revelation. I was so happy; but it was so hard. It was all worth it.


If you are having trouble nursing:

-Get help. Turn down advice that you don’t want. Opinions will conflict; be critical of received wisdom. It’s your child.

-Go to a (free!) La Leche League meeting and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Go when you’re still pregnant, if you can. Bring the leader’s number to the hospital.

-If you give birth in a hospital, ask to see the on-staff lactation consultant. Prepare a list of consultants you can contact if you need more help after you’re discharged. Comparison shop in advance. While I don’t dispute that lactation consultants should be paid as well as any professional, their services are rarely covered by insurance. (Nursing support should not be a luxury expense.) For homebirth, ask your midwife if she has LCs on call. 

-Pick up Breastfeeding Made Simple and The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. Read www.kellymom.com

Protect your supply. Practice. Time can often make the difference. Be patient with yourself and with your baby. Try to sleep when you can. Take it day-by-day.

Baby on Chest

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About the Author

Meg Lemke is the Editor-in-Chief of MUTHA. She is also the comics and graphic novels reviews editor at Publishers Weekly. Her past roles include as chair of the comics and graphic novel programming at the Brooklyn Book Festival, series editor at Illustrated PEN and curator of youth and comics programs at the PEN World Voices Festival, and program development for the French Comics Association. She has been a book editor at Teachers College Press at Columbia University, Seven Stories Press, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Her writing has appeared in The Paris ReviewThe Seattle Review, The Atlanta Review, The Good Mother Myth, and Seleni, among other publications. She lives with her family in the dense mother-zone of Park Slope, Brooklyn. Find her @meglemke and meglemke.tumblr.com or read up on her formative years at Lady Collective.

7 Responses to LATCHED: Meg Lemke on Breastfeeding Troubles (and a Toddler)

  1. Maria says:

    Yes!!! Thank you for writing this. I also had major difficulties nursing my baby, cracked nipples, crying as I nursed her, and pumping. I hated pumping! By the end of that time, I was so tired of people looking at and talking about my breasts, even as they tried to help me. But it was SO worth it at the end. We finally got it going. And she nursed til she was four.

  2. jessica says:

    Beautiful! Thanks for this, and to Michelle Tea for posting it on FB (I’ll be sharing this sucker). And, yeah, it IS best, in the health-immunity-it’s-the-tailor-made-food-for-that-kid-obvious ways, the bonding ways, the health-benefits-for-the-mom ways, the food-on-the-go-at-the-ready ways. But as we crossed over the one-year line, then the two-year line, the benefits were more surprising, less widely discussed (except w/ 2 dear fellow extended BFers from a “fourth trimester” support group at the hospital). Friends around me fretted about their toddlers’ nutrition; mine, still breastfeeding a few times a day, always had a complete nutritional base, so whether she ate or what she ate or when she ate it just kind of progressed and happened. The coolest part was what a respite the boob became, as she ventured into little personhood. That pattern of explore, explore, nurse was so clearly a comfort and a way to chill and regroup. I decided around 2 years to go the distance, out of curiosity; because I wouldn’t be having another child; because she’d thus far led the way w/ potty and sleep “training” and I figured shed do the same with weaning — stop when she was done. I was admittedly feeling pretty done by 2-1/2, and started contemplating an exit strategy. And then she stopped, at 2 months shy of 3 years old. She didn’t ask, I didn’t offer, for an unprecedented 2 days and nights. On the third day, she went to nurse and it tasted terrible. I tried it, and it was salty — that same taste as when a plugged duct is brewing. She did a couple more taste tests after that…but that was that. She remembers nursing, and we talk about it sometimes. She sighed once this summer (transitioning into kindergarten) and said she wished there was still milk in there. She also asked for the Ergo, at 50 pounds. I held her a lot that week. It was a fucklot of work (but so, so easy in other ways), and I can’t think of anything more worth it. A few tired years, and tired tits, for, oh, A LIFETIME OF IMMUNITY-BOOSTING GOODNESS AND SENSE OF SECURITY IN THE WORLD? Yeah, it’s best (but also complicated, and personal). XO

  3. Jessica says:

    There is so much guilt when one can’t breastfeed successfully. I tried and tried and tried. Then I pumped exclusively, and the finally couldn’t even get that to work anymore. Little did I know that my mother, my mother’s mother, and my father’s mother all couldn’t breastfeed either! I wish I would have known that before I beat myself up so much and wasted so many days of my daugther’s newborn life being upset and unhappy.

  4. Meg! We hung out in our formative twenties–I spent New Year’s 2000 with you and Rachel. I’ve been looking for you around the web for a while now and BAM here you finally are. You were always such a Gustav Klimt goddess and I adored you. Love your writing as always…send me a note if you can.

  5. Lauren J says:

    Meg – so glad you shared all this! I had no idea we had such a similar nursing story. Except for the tounge-tie, the constant pumping, weighing, crying, pumping, weighing, crying were also my whole life for Jacob’s first 8 weeks of life (followed by another six months of “allergy” drama). You write so beautifully about what was definitely the single hardest period of my entire life and I’m so happy you came out on the other side!


  6. stacey perry-lowman says:

    I love this story…thanx for sharing your journey. It made my perfect Saturday night read.

  7. ciara says:

    it’s amazing that your LLL leader had any info on exclusive pumping. i had never even heard of it before my daughter was born. she arrived two months early & grew her first tooth three weeks later. she had just learned how to latch when she grew the tooth (she was being fed mainly through a nasogastric tube because she was too small to take all her nutrition by mouth). the tooth ruined her latch & she only successfully latched once after that, when she was about six months old. i exclusively pumped for 16 months. i went to a LLL meeting two weeks after she was released from the NICU to get info on exclusive pumping: what’s the best way to store milk? how do i use frozen milk? will i always have to pump eight times or day or can i eventually scale back? how does one wean a bottle-fed baby? but no one there had any insight for me. i was told that i’d never be able to keep up with her just by pumping & i might as well give up & start formula because that’s what i’d have to do eventually anyway, if i “refused to try” to breastfeed. this, after spending hours sitting next to her isolette at this hospital, trying desperately to breastfeed my five-pound daughter who was basically still a fetus, still connected to an oxygen pump. LLL was an almost comically bad experience for me.

    but i persevered & figured out exclusive pumping on my own. i just stopped pumping a couple of weeks ago.

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