Milk

Published on August 31st, 2020 | by Lauren Tanabe

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When the Monsters Live in Mom’s Closet

My second and youngest daughter was born at the end of a cord so long the midwives marveled. I suspect she knew I was conflicted, labor being double the time it was for her older sister, as if neither of our bodies would yield to the other. When she finally did burst through, already adorned with a swath of jetblack hair and a strawberry mark on her arm, she was full of colic and rage. She shook her tiny fists at the world and spent her spare time screaming. When I’d pull her close, she’d arch away, stiffening her doll-like limbs.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When my pregnancy made itself known, my belly swelling swiftly, I already knew something had shifted. There was no fanfare, relatives treading softly on the back of a miscarriage divulged just weeks earlier. I tried not to think about becoming a mother again, which is nearly impossible when there is another body ruthlessly compressing your innards, each day shrinking the space in which you yourself have to exist. I eventually forgave myself these indiscretions, for wanting more space than I was allowed, for treating each pregnancy and subsequent child, differently.

I did not feel this way with my first. I welcomed her into my body. I scrutinized her development in weekly intervals naming her anew to reflect how she’d grown: Olive, Strawberry, Clementine. I let data guide my visions of her. I knew at 16 weeks she could see light and so I gave her two cornflower blue eyes, at 18 weeks she could hear and so I gave her two perfect, translucent ears, and started to sing to her. I knew when she was covered in downy fur, like a tiny Chewbacca. And I knew when she was born I would breastfeed.

As a science PhD, data consoled me. I wrapped myself in it, used it as a talisman against the gremlins that hitched a ride with the baby, threatening to snatch her back to the underworld if not positioned just so in the car seat or crib. I was not prepared for the abrupt way my world bent to her, how unprecedented love coiled with unprecedented fear. I used breast milk the way my grandmother and mother did prayer, whispering novenas into the ears of saints, trying to shift the trajectory of fate. This was how I would protect my child from dying in her sleep, cancer, celiac disease, from the germs that vied to get inside of her, how I would eradicate the modern-day bogeymen of motherhood. And when my second came, this was how I would redeem myself, what would undo my misdeeds from that dark period when she was suspended in utero and I was on the cusp of oblivion, flailing in the black hole of a depression that consumed me, that threatened to steal away both our lives.

I remembered four years earlier, the strong, brown hands of our lactation consultant gripping my breast. “Hold it like it’s a nipple sandwich! You want to smoosh it into her mouth,” she would boom, squishing my boob tighter, trying to get my first born to latch. Eventually she did. Then she didn’t stop for two years. But my youngest hated nipple sandwiches, shrieking at the sight of them. She lost weight in those early days, prompting visits to the pediatrician’s, where I’d leave with a goody bag full of formulas. They’d also arrive unsolicited in the mail, as if all the world knew I was failing at the most primal of motherly duties.

Breast milk is lush with protective antibodies that coat the internal organs, repelling microbial infiltration. The baby’s latch transmits what it needs to the mother’s body and the milk adjusts. Molecules swirl together, bespoke blends squelching viruses and supporting growth. As when in the womb, the wordless dynamic between mother and child repeats in iterations, their connection beyond consciousness. My youngest couldn’t care less, declaring an end to nursing through her own cryptography of headbutts, boob slaps, and one hard bite with brand new, tiny, sharp teeth. I rubbed the bloody crescents feeling vanquished, branded with proof of my inadequacies that seemed to pile up as easily as laundry.

“Take warm baths with her,” a doula told me.

“Offer her the breast but don’t force her,” said a website.

“I’ve never seen a baby go back to the breast after bottles,” smirked a pediatrician.

I still couldn’t fathom how we got here. While pregnant the second time around, nursing was the only thing I didn’t fret about, having traversed nearly every obstacle the first presented. In fact, as I struggled with my littlest, there would be the oldest, eyeing us with jealousy, asking if she could nurse again while the baby pushed against me screaming. After months of attempting every contortion that existed in the space between her mouth and my breast, it became clear that if I wanted her to have my milk (and this, I knew I needed), it would have to be pumped, squeezed, and wrung out of me.

My relationship with the pump started innocently. Tucked away, it called to me like a siren, singing promises it couldn’t possibly keep: a quick fix, a reprieve from a restless child whose screams prompted others to ask alarmingly, “Should you take her to the hospital?”

“This is just what she does,” I would say.

I told myself it was temporary; it was just to see how much milk I made and how much she drank. A lot. On both accounts. I felt the dopamine buzz of accomplishment. I beamed at the overflowing milk shelf in the refrigerator. My husband did calculations in his head. “If you keep this up, we’ll have enough to leave her with my mom for a whole weekend!”

Maybe I would’ve maintained some kind of balance if my milk had continued to slosh wildly into bottles. But my body became stingy. My frozen milk packets dwindled. Pumps, no matter how advanced, can’t compare to a mouth that evolved to suck. And since milk production depends on demand, exclusive pumping is Sisyphean. To stave off the decline I ingested galactagogues, stirring brewer’s yeast into oatmeal. I purchased hope on the late-night internet, capsules and herbal elixirs to stimulate production. I drank gallons of water. I power-pumped. I meticulously logged each session’s pull, all eight of them. The pump didn’t just creep into the periphery of my new life, it swallowed it whole. My infant was left to the care of sitters and bottles or on a blanket screaming in front of me while I sat trying to wring milk out of me. Stopping wasn’t an option even though the constant ritual clawed at my mental health. Breast milk equaled good mother, something I was desperate to be.

My baby grew heavier. The pump grew heavier. I pumped while driving, grocery shopping, and pumping gas with my hand’s-free milk collectors. I hauled my now hospital-grade pump around, the tote strap leaving dents behind, the imperfectly positioned repositories leaving abrasions, kinked breasts ceding bloodied milk. I squeezed what was left out of each inside of my car or coffee shop bathrooms. I poured it into empty Starbucks cups, when sleep-deprived I’d forgotten containers. Breast milk was supposed to heal my maternal shortcomings. Instead the pump became a harpy, rapacious and dangerous, conjuring the milk at a steep price. There would be no lazy days like there was with my first, drunk on oxytocin, enveloped in the glow of a new life. Instead I was strung out on cortisol, anxieties blazing, feeling defunct and rageful that the vibrating battery-capable pump in its revolting shade of pink took its place in my lap instead of my new child. My postpartum days grew longer, darker, and more lonesome than I ever could’ve imagined. And I grew more obsessive, compulsive, and abusive to myself, convinced that the thin plastic tubes that radiated from the pump, like greedy tentacles, were the only thing that tethered me to my daughter.

Photo by Ryan Ancill Shulman on Unsplash

Eventually the interventions began. Gentle nudging turned to angry insistence. Even as she drank more formula than milk, even as I felt the chasm between my baby and me, myself and my sanity, widening, even as I felt my marriage splitting open, I pumped. When my husband asked if I was hellbent on destroying everything around me for milk, I threw my pump across the kitchen just narrowly missing his head.

I finally did stop,  just shy of the one year mark after a stomach virus, my dehydrated body surrendering milk shockingly red. Shuddering with repulsion as I held the bottles up to the light, the sickly hue pricking me awake. I threw it down the drain, declaring pumping over. I surveyed the damage and wondered how much was permanently lost.

There are photos from that year: first (sharp) teeth, first ponytail, first steps, a conspicuously absent mother. I try to recall her scent, the weight of her body. Those infant memories aren’t sharp or vivid, but smudged and still smoldering, remnants of hazy fears, even years later rising up from the ashes. There are other memories, too: the compulsive loop of tonics and herbs, better pump models and protocols to force the milk out of my unyielding body for an unyielding baby; the endlessness of it all.

I wish I could say it was worth sacrificing nearly every relationship to eke out sustenance. Instead my body remembers the abuse, the bright red drippings, the isolation, the need for obliteration because I felt inadequate to become a mother again.

The pumps and tubing and accessories are packed away, obsolete and unmissed for well over a year. Instead my children now vibrate around me like pudgy sprites. “Mama, Mama, watch this!” they chatter. I no longer fear being left alone with my littlest, who puzzled me painfully, whose tiny muscles used to strain against me, who said “Dada,” first. She squeals with laughter as she runs like a drunkard; she grabs my face giving me slobbery open mouthed kisses, and insists that we walk hand in hand sometimes just around the coffee table. She clings to me when she isn’t leaping off of the ottoman, her floppy hair covering her eyes because she refuses to keep it fastened, refuses to be encumbered in any way. She is the untamed, wild, beautiful child she’s always been who I’ve just recently found. When she folds herself into me and we twirl to the Bangles as my oldest belts out “Manic Monday,” I know I am forgiven. We dance in spite of that first absurd year, in spite of the monsters and the pumps now still and silent in the closet. We fumble our way through the imperfect world, finding each other over and over again.

feature photo (pump in field) by Olav Tvedt on Unsplash

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About the Author

Lauren Tanabe

Lauren Tanabe is a NYC transplant and writer living in Detroit with her husband and two young daughters. In another life she was a scientist and has a PhD from Columbia University. She is interested in the intersection between modern-day motherhood, identity, and mental health. Her essays have recently appeared in The Washington Post. You can find her at ltanabe.com or on Twitter @lauren_tanabe.



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