Sunday, June 5, 2011

What would you do?

One of the great things about being the parent of a (now, nearly) 11-month old baby is that I am suddenly an expert. I am an expert because I know things now that I did not know before. Like, how a napkin can entertain a baby for many long minutes. Or, that movement is always good, no matter the circumstance. That my body and mind can withstand significantly more pain than I once gave them credit for.

Truthfully, though, I am not really an expert in being a parent. I am an expert in being Jack's parent. Us parents are specialists by nature, and my subdiscipline is an 11-month old social bunny that currently lives in New Haven, CT, enjoys saying "Uh-Oh", and eats sardines and lemons like there's no tomorrow.

I often feel weird about talking to other (newer) mothers. Talking to a (newer) mother puts me in the position of giving advice, and although I LOVE giving advice, I recognize that advice is not generally wanted.

But then I'll be in that position, with an expecting, worried, inquiring, new mom, and suddenly I find myself tossing out cliches left and right: "Don't worry, it'll get better", "Once you think you know them, they'll change!", "Just wait until...", etc. Honestly, it's inevitable. After spending (now, nearly) 11 months having your every waking moment consumed by a tiny being, sleeping in 1-4 hour intervals, losing the ability to do things as simple and small as, say, peeing on your own terms... you feel slightly qualified, if not downright self righteous. Why not apply your own experiences to someone else's (completely different) life?

I know, I know. I even annoy myself.

So. I found myself in the position of... wishing to intervene... in two recent situations. I ask my readers (you're out there! I know you're out there!): what would you do?

1. Lactation Consultants don't always give good advice. Shouldn't have said something, but I did.

I was in the Yale Bookstore with Jack on Sunday afternoon. He was pulling books off the shelf. I was trying to read the dust jackets as I rapidly replaced them. We were having a grand old time. Then we ran into what appeared to be a very young infant with a very new mother.

It turned out that the baby was just 3 weeks old. The mom and I chatted for a while. Her husband came over. They were very nice. I asked her if she was nursing, and then she said something about the complication of nursing while giving formula, too.

Voice inside my head: shut up, Rachael. Don't go there, Rachael. It's none of your business, Rachael.

So of course I didn't listen to the voice inside my head.

I asked her if there was a reason she was going half and half, and, get this now... she said her lactation consultant told her to. Then it turns out that she took a decongestant in the first week of nursing.

What?! This woman is treated by the same [descriptive word removed] doctors at the Yale Health Plan that I am.

Who the hell tells a new nursing mother that it is OK to take a decongestant? And then to supplement with formula at TWO WEEKS? A new mom only gets a few weeks to establish a good milk supply, to establish their baseline production rate, their sensitivity to future increases in demand. Supplementing with formula during this time will crush a new mom's supply permanently. It is true that some women (very few of them, but some) have actual supply problems and can't nurse their infants... but for the majority of us, our bodies will make it work. Most importantly, you have to give your machinery the chance to work before declaring it broken. How could we have survived as a species unless we made enough milk for our babies? We're mammals. We've had mammary glands since our species speciated. We lactate, practically by definition.

She explained that she would nurse for 20 minutes and then let him at the bottle of formula for 20 minutes while she pumped.

It goes without saying that a pump is less efficient at getting milk than a baby. The pump is probably making her think she has no milk left in her breasts (which is not true). When I pumped while on maternity leave, I never got more than half an ounce because Jack was getting the rest. (And I had an oversupply). Furthermore, there are all sorts of lovely hormones that go on while nursing, and these hormones stimulate lactogenesis. If you want to breastfeed, you've got. to. nurse. your. baby. End of story. Nurse. Nurse. Nurse. At least, in those first few weeks, give your body the chance to produce.

Honestly, what she described sounded like a latch/efficiency problem more than anything else.

So what would you do?

I decided I had to say something.

So I encouraged her. I told her she would probably be amazed by what her body can do. I shared my story about taking a decongestant and watching my milk supply drop to nearly nothing, and how with continued nursing, it came back up. I hinted that these few weeks are critical and mentioned that during that time when she is pumping, the baby could be nursing instead, and that his nursing might stimulate production better than the pump would.

And then I felt terrible, because obviously this was unwanted advice. We parted ways. I felt like the biggest jerk in the world. Who knows what the particulars of her situation were. Who knows. I probably caused her a great deal of pain in that conversation, suggesting she was able to nurse when she was obviously feeling so terrible about not being able to.

What would you do?

2. I thought it might have been a cat. Should have said something, but I didn't.

I was at Babies R Us a few weeks ago. I heard a baby crying.

Crying is now quite the right word. Neither is baby.

I heard a newborn infant... mewling. A soft, tiny cry. A cry so small that I thought it was a cat. He couldn't have been more than a week old.

Then I saw his mom, his mom with the obvious postpartum belly, the glaze over her eyes of new sleep deprivation, gently pushing the cart with her baby in the carseat. Her infant in the carseat, her eyes slowly dragging along the items in the aisle. Her infant crying, alone, so terribly alone in his carseat. A foot away from her arms, yet it could have been a mile.

Her infant crying... and crying... and crying... for 20 minutes.

I nearly lost it. I couldn't handle the sound. I texted Greg about 10 times. I stalked them as they wandered through the store, and eventually I left them alone because it was causing me too much stress.

Something must have gone terribly wrong.

Was she dealing with post-partum depression? Was she lacking the maternal urge to comfort her newborn? Did she not know that her baby would stop crying if she picked him up? Where was her support? Why was she at Babies R Us in such a daze?

I don't understand.

It broke my heart to hear that newborn cry.

He didn't need anything in that store. He didn't need bibs or blankets or a nightlight. He needed soft, warm, loving arms around him. He needed to be cuddled and kissed and rocked and nurtured. If she couldn't take care of him, someone else should have. But if she could tolerate his closeness, she needed to be close to him. She needed to lay in bed and sleep with him by her side while someone else came to keep her company, to change him, to take care of the two of them while they recovered together, while they learned how to depend on one another.

For as much as Jack depended on me for milk and comfort, I depended on him. As desperate and scared as I felt, as much as I cried for the exhaustion of being needed so much, I needed him too. I craved his soft skin, his sweet smell, his tiny voice. The scientist in me knows that I wanted oxytocin and dopamine and prolactin. But the mother in me knows that I needed on his warm weight in my arms. It didn't happen right away, but it happened eventually, and being close to one another was the first and most important step.

It took every bone in my body to fight the urge to go over there and offer shop for her while she held her infant or hold her infant for her while she shopped.

Should I have offered?

What would you do?

I am still upset when I think about this incident.


  1. I'm right there with you on both counts. I HATE the myth if undersupply, and I definitely had to fight--by nursing!--for the supply I do/did have.

    Oh, and in the formula comment on my blog, I agree, it's hard when they are distracted, and then supply drops. I felt more comfortable doing whole milk at 11mos than formula, but I also know supplementing definitely tanked my's hard at this age, and I know I could have fought more to keep nursing, but I'm happy with twice a day, and I don't want to fight or pump to keep nursing at one year--in many ways, the milk is easier.

    On a different note, if you're interested in a feminist perspective on nursing, check out the books by Bernice Hausman--awesome theoretical approach to it.

  2. This sounds frustrating. I struggle with the question over when to step in a lot. When I do offer unsolicited advice or opinions I try to just throw it out there as a fresh perspective. Asking questions before giving advice or opinions also helps, so I TRY to remember to do that first.

    It's important to remember there could have been 100 reasons why that new born was crying and the mom felt helpless. The baby might have been cholicy?

    Who knows.

    Either way I have to acknowledge my limits of who/when and how much I can help. Otherwise you just go crazy trying to solve the world's problems.

    To answer the question, I would have just struck up a conversation. How old is your baby? What's his/her name? AAahhhh, she sure seems upset. . . It would have given the mom a chance to vent, ask for advice or just prove that she was being useless. Option 3 would make me crazy, but again, you can only do so much.