Bean came out gurgling and cooing, and I tore. These minor setbacks snowballed us into the most terrifying week of my life thus far.
Bean’s gurgling did not morph into that lusty scream so characteristic of babies just born. They suctioned his mouth with that blue balloon, then they stuck a tube down his windpipe and drew of 30 ccs of amniotic fluid. Poor bean, drowning before he’d even had a chance to take a full breath. But they drained him and finally he wailed a beautiful cry.
They placed him on my breast, and there he lay, not quite ready to nurse. I stared at him, this helpless, perfect child, trying to help him along but proving just as clumsy. We fumbled for a few minutes but we didn’t have the luxury of time: my placenta was stuck and I was bleeding heavily. I passed him to A and they shot me with Pitocin.
There came the placenta, then it was time for stitches. By the time everything was done with me, the bean and I had lost our golden hours.
Those fleeting golden hours: the one to two hours after birth in which babies have the innate ability to nurse: no problems, no questions, just plain old eating. After that short time, it becomes a complicated dance of placement, positioning, latching, and sucking.
We tried again after I was fixed up, but both of us were clueless. I did not know what breastfeeding felt like to know that he was eating, he didn’t know what fullness felt like to know that he was hungry. So, after the weighing and the measuring and the welcoming and the visiting and the flowers and the long nap of recovery began that harrowing week.
I was in the dark, only suspecting something was wrong, until his pediatrician’s appointment on Monday. He’d lost 10 oz, a significant amount for a baby born to a mom who hadn’t had an IV and who’d weighed only 6 pounds 4 oz. They gave me formula. I stubbornly ignored it, expressing colostrum into his mouth and forcing him to my breast. On my breast he sat, comfortable but unsure of what to do. I pumped in between these “nursing” sessions in which he did not drink. With a syringe, we fed him whatever came out of me.
We were playing with fire. Here I was, adamant that he would not have a bottle, stubbornly refusing formula, stupidly believing that we could do it and not wanting any part in those things that might prevent good breastfeeding, all without having any clue of how to breastfeed. And so we fumbled for five days, sometimes successful (sometimes he latched) but more often than not dismally failing. Bean, so lethargic for days 0 to 3, expended what little energy he had by screaming when I offered him my breast. The milk did not flow out so easily from me as it did from the syringe, and it frustrated him.
On Thursday I withheld the syringe and nursed him day and night and day and night until Saturday. Each attempt was preceded by up to an hour of fighting and screaming. I just wanted my small son to be healthy, to be safe, to grow. I just wanted to be able to feed him. It was a study in survival. No time to doubt. No room for fear.
Saturday, the start of his second week, we visited a board-certified lactation consultant. She helped him and I latch and he has been breastfeeding, almost with content, since then. I am not yet past the trauma of those early days, that heart-breaking first week. I’ll never know if what I did was right, or good. Did I compromise the well-being of my son to blindly follow a standard of health; did I risk his life for the potential that he might thrive?
They say all’s well that ends well, but the problem is I don’t know if it has ended well. I worry, I worry, I worry so much. If bean’s first week was a story of survival, this second is a story of terror. Fear overwhelms me. When he cries with hunger after two hours worth of feeding, when he’s on my breast constantly but not sucking and swallowing, when my nipple hurts so much tears fall down my face and saltily land on his, I question whether I am fit to be a mother. I question whether I am fit to be his mother.
Without A, I don’t know where I’d be right now. His unending support, his unconditional love: with these he shoulders my doubts when I am too weak to carry them. I don’t know what I’ll do when he goes back to work. And sweet boom: her calm, her curiosity, it touches me in a tender way, soothing the wounds I bear from the tumultuous love I have for bean. This love, it seems to drown me.
And I realize, being a mom is fighting for each breath, living through the fear. Being a mom is being scared every moment of every long, unending day and every eternal night. Being a mom is refusing to succumb to the doubts, to these most powerful anxieties. Being a mom is stumbling over and over again, and asking for help when strength fails and hope flees. Being a mom is being both the weakest and the strongest I have ever been. Being a mom is being so much more than me.