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Wednesday’s Bloom: Textual Portraits of a New Mommy

Mommy's preparing for Munchkin's first bottle. The little bag is so deceptive. It doesn't show all the work it takes to fill it with that little bit of breastmilk.

Preparing for Munchkin’s first bottle. This cute bag is so deceptive. It doesn’t show all the work it takes Mommy to fill it with that little bit of breastmilk.

20 weeks | We’re uninvited (or, ‘Mothering for public spaces’ or, ‘The bottle & other myths of convenience’) | no. 0013

This is me reaching that part in the story where many mothers have already arrived. Years, centuries, lifetimes before me, this work of navigating the irreconcilable spaces within the mothering gourd, and still pouring out something that can nourish your whole family, is as old as birth itself. Here I am, thoroughly perplexed at the many and, often divergent, implications of all it means to mother my son in this body, in this country, in this world. The notion of some singular way forward is the grandest myth of them all. This work happens in the mangrove of my be(come)ing, and yet I find myself still attempting to map my way through. When I unravel the knots of what troubles me most about this experiment in alternatives to breastfeeding, I am simply left with a very complicated question: Why can’t my baby be with me wherever I am?

Last week I wrote about my hesitation to start pumping breastmilk and making bottles for the munchkin. I still haven’t tried the pump because I have this eerie feeling that I will absolutely hate the sensation of mechanical suction on my nipple. But I know, I know. It’s time to try it out if we’re going to ever have the bottle option be something viable– meaning something I could actually trust will feed my child if ever when I am away from him.

Since writing that post I made a little progress. I hand expressed just over 2 ounces into a breastmilk storage bag. I write that so smoothly with one sentence as if the milk just slipped on out and into the bag. But no. It was more than difficult maneuvering a fussy, hungry, sleepy munchkin and massaging milk ducts to squirt out droplets one at a time, all while holding the bag to the nipple! I wrestled to keep the munchkin nursing on one breast while awkwardly holding the plastic storage bag to my other breast. Munchkin, oh so smart, knew intuitively that the milk I was expressing was for him and continued to break his latch and reach for the bag. I tried to explain that this would be for later, but it was to no avail. It wasn’t until he fell asleep at the breast that I could really express more milk. It eventually took the better part of an hour to get those very few ounces out. And that precious milk was still going to have to go through a bunch more steps before making it into his mouth! Unbelievable! I took a picture of the storage bag and texted my mother the fruits of my labor. She texted back, Good job. 

So with the first milk collected, I sealed it up in the sterilized, double-lock, airtight bag and put it in the refrigerator because Oscar wouldn’t be home before the 4-hour room temperature expiration mark. And this milk was not to be wasted. All day I kept opening up the frig, frowning at the milk in a bag, frowning that I was actually doing this. When Oscar got home I opened up a pack of bottles. I unscrewed the cap, took out the nipple and rinsed the parts with tap water. While they dried on a paper towel, I set the milk storage bag in a bowl of luke-warm water as instructed on the storage bag label. I was all set to pour my good milk into the bottle when I by chance glanced at the bottle package and read the clearly marked directions: “Sterilize all parts in boiling water for 3 minutes.” Wow. Oops! Almost contaminated my baby!

Alright, more steps for me to do. I am rolling my eyes as I set a pot of water to boil. At this point, I still don’t even realize that I haven’t properly taken the bottle apart, and where as I should have five pieces, I only see four. The glass bottle is too hot for me to lift out of the water, and as we don’t have tongs, Oscar risks burning his fingers to remove the scorching bottle. Now it’s too hot to put my breastmilk in without cooking it and destroying its enzymes (some of which I’m sure have already been compromised by the foreign substance of the plastic bag and the cold air of the refrigerator). As the glass cools, I am counting the minutes it’s taking to feed my child. This feels so extra, but I press on. I have to say I’ve at least tried.

With all parts seemingly ready, I pour the milk into the newly sterilized bottle and misassemble the nipple and the rim that’s supposed to keep it in place. I hand it over to Oscar to give the munchkin his first bottle. It is such a heartbreaking moment for me, even as father and son are bonding in a new way for the first time. I take pictures of this first attempt. Munchkin’s initial reaction is not to suck this fake nipple. It looks so out of place in his mouth, and my heart breaks a little more thinking how disappointed he must be to have to drink milk from something so lifeless. The awkwardness of the first bottle aside, Munchkin is more amused than frustrated, more confused than upset. He laughs at this game of forcing the weird plastic thing between his lips (we don’t use a pacifier either). He is not at all trying to suck it, even though he is hungry. When I see how humorous this whole thing is for him, I feel something lighten up within me. This is a joke, right?

I prop pillows under Oscar’s arm so he can relax while positioning the baby. After a few minutes, milk is dripping out of the rim of the bottle. Upon closer inspection, I realize I’ve failed to twist on the part that seals the milk inside the upturned bottle. It’s still wedged inside the bottle cap that’s drying on the counter. I resterilize the newfound piece and put everything back together again. Okay, so we try again. I am breathing a little better now. I go in another room so munchkin can focus on the bottle. Less worried that my son is being traumatized by this impossible stand-in for my real, live, warm breast– because he thinks this is just a game and knows mommy will bring out the real food in a minute– I ask myself again, why are we going through all of this? 

I am digging deep to come up with something plausible. Oscar says it’s for convenience. That it’s okay, I’ll get more comfortable with it. Umm, No! There is nothing convenient about the way I’m feeling! Something about this is so unnatural and I have to figure out why (other than the obvious experience of separation). The truth is I’d rather nurse my son breastmilk to belly without all manner of intervention–pumping, storing, preserving, refrigerating, sterilizing, boiling, cooling, warming, assembling. The truth is, there is nothing disruptive to me about having to stop every however many minutes and feed the munchkin.

The truth is also that bottles and baby formula and breast pump technologies have literally saved lives when mother’s milk is not available, allowed mothers to work away from their children and still feed them the best way they can, and been a blessing for many families for many different reasons. I celebrate all of those positives while at the same time feeling a responsibility to examine my strong reservations to start pumping and using bottles to (occasionally) supplement my healthy, abundant supply of breastmilk. Maybe because I live in a society that routinely promotes all manners of external products as superior to what my body naturally produces. Maybe because at times there is more emphasis made on how bottles make it easier for other people to feed the baby, rather than on how this mother FEELS about surrendering the sacred work of feeding her child to someone and something else. Maybe because capitalism dictates profit over process, so much so an artificial acceleration has duped many into believing that there’s something frighteningly wrong with the organic, slow pulse that is mother and baby’s unscripted dance toward independent existence.

Even with the accumulating costs of the many materials it takes to supplement breastfeeding– bottles, breast pumps, sterilizers, storage bags, formula, TIME– there is still a more pervasive toll weighing on the mother and child’s ephemeral breastfeeding season. The erasure of moments that can never be retrieved or replaced, the lost sensations of two beating hearts exchanging more nutrients through the breast than any one, well-meaning bottle could ever hope to achieve. I do not want to be rushed away from my baby. That is what bottles make me feel like. And when I ask myself why bottles have become so popular, I start to think about the almost frenetic opposition some people have towards mothers breastfeeding in public. But then, when I ponder even more, it’s not just breastfeeding that has been under scrutiny, it’s acts of mothering in general. The silence undone when babies cry, the lingering scent of soiled diapers, the incessant questions on blossoming toddler minds, the peculiar eating preferences of children in nice restaurants, the persistent urgency with which you must repeatedly stop everything and get this child to the bathroom. Right. Now. The extra seconds and hours it takes to be present, and responsible, and loving to the planet’s newest people.

But this is what mothering is. So many spaces in our world are uninviting of this work. Whether it be learning spaces, business spaces, art spaces, and sometimes even community spaces, those engaged in the mothering are often expected to adopt normalized methods of detachment from their children in order to participate in the world. This is an extremely wack way to be as a global family. If anything, humanity is missing out on the wisdom, problem-solving skills, innovative thinking, creativity, and all-around magic of the mothers who are constantly told to leave their mothering at home.

So here I am, up against this ancient wall of the world’s indifference: There are some spaces I want to be in. Now. As a new mommy. And some of these spaces are not baby-friendly. And I am feeling guilty about being away from the munchkin for any length of time where he will need a bottle. I’ve even considered postponing some things until he’s one or two. My mother tells me it will be no easier to separate from him later on, that every mother goes through this fear of being apart from her baby the first time. People tell me that I’ll eventually be fine, that every mother just gets over it. But I don’t know if the systemic silencing of mothering work is the same thing as getting over it. I don’t know if just because a mom goes back to work or puts her child in daycare or switches over to rice formula or uses a bottle instead of breastfeeding, that it means that she’s resolved the possible conflicts in her feelings. While every mother makes peace with her choices differently, many mothers do not experience a community of trust wherein they can even unpack these complex and layered emotions. All this masking has been mistaken for convenience, but again I say, there is nothing convenient about being away from your child and wondering if the bottle, or the formula, or the caregiver can temporarily do the work of your intangibles. This is where the mothering weeps. Because it’s truly impossible to be simultaneously with your baby and away from your baby. Even though we all keep trying.

After a few more minutes on the bottle, we decide that this was a good first effort. I go ahead and nurse the munchkin, a sense of relief washing over me as I remember that we’ll have plenty more time at the breast. An ebullient Oscar texts pictures of the inaugural feeding to his family and I reflect on why I’m having such a hard time wrapping my mind around this bottle situation being the right thing to do. Oscar reminds me of the positives at play, because that’s what he does. I am rolling this idea of an emotional ecosystem around in my head, working hard to find the words that can express how interdependent me and baby’s well-being are. It’s not enough for the world to just say, “Oh well, the baby will be fine,” without also asking how I, as the mother, am feeling too.

So much is brewing. Munchkin has expired waiting for mommy to get up from the computer. I think his squeals and spirited efforts to dive out of my arms translate to something like, Enough already! Save something for next week! I will be revisiting these words and ideas for some time. With every telling I am just scraping the surface of all these stories. Feeling all tangled up still, but at least I’m making space for my feelings to breathe and become known to me.

Happy, wondrous, infinite blooms, beautiful people.

~~~

The munchkin, my first born, was born on a Wednesday. Wednesday’s Bloom: Textual Portraits of a New Mommy is an ongoing multi-media documentary project about my process as a mother. Today’s story is a part of Volume 1, 73 consecutive weeks of posts, spanning about the first year and a half of the munchkin’s life. Each episode explores my weekly discoveries, challenges, questions, and hopes as a mother. I also facilitate the New Mommy Writers’ Workshop for all mothers and women active in their mothering work who are excited about cultivating their own writing practices.

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