I’m not quite sure why I feel the need to share with the world how I was accidentally starving my baby.
Am I somehow trying to atone by telling total strangers that I didn’t realize, maybe for a week or two or four, that my milk supply was down and she was maybe getting half of what she needed? That I should have been paying closer attention because we’d had that problem early on. Like if I shame myself publicly, the guilt will disappear?
Or am I looking for validation, reassurance that it could happen to anyone? (It could, by the way. I recently discovered that not one, but two doctor friends had very similar issues, at the same age. If all their training plus “maternal instinct,” whatever that is, didn’t tell them something was wrong, how could my “instinct” alone do it?!) Do I need to hear from more and more people that it’s not my fault, that she is and will be fine?
Maybe I’m trying to provide a cautionary tale. “It happened to me! Don’t let it happen to you! If your baby’s arms look like bones, if she’s waking up more in the night, if she’s nursing for shorter time periods — take her to the doctor!”
Sounds obvious, when you put it that way.
So maybe I’m looking for a chance to defend myself in the court of public opinion.
You see, Your Honor, esteemed members of the jury, she was happy! Sure, she was waking up in the night, but her sleep had long been erratic. And she would let us put her back to sleep without nursing, so I figured she wasn’t hungry. (Why start feeding in the night when she’d been sleeping through since she was 2 months old?!)
And her arms—well, all of her—had always been kind of scrawny. Her pediatrician had reassured me about her percentiles at her 4-month checkup, that she might simply be tall and skinny. We’d weighed her before and after a feeding, and determined that I was producing enough. So, that was scratched off my mental “to worry” list.
See, I have four kids. My “to worry” list is always, always full. I am so blessed; my cup runneth over with things to worry about.
It was a relief to have an item to scratch off, and it took some pretty strong clues before I realized that one needed to go back on.
And that’s what really terrified me about this. That’s why I feel the need to keep talking about it. Even in everyday conversation, I’ll refer to “back when we were starving her” or “now that we started feeding her”—half joking, making light of it because I need to convince myself she’s OK.
Like if I say the words enough times, maybe they will lose their edge and become benign as if this were just like any other silly bit of absentmindedness.
But I’m also unable to stop talking about it because the trauma cuts so deep.
Because of all the things I worry about, the biggest is that I won’t know when to worry.
There was my baby, cute and smiley, surrounded by the trappings of a loving and reasonably well-off home. She had a roof over her head, a warm place to sleep, cute fluffy clothes, and hugs and kisses galore from her parents and siblings.
But inside, she was no different from any underprivileged, undernourished baby. And I didn’t know.
She would finish nursing, stick her fingers in her mouth, and smile.
I didn’t realize the fingers were her attempt to self-soothe, to overcome the nagging, unsatisfied feeling she must have been experiencing. She didn’t know how to tell me she was suffering. She’s just too good-natured to make a big fuss, and I didn’t read the signals of her small fuss.
What else do I not know about my kids? What other signs might I be missing, or might I miss in the future?
I have, thank God, four beautiful children. Four apparently healthy, apparently happy children. I watch for signs that they’re not, but I was watching the baby and still missed those obvious clues.
I try to teach them to come to me if there’s a problem, but what if they don’t? If they don’t know how? Or if I don’t know how to help them?
So, here I am, turning to the internet. Calling upon dozens, hundreds, thousands of strangers to “like” my story.
To respond with their own stories of missing, or catching their children’s cues. To tell me she’s fine, she will be fine, they’ll all be more than fine. That the trappings of love and care and security will carry them through my inevitable mistakes, the times that I misread their needs.
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It was amazing to see how, within days of identifying the problem and adding lots of formula and food to her diet, she suddenly had flesh on her arms and legs. A double chin, even. And she was laughing more. I always thought she was a tough audience; turns out, she just didn’t have the energy to do more than smile.
Thank God, she bounced back and now giggles and wriggles her way all over the living room floor.
I keep thinking about those word problems we used to get in school, about a frog trying to get out of a well. The frog falls x distance for every y distance climbed—but it ultimately gets out. I think of my mistakes like that backsliding frog and pray for the insight to guide my children out of the well of childhood with as few bruises as possible.
And I pray that when my baby is a grown-up, we’ll all look back and laugh about those weeks we accidentally starved her.
We will, right?
Sarah Rudolph has been teaching Jewish text studies for over ten years, to students ranging from elementary school to retirement age. She blogs for sites such as Times of Israel and The Torch.
This article was originally published at Kveller. Reprinted with permission from the author.