“It could be fine,” my gynecologist assured me. “It’s just something to be aware of. I know how much you want to breastfeed.”
I nodded, hell-bent on not allowing something as bizarre as the tiny genetic anomaly of inverted nipples ruin bonding with my daughter through breastfeeding.
At the end of the appointment, she added she’d, “make sure a lactation consultant” was present in the time after the birth.
“Latching can be tricky,” she said. “One of the things not many people tell you.”
I took some steps to try and fix the “problem,” including The Hoffman Technique and various suction devices to try and “train” the nipples forward.
This resulted in excruciating pain and some bleeding, which led me to understand that I have grade three inversion — or the kind that won’t ever go away. Still, it’s thought that somewhere between ten and twenty percent of women have them, as well as some men, so I wasn’t alone.
You know those scenes where the too-clean baby is handed to the mother, who places the child at her breast to watch the suckling magically begin? I bought into that image as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Even with the consultant there, tickling my daughter’s cheeks and showing me other techniques to increase her likelihood of latching, my baby was hesitant at best to even place her mouth on me. However, within an hour, she appeared to have attached, and the consultant left.
I spent the next three days trying to recreate this moment, being sure to follow both my doctor’s and the consultant’s advice to avoid bottles, since my daughter needed to gain the strength to suck, no small task between her meager size and my lack of anything to latch onto.
For three days she screamed.
In a haze, I tried everything to get her to stop. In retrospect, I don’t know why I didn’t call the doctor before her scheduled visit. I guess I assumed that was my life now, that all babies screamed like that.
Apparently, I was wrong.
At the three-day checkup, I was so sleep-deprived I had trouble focusing on the doctor’s words as she explained I had to, “get to the hospital immediately,” in a calm, firm voice that emphasized how not okay my daughter was with a skyrocketing temperature.
She was dying of thirst and hunger. The “latching,” that weak connection between her mouth and my skin, had apparently been no latching at all, and my milk was still stuck inside me.
She’d had no food since birth.
The doctor gave her a bottle of formula before we left, which my daughter sucked down in moments.
“But I thought I wasn’t supposed to use a bottle — ,” I began.
“We’re way past that,” she interrupted. “I’m sorry. Her temperature will fluctuate. Now get to the hospital.”
My daughter was immediately checked into the NICU, our home for the next few days. They gave me a massive pump that provided me with the only relief I’d felt since giving birth. The pressure had been severe, but I was so distracted I hadn’t even noticed it until it was gone.
While my daughter slept in the reddish cocoon of the incubator, I pumped as countless machines beeped, whirred, and generally told me nothing of her condition.
“You probably feel like you have an entirely different baby now,” the NICU doctor claimed on one of his rare visits, nodding towards my daughter resting in the incubator. “They love that thing,” he added. “It’s like the womb, warm and buzzing with sound.”
I did have a different baby, one alive and not screaming.
Riddled with confusion and guilt, I also carried the horrific weight of having almost killed her with my useless breasts and stubborn refusal to bottle feed. I was a monster, a certainty exacerbated by the vivid hallucinations of over a full week of no sleep.
Over the next few months, I joined the exclusive pumping community, discovering I was not at all alone in my failure to complete what I’d assumed to be one of the most natural acts imaginable.
I awoke every three hours to pump.
I pumped at work in the bathroom, freezing the bags in the staff fridge.
Once, a male colleague asked a female colleague to request I place the milk bags in an additional grocery bag so he and other male colleagues would not have to look at them, presumably avoiding imagining my breasts spilling over into that machine.
Many mothers leak or spray when they hear a baby cry. For me, the whir of the pump, or anything mechanical with a similar sound, would cause my breasts to erupt.
Instead of that mother with the glowing image of a baby looking up, mouth firmly affixed to chest, I was an android mother.
A close friend and neighbor who also happened to run the baking division of the local college brought me a whole batch of crème Brulee one day.
“How are you?” she asked in that way one does when one wants to know the honest truth.
With my daughter in my arms, I wept. It was the first time I’d realized I needed to grieve the loss of this aspect of motherhood.
In many respects, it was akin to death, one I did not feel entitled to grieve because of the gravity of what we’d been through in the NICU as I continued to carry the burden of the guilt it had been my own body’s betrayal.
My friend stared at my daughter, calm and growing fatter by the day ever since the scare. “At least you’re not alone,” she added.
I looked down at her, this baby whose face held revulsion whenever I brought my breast anywhere near and thought about her experience.
Since learning to exclusively pump, and discovering I could do so potentially for many, many months, possibly even a year, I’d begun to let go of that archetypal mother-image of bonding, and yet here she was, looking contentedly up at me.
That image I continued to carry was about me, not her, and that’s okay. I had to let it go, to grieve it, but I wasn’t alone in doing so.
I am far from the only woman having dealt with an inability to breastfeed.
Plus, my daughter and I had been through this together and the trauma of it, on reflection, helped me to see her in a deep, abiding way, and recognize her needs as both primary and very separate from my own.
I saw her as a unique, independent being nonetheless utterly dependent on me for a long time yet to come. There had been so much strain and fear since her birth, I hadn’t been able to stop and really see her.
Suddenly, I could, and this solidified the words of Kahlil Gibran in On Children:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
Our inability to connect physically in this way helped me understand that, regardless of how I picture motherhood, my child has her own path.
This awareness was the first moment of true parental love I felt, deeply, the most astonishing love I’d experienced thus far.
It was astonishing in its vulnerability. I could not control her world, which means letting go every day, in every way.
So parenthood to me, and the vulnerable, profound love that comes with it, is an act of releasing and balancing that release with strength, support, and self-awareness.
It is an act of moving through these, in and out, over and over, like breath.
Jenny Mundy-Castle is the author of Every Time I Didn’t Say No, her memoir inspired by educating high-trauma youth in New York, New Mexico, and Nigeria. For more, follow her on Medium.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.