The first time I breastfed my daughter, I was surrounded by strangers. Someone had helped me slide free of my delivery gown, slick with my daughter's newness. Someone else had helped me into a new gown. There were hands everywhere: first pressing my tender, flaccid abdomen; now sliding a new pad beneath my hips; now holding my newborn to my breast. The hands - blue-gloved, shiny - squeezed my flesh, guided it into her mouth. My husband, Adrian, stroked my hair. I didn't know what to do with my own hands. I watched, like the most unnecessary stranger in the room.
Weeks before Josefine was born last April, Adrian and I shared a fajita plate at Lupe's Tortilla, a cavernous, kitschy Mexican restaurant near our San Antonio home. I usually avoid such places - I know what real Mexican food tastes like. But Lupe's had surprised me with tortillas that tasted like my childhood. We went there when I needed comfort in my unexpectedly painful pregnancy.
Over our food, we talked about a trip we were planning for Hawaii the following January. Adrian is from Sydney, and Hawaii is the halfway point; his family would meet us there. Josefine would be 9 months by then, outside my body for as long as she'd been in.
"They say if you nurse on takeoff and landing," Adrian said, "it eases the pressure in their ears so they don't scream."
I rolled my eyes. "I highly doubt I'll still be nursing by then."
"Because it's not easy!" I said, passionate. I'd been reading blogs, watching YouTube videos, scouring the "What to Expect" forums. I was a breastfeeding voyeur: cradle hold, football hold, letdown, prolactin. My sister had exclusively pumped for six months because of her daughter's undiagnosed lip tie. My best friend had loved breastfeeding, but she'd rather have another drug-free labour, she told me, than suffer mastitis again. Breastfeeding successfully seemed like the realm of the very lucky or the very determined; I didn't feel like I was either.
"You'll rock it." Adrian smiled at me, the wide, disarming smile I'd fallen for in a plane 13 years earlier.
I smeared guacamole on a tortilla, irritated. "Right. Because everything else has been so easy."
I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) in early 2017, after I'd been off birth control for nearly a year and a half. After that, I took Clomid and Letrozole and slid needles into my belly; my ovarian cysts multiplied, enlarged. Since insulin resistance was the source of my PCOS, I went on a ketogenic diet to sharpen my insulin sensitivity. I wondered who I was, without the foods of my culture.
I found out I was pregnant the day we were to start the process for intrauterine insemination.
And, despite warnings "not to get too excited," she grew. Hiccups after meals. Ripples and thrusts beneath my skin, a closed-curtained ballet.
As she grew, so did my pain. It was eventually diagnosed as symphysis pubis dysfunction (SPD), thought to be caused by the hormone relaxin overly loosening the ligaments that keep the pelvic bones aligned. I went from daily Pilates and training for a half-marathon to walking with a crutch from 20 weeks onward. Adrian had to help me out of bed in the morning, squeezing my hips as we shuffled to the bathroom together. The pain was shocking, debilitating, enraging.
Guilt was the constant companion to my complaints. After all, I had been told I had less than a two percent chance of conceiving naturally, and we had. Family called Josefine our "miracle baby." I should be grateful.
But no one can be grateful every moment. And with the same ferocity as I longed to see Josefine's face, to know her shape in my arms, I longed for ownership again over my body, the kind I hadn't felt in years. So, when I told Adrian that breastfeeding was hard, that it probably wouldn't work - "Women with PCOS almost always have low supply," I told him sharply at Lupe's that day - I almost hoped I was right. I had sacrificed enough.
Josefine, first born: dark almond-shape eyes, wide and alert. Quiet and calm, except when she wanted to eat, and then she was open-mouthed, lunging, ravenous; she knew what to do. She taught me.
On the second day, her paediatrician told us that because of certain physical markers - epicanthal folds on those fairy-tale eyes, her snub nose, the gap between her first and second toes - she suspected that Josefine had Down syndrome. For 11 days, as we waited for the results of genetic testing, we planned. We cried. We danced with her. And, around the clock, I breastfed. I undressed her when she fell asleep midfeed, the way the nurses suggested, holding her skin-to-skin. I rubbed balm onto my cracked, bleeding nipples. I learned to recognise the letdown, when she sighed and gulped and eventually pulled away in satisfied, duck-faced sleep.
When I breastfed her, everything I could not control fell away and I understood that I would share my body with her forever, if I could only keep her as safe and happy as she was in those moments.
The test results came back negative.
As I write this, Josefine is almost nine months old. She is calm and curious and observant, messy-haired with a mischievous grin and a new queenly wave she reserves mostly for the dogs. We fly to Hawaii in ten days. My husband was right: I'll be breastfeeding at takeoff and landing.
Though she is still nursing, lately it's only three times a day instead of 16. She eats solids voraciously. She pushes me away sometimes, frustrated or impatient with my dwindling supply. I pump and fight tears when I collect one ounce instead of six. I order supplements that taste like anise and fennel and cheap whiskey; brownies and granola bars; pills; and drops. I try to come to terms with the fact that this part of our relationship is ending. That soon, just as I thought I wanted, I will have complete ownership of my body.
Now, I don't take a single feeding for granted. Her burnt-caramel eyes on mine, her strawberry-scented fingers reaching for my hair. The times she smiles, the times she sleeps. No one gets to stop time from passing. We can't protect our children forever. But this, for me, is as close as it gets.
The Washington Post