Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Happy to Starve

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When I looked at him, I could only think of pain.

It was July, and I sat on the couch preparing to nurse my infant son, Connor. I'd quit my job to stay home with him for the summer. When he turned six weeks old in August, I would start a PhD in literature, my days absorbed with narrative and cultural theories about contemporary American fiction. This was our time to bond.

But what kind of connection were we forging? Whenever I tried to hold Connor close, his sharp elbows and knees jabbed into my throbbing and untouchable breasts, causing me to recoil.

"Your mastitis will improve if you keep your milk flowing," the doctor assured me.

But Connor was happier to sleep than eat. When he did latch on, it was at an angle that caused his sucking to tear unevenly at my nipples. The resulting raw and infected flesh had probably triggered the mastitis in the first place. I was trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle, with nursing both cause and cure. Then there was the lurking question of my milk supply. Did I have enough?

Despite the pain, I didn't seriously consider alternatives. My mother had bought me a box of baby bottles just in case, but everyone agreed: nursing was best, and I wanted the best.

Now, as I positioned Connor's fuzzy head at my breast, a rerun of The Geraldo Rivera Show began on the television. Tacky trumpets and enthusiastic applause welcomed the host as he bounded into the studio. The audience cheered as Connor's ravenous mouth attached itself to my bleeding, crusted nipple with an animalistic vigor that took my breath away. I gritted my teeth and breathed with the shallow controlled breaths I'd learned in Lamaze, waiting for the thick hard scab over my nipple to soften and open into ravines of flesh wide enough to let my milk dribble out. I knew Connor had broken through when I felt a line of pain thread itself from my nipple to the welt that bloomed on the underside of my breast. From there, it tugged at my core.

After several minutes, the pain leveled, my breathing eased, and I relaxed my shoulders. I wiped a line of perspiration from my hairline, wondering if I had a fever; then I reached for the remote. I had no intention of watching Geraldo as I endured this ritual my friends had said would come so naturally.

But the remote wasn't there. I scanned the room and found it resting on the love seat, six feet away. I didn't dare make a move for it.

At Connor's two-week checkup, five days earlier, we learned he hadn't regained his birth weight. Because he rarely cried to be fed, the doctors called him "happy to starve." He seemed hungry before our nursing sessions, but often fell asleep and let go a few minutes after latching on. Now that he'd actually started nursing, I sat like a pillar, afraid to interrupt him. If he stopped—when he stopped—we'd have to start over. And over.

Lactation specialists, La Leche League volunteers, pediatricians, friends, and family had all weighed in with theories about the infection, my poor milk supply, and the bad latch. Which was the chicken and which were the eggs? And what to do about it?

Photo by Literary Mama photo editor, Heather Vrattos

Photo by Literary Mama photo editor, Heather Vrattos

Our pediatrician took a hard line. "I’ll give you a week to figure it out," he told me. "After that I’ll start using words like brain and damage in the same sentence."

As Geraldo's guests verbally attacked one another, I turned my attention from the television and considered myself. Everything on my body had loosened and fallen out of place. My hips still wobbled in their sockets when I walked, and my brain had literally shrunk (or so I'd heard on a radio show). I fiddled with the misshapen bun that flopped on the back of my head. In my round-the-clock effort to feed Connor, washing and sleeping had fallen to the wayside.

My friends who'd had babies before me said I was crazy to mix graduate studies with infanthood—especially if I wanted to nurse. Only one had supported me. "Of course you can do it," she said. "You just need a schedule." Grateful for her reassurance, I'd clung to the idea that a schedule would allow me to be a mom and a student, too. I could make this happen.

But now, just two days before the doctor's deadline, Connor still hadn't regained his birth weight. Earlier in the morning, I’d embarked on a frenzy of phone calling, desperate for advice. The lactation specialist said I should nurse around the clock. The pediatrician told me to give Connor a bottle of formula. My OB-GYN advised pumping every two hours, then feeding Connor the breast milk from a bottle until my infections cleared—which could take almost a month.

As I considered these scenarios, the goal of nursing, studying, and attending classes on a schedule fell out of sight, forcing me to consider more limiting questions: would I nurse at all? Would I go to graduate school at all? I'd finished my master's degree, but I needed my PhD if I hoped to fulfill my dream of becoming a professor. Now I felt that prospect slipping away. A wave of guilt swept over me at the thought. Why was I worrying about grad school when my baby wouldn't eat? I never asked myself the scariest question: would Connor ever regain his birth weight?

I looked around the TV room, with its drawn shades and dim light. The place smelled funky, like milk and sweat and diapers. Empty water glasses, bibs, and baby blankets littered the furniture and floor. A dusty bookcase stood in the corner, distant and irrelevant.

As the talk show guests carried on, I felt myself disappearing. Into the room. Into a body that felt ravaged and foreign. Into a moment that made work and parenting feel impossible. I pressed my index finger into the soft mound of my stomach. Was this gelatinous blob attached to me? My T-shirt had gotten stuck in a roll of fat along my side, so I pulled the shirt free and looked back at the TV. The rest of the world spun on. People sent emails, taught courses on feminism, ate expensive business lunches over cocktails in fancy restaurants. I was watching trashy talk television and nursing a baby in my pajamas.

Except I wasn't. Greedy shark had turned to sweet guppy, his moistened lips resting in a half-pucker, precious, but ineffectual. He'd fallen asleep on the breast. Again.

If the milk wouldn't come, the tears would. I leaned over, my bangs brushing against Connor's tiny ear, and cried in great wracking sobs. Not only was I exiled from the spinning worlds of business and academe, I couldn't even feed my own child.

I cried with a vigor I wished my baby could muster, but as my shoulders shook, a realization swept over me like a lighthouse beam, at once flooding with me with understanding, then vanishing in rotation: I could not control everything. Not my milk supply. Not my sleep schedule, and definitely not my baby.

In that first illuminated moment, I took a deep shuddering breath and wiped my face on my shirt. Then I shifted Connor to my shoulder where he continued to sleep, warm and soft, like a loaf of yeasty dough I hadn't yet baked. Without disturbing him, I pushed the flat of my free hand into the coarse fabric of our second-hand couch, heaved myself up, and headed for the kitchen to retrieve the formula and box of baby bottles I'd stored there. Along the way, I stopped to turn off Geraldo.


Deb Werrlein is a former adjunct English professor who works as a freelance writer/editor and volunteer literacy tutor. Her writing has appeared in Blue Mesa Review, The Washington Post, Inside Higher Ed, and a variety of other newspapers and academic journals. “Happy to Starve” is excerpted from her unpublished memoir, Professor Never, which recounts her life as a graduate student, adjunct professor, and parent who decided to leave academe behind.


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Heather Vrattos is pursuing an interest in photography by taking courses at the International Center of Photography. She is the mother of three boys, and lives in New York City.


My beating heart. Thank you for this lovely piece. I am in an essentially identical scenario with my second son. Not enough milk, foregoing the literature course for now, and steeped in sour milk, last night's pajama shirt, and dirty dishes.
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