Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Letdown

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Ben wiggled himself free of his uterine hotel, evicted by a stream of contraction-causing drugs. So much for the "he'll come when he's ready" wisdom from my mother. Instead, "he'll come by suchandsuch a date or we'll drag him out," sayeth the doctor.

When they handed soon-to-be-named baby Ben to me, slick and ruddy, I placed him against my breast and waited. What happens next? After a few moments of looking at each other, his unsteady gaze not meeting mine, I realized I was holding my breath. A nurse grabbed my breast and flattened it like a hamburger patty between her thumb and forefinger and placed it to my son's lips. He latched his tiny mouth onto me. In that moment, that first precious moment, all I could think was this woman is touching my breast; please God, make her let go.

"Looks like a catfish stuck on a line," my father-in-law said several hours later observing the repeated ordeal. Still groggy from the last 30 almost-sleepless hours, I didn't have the energy to laugh. He asked where my sense of humor went.

Good question.

Ben slept much of the first day and I lay next to his bassinet staring at the eight pounds of humanity I created. Sleep didn't visit me, unlike the half dozen well-wishers who stomped in and out of the room. My coworkers brought onesies that said, "Future Patent Attorney" and "I'm already a 1L." They laughed too loudly as I held the tiny shirts up to Ben's chin and Ben's head flopped against my palm. My childless friends cooed at his fun-sized ears and elbows and begged to hold him just after he had fallen asleep.

The night before we left the hospital, the staff brought my husband, Chris, and me a "romantic dinner" while they took Ben to the nursery for the hour. We stared at each other over the hospital tray set with plastic roses. Chris smiled at me, that perfect smile from years of upper-middle class orthodontia. He opened a plastic clamshell and shoved a fork into the cheesecake inside. "Ready to head home tomorrow?"

Could I answer honestly and say no? His eyes were bright from a nap, undisturbed by the cries of the infant I had birthed and ones I hadn't. We agreed he could head home for a few hours and now I felt like we were on uneven footing. "Can we take the nurses with us?"

He took a crumbly bite and swallowed. "We'll be great."

"Easy for you to say. You're going back to work."

"I would die for the chance to stay home with him, you know that."

The hyperbole rankled. "Yeah, well, dying wouldn't be much good to Ben, would it?"

His tone was careful when he spoke again. "You begged for more time off. Enjoy it. Don't worry."

I worried.

Every two hours Ben would wake and eat, and every four a nurse would come in and hand me ibuprofen. In between these interruptions, I slept restlessly, adjusting the bed up and down and moving pillows around underneath me. Is the baby still breathing? When will my milk come in? Will he get jaundice? How will I know if he's eating enough? Has he lost too much weight? In the recliner, Chris slept soundly, dead to my unease. Could he hear my thoughts pounding against the walls of the room like thousands of ping pong balls?

 

Then Ben started crying, and Chris's expression became alarmed. "I think he pooped up the back of his diaper."

 

In the morning, we watched the nurse settle our baby into his car seat and tried to memorize her actions. Ben wailed the entire ride to our house, only it didn't feel like returning to a place. When Chris carried Ben's infant seat through the front door, I marveled at our home, frozen in the moment we left for the hospital as if in a museum. The magazines spread across the living room table. The half-finished Scrabble game that Chris and I had added to over breakfast every morning for the past year, racking and reracking the same tiles and keeping tally on a whiteboard in the kitchen. The game was only half over, the letter bag still bulging.

We wrestled Ben from the tangle of belts and Chris walked him from room to room, holding him tightly to his chest. Ben woke and his unfocused eyes glanced around as we turned on lamps in each place.

"This is the kitchen. Your mom loves to eat cinnamon rolls here."

I trailed them on the tour. In the middle of the bathroom floor, a maternity nightgown lay heaped against the air return. "This is the bathroom," Chris said. "She'd probably eat cinnamon rolls here, too, but we have ants."

I stood behind Chris's shoulder, looking at the three of us in the bathroom mirror. Bits of us reflected back in Ben's face. The baby blinked, with eyes shaped like mine, and I blinked. I realized I was smiling at myself, and Chris caught my eye in the mirror. "Doesn't look too bad, right?" Chris asked.

Then Ben started crying, and Chris's expression became alarmed. "I think he pooped up the back of his diaper."

~

The first week at home was a jumble of swaddling blankets and cold cabbage leaves for my aching breasts. Every hour, for almost an hour at a time, Ben clung to me while I lay on the couch and looked at the front lawn through the window. He arched his back and mewled at the beginning of each feeding. My breasts tingled as if lava ran through them instead of milk. Let down; some women feel it more than others, I'd read. Everything hurt. Old instincts made me want to stop feeding to stop the pain, but new urges told me to keep trying to feed him. He gummed me and pulled back with a roar when nothing came. I tried to calm him by pressing his small body to mine. Skin to skin, the books told me. Skin to skin.

Afterward I rubbed patchouli-smelling cream over the length of my breasts and waited for motherhood to wash like a wave over me. I held my breasts in my hands, and they felt like they belonged to someone else. Misplaced. I missed the apples I'd had before pregnancy, or even my plums from early high school. The grapefruits I now had burned and throbbed.

Chris returned to work after a week's paternity leave, unable to let the insurance claims pile up any longer on his desk. In the nine months before Ben's arrival, when introducing my bulging stomach to our friends, Chris would never hesitate to say something like, "We're due on April 18."

Photo by Sabato Visconti. See more of Sabato's work at sabatobox.com

Only male seahorses, as far as I knew, could claim to really share the burden. Maybe male penguins. Last autumn, Chris watched sympathetically as I vomited out the car window at a rest stop. Last winter, he sympathetically fetched frozen burritos from the grocery store when the cravings demanded them. Last week, he sympathetically held my hand as contractions echoed through my limbs, and as I finally caved, getting the epidural I didn't really want and which only worked on one half of my body.

After his first day back to work, Chris came home clutching bags of fast food. I emptied fries from the greasy bags onto paper plates. Chris scooped Ben from my arms and rocked him on his shoulder. His cooed in our son's ears-that-were-his-ears and kissed his eyebrows-which-were-barely-eyebrows. Ben always quieted in Chris's arms.

"How are you?" Chris asked.

"Fine."

~

Ben cried from 8 to 10 a.m., and I'm still not sure why. I cried from 9 to 10 with him, but at 11 we both watched Maury. The American Academy of Pediatrics reminds me that I'm a terrible parent for letting our son watch TV.

A bag full of tacos, spilling over with slimy lettuce.

"Fine."

Ben spit up all over the nice lady from church and the cake that she brought over. Also, I literally gotten shit on today, and I fell asleep while Ben was nursing, and he could have fallen out of my arms.

A rotisserie chicken from the grocery store.

"Fine."

I ate everything in the refrigerator. Everything. And there's no clean laundry, so I'm wearing my maternity pajamas. They still fit amazingly well, so there's something.

Thai take-out.

I didn't eat anything today. Somehow I forgot. I ignored three calls from your mother, since she lives in Texas and just wants to give advice I don't want.

I dredged up a smile. "Fine."

~

At Ben's one-month appointment, Dr. Weiss flexed Ben's arms and legs and put a stethoscope to his ribcage. I thought about his heartbeats heard on the Doppler just weeks ago, that clambering of horse hoofs in miniature. The doctor checked his ears, measured his length, and placed him on the scale.

"He's not up to birth weight yet," Weiss said. He handed my naked son to me, and I pulled him into my chest. "I wouldn't be concerned too much yet, but we'll have you come back next week to check again on his progress."

Ben rubbed his face into me like a burrowing mole. "What should I do?"

"Are you feeding him every three hours at least?"

"Yes." I set an alarm for every three hours at night, but he always woke before it went off. Bleary-eyed walks from my bedroom to his. Listening to podcasts as he drained me. A laugh track from the comedy hour peeping through my earbuds punctuated by the soft hums Ben made when he drifted to sleep.  "At least every three, usually more often."

"Well, don't forget to eat, stay hydrated, and try to rest."  I must have scoffed. "Try to rest. Leave the unimportant things for a while."

I thought of the Scrabble tiles shoved back in their bag without ceremony. The unimportant things included my known world.

~

Chris's work days had gotten longer, and I ate before he came home that night. Dehydrated mashed potatoes. Cans of chili. Canned peaches. I felt like I was eating out of a tornado shelter. Sometimes I was already asleep, uneaten bowl of chili left in the microwave to glaze over with oil. Sleep when the baby sleeps. Sleep when you can stop worrying about the baby sleeping. I was asleep on the couch when he came home, and he softly shoved my legs to make room for himself next to me.

"How'd the appointment go?"

"He's not at birth weight yet."

He looked concerned. "What should we do?"

What should we do?  For three years before Ben, I counted our days together in movie marathons viewed on basic cable, on empty bottles of wine, on failed tomato plants in our garden pots. I missed sleeping in with Chris on Sunday mornings, rolling out of bed and reading stories to each other out of the newspaper. I missed curling my hand into his in the grocery store. Now one of us stayed home with Ben while the other shopped. Teamwork meant division. Working for a common cause, apart. I looked at him as though he were on the other side of soundproof glass most days. What should we do? We? Implicit in his tone was What did you do wrong?

He pursed his lips, but couldn't stop himself from asking, "Should we supplement with formula?" 

We?

Tears ambushed the conversation. I choked. I gulped, an air-drowning goldfish. I was always an ugly crier.

Chris looked unsure whether to touch me until I reached out my arms to him. He held me to his chest. Skin-to-skin contact.

 

I couldn't articulate it. I knew I'd regret putting into words the fact that he was just Chris, still. Special edition Chris, now with baby accessory! Rocking chair sold separately. I'd entered a motherhood cocoon and come out a moth, not a butterfly.

 

"I'm sorry," I said. "I don't mean to cry. I'm trying my best."  I hated myself for apologizing.

"Formula isn't poison," he said quietly, quoting the birth classes at the hospital.

Suck it up, prior me said. You wanted a baby. You planned for this.

I am wearing down. I don't recognize myself, me-me replied. New me. Tired me.

Chris rubbed my back, making deep circles with the palm of his hand. "You okay?"

You knew it was going to be hard the first few weeks. If this is the first few weeks, what will the rest of the year be like?

"I don't know, Chris. I really don't."

The checklist from the doctor's appointments came to mind. Did I want to hurt myself? No. Did I want to hurt my child, the helpless cooing bundle in the footie pajamas? No. Did I want to hand over the keys to the house, run away to a cabin in the woods, drink a fifth of whiskey, and sleep for an uninterrupted eight hours? Yes. Alone? Yes. What type of whiskey? Doesn't need to be Bushmills, but something good. "I'm just tired."

"Well," he said, "we're both tired."

"You think I don't know that?"

Chris stepped back. "I feel like you've changed the rules on me."

"You just don't get it," I said.

Quietly. Quietly. The baby is sleeping. Keep the negative energy down. He can hear you.

"I want to get it," he said, but he looked weary.

I couldn't articulate it. I knew I'd regret putting into words the fact that he was just Chris, still. Special edition Chris, now with baby accessory! Rocking chair sold separately. I'd entered a motherhood cocoon and come out a moth, not a butterfly.

I didn't say anything. Chris slept on the couch that night, but still took Ben at dawn.

Ben clusterfed, or attempted to, every night that week. I could feel the milk in my breasts, and I willed Ben to swallow, to grow, but by the next Monday, Ben still hadn't gained more than three ounces back. I made an appointment with the hospital's lactation consultant. Ben was supposed to come hungry to the appointment, and so he cried the entire car ride, a siren of wails. It made me feel like I was driving an ambulance. Ben and I waited for 20 minutes in the lobby while he screeched and arched toward me. I bitterly eyed the sign on her door, already writing off this meeting. Lactation consultant. It wasn't as though my milk had a brand awareness problem.

In the waiting room as I tried to pacify my screaming baby on my pinky finger, I thought back to high school English class. Lady MacBeth. I remembered the monologue well because Tom Futuro had read the entire thing in a falsetto. I reread it alone in my room at home later trying to drown out his high-pitched interpretation. I had whispered it, low. I had chewed over the words, Come to my woman's breasts.  At this point at school, the class had erupted into laughter, missing the line, And take my milk for gall.

Gall. Bile. The taste of vomit in my mouth, leaning out the car door at a rest stop at three months pregnant.

Unsex me here. How easy it was to feel that way when my son spit and gagged, slurped and cried at my breast. I had tasted it once, my milk, to see if there seemed anything wrong with it. The milk was sweet and thin, like watered-down coffee creamer.

When we were finally welcomed into the consultant's office, I had to catch my breath. It was a pink-walled room festooned wall-to-wall with pro-breastfeeding paraphernalia. Posters of fat babies; a knit cap shaped like a nipple on the bookshelf; lists, endless lists of the benefits of breast milk hung above the scale, the sink, the chairs. Unlit scented candles nestled in glass bowls. I was surprised there wasn't a "nipple-shaped bowl," most likely purchased somewhere on Etsy.

I undressed Ben, still squalling, for the consultant to weigh him before the feeding. She was short and wore her bleached hair in a fashionable bob. She introduced herself as Janet. She had a "let's be friends" smile and offered me a pink M&M from a bowl on her desk.

"This'll just take a minute. You get comfortable in the chair. Whichever one you like, of course, but most moms prefer the one with the arms over there."  She pointed to the pink lounge chair facing her desk and plopped Ben onto the scale. "Hi there, widdle guy," she cooed.

 

I laughed, the tears still rolling down my face. I guffawed. Ben started to cry, and I held him out to Janet to hold.

 

I sat in the chair, which was reclined enough to have the feeling of a therapist's couch, and unbuttoned my blouse. When she handed Ben back, he started rooting into me immediately.

With the interested, but hands-off, glance of a documentary filmmaker, she watched.

After a few minutes, she asked, "Does he always do that?"

"What?"

"Ben's latch is shallow and he looks like he's chewing. Are you experiencing pain right now?"

When did I not have pain?  "Yes."

"Pop him off for a second."  She reached for him as he squalled. She pointed excitedly. "Do you see that?  When he cries like this, his tongue arches up like two hills, or the top of a heart. It's classic ankyloglossia. It can interfere with feeding big time. If you don't catch it, it can cause FTT."

"FTT?"

"Failure to thrive. But it's an easy fix. Really."  She bobbed her bobbed hair at me with pride, a chirping robin thrilled to find a worm.

My heart choked. "Fix for what?"

"A little snip of the frenulum, that under part of the tongue, and he should be right as rain. He's just tongue-tied."

I burst into tears—it felt like bursting, truly. A dam cracking, at first out of relief and then from pure momentum.

She looked a little embarrassed, the best friend smile replaced with a counselor's grimace. "Are you doing all right?"

I laughed, the tears still rolling down my face. I guffawed. Ben started to cry, and I held him out to Janet to hold.

"I just need a minute," I said.  I walked to the door and placed my hand on the knob.

She held him away from herself as he cried. "I'm not supposed to—"

"Just a minute," I said.

In the hallway, I knelt down on the floor and put my head between my knees. My forehead resting on the cold linoleum I listened to my breath.

A child's pose.

A bomb drill.

I would go back in. I could. I would.

In a minute.

I would.


Rachel Mans McKenny is a writer and professor at Iowa State University. She writes fiction, essays, and humor, and has published recently in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Scary Mommy, and other outlets. Her personal story about the intersection of loving insects and a subsequent lice infestation was just recorded for the podcast Story Collider. She is the mother of three small children.


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