By Sarah Gilbert
A grainy, Nokia photo of a 5-month-old baby holding a sippy cup, probably wouldn’t bring most new mothers to tears. But when my spouse sent this one to me, I started to cry. This is my oldest daughter. My smart, stubborn, take-no-substitutes daughter.
Three months after she was born, I was ready to go back to work. Or almost ready. Literally, since the minute that she was born, I had been nursing her. It’s wasn’t something I absolutely loved. I didn’t have a lot of ideology about breastfeeding. I had found that I had enough breast milk and enough perseverance to nurse her exclusively. I had also managed to save up enough breast milk to stock the freezer. So, the weekend before my first day back in the office, everyone seemed ready.
“Shouldn’t we try giving her a bottle?” said Pam, my spouse, who was going to stay home with our baby when I went back to work. “Probably,” I said. This shouldn’t be too hard, I thought. She was a healthy baby, who cried very little and slept a lot. She was also chubby. Her legs could easily be mistaken for two rubber rafts with knees. So even if she wasn’t very excited about taking a bottle, she wouldn’t starve. Feeling confident that my baby wouldn’t starve was hardly the badge of good parenting, but my emotional dial has two settings: denial or panic. I warmed up a frozen bag of breast milk and poured it into a glass bottle. I arranged myself on a chair in the living room and made cooing sounds to our only child. Then, I offered her the bottle.
Her small face became twisted with disappointment at the feel of the rubber nipple on her lips. I tried tickling the roof of her mouth with it. This seemed to offend her. And she acted like she was chocking.
“Are you hungry?” I asked her, tenderly, making little kissing noises with my lips.
She didn’t answer of course, because she was a tiny baby, but she did look more relaxed now that the bottle wasn’t near her face. I tried to give her the bottle of few more times, and by the fourth time, I could tell that she was actually trying to spit it out of her mouth.
“Oh well,” I said. “Maybe we’ll try again, later.” I stood up to return the bottle to the fridge. She started to cry. “Ok, then.”
I sat back down in the chair, hoisted up my shirt and unsnapped my nursing bra. Mission not accomplished. I tried giving her a bottle again the next day. Her rejection of the rubber-nippled tyrant was getting more vigorous.
Maybe it was me. Maybe she was mad that I was trying to give her a bottle when she knew that there were two perfectly good breasts sitting right there in her face. So I let Pam try.This seemed to make our baby madder.
Maybe it was because she could smell me. I didn’t really believe this wives tale, but this situation was getting serious, so it was time to start improvising. I put on my shoes, found my car keys and went to garage. I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I sat in the car and put the garage door up and down once so it even sounded like I was leaving. If my baby could smell me, god only knew what she could hear. I waited. And the longer I waited for Pam to come out and tell me that the feeding went well, the more panicked I felt.
Eventually she showed up in the garage doorway and just shook her head. No. Our baby had not taken the bottle.
Worst Case Scenario
What would we do if she never took a bottle?
That’s impossible, I told myself. She will, eventually. She will get so hungry that she’ll change her mind. It could get ugly, but she will take a bottle.
Naive and optimistic, I put on a new dress, loaded my breast pump bag with all its plastic hardware and packed a lunch. I was off to work. I smothered my baby’s fat face with kisses and gave Pam a kiss goodbye that felt more like an apology. She was probably going to have a hard day.
At 1 p.m. my phone rang. “She’s not taking the bottle,” said Pam. “She hasn’t eaten anything all day.” The blood drained from my face. “How many times have you tried?” “Probably 4 or 5. Now she won’t stop crying. And she won’t nap now, like she usually does.”
I came home and fed our baby. She immediately fell asleep, while we sat around trying not to freak out. Exactly the same thing happened for the next seven days, except that on three of the mornings, Pam went to a lactation consultant or the pediatrician to see if they could get her to take a bottle.
But they all said the same thing “eventually she’ll get hungry enough to take it.” Except that she didn’t. And every day Pam would call me, desperate to get help with our starving baby. And every day, the conversations sounded more like we were getting a divorce.
“I can’t do this. She’s not taking a bottle. I don’t know what to do. I can’t take this. She’ll never sleep.”
I pictured myself as a single mother trying to find a daycare that would accept a 4-month-old baby WHO. WOULDN’T. TAKE. A. BOTTLE. I pictured the two of us living off a tiny welfare check, because I had quit my job so my baby could be with my breasts. None of these options sounded good.
I called Pam. It was a Friday afternoon at 1 p.m. and I was driving home to feed our baby.
“I have an idea,” I said. “Before you tell me it won’t work, just listen. We’re going to meet every day at lunch in a parking lot right by the Downing exit.”
“But the doctor said keep trying,” said Pam.
“Right,” I said. “But we’re the parents and this is driving us absolutely crazy. Let’s ignore the doctor for now.”
And so that is what we did. For months. I would leave the office at 11:30 and arrive promptly at noon in a newly paved, mostly empty parking lot next to an insurance building right off the highway. I would park next to Pam’s car and get out of my own. Then, I would unbuckle our baby, who was in the back seat of Pam’s car, hug her and sit down with her in the passenger seat. She would nurse and I would chat with Pam. After 15 minutes, we would do the whole thing in reverse.
I waited for someone from the insurance building to come out and inquire about what, exactly, we were doing in their parking lot. I assumed at some point, someone would call the police who would show up in their squad cars and search our car for drugs and frisk the baby. Only drug dealers had rendezvous and used regular drop spots like this, right? At work, people would ask me to go to lunch and I would tell them that I already had plans.
The plans were with someone very important and could never be canceled or rescheduled.
At one point, I was invited to an all-day meeting with executives. I had no say in what time lunch would be or how long of a break we would have. I told Pam she had to drive our daughter all the way to my office and wait in the car in the parking lot. When we broke for lunch, I would run outside and nurse the baby. The two of them sat there for 45 minutes before my boobs showed up.
Eventually, nursing at the Downing Street exit off the highway became so routine that I had to start taking a different route home at the end of the day. Just the act of turning on my blinker and merging right caused my milk to let down. This is how I learned about nursing pads.
All’s Well that Ends Well
And then one day, after more than six weeks of baby lunches, Pam texted me a picture of our daughter in her high chair. She was holding and drinking from a sippy cup. I felt a surge of joy. And then tears in the corners of my eyes. It was only 10 a.m. Holding up my phone, I turned to one of my friends at work and said “Look! Do you want to go out for lunch?!”
Sarah writes about science, gender, feminism and fertility issues on her blog sevenlittlemexicans.com. When she’s not dreaming about being a “real writer,” she works with 50 psychologists at her “real job.” Sarah lives in Denver with her soon-to-be-wife, two girls and ungrateful dog. She is working on memoir about becoming a parent. If she had more free time, she would spend it lobbying the state government to make down vests and flip-flops the official uniform of Colorado. You can talk to her on Twitter @7littlemexicans.