Not the Best Start
“If you cooperate, this process will move faster,” says the doctor, just as the delivery was about to begin.
The first push, nothing. With the second push, a little head makes an appearance. The third push is the head again, just a little further down, maybe just enough to say peek-a-boo.
Clearly, I am not cooperating.
I can hear the doctor mutter about the dropping fetal heart rate. (“This is what I was scared of,” she says.) There is also something about a cord around the neck. The fourth push is the final one. My son comes out. Thank goodness I decided to cooperate.
I cry for an hour after the baby is born, forgetting even to ask whether it is a boy or a girl. Maybe it’s the hormones, maybe it’s the guilt that I hadn’t cooperated enough.
Once back in the room, my baby is brought to me for his first feed. I have always thought it would be intuitive and natural, but it is neither. From the baby not being able to latch on, to having no milk for him to suck, to the extreme discomfort of having your breasts pinched and squeezed painfully by every on-duty nurse — this is as unnatural as it gets.
Later, there is the lactation specialist. She is perfect for the job, a Punjabi aunty-type, obsessed with breasts like the others of her type, whose training was probably the many hours spent devouring sundry ladies’ magazines in her salon. She extols the wonders of the breast and the virtues of breastfeeding to my entire family, most of whom are turning different shades of red, like teens watching an adult-rated film along with their parents. Nothing she says is wrong, of course. That is, until she squeezes my breasts hard enough to produce two reluctant drops.
“There!” she exclaims. “You have milk! Why are you forcing your baby to have formula?”
Battered, sleep deprived, and vulnerable, guilt hits me again, like a sack of potatoes.
Over the next few days, I vacillate between guilt and practicality. My baby is on formula even as I try unsuccessfully to feed him. While most people tell me that delay in lactation is natural for the first baby, they look on with concern. Meanwhile, I am trying everything — from eating and drinking every unsavoury thing that comes out of the depths of my grandmother’s memory, to scouring the Internet for solutions. I alternate between feeding and pumping, sometimes doing both at the same time. With guests streaming into the house, my son is in and out of the room, while I am trapped here, topless, trying to get something out.
My husband and I high-five when, after a week of pumping air, I finally managed to fill the bottle with an ounce of milk. Thanks, Medela, for great instructions on setting up and using the pump. All my professional experience reading and following complicated instructions is finally useful for something. No thanks, lactation expert, who says, “You will not breastfeed if I tell you how to use the pump!”
Yes, that is right: Withholding information is what makes you an expert.
Never have my breasts been the subject of so many emotions: pity, sympathy, derision, concern and overwhelming obsession.
I had a ‘normal’ delivery, so I can at least avoid guilt on that front. Strapped to the fetal heart monitor and tethered to the IV stand, I couldn’t move as I writhed in pain. Just about everyone and their grandmother has seen parts of me that I haven’t seen myself. It was interminable, intrusive and indescribably painful — and then some more.
There is no slack. I expected that. But I am an adult woman with agency; to be disciplined like an errant schoolgirl is not okay. We carry our babies through millions of small and large aches and complications and we do not give up without doing everything we can. We shouldn’t be questioned. You want me to push myself beyond the brink? Tell me, encourage me, soothe me. But for god’s sake, don’t guilt me.
Life should not start like this. It may not start perfectly, there may be problems along the way, but it most certainly should not start by faulting the life-giver. Evolution and biology ensures that the mother forgets the searing physical pain of childbirth. We aren’t meant to carry any pain, physical or emotional, from that time so that we can go on to have more babies. We aren’t meant to carry the guilt, either, because we did everything we could.
My own pain from childbirth has faded, now, and the humiliation of the hospital experience has become a story. But the guilt, in some form or the other, remains with me. And that’s not right.