I didn’t have a primitive reaction when my mother called my baby’s pediatrician. There was no shape-shifting where I became an angry mama bear — rather, I skittered behind a rock like a timid field mouse.
Lila was born seven days early, long and lean like her father. Even before she was a tiny sesame seed in my belly, I knew breastfeeding was a priority. I feared that my body would fail me, fail her, and I wouldn’t produce milk. I couldn’t imagine my small breasts feeding a human. Were they big enough to do their primal duty? During a routine checkup, my midwife stopped me in the middle a “what-if” landslide, asserting that I had to focus on breastfeeding being successful. “Don’t put the negative in your head or your body.” I nodded, wondering if being a Rabbi’s daughter gave her some mystical powers.
The midwife placed Lila’s seven-pound body on my chest, and I watched as she bobbed her head around, searching for a nipple. Finally, with a little help, she found one and attached, clumsily at first, but she made it and I was breastfeeding.
After leaving the hospital, we were at the pediatrician’s office daily, gently placing her on the curved scale — Lila screaming in her startling, cold abyss, and us holding our breaths as the digital numbers barely increased from the prior visit. The doctor suggested giving her a few ounces of formula after I breastfed in the evening, just to “give her a little boost.”
The first time my husband fed her with the bottle, she ate eagerly, and I choked up as I snapped my nursing bra back on. After a visit from a lactation consultant, the continued formula supplementation, and a slow but steady gain from Lila, the pediatrician released us from our web of worry. “She’s gaining steadily now. I’m not worried.” We took her home, happy to be done with the constant weigh-ins, and I was ready to breastfeed without doubt.
The early weeks of breastfeeding were exhausting, but I powered through, ate like newly adopted stray cat, and walked around topless with the shades closed. In my mind, I was succeeding as a mother, until I got the text messages from my own mom.
You should stop breastfeeding. You’re too tired and your breast milk doesn’t have enough calories.
She’s too thin. Formula is just as good as breast milk. You should find a new pediatrician.
I had read that stress could affect milk production, so when I called my mother, I tried to stay calm. “You need to stop,” I told her. I closed my eyes as she rambled on, detailing her concerns. She was just looking out for Lila, my mother explained.
“She’s my daughter. I want what’s best for her too,” I said.
“Can I call the pediatrician just for my own peace of mind?”
I hung up the phone.
My husband found me crying in the living room, bouncing Lila to sleep on a large blue exercise ball. My parents’ visit the week before blew like a tornado around my head, stronger and angrier with each memory: the questions they had asked about what size clothing Lila was wearing, how much she spit up, how well she slept, and worst of all, my mom asking for the pediatrician’s number for a friend who was moving to our town. It was all pretend. It was a cloak they wore while doubting my parenting, my judgment, and my body’s ability to feed my daughter. “She’s perfect,” my husband insisted. “Happy and healthy.” I continued to weep and bounce.
When the pediatrician called to let me know my mother had tried to reach her, I tried to stay numb. I didn’t want the negative energy to seep into Lila’s little limbs, but I was losing the battle and the rage began pulsing out of my fingertips and toes.
“Do you want me to call your mom and reassure her? Tell her there is nothing to be concerned about?”
I did not. She didn’t deserve such a call.
The rage burned down into sadness, and then doubt took over. I wanted to build a solid wall around Lila and myself and live there until I no longer felt that I had to compare her size to other babies’ or compare my milk production with other women’s. While my husband simply shrugged off my parents’ concerns, I felt attacked to my very core. My ability to mother and even feed my child was being questioned, and even though it wasn’t done with malicious intent, it knocked me down to my knees. But the wall that I tried building around us didn’t work. I still felt gutted when a stranger would comment on how cute and “petite” she was. When meeting a new neighbor, I felt my inside’s contract when she asked, “Is she small?” In my frantic effort to stay casual I shot back, “She’s very tall!”
A friend, after listening to my saga, looked me in the eyes and said, “You’re doing an amazing job.” My breath caught and I found myself fighting back tears. How could such a simple sentence feel like a bandage on a wound? I could barely speak the “thank you.” I didn’t need a wall, I needed an affirmation.
I still struggle with the doubt. Even after tripling her weight percentile in two months, the doubt still pokes me in the side and tries to be noticed. Sometimes when Lila is breastfeeding, she will pull off my nipple to look up and smile at me, milk dripping out of the corner of her mouth. And that’s all I need, right? To focus on my daughter. To look Lila in the eyes and know with every part of my being that she is happy and healthy.
Megan Margulies is a writer and editor. You can learn more at meganmargulies.com.
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