Holding the bottle to my son’s lips for the first time, I sobbed. In their first month, I’d tried to nurse my twins, but Didi, the smaller one, the younger one, wasn’t gaining weight quickly enough. His latch was shallow and his suck weak.
Cradling him awkwardly, I looked into his watermelon-seed eyes as he swallowed. I’d failed to bond with him as I’d imagined, failed to give what he deserved. My preparations — the books, classes and videos on breast-feeding — had led me to believe I had control where I had none. All my life, I’d achieved through effort and sacrifice, and I’d taken pride in, been defined by my accomplishments.
My ambition to nurse was no different from what drove my career.
My pregnancy had been charmed, healthy and hopeful, as I swam, lifted hand-weights and did yoga. But then doctors had to induce me three weeks early because I’d developed preeclampsia, a life-threatening rapid rise in blood pressure.
Gege arrived first, around 7 a.m., and Didi 26 minutes later, with the help of an extractor that gripped his head while I pushed. “He looks like your father,” my husband said. Didi shared my father’s elfin ears and squat nose. Holding him to my bare chest, I noticed the raised red mark from the vacuum on his head, as though he’d escaped the clutches of a lamprey. He was the Didi, or little brother in Chinese, and Gege, the big brother.
Later that morning, I fainted the first time I stood up. Dizzy and weak, my blood pressure remained high. Doctors put me on medication that set my body afire. I was trapped in bed, on a catheter, unable to use my arms, with an IV in one and a blood pressure monitor on the other, which made breast-feeding nearly impossible.
Gege would learn to nurse with enthusiasm, his jaw pumping like a piranha’s, but we had to wake Didi by rubbing his scrawny limbs with a wet washcloth, stripping him to his diaper and tickling his feet. A borderline case of jaundice left him sleepy, and when feeding, he’d scream, take a few sucks and fall asleep, overwhelmed.
I was just as overwhelmed. Late one night, a nurse performed breast compressions on me while Didi suckled. “Hold it like a sandwich,” she said, milking me by a monitor’s pale glow. I asked my husband to continue, and he squeezed so hard he left bruises in the shape of his fingers.
Because Didi’s condition wasn’t improving, doctors wanted to keep him at the hospital overnight. My insurance only covered a 48-hour stay, the nurse said briskly.
“I don’t want to leave him,” I bawled. I didn’t want him alone under the lightbox while the rest of his family went home. Born second, born small, he shouldn’t be abandoned. If the nurses introduced bottles of formula to him, the nipple’s faster flow might deter him from learning to breast-feed. Doctors let us take Didi home, where he’d receive portable phototherapy.
I’d been told to enjoy the newborn period, when the babies slept all the time and wouldn’t move from where we placed them. Instead, I tormented myself, attempting to nurse up to a dozen times a day. I’d clasp a twin to me, then the other, sometimes both at the same time on the giant foam nursing pillow, awkward and bulky as a life preserver. The twins nursed for 20, 40, 60 minutes or more in each session. Then my husband or his mother would give pumped breast-milk and formula in a bottle while I pumped for the next feeding.
I’d been formula-fed, as had many of my friends, and though I’d told myself I shouldn’t be ashamed if I had to do the same, I didn’t realize how much I’d want to nurse until after the twins arrived. For their nutrition, for our bonding and, I must admit, to reach my goal in my usual Type-A fashion.
To encourage abundant flow, I gulped grassy teas and fenugreek pills, ate oatmeal, drank gallons of water, cranked up rain sounds and visualized waterfalls — advice I’d found online in the wee hours, while pumping or nursing. I’d always found answers, with enough research, but I became more frantic, not less, and felt farther from, not closer to, my twin sons.
One morning, Didi wailed in the bouncer while I was hooked to the pump, unable to travel beyond the length of the cord. The bottles collecting breast milk protruded from my hands-free pumping bra like pasties. As I knelt before Didi, milk spilled, splashing onto my feet. Cursing, I unhooked myself and scooped him up, tightened his swaddle and shushed him. I cuddled him, but not for long, because I had to finish filling out an elaborate feeding chart, whose columns of numbers seemed like a secret coded mystery I would never solve.
I dreamed my nipples fell off, leaving breasts smooth as a mannequin’s. “Should I put it on ice?” I asked my doctor. “Will I still be able to breast-feed?” In short, I lost my mind.
Often in or near tears, I had no patience for myself or the people around me. If drops of breast milk spilled during a feeding, I turned so sullen that my husband began treating it like radioactive uranium ore.
A month after their birth, we took the twins for a walk around the park. Steering our double stroller was like piloting a battleship or herding a wiener dog. Running alongside, I adjusted the shade every time sunlight fell upon the sleeping babies. I tucked in the burp cloth coming loose around Didi’s head, put there to keep him in position. His head was flaky and pink with cradle cap, and he had the receding hairline and flyaway tufts of Bozo the clown. His head was egg-shaped because he’d been squashed to the side of my uterus, crowded by his brother. I felt like I’d neglected Didi, even in utero. To even out the shape, we had to keep his head turned to the right while he slept.
We discussed whether I should nurse Gege and bottle-feed Didi, if I could handle two kinds of feeding. It didn’t seem fair to Didi, to deny him the emotional connection I had with his brother. But could he survive by breast alone?
The next day, Didi thrashed naked and howling on the digital scale. The numbers jumped around, up, down, up, down, until he calmed down. The same — he weighed the same as he did before the weekend, when we’d stopped bottle-feeding the twins with formula or pumped breast-milk — relying solely on nursing for nourishment.
I dipped a refrigerated bottle of breast milk into a bowl of warm water, gently swirling the cream layer. Taking Didi into my arms, I tipped the nipple into his rosebud mouth. I cried again, more tears in the last month than in the last five years of my life. I’d have to stop nursing and pumping for both twins because I couldn’t keep up the punishing routine. It felt like nothing I’d planned for him had worked out, and nothing ever would. A day passed, and I questioned my decision, unwilling to give up. This time, Didi gained weight, without bottle supplementation of formula or pumped breast-milk.
As the months passed, we found our footing as parents, and I grew adept enough to feed the twins at the same time. “Both! At once! You’re like a woman in National Geographic,” a friend marveled at a party.
I couldn’t help but bask in the achievement, even though I knew that my goal-oriented focus had undone me early on. Each time I looked ahead, I forgot the present: To help the twins nap, I read sleep-training books and blogs. To make their food, I studied recipes, then peeled, diced, steamed, mashed and pureed on an industrial scale.
Like a time-lapse film of evolution, they emerged from the muck to roll over, crawl, stand, take their first steps and speak their first words.
Now that they are 7, we talk about the mysteries of the universe. We hike through redwoods and peer at swarming ladybugs. Sometimes still, though, I wish I’d spent more time touching the nub of their noses, kissing their tiny fingers and stroking their velvet skin. If only I’d lived as my sons did and do: in the moment.
Vanessa Hua is the author of the novel A River of Stars and the short story collection Deceit and Other Possibilities. For two decades, she has been writing, in journalism and fiction, about Asia and the diaspora. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and the Atlantic, among other publications. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.