The day after my twin sons were born, the hospital's slightly officious, highly knowledgeable lactation consultant told me to think of my breast pump like another baby.
"Pretend you hear it crying every three hours and go to it," the consultant, Martha, said, sweeping her glasses atop her rigid short perm. "Set your alarm during the night -- pump around the clock. The more you pump, the more milk you'll get. And you're going to need a lot!"
I nodded. Then I panicked. How did the breast pump even work?
At 41, I'd come through my C-section swimmingly, and my twin boys, my first children, proved to be in perfect condition. As my husband and I cuddled our sleeping bundles, I felt proud of all we'd come through -- relieved, grateful. My pregnancy had been fairly easy, if internally overstocked toward the end, and now my beautiful, red-cheeked babies could already smile... for half a second at a time. But I also felt sure -- quite suddenly, looking into Martha's tiny blue eyes -- that breastfeeding would be a complete disaster.
Of course, I had fully intended to make a go of it. I had cleared two work-free months to come home and do nothing but nurse and bond with my kiddoes. My mother had breastfed me till I was almost 2 (I can remember her lavender nipples nearly photographically). Even overbooked, underfed celebs were exposing their swollen boobs, with babies attached, on the subway, the set, at the fashion show. If they could do it, I should in theory be able to improvise the act with my modest B-cuppers. Right?
Except that I would have to feed two. And Martha and I agreed aloud, as she showed me how to attach what resembled a handlebar horn to my related pump paraphernalia, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
Because I'd been slammed at work before taking my leave, nursing was the one maternal frontier I'd failed to read up on. (Not to mention: The harrowing double-nursing photos sprinkled throughout my 400-page La Leche manual for moms of multiples made me jumpy. These doubly blessed mothers looked so tired -- read: "haggard"-- their breasts hanging as low as their faces, but they also looked skilled in a way I doubted came easily to most mammals. These moms tucked two babes football-style and slipped each an enormously long nipple. They could have landed circus gigs, if only they'd smile for the crowd once in a while. If the moms looked a little sad, the babies looked, well, a lot hungry.)
"Now you do it -- put the pump together, dear," Martha said, as I fumbled with the freshly scrubbed puzzle pieces.
I attached the horn-shape piece to a round doohickey that almost fit exactly right.
"Not even close," she said, as if every nursing mom tried this dumb move.
"Could you put it together for me?" I asked, swallowing the lump in my throat.
"You're 41 with twins," Martha said, managing an extremely brief smile. "You're going to need to learn to pump with the best of them."
Judging by her furrowed brow, I felt ever surer I'd never make the grade. One son was now crying passionately for his food; meanwhile I felt hungrier than I'd felt in my entire lifetime--and shakier, too.
"Okay, forget the pump," said Martha. "First, nurse the infant."
Recalling my numerous friends' breastfeeding advice, most of which followed a dreadful refrain -- "Don't feel bad if you can't nurse, or if it's just too much stress with two" -- or recounted a nasty infection -- "It hurt so effing bad!" -- I braced myself for defeat.
Just as my consultant feared, I, too, expected I wouldn't make enough milk.
It was such a surprise to hear Martha say to me, "You can do this," as I scooped my first-born babe -- he arrived one minute ahead of his bro -- into my arms and held him against my warm, bare skin.
When Martha told me to squeeze my breasts to check for colostrum, the fat and antibody-rich "first milk," I was delighted to find yellow polka dots pulsing from each faucet head. So was she.
"Look at that," she said, addressing my boy in soft baby tones. "Look at this goldmine, mister."
And for a moment, the bossy pressure was off me and on my miniature boy.
"Now let's see if he's got any clue how to latch on to a booby!"
"Don't let her rattle you," I told my son in a similar baby voice to her own.
Cut to two days later. I'd conquered the pump assembly, and my newly renovated D-size boobs and I had successfully filled two bottles big enough for a couple of baby meals each.
My nurse Heather said, "Wow!" when she brought me my ice water. Martha, coincidentally, followed close behind to peep in; she said, "You're a super producer!"
I felt a tad cocky. But then she looked at me sternly. My second-born boy had begun to cry for his breakfast.
"Please feed your babies before you pump, though."
"OK -- he was asleep."
"They get dibs, we talked about that," she said, as she made her welcome exit. "Then you save the rest for a rainy day."
As I gulped ice water and prepared to nurse my child, Martha tip-toed back inside the room, causing even my nurse to gasp.
"And don't forget," she whispered. "Pump every three hours."
When she'd gone Heather said to herself, "That's a heck of a lot of pumping."
"Thank you -- I know."
"Everybody's got an opinion about breastfeeding, don't they?"
She was exactly right.
At home, in all honesty, the feeding comes less easily than it did at the hotel-reminiscent hospital. Enough milk is there ready and waiting, but I certainly don't have the energy to pump bottles to freeze for the future every three hours -- not by any stretch. I have laundry to do and dishes to wash and cats to feed and my own new raging appetite to nourish. The Brest Friend nursing pillow that accommodates both children at once -- on an insane-looking flotation-device-like object that fits around my waist -- could help us all save a lot of time in theory. But the boys rarely express hunger pangs at the exact same moment. (A helpful phenomenon at a crowded summer picnic, say, where I'd prefer to feed discreetly one wailing baby at a time.) And even when they do demand milk simultaneously, one son wants to nurse until the cows come home, while the other tends to get cozy and fall asleep after five minutes. So I pump now and then to fill bottles for my sleepy guy, at least three times a day, and I nurse in between, though not in that order. Though I hope to continue for months and months, I try to live in the moment with the endeavor rather than chart a grand breastfeeding plan. I do the best I can.
When friends ask how it's going with the breastfeeding -- champing at the bit to recount their own milk-making adventures -- it helps me to keep in mind my hospital nurse's wisdom: Everybody's got an opinion on the subject. It helps to remind myself: Only mine really matters.
When I look at my boys in their occasional mutual nursing mode, their hands touching and their smiles flashing off and on, I know I can do this. And I know why most everyone who's tried it wants so desperately to weigh in: Breastfeeding is a backbreaking and beautiful thing for a woman to undertake; in the end, perhaps it lasts all too briefly.