I stood in a tiny dressing room today and took off my bra.
"You're going to want a nursing bra that leaves some room for growing" the kind woman yelled through the curtain. "You can assume that your breasts will be at their largest size about two weeks after baby is born."
I could assume that. But I won't.
I've been down this road before. The hundreds of dollars spent on cute little nursing tanks with tiny clips meant to set voluptous milk-filled breasts free so that your baby can eat. Nursing bras in black and nude, a hospital-grade pump that purred loudly every three hours as it sucked the life out of me. Bright yellow Medela bottles that reminded me of spring, yet dropped me into the dead of winter as they collected only tiny drops of milk. Hours spent with lactation consultants, all saying different things. "Your baby has tongue tie." "No, no tongue tie here. Who told you that?" "You're not producing enough. Try Mother's Milk Tea. Try Fenugreek. Try lactation cookies. Try to do a triple-feed. Try an SNS nursing system." Try, try, try. Not once did anyone take their eyes off of my cracked nipples to look into my bloodshot eyes. Not once did anyone follow me into the bathroom to ask me why I was sobbing into the downy hair of my tiny boy, who was squeaking his hunger out in soft kittenish mews. No one ever mentioned post-partum depression. No one ever offered a solution that would take care of me, so that I could take care of Max.
Max was my first baby. I didn't know what I didn't know. I was tired, and recovering poorly from an unexpected C-section. I thought that if I only wore the pretty pink nursing tank top and unhooked the tiny clips, that the milk would come. I thought that if I gave Max those cute little bottles of formula, and nursed him when I felt better, that the milk would wait for him.
It never did.
My tears flowed freely, but my milk came out in a meager trickle for four long weeks. My son was hungry. My son had reflux. My son was hurting. My son was pissed off. His pain matched mine, as I bounced us both incessantly on the exercise ball and paced the hardwood floors in front of the window. I cried on the couch as I supplemented him with formula. I cried in bed, as I willed myself to do the hard work of nursing, when bottles were so much easier. I cried in the shower, as the warm water tore across my wounded nipples and down my stitched-up belly. "Breastfeeding was supposed to be natural," I moaned, all alone in a hell that only new moms could understand.
The kind-faced nursing bra lady peeked through the curtain. "That's great!" she said. "That one definitely fits." I reached my hand into the soft fabric of the bra cup, and pulled out a crisp white circle. "Ummm, I'm embarassed to ask, but what IS this?" I said. She smiled gently. "It's just a pad to prevent any leaking" she said. "You'll need to wear them once you start nursing."
Or maybe I won't.
"Oh, I got it" I whispered, embarrassed. "I never made enough milk the first time to actually leak."
When she left, I practiced using the little clips. Unsnapping each one, pulling down the cup, adjusting the straps. I pretended that I knew what I was doing. Imagined having my second son's lips at my breast, just a short four weeks from now. Tried to act like it was the most natural thing in the world. I looked closely at my reflection in the dressing room mirror. I tried to absorb the ways that my body had changed, the ways that nature was preparing for me to give sustenance to the baby who was now kicking the hell out of my rib cage. But all I saw was ugliness in the mirror. And sadness. And failure. As I stood there alone, I heard the kind sales lady answer the phone. She asked careful questions. Offered suggestions to a new mom who was calling for support. And suddenly, I heard her say "It's OK. No one ever tells you that breastfeeding is really hard. You're doing the right thing by calling us. We'll help you figure it out." Hot tears bloomed like wildflowers underneath my closed eyelids. I forced myself to open them and set the tears free. I looked at my reflection in the mirror. I ran my hands over my breasts. Full, healthy breasts that were waiting to feed a child. "It's OK to cry," I heard her say to the caller. "Lots of moms cry when they come in here at first."
"I'm crying too" I laughed, my voice loud and clear through the curtain, for the first time since I had arrived. She laughed with me. "Yep, even the lady in the dressing room is feeling emotional about nursing!" she relayed to the distraught mom on the other end of the line. I thought of Max, now a handsome 4-year-old with strong legs that help him race around the playground, and strong arms that he wraps around my neck as he squeals with laughter. I thought of the endless apologies that I had whispered to him over the years, the guilt that I tried to tell myself didn't matter in the long run. Max had grown up just fine. Max was OK. It was me who had never been able to forgive myself.
I quickly got dressed and walked out of the fitting room. "I'll take two" I said, with a faint smile. "One in black and one in nude."
"Perfect!" she replied. "Most moms get two, so that they can alternate when one is in the wash." Not me, I thought. I probably won't even need one. Me... the one who had failed. I thought for sure that she would see right through me, that she would call me out as the outsider-imposter-miserable excuse for a mother that I surely was. Instead, she just smiled and said "You're doing so many things to prepare yourself this time. You're giving yourself a second chance."
It's all I've ever wanted, that second chance. From the moment I turned in that terrible pump, and fed my first-born the last quarter ounces of breast milk that I had stored lovingly in the fridge, I've prayed for a second chance. I want to know what it's like to feel engorged. To watch the gift of life trickle from my baby's mouth. To not have to rinse bottles and sterilize plastic nipples and carefully measure out formula every time I want to go somewhere. I want to sit with all of the other moms who feed their babies effortlessly. I want to complain about cluster feeds and weaning and the stares that people give when they see someone nursing in public.
I've been an advocate for formula-feeding without shame, and I believe with every ounce of my mama heart that babies who are nourished with formula are still fed with love. Still, I am desperate to nurse. Even though my sweet, brilliant Max is healthy and fine and perfect, I want to be a part of the sisterhood of women who use their breasts to give life. I want to redeem myself. I want to try again. I want to know that I am not broken.
My new bras sit folded neatly in my dresser drawer, a "nursing basket" gracing the top of my nightstand. I run my fingers over the tools that I have stocked up on. Nipple cream, books, pills, disposable pads, cold packs and warm packs. I close my eyes and imagine that I am confident enough to ask for help. Brave enough to push through. Determined enough to will my body to work for me. I will not be afraid. I will not be overwhelmed. And this time, I know for sure that I will not be alone. As I get undressed for bed, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. My big round belly, low and heavy with the life that grows inside of me. And my breasts, full and round, waiting patiently to do what they are supposed to do. For a brief moment, I almost think that I am beautiful. I will trust this body. I will appreciate this body. I will thank this body. Whether it works or not, I deserve a second chance.
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