In my second year of law school, for the first time in the decades since I escaped my childhood haunt, I decided to observe Lent.
It wasn’t because I’d Gotten Religion. At the time I still considered myself more or less Catholic, but had not attended mass in ages and did not care to start. (It would take wonderful &, and the wonderful National Cathedral, to turn me around.)
What appealed to me about Lent was not the religion of it, but the sense that by giving something up, I was somehow giving something back. I’d had some very good fortune befall me in 2003, and observing Lent in 2004 almost felt like repaying a debt. I could practically watch my karma balancing out in real time.
This was such a good feeling that I revisited Lent in subsequent years, variously undertaking forty days of sobriety, vegetarianism, and other experiments in privation. It was perversely awesome. Every year it thrilled me to pull off the discipline, and every year I emerged from Lent the better for it. In 2009 I did my first serious fast and lost two clothing sizes. Last year I renounced both booze and coffee in covetous anticipation of pregnancy, and two weeks into Lent we conceived Natalie. This year, my first as a mother, I owed so much back to the cosmos that I found myself at a loss.
A hundred crunches a day? Half an hour daily on our cheapo Craigslist elliptical trainer? Renunciation of some cherished food or beverage? Actual religious observance? All fine ideas, and yet as the sun set on Ash Wednesday I had yet to embrace a single one. I’d already had a beer, some chocolate, a Pitango gelato; spent the day in a state of exercise-free sloth; and lacked the motivation to chant, speak, or even think a single prayer. All I’d done of a discipline-y nature that day was pump enough breastmilk to fill a bag and stick it in the freezer.
So there it was: my discipline for 2011. Every day, I would pump and freeze 180ml of fresh breastmilk. Or at least make my best effort to do so, without actually depriving Natalie of any necessary or desired sessions at the teat.
Flash forward to today, roughly midway through Lent. My discipline is more or less holding up. With only three exceptions since Ash Wednesday, I have managed to lay in a freezer bag of breastmilk every day, proudly dated with a black Sharpie. My freezer is beginning to resemble that of a robust dairy queen with zero milk supply problems. Even after thawing a few bags to cover feedings where I was out — the oldest bag in the freezer is dated March 14 — our stash has grown mighty, and I can gaze upon it with a modicum of pride.
By another metric, I’ve breached my discipline three times already and Lent isn’t even half over yet. This is about as poorly as I’ve done at Lent since I started observing it in law school. Nor can I claim that I’ve scrupulously adhered to my discipline even on good days. As often as not, a bag went into the freezer first thing in the morning bearing yesterday’s date. I constantly must restrain myself from smaller cheats: ending a feeding as soon as Natalie starts to fuss, nursing her only on one side at night, and other stupid timing tricks to yield a more productive pump. I look back at all this and feel guilty, cheap, an even greater failure.
(True story: Natalie’s four-month pediatrician appointment is scheduled for April 13. That’s a full eleven days after the actual four-month mark of April 2. Because I hope she’ll gain a little more weight by then.)
Four months into the campaign and nobody’s happy, and even the harsh clarity of Lent has illuminated little. Yes, every drop of breastmilk I can give Natalie is priceless liquid gold. But this means that I gasp in horror when a pump cylinder tips over in the fridge and leaves 20 ml of priceless liquid gold pooling in a sticky puddle under the orange juice. Or I fight back tears when I realize that, dashing off to attend to a fussy baby, I forgot to refrigerate last night’s pumpage and an entire ounce has spoiled on the countertop overnight. I thought that a freezerful of the stuff would soothe my fear of scarcity, but it turns out that it never gets any easier to wring blood from a stone.
This is what breastfeeding has become: a patchwork of confessions and apologies, exasperation and cheating, trying my damnedest and still ending up disappointed. I’d hoped that reducing the campaign to a Lenten discipline would clear the air and put all this emotional craziness to bed. Instead, I am as stupidly obsessed as ever with my lactation. Even though it has undernourished my daughter, frustrated my husband, and failed to make the slightest dent in my postpartum obesity.
Here’s what we’re doing now. I’m sticking with the discipline, because that’s what you do; you don’t give up on Lent halfway through. But Natalie’s father has begun feeding her one bottle a day of formula (“daddy milk”). I am surprised and ashamed at what a relief this is, but oh, boy, is it. & and Noodles get some father-daughter bonding time. I get the heck out of their way and leave the quantity and pace of the feeding to his discretion. And at the end of the day, we’re all calmer and more at peace.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: breastfeeding is a consummate act of faith. In that sense it’s an appropriate study for Lent, I guess. But so is the insight that comes from perceiving, and accepting, when you’ve tried and tried and tried enough.
We’ll make it to Easter (when Natalie’s on deck to be baptized at the vigil service), and then our priorities will shift. No more expensive capsules, nasty cookies, fretful triple-checks of the pump clock. It’ll be life first, breastmilk second. I won’t stop nursing Natalie, but I will stop forcing it. And we’ll see how well that works out for us.