I felt a little guilty, scheduling Natalie’s four-month pediatrician appointment eleven days late. It was a transparent cheat. Despite her ongoing habit of nursing every two hours or so, she still seemed small to me. I was not looking forward to official confirmation of my suspicions that her weight gain had slowed to a crawl. An extra eleven days to pack on even a few more ounces would, at least, soften the blow.
“She’s how old? Four months?” the nurse asked me as she positioned Natalie on the baby scale.
“Just about four months,” I fibbed.
But the scale, alas, told no lies. My daughter, at four and a half months of age, weighed ten pounds, zero ounces.
“Not ten pounds and change?” I attempted to joke.
No, the results stated coldly. Ten pounds and no change. No change at all.
There was no more room for denial: Natalie had stopped gaining weight. She’d gotten a bit taller, but her height had sunk to the tenth percentile. Her head circumference was still in the fiftieth percentile, which apparently indicated normal brain growth (to my great relief). But the rest of her had all but stopped growing altogether.
“It could be a growth syndrome,” said the strange new doctor, who never did introduce herself. “Or maybe cystic fibrosis.”
“Um,” I choked out, “we got tested for cystic fibrosis when I was pregnant. It was negative.”
“And growth syndromes normally come with developmental delays,” the doctor remarked breezily. “But you don’t seem to be showing any of those, do you sweety? Do you?”
Noodles grinned obligingly and reached for the doctor’s stethoscope.
I heard a swirl of voices: She’s fine! See? Look how she holds up her head. How she flips over onto her back. Look how alert her eyes are, how easily she smiles, how happy she is. But look how small she is. She’s fallen off the charts now, down below the first percentile. She may be nursing eight times a day, but is she eating? “She’s just a bad nurser.”
That last voice was mine. I said this aloud to the mystery doctor: “She’s just a bad nurser.” And I’m a bad lactator. We’re both just so goddamn bad at this. “But she is getting formula too. Her daddy gives her a bottle every evening. Sometimes two.”
“I’m going to write you up a referral to endocrine,” the doctor told me, “and to GI/nutrition. In the meantime, you can start supplementing after every feeding. Two to four ounces every time she nurses. And we’ll schedule a followup appointment in two weeks. You won’t be able to get an appointment with a specialist before then anyway.”
(Maybe that’s why she neglected to suggest any. Or to annotate Natalie’s file with any record of a referral. I have decided that I am thoroughly unimpressed with Mystery Doctor.)
Back home, I took one look at my tiny daughter…
…another at the giant can of infant formula on the counter…
…and mixed her up an eight-ounce bottle.
This was not the first time I’d fed her with a bottle, nor the first formula she’d tasted, but it was the first time I’d touched the stuff myself. It did not burn my fingers or reek of brimstone. It dissolved into water, smelled innocuous, and was ready in an instant. Eight ounces, just like that. Effortless. A whole morning’s worth of frustrated, struggling nursing sessions would not have yielded this much.
I settled into the armchair with baby, Boppy and bottle. I didn’t want to wean you this soon, I thought bitterly as the rubber nipple brushed her cheek.
She swiveled around and fastened onto that bottle like a lifeline. For the first time, she met my gaze while eating, and the look she gave me was one of such overwhelming relief and gratitude that I choked up again. It took her less than five minutes to drain the whole bottle.
And it hit me like a suckerpunch: I had already weaned her. She’d been getting less than 20% of her nutrition from breastmilk for weeks now. I just hadn’t been feeding her the other 80%.
“Don’t use the word fail,” my stepmother cautioned me. “Say you did the best you could. Because you did.”
I don’t need to mince words. This was a campaign that did not work out. Failure doesn’t imply a lack of trying, because good God, we tried. But we did not succeed. And there is no shame in that, only truth. Some people can lactate enough to feed several babies. Many people can make enough milk to feed at least one. I couldn’t.
Does that make me a subpar mother, a lesser woman? I don’t think so. Somehow I managed to gestate and give birth to an incredible human being who is very much alive and happy to be here. Certainly some people would have me believe that the measure of my motherhood depended on the output of my udders; our awful Bradley instructor called formula “crack” and admonished us never to let the stuff into our kitchen. But as Natalie tucked into that bottle, I felt my own fresh relief. I had finally achieved adequacy. I was meeting her needs. After months of providing little more than life support, I was finally feeding my daughter. And I could feed her as much as she wanted without ever worrying about running out.
That was a week ago, and in the meantime, miracles have happened. She still nurses several times a day, but now she gets as many bottles as she asks for. And if our bathroom scale is to be believed, she has already gained roughly two pounds. (Let me repeat: Two pounds. A 20% increase in body weight in less than a week.) Her fussing has vastly diminished; now she prefers to emit a litany of delicious giggles and squeals. A few nights ago, she slept for over six hours straight. She’ll meet your gaze across the room and respond with a huge brilliant grin. And & claims that, while I was out at rehearsal, he observed her roll over from her back onto her tummy.
There are three days left in my Lenten discipline. I’ve managed to pump and freeze enough breastmilk that Noodles is assured of continuing antimicrobial-superfood goodness long after I cease to lactate (whenever that may happen). But just as importantly, thanks to the nice people at Earth’s Best Organics, she’s now assured of adequate nutrition too. And this whole chapter of her childhood is hereby closed.
I suspect that this is merely the first in a lifelong series of Things We’ll Find To Worry About. But now at least we can move on to the second.