Published on December 5th, 2016 | by Alex Behr1
MILK IT: Alex Behr on Breastfeeding as an Adoptive Mom
(Names have been changed.)
My breasts were dumb. I’d tricked them. Now they were swollen, mini Mt. Hoods with rusty pipe syndrome. They were bubbling milk pods. They couldn’t keep their metaphors straight. I didn’t know how the breasts produced milk. I thought the tip of the nipple opened and the milk shot out, like the center of a showerhead, but little holes had opened and oozed after two weeks of using the pump; two weeks of anxiousness and nothing but insomnia. Four a.m. My friend. I stared at the progression of green numbers on the digital clock.
Around five in the morning I heard distant train whistles by SE Division Street, a mile or so from my home in Portland, Oregon. The boxcars were transporting cheap plastic treats from China, including replicas of the plastic crap slowly infiltrating our home. In our kitchen sat a hand-me-down cushioned high chair that I’d scrubbed. In every possible crevice lurked dried evidence of another toddler’s life: pasta, tomato sauce, applesauce, and pureed peas. After two baby showers and deliveries from friends and family from across the United States, my husband—Sam—and I had so much clutter for Baby World, including two plastic keyboards and a circular activity/exercise saucer more suited for a Star Trek episode than our living room.
I walked the aisles of Target in a daze, wondering what I was missing that would make me into a “better mom.” For an underground musician whose possessions once fit in the back of my ’64 Plymouth Valiant, Sam was appalled. The hand-me-down crib went into his office, the extra bedroom. The curtains I’d sewn with tiny cats on red fabric went in there, too. Sam was being marginalized. He was slowly moving into the dark, dank basement.
In early 2005, before Sam and I went to China to adopt our son, before the placement was even made, I’d borrowed a pump from a friend. I felt like a fraud. But I’d met another adoptive mom at an adoption support group who had induced breast-feeding. I wanted to try.
In March, we learned we were placed with a healthy boy named Yu Zheng, whose report said he loved to be tickled and pushed other babies away from his main nanny. We had only three photos, one in which his eyes looked crinkled from tears and two others where he was so wrapped in bright yellow quilted clothing he looked like the Michelin Man. He was the ultimate stranger, the ultimate desire after years of infertility: tubal surgeries, drugs, two attempts at IVF, offers of fertilized eggs, and much self-blame after being diagnosed with blocked Fallopian tubes (most likely due to untreated STDs when I was a teen with no access to medication).
This baby shared the same birthday as my dad. With little else to go on, I fell in love. But it was an abstraction. I put my nervous efforts toward making this baby a quilt out of Japanese indigo fabric with lucky rabbits and the moon throughout.
I drove to Kaiser to see a lactation expert, who was also a registered nurse. In a large air-conditioned room, I sat on a rocker with a practice doll in my lap. It looked worn and beaten up, as if it were at a court custody case, and the parents said to each other, “This is not my baby.” The nurse, a middle-aged woman in scrubs, said, “Sit the baby here and try to get him interested in your nipple.” I had to put the doll’s arm around me, as if this plastic thing had affection toward me. I was topless. Around us were pamphlets on postpartum depression.
The nurse said, “Don’t be surprised you if he rejects you.” If he rejected my breasts, these unfamiliar objects, he would reject me (another unfamiliar object, and one who would take him from his nannies and home).
I was adopting a bottle-fed baby in an orphanage; I’d been told the bottles had the tips of the nipples cut off for faster feeding. Most likely the bottles were propped up to the babies. I wanted to be in China right away. I wanted to offset the brain chemistry potentially damaged by a lack of direct warm response to a baby’s primal need. I had to trick my baby-to-be that my breast was like a funky bottle. I had to convince him, someone who could not talk much less understand English, that all this technology had a value. I put a silicon nipple on top of my real nipple and taped a thin tube to it. The tube was connected to a bottle of expensive liquid formula, the Dom Perignon of chemical breast milk. If all went well, I could transition the baby from the liquid formula and fake nipple to my breast milk and real nipple.
I couldn’t trick my ovaries into producing healthy eggs, but I had tricked my breasts into producing milk. It felt underground and slightly subversive.
I took drugs to warp my hormones into thinking I’d given birth. I took a drug called Reglan, which is given to people suffering from nausea and acid reflux. It also helps promote milk production by inducing a prolactin release. The drugs and the pumping (and pumping, and pumping) further induced breast milk to flow. My dopamine levels lowered, which made the serotonin rise. Everything felt screwy. I was the mad cow.
You’ve never given birth? No. You’re not having the normal hormone changes, so we’ll put you on high-estrogen birth control pills and a gastrointestinal drug that lowers dopamine so your body will raise oxytocin. Don’t worry. The side effects include only depression or even suicide. P.S. get ready for a baby.
All I got was the 4 a.m. alarm clock.
Hello, morning, with birds chirping and nothing to see but a slumbering husband beside me, who viewed the pump, or me pumping, like he’d walked in on me taking a shit or masturbating.
At home, on our kitchen table overlooking rose bushes, I took notes on the sports section of the Oregonian when the Kaiser nurse called me with her second thoughts. She felt I would be so busy and anxious bonding with my son that breastfeeding would be a futile enterprise and would add to my stress.
It was too late. I was hooked.
I kept the enterprise hidden. I told few people, especially mothers who’d had biological children, whose milk flowed and stained their bras and shirts, whose children named their mothers’ breasts, whose children shared half their chromosomes. One friend said, “Don’t try. It’s too late.” Then she mused while I paced in my kitchen, holding the phone, about how easily she had bonded with her infant.
But I saw the milk come out. Mother, may I. I’d succeeded in one feminine act, a connection to my primate identity, my mammalian biology. A bit of me would be in him.
When we returned from China in May 2005, Yu Zheng, now named Eli, slept with us. He was ten months old. One night he ended up on my neck, his round, heavy skull limiting blood and oxygen to my brain. In the murk of half-sleep, I thought, it was a good way to die.
I was forty when I became a mom. I felt used up.
But, no. I lived. “Ready, partner?” I asked. His eyes were so dark I couldn’t see the start or end of his pupils.
“Tractor,” he said. Or maybe it was dacto, Chinese for “can you not fuck up for a change?”
We got up and I placed him on the quilt I’d made and plugged in the breast pump. I took off my fuzzy pj top and put the funnel on a nipple. The pumping machine had tubes and cords and churned below a white pulsing cover. The machine sucked my tits, one then the other. Like I was romancing an alien with a strong sense of symmetry. I hid the bottles of breast milk in the fridge. They looked like doll’s bottles, so little did I produce.
He wanted formula bottles. He wanted steamed eggs with soy sauce and rice cereal. He wanted smells and tastes from home.
I took Eli for a lactation consult at Kaiser. Women walked past me with newborns strapped to their chests, bundled, secure. They reminded me of the women I saw near his orphanage in Chongqing, who had a natural bond with their offspring.
Inside the same office where I’d posed with a doll, I fussed with the tube and supplemental liquid formula. I was supposed to spread the formula on my nipple to get Eli interested in nursing. He was too curious. He pulled off the tube. I felt clumsy, but the clinician was kind, her hands warm, as she adjusted him and adjusted me so we could try to nurse together.
I took him to the shopping mall after the appointment to pick up photos. At the counter, a woman said, “He is so cute. I wanted to adopt a baby from China, but I adopted a Pomeranian instead.”
Loser, I thought. She was just one of numerous strangers who equated adopted babies from China with pets or purchases.
I heard a cry. A thunk. I’d forgotten to strap Eli into his stroller. He must have reached up toward the carousel holding frames, but fell out, banging his head. I picked him up, my heart pounding. Eli was screaming and thrashing.
Bad mom, I thought. I judged myself the hardest.
Later, the Kaiser clinician wrote to me: “Great job! Eli is gorgeous and so bonded to you already! He did good work today, latched and sucked a few times, which is wonderful. Continue to offer your breast with or without the nipple shield often, but with no pressure.”
Eli knew that nipples produced milk, but he bit and pulled one of them hard, which hurt. In the kitchen, sitting with him on the linoleum floor, I fed him breast milk from the bottle and he blew bubbles with it. I worked so hard to produce milk, and he made a game of it. I had to laugh.
On July 15, 2005, his first birthday, I pumped for the last time. We never became the nursing team I’d hoped for, but I fed him part of me, nonetheless. When he latched on, he drew blood. I poured the milk from my body onto a bowl of organic rice cereal for him. I stirred it in, and it melted from my sight.
As a toddler, he named my breasts Little and Cutie, or Mom and Dad. He laughed at stories of drawing blood, like he was a little vampire. He wanted to be with me all the time, and told me I could cut off my breasts with scissors since I wasn’t having any more babies. “I’ll be your baby forever,” he said, “Even when I get big.”
When he was four he said, “I’ll draw a heart for the goodness of love.” He taught me how to be the mom he needed.