MILK IT: Alex Behr on Breastfeeding as an Adoptive Mom

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).

elicq10

Eli Hall (Yu Zheng) in orphanage before adoption, 2005

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).

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Candy Milk Bottles by Kate Hopkins

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.

(Names have been changed.)

More at Mutha

What Do I Get? (A Primer on Post-Adoption Funk)

I lay across the double bed, the sun filtering through dirty blinds. Measuring my son’s cries from the floor below, I curled up my knees to a fetal position. Outside, a woodpecker slotted his beak against a crack in the telephone pole. I counted to myself, down from one hundred, hearing the bird so percussive, hungry. But, then, the child, my boy, was downstairs and wailing louder. Sam—why couldn’t he help me? I needed the soft death grip of sleep.

It was the fall of 2006. The rains had not yet started in earnest, here in Portland, Oregon. I was a forty-one-year-old woman, with money worries. I couldn’t sleep at night. My husband wasn’t getting steady animation work, and I had to hustle for freelance writing projects.

At two years old, Eli, our son, loved overturning rocks to see the worms’ pink flesh squirm and writhe. To feel the cool, pulsing life in his tiny hand, worms he called his pets. This afternoon, a Sunday, I leaned my head over the side of the bed. I smelled cat pee afterburn from the previous owner’s pet. I could count down from one thousand. I could recite the Lord’s Prayer. I didn’t believe in God, but the prayer was good enough to ward off vampires or rapists when I was young and my pelvic bones felt like knives.

“Mama!”

“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.”

“Mama!”

“Sad happy balloon” by Nathan / Creative Commons License

“Ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven, ninety-six.” I pretended he wasn’t crying for me. His “mama” was someone else, his Chinese mother. We didn’t know her name. But what baby knows his mother’s name at first? He knows a smell. He knows a touch. It’s the primal word, the word he screamed at night if my husband went to get him from his crib instead of me.

Eli ran upstairs, crying, into our bedroom, away from his dad. I felt that adrenaline pinch. Why couldn’t Sam take care of him? Climbing on the futon bed, across a quilt I’d made, Eli put his face toward mine. I put the pillow under my head and smiled. “Baby,” I said. “Why couldn’t you stay with Dada?” I wanted to scream. I sang a made-up song in my mind, in a peppy tone like a dish-soap commercial: “I can’t get anything done.” I loved him. I’d lost my old life. He had, too. We brought him here to America.

He had no choice.

He had a huge, round head, round cheeks, dark-brown eyes, and faint eyebrows that looked half-shaved. A red scab filled the space between his flat nose and cheeks. It was from a runny nose that never got wiped enough at daycare.

He sat and jumped on me. “I bunny rabbit,” he said. He smiled and put his body perpendicular to my head and pushed his feet under my pillow, to burrow under it.

He liked to pretend he was inside me, in my uterus that he called a universe. I sat up, unable to ignore him. He’d made me into a mother this past year, since we adopted him at ten months old. I leaned against a large black pillow, against the crack in the plaster. We were too lazy to fix it. He sat in the crook of my legs. I moved him against my chest and zipped him inside a large hoodie.

For the rest: Mutha

Napalm Picnic

I picked up the thermometer by the bedside table and shook it. Every day I took my temperature and recorded it on grid paper, trying to determine when I was ovulating. Sam and I lived in a Victorian split long ago into an apartment on each floor. Our bedroom was off the kitchen, with a tall, gated window covered by a curtain I’d sewn.

My primary care person, a nurse practitioner in San Francisco’s Castro District, had told me for years not to worry, but I did. The notebooks I stored in a suitcase in the closet were filled with my fears. My FSH levels were normal—I was new to infertility-related acronyms. I never said that word, infertility, in my mind. I was way too superstitious and optimistic. Basically, normal FSH levels meant I wasn’t struggling too hard to produce the follicle-stimulating hormone necessary for ovulation.

Every annual checkup, I’d walk past the stacks of HIV prevention pamphlets in the office and lay down for this nurse practitioner. She told me my breasts felt good—soft and healthy—almost like she was evaluating their allure. I put my feet in terry-cloth-draped stirrups so she could feel my uterus. Good, good. No STDs. Regular sex. Healthy. Good genes. No problemo. She massaged my breasts for nonexistent lumps and said, “There’s a population crisis.” Who was I but one more woman adding to the problem? She said, “You’ll get pregnant.”

After three years of hearing me worry, she told me to get a test to see if my tubes were blocked. I’d never heard of tubes damming up, much less this test.

The thermometer hit the edge of the bedside table and broke, shattering glass. Tiny silver spheres tapped across the wood floor. I swore and knelt down to dab them in a Kleenex, feeling like I was bringing bad luck to myself—to my body—mercury poisoning was not good for primping the body for pregnancy.

I wanted this blood token. I wanted a baby of my blood—of Sam’s blood. Make something of our misfit lives. I was well-rounded and grieving each month. Drip. Stain.

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Raising Yu Zheng / Raising Eli

Oasis by Lindsey Price

At four years old, my son Eli amused himself by muttering nonsense words. He walked down the street of our Portland, Oregon, neighborhood with a stick, banging on trees or scraping it on the sidewalk. “Chink, chink, chink,” he said. His eyes so dark you couldn’t see his irises.

I didn’t say anything. It was a nonsense word to him—for now. I didn’t think anyone we passed noticed him speaking, but I did. He was Chinese to the core. Chinese blood, Chinese skin, Chinese everything, but given an American passport with no choice of his own. Assigned the name Yu Zheng at his orphanage, Yu for the rivers that crossed his homeland and Zheng for strength, he was renamed when we adopted him at ten months old: Eli Zheng. His birth name is a secret, maybe whispered to him by his mother in Chongqing’s local dialect. Those brief days she held him before he was left at the orphanage by someone. Maybe her. No one knows or will tell us the truth.

What I learned before adopting: the biological woman, the Homo sapiens, the primate, does not know the difference between raising a child and preparing to “revoke” the child for adoption. The human is an animal. A fierce animal. When the mother brings the child’s lips to her nipple, oxytocin surges through her body. It causes the milk to be released. When the child latches on, the pressure on the nipple causes the brain to secrete oxytocin in milliseconds. Yet if the woman is stressed, she won’t release oxytocin, which is crucial to nurturing and bonding. (They tested this by lighting firecrackers by a nursing gorilla and testing her oxytocin levels.) How would a woman facing the most traumatic moment of her life respond to this child she had born? And how would I bond with no oxytocin released naturally?

We were told: the adopted child always feels a loss. Always. The child needs consistency and realistic boundaries. The child needs us to follow through.

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The Passenger

A backtrack. A rewind. Not too far. Just a taste.

A moon curve lit my way. Punk kids were hanging outside an all-ages warehouse, sucking the edges of their blankets, with bleeding fireworks going up their spinal cords. In their wake were sparks shooting to their fingers and the soles of their feet. They knew more about their bodies now than they did sober, and what they learned scared them, so they sucked their blankets. Some were once yellow, and some were once pink.

Before Royann knew I was back to town, I met with her in secret, in an aural land of phone calls late at night. She didn’t know I was calling from across the river. The water lapped. It brushed against piers. It touched the fur of muskrats and fish died in it, suffocated by sewage, damaged by prescription drugs flushed down toilets. I couldn’t hear the river, couldn’t feel it, but I knew it gave me some protection. I didn’t want to see her in person.

I called from a phone booth outside a Dollar Tree. The phone book was torn off the plastic holder, except for one page, on which I wrote fragments of our conversation with a pencil stolen from a bar. I put my finger in the metal slot, searching for extra coins.

“The electric guitar is not an instrument on its own,” I said. “It’s a relationship with the amp. If you plug it in straight, it’s boring and flat. It has to be loud enough so the strings resonate, so there’s a sympathetic vibration. You’re never going to get anywhere with Connor if he has guitarists with a clean sound.”

“No, he’s moving away from that. He’s got a new approach. He’s a dick, but I think he’s going somewhere. Danny quit.”

“What’s he going to do now? He has no life.”

“He’ll figure out something. They weren’t talking toward the end. It was time.”

“But you liked him,” I said.

“We only slept together once,” she said.

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Dead Souls

A new year. January 2001. I went alone to the next IVF appointment in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, menstruating. Everything was mathematically planned out. I had been on the Pill for a month to regulate my ovaries, and now I’d stopped taking them. The doctor did an ultrasound in my bloody kootch. The nurse who took my blood to check for hormone levels said, “Hopefully it’s the last period you’ll have for a long time.”

“Thanks,” I said.

Though later, before I left, she said, “Everyone’s nervous the first time.” What did that mean? Was I doomed to failure? Yet she also said, “The lining of your uterus is thin. Everything looks good.”

The first set of injections would stimulate my follicles to produce more eggs than normal, and I would be monitored on an ultrasound, like any normal pregnant person, the follicles looking like the underside of a psychedelic mushroom, open to new life.

At home, though, Sam and I got in another fight. “If I get a shit job I’ll be too depressed,” Sam said.

“What should I do, just write you a check for ten grand and be done with it? Our marriage?”

He was working on a moth painting for a friend. “I’ve been busting my ass to get it done. I want to get adult illustration work and you’re telling me to get a shitty day job.”

“It’s not fair I have to work all day on projects I don’t care about, that I’ve done a million times, and I only have time to write fiction on the weekends.”

“Did you marry me just so I’d buy you a house?”

“Why don’t you go to school so you can teach art?”

“Fuck you. I don’t have to listen to your pressure.” He walked outside.

I’d woken to my landlady yelling at her mother. Through two sets of windows, iron grates, and the space of an alley, I heard her slap her. She screamed at her mother that she’d soiled her bed and wouldn’t get up.

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Prelude to a Kiss

Walk into the party. Try not to look at the couch with the afghan blanket over the top, another piece of furniture the cat ripped up. You will not sit there. You will never get up again. You’ll fall into the cushions and dogs will eat your corpse. Your butt will grow instantly from the size it was at age seventeen to the size it will be twenty years later, but the rest of your body will stay the same. Your butt will be glutenous and firm in places where the squats have had an effect, but wide. You could turn each cheek into a bird feeder. Sprinkle suet on top.

You sit anyway. You are super-glued to the poly-cotton fabric. You do a bong hit of a crushed Quaalude. It feels like plastic is coating your lungs. Not a good idea.

You pass around a handmade pipe, trying to ingratiate yourself with the friends of your new boyfriend: roofers and bikers and petty ex-cons. It’s the pipe that Fred—boyfriend one—made you at shop class. He found a scrap piece of cedar and carved and sanded it for you, bought you a screen for the top. The pipe goes around the circle and never makes it back to you. You are too high to notice. Guns are under beds. Dogs sleep in corners.

You don’t believe in karma, except when something bad happens. You’re cheating on Fred with Billy—boyfriend two—no wonder the pipe disappears.

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Napalm Picnic

manifest-station-image

From my memoir (names have been changed)

I picked up the thermometer by the bedside table and shook it. Every day I took my temperature and recorded it on grid paper, trying to determine when I was ovulating. Sam and I lived in a Victorian split long ago into an apartment on each floor. Our bedroom was off the kitchen, with a tall, gated window covered by a curtain I’d sewn.

 

My primary care person, a nurse practitioner in San Francisco’s Castro District, had told me for years not to worry, but I did. The notebooks I stored in a suitcase in the closet were filled with my fears. My FSH levels were normal—I was new to infertility-related acronyms. I never said that word, infertility, in my mind. I was way too superstitious and optimistic. Basically, normal FSH levels meant I wasn’t struggling too hard to produce the follicle-stimulating hormone necessary for ovulation.

Every annual checkup, I’d walk past the stacks of HIV prevention pamphlets in the office and lay down for this nurse practitioner. She told me my breasts felt good—soft and healthy—almost like she was evaluating their allure. I put my feet in terry-cloth-draped stirrups so she could feel my uterus. Good, good. No STDs. Regular sex. Healthy. Good genes. No problemo. She massaged my breasts for nonexistent lumps and said, “There’s a population crisis.” Who was I but one more woman adding to the problem? She said, “You’ll get pregnant.”

After three years of hearing me worry, she told me to get a test to see if my tubes were blocked. I’d never heard of tubes damming up, much less this test.

The thermometer hit the edge of the bedside table and broke, shattering glass. Tiny silver spheres tapped across the wood floor. I swore and knelt down to dab them in a Kleenex, feeling like I was bringing bad luck to myself—to my body—mercury poisoning was not good for primping the body for pregnancy.

I wanted this blood token. I wanted a baby of my blood—of Sam’s blood. Make something of our misfit lives. I was well-rounded and grieving each month. Drip. Stain.

the rest of essay

Raising Yu Zheng / Raising Eli

Price-Lindsey-oasis
Collage by Lindsey Price

A section from my (unpublished) memoir is out on Nailed magazine. Here’s an excerpt from Editor’s Choice: Raising Yu Zheng / Raising Eli

At four years old, my son Eli amused himself by muttering nonsense words. He walked down the street of our Portland, Oregon, neighborhood with a stick, banging on trees or scraping it on the sidewalk. “Chink, chink, chink,” he said. His eyes so dark you couldn’t see his irises.

I didn’t say anything. It was a nonsense word to him—for now. I didn’t think anyone we passed noticed him speaking, but I did. He was Chinese to the core. Chinese blood, Chinese skin, Chinese everything, but given an American passport with no choice of his own. Assigned the name Yu Zheng at his orphanage, Yu for the rivers that crossed his homeland and Zheng for strength, he was renamed when we adopted him at ten months old: Eli Zheng. His birth name is a secret, maybe whispered to him by his mother in Chongqing’s local dialect. Those brief days she held him before he was left at the orphanage by someone. Maybe her. No one knows or will tell us the truth.