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).

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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.)

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