A Few (More) Words About Breastfeeding

In late January, I wrote this on Facebook:

I’m working on a massive blog post about breastfeeding (spoiler alert: it’s not easy). In the meantime, I’ll just say this: Some of the so-called “lactivists” I’ve encountered in online support groups are really just mean girls in crunchy granola clothing.

Within a day, I’d gotten more than 50 comments from women wanting to offer their support, advice, and encouragement. Conversations cropped up in the thread about pumping, nipple pain, low supply, supplementing with formula. The response was surprising. It was also kind of overwhelming. but in a good way.

Then, in February, I finished the post about my struggles to breastfeed my son. There was another wave of support and encouragement, often from unlikely places. It was all very gratifying.

Here’s the elevator version, for those of you uninterested in slogging through the original post:

I was an exclusive pumper for the first 9 weeks of my son’s life, who had stopped latching even before we were discharged from the hospital. Then, after working with a new lactation consultant, the inimitable Katie Madden (a.k.a. “The Boobie Whisperer”), I got my son to latch using a nipple shield. We were working toward getting him back onto bare breast, but hadn’t gotten there yet.

Okay, so now you’re all caught up. Here’s what happened afterward:

Two weeks later, my husband and I had another appointment with Katie. I told her how frustrated I was that our progress had stalled. We’d been using the nipple shield for 7 weeks at that point, and frankly, it was still a gigantic pain in my ass. My son had relearned what boobs were for, but between all of the gear and the inefficiency of the shield itself, feedings took a long time. They were physically uncomfortable. And now that he wasn’t entirely bottle fed, I had no idea how much milk I was actually making on any given day, or how much he was taking in outside of the bottles. The whole thing was a total mindfuck.

Katie decided to make adjustments. I’d been nursing Jackson using the football hold, but at nearly four months, he’d gotten a little too big for it. So, she moved him into a cross-cradle position instead. This was an instant improvement.

I started nursing him using the shield. Then Katie instructed me to take it off. I did, and my son fussed. Katie knelt down, looked him square in the eye, and said, “Drink your milk, Jackson. Drink your milk.”

And then he did.

This is how I like to tell the story, anyway. If you ask Katie, she’ll add in some crucial details, like how he was smiling at her, flirting in his little baby way, and how she started opening and closing her mouth to show him what to do. And how, in imitating her, he finally – finally! – got it.

He nursed the boob empty, latching and unlatching himself several times. Katie had me switch him to the other side. He drained that boob, too. I put him back on the first boob, where he mostly comfort sucked for the rest of the appointment. By the end, he’d taken in six full ounces.

We joked about how my stubborn little boy would probably refuse to latch without her there telling him to drink his milk. “Keep me posted,” Katie said.

His next feeding had to be done by bottle, since I had a conference call for work. But the one after that, I strapped myself into my ginormous nursing pillow, took a deep breath, and offered him a boob.

He took it, easily, and nursed until he fell asleep.

I was in shock. My husband was in shock. Was this it? Had I finally reached my goal?

I took a picture of Jackson, still hugging my boob to his sleeping face, and emailed it to Katie with the subject line “Prepare to have your mind blown.”

Her response? “Yeeeeesssss!!!!!!”

In those first few days, I didn’t completely trust the whole back-on-the-boob thing. We gave a few bottles at home. But at a certain point, I had to hold my breath and dive in.

And then I had to grit my teeth.

Even though Jackson was just shy of four months, to my boobs it was like Day 1. His latch was shallow, his top lip didn’t flange out properly, and he was using me like a human pacifier. It hurt. It hurt a lot. My husband would stand there, watching me fight back tears, my eyes squinched up in pain, and plead with me to stop.

I didn’t. (But you knew that already, didn’t you?)

It took a while to break my boobs in. All-Purpose Nipple Ointment helped. So did good old-fashioned time.

There have been milestones along the way. The first time we left the house without a bottle in the diaper bag, for one. The first time I nursed Jackson in front of my stepdaughter, for another.

Transitioning to a nursing-except-for-day care relationship hasn’t been without its challenges, either. But that’s another post for another day.

Here’s what I know: when I look at Jackson, and I make the ASL sign for “milk,” his eyes get bright and his face lights up in a smile and he reaches his little arms out in my direction. I pick him up and he cuddles into me. Sometimes his eyes roll back in his head. Sometimes he does that triple breath-sigh thing that babies do. Often, he falls asleep, still hugging me close.

Way back when I first met Katie, even before my little burrito was born, she asked me about my breastfeeding goals. At the top of my list? To give my baby breast milk for at least six months.

Tomorrow, I reach that goal.

I didn’t get here alone, but if I thanked everyone who supported me on this journey, I’d be like the set designer who gets played off at the Oscars because her speech is too damned long.

So instead I’ll say this: I’m grateful to all of you. You know who you are.

Now, onto one year!

A Few Words About Breastfeeding.

I didn’t think I’d care so much about breastfeeding my son. I mean, I knew I wanted to try. But I also knew so many women (SO many) who struggled with breastfeeding for various reasons: inverted nipples, milk not coming in, too much milk coming in, babies who wouldn’t latch, babies whose latches were painful as hell – you name it, I knew at least one woman who dealt with it.

So my plan was to give it a go, but to do so with a realistic attitude about it. If the breastfeeding thing didn’t work out, it didn’t work out. No big deal.

It was important to me to set myself up for success as much I could – really stack the deck in my favor. So I read a lot of things about breastfeeding. I did a prenatal consult with Katie Madden, a local lactation consultant whose legions of adoring clients had nicknamed her “The Boob Whisperer.” Katie and I discussed my concerns and identified potential challenges. She made recommendations of tools to purchase in advance (two biggies: a My Brest Friend pillow and a nipple shield) and offered advice about what to do after I delivered (top of the list: make an appointment with her at the first sign of struggle). My husband and I took her breastfeeding workshop at The Birth Center, which was fun and inspiring in addition to being super informative.

I also ordered bottles of Fenugreek, a supplement that increases milk supply, and baked a huge batch of lactation cookies that I stored in the freezer. I put a four pack of pineapple juice in my hospital bag along with a box of Milkmaid Tea, a nursing bra, and my insurance-supplied breastpump.

In other words, I was prepared.

My son was delivered at 11:14 p.m. on a Saturday night in November, via an “emergency” c-section (converted from a failed induction that led to 28 hours of unproductive labor). It took them 45 minutes to carve through unexpected scar tissue left over from surgery I’d had in 2012, when a knife-happy surgeon went in to remove a dermoid cyst from my left ovary and decided to take the whole thing instead, and another 45 minutes to close me up afterward. During that time my husband held our infant son while I lay helpless on the operating table, my hands strapped down on either side of me, asking for the anesthesiologist to remove my oxygen mask so I could puke on myself no less than three times.

Toward the end of this ordeal, my son became hysterical. After all, it’s cold outside of the womb. He was hungry. He needed his momma.

Eventually, I got wheeled  back to the recovery room. I was still wearing the oxygen mask. I had an IV in one arm, a blood pressure cuff on the another, and a pulsox monitor on a finger. There were wires everywhere. And this was when they finally handed me my baby. His whole body was beet red from screaming and crying, and it took me at least ten minutes to console him enough to offer him my breast.

But then I did, and surprisingly enough he latched immediately. I could feel gentle tugs as he nursed. They didn’t hurt. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe it doesn’t hurt!” I stared at this tiny human in awe, amazed that after four years of infertility, a hellish pregnancy, and a traumatic birth, this one thing was going to work out perfectly, against all odds. My husband took pictures of our son feeding from one breast and then the other. You can tell from the look on my face that I am both shocked and overwhelmingly, blissfully happy.

I thought, “I didn’t know it could be like this.”

After a while, nurses took our son away for the evening. I was headed for a high-risk recovery room and he couldn’t come with. They brought him to me every hour or two to nurse him and do skin to skin. One nurse helped me adjust his positioning to give him easier access. But his latch was good and his suck was strong.

“We got this, baby,” I whispered to him.

When my kid wasn’t even 12 hours old, he was circumcised. Afterward the nurse who brought him to me told me that he was likely to be really sleepy and/or a bit fussy from the procedure. If he didn’t want to eat, she said, I should do more skin to skin. That “counted.”

It was all downhill from there.

At first my son would start to nurse and then, after a few minutes, he’d simply fall asleep at the breast. Often he’d do this with my nipple still in his mouth. I was concerned, but newborn stomachs are really small – the size of a marble – and he’d had the appropriate number of wet and dirty diapers. So I wasn’t too concerned.

But the next day, when he got weighed by the pediatrician, we learned that he’d lost a decent amount of weight, around 7%. Within the threshold of acceptable loss but not by much. The day after that. he’d lost 11%, which was just over the threshold. He’d also had a touch of jaundice, but not enough to require treatment. Just enough to make the kid fall asleep whenever he was near me.

The pediatrician was concerned. The nurses were concerned. The hospital lactation consultants were concerned.

I was really concerned. I didn’t understand what happened, or even why it happened. Hadn’t it all been going so well?

I made an appointment with The Boob Whisperer for the following Tuesday. I’d wanted to get in sooner but she was booked solid. They asked me if I wanted to meet with another lactation consultant, but I said no. I’d already worked with Katie. I felt comfortable with her.

A friend of mine who’d had a baby a few months before I did had added me to a secret Facebook support group devoted to breastfeeding. In it I posted about what was happening. I wrote about how everything was fine until my boy was circumcised, and about how after the procedure he was like a different baby. I asked for advice.

Only one person responded. You know what she said? Nothing. Instead, she pasted a link to an article about why you should never get your child circumcised.

Thanks, lady. I really needed that.

I asked the nurses about hand expressing colostrum and feeding it to him with a spoon. They gave me tiny collection cups and a dropper and showed me how to put my finger in his mouth while using the dropper to dispense the goods at the same time. Later I’d be told I wasn’t feeding him enough. Because guess what? That marble of a stomach becomes the size of an egg a lot quicker than you think. And since the kid didn’t come with an instruction manual, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, or how much he was supposed to be eating. Me = parenting idiot.

My husband had already taken my breast pump home, after one well-meaning nurse told me I shouldn’t use it until four weeks postpartum. This is true if you don’t have any problems, because you could end up creating an oversupply. This isn’t true if your kid isn’t feeding well.

So we used the hospital grade pump. The nurses were impressed by how much I was able to extract. I felt pleased by this. Must’ve been the pineapple juice and tea and Fenugreek, right?

I still tried to put my son to the breast. He never got past a few sucks before passing out. Momma is warm. Momma is safe. He was so tired. And he wasn’t eating enough, which made him even more tired.

On the day of our discharge, my son had lost more than 13% of his birth weight, and we had a particularly long session with the fourth hospital lactation consultant we’d worked with. This one set us up with a supplemental nursing system (SNS), which involved more finger feeding and a tiny tube that would deliver the milk. It took forever to do one feeding, and the kid wasn’t even four full days old, so we were still doing 8-10 feedings a day.

That night, my baby wouldn’t stop crying. He was hungry. My milk hadn’t come in fully. I was pumping frequently but not getting enough to sustain him. I broke into the formula samples all pregnant women are given by companies banking on breastfeeding going badly. My heart broke into a billion pieces, but I knew I needed to feed my little boy.

At our first appointment with our pediatrician the next day, we found out that he’d had lost nearly 20% of his birth weight in the first five days of life. The doctor was alarmed. This was a Thursday, and she told me we couldn’t wait until Tuesday to work with the Boob Whisperer. I had to get in with her immediately or else the pediatrician would need to see us again the next day. She handed my husband a lab slip and told him we had to get the blood work done as soon as we left.

This is when I kind of lost my shit.

I cried on the way to the hospital’s lab. I hadn’t slept in days. My kid never stopped crying. I was apparently starving him to death, even after I’d given him formula. I was failing at the one thing I couldn’t handle failing at.

I was falling apart.

So while my husband took our son in for the blood draw, I sat outside on a bench, sobbing to my therapist. I kept saying, “We started off so strong. Those first 12 hours were perfect. I don’t understand what happened. I never should have had him circumcised.” I was so overwhelmed. Nothing can prepare you for new parenthood, or how desperate you feel when you’ve had less than 24 hours sleep over a six-day span, or how helpless it makes you to listen to your child scream and cry so long and so hard that they only time he sleeps is when he wears himself out. Throughout this conversation my phone continued to ping with text messages from friends and loved ones wanting to know how I was doing. JUST GO AWAY, I wanted to write back. I LOVE YOU BUT I CAN’T HANDLE PEOPLE RIGHT NOW.

My therapist talked me down, because that is what she does. And then she helped me make a plan. Step one was to ask my best friend Wendy to email everyone and ask them to give me and my husband a little space while we adjusted to new parenthood. Step two was to find a lactation consultant I could meet with immediately. Step three was to get some fucking sleep: doctor’s orders.

Wendy took care of everything. She sent off the email. She contacted a lactation consultant I’d found who’d come to your home and work with you there and got her to agree to come out the following afternoon. She herself came to the house to spend the night, so that my husband and I could get some real rest. She made me skip a few pumping sessions so I could sleep 3-4 hours in a stretch.

Sleep was a precious commodity. The pediatrician had put the fear of god into us and insisted we had to feed our kid every two hours around the clock, no exceptions. If he was sleeping, wake him up. We were still feeding him through the SNS and to give him two ounces took 30 minutes. I was pumping every two hours, too, trying to increase my milk supply, or at least make it come in faster. I’d forget to eat real meals but I was great about gnawing on three lactation cookies a day, drinking my Milkmaid tea and pineapple juice and water.  After each session I wrote down how much milk my boobs had given up. It wasn’t a lot. If it hadn’t been for the formula, I don’t know what we would’ve done.

When the lactation consultant came out to the house, we worked on positioning the baby. He still wasn’t latching, mostly because he fell asleep any time he came in contact with my boob. The LC asked about how much I’d been pumping; at the time it was something like 7 ounces a day. Normal babies take in 20+ ounces a day. I’d only been pumping for a couple of days and my mature milk still hadn’t come in, but the LC was concerned. She told me that I’d need to produce roughly 30 ounces a day to be able to give my kid 100% breast milk. She wanted me to prepare myself for the fact that I might never make that much. Even so, she suggested I triple the amount of Fenugreek I was taking and add in an equal amount of Blessed Thistle. She also identified one of the medications I was on as a potential milk-wrecker and recommended I decrease it pending doctor’s approval.

The LC was convinced my son had a lip tie and maybe even a tongue tie and encouraged me to get him evaluated for these things. In the meantime, she told us we needed to start feeding our boy with bottles. The SNS was meant for short-term use, she said. It wasn’t sustainable. She also gave us permission to start using a pacifier. In fact, she recommended we use the Mam ones designed for kids six months or older, to help strengthen our son’s muscles. And she suggested we work with a chiropractor who specialized in kids. It just so happened that this was the same chiropractor I’d already been seeing throughout my rough pregnancy, and we’d already made an appointment to get our baby adjusted.

I followed all of her suggestions to a T, continuing to pump and feed my kid every two hours around the clock. When we went in for a weight check at the pediatrician’s office, our son had regained almost all of the weight he’d lost, coming in just a couple ounces shy of his birth weight. We got the go-head to move to on-demand feedings, especially at night.

With the starving child crisis now officially over, I got even more serious about breastfeeding. I was going to make this work, damn it.

But it was hard. The introduction of the bottle gave my kid an instant case of nipple confusion, though I didn’t know it then. Any time I tried to put mine in his mouth, he’d start to squirm or cry or scream. This got worse the longer he was on the bottle. And eventually, I stopped trying to get him back on the boob.

Instead, I focused on making as much milk as possible. I rented a hospital-grade pump to increase my supply. I researched galactagogue foods and made a rule that I had to eat a galactagogue-rich snack every time I pumped. I trolled forums looking for advice, insight, encouragement. I sent the LC many emails about how I wanted to quit. It had all taken such a toll on me, physically and emotionally.

While all of this was going on, I was dealing with what I thought was a very colicky baby. A baby that didn’t sleep very often and who cried out in pain after every feeding. At first we thought it was the formula that was making him feel sick. I bought expensive organic stuff. Then I bought even more expensive stuff made for kids with milk sensitivities. We only used it a couple of time before my milk production caught up to the baby’s demands.

This was huge and should have felt like a win, but it didn’t. Because now my exclusively breast milk-fed baby was still screaming in pain after every feeding. Everyone had an opinion about why this was. Popular theories focused on him having a dairy allergy or other allergy to something I was eating. Did I have caffeine? Eat chocolate? Eat spicy food? Eat things in the cabbage family? Beans? We gave him gas drops. We gave him gripe water. Nothing touched the pain.

Later we’d find out that our son had reflux, and a fairly bad case of it. Later we’d be given baby Zantac to help manage his reflux. Later we’d give our baby this medication and his pain would go away and he would be a happy normal-ish baby.

But before all this, I became convinced I was poisoning our son with my milk.

This is, after all, what I was hearing from all sides. It was something I was eating. I should give up dairy. I should give up caffeine. I should give up chocolate. I should give up nuts. I should give up eggs. I should give up everything but organic turkey, steamed zucchini, rice, and pears. No, I’m not making this up.

Meanwhile, two of the people closest to me were encouraging me to let go of the breastfeeding thing. “It’s okay,” they kept telling me. “It doesn’t matter how the kid gets fed. What matters is that you’re not miserable all of the time. That you bond with him. My kid grew up on formula and he/she turned out just fine.”

Only, formula wasn’t really the issue by then. At times my milk production outpaced our son’s consumption, and I even got a little freezer stash going. The LC I was still working with was trying to get me to use the nipple shield, since bottle-fed babies make an easier transition to the breast using them. But nipple shields aren’t easy to use even if you have perfect boobs. Mine, on the other hand. were large and droopy from years of gaining and losing weight; when my boobs are freed from the confines of a bra, my nipples quite literally point south. (I always joke that they’re itching to make out with my knees.)

Anyway, loose boobs make using the shield almost impossible. I think the words I used over and over again were “unmitigated disaster.”

And still I plugged away it. Right before Christmas, a few days before our kid got diagnosed with reflux, we had his very pronounced lip tie lasered. This was going to be the magic bullet! (It wasn’t.) Prior to this, I’d tried taking a nursing vacation, which basically means spending time with your kid naked in bed, offering him the breast often. The only thing that came of that was me crying hysterically after yet another failure. Right after the new year, a family friend came to visit to help out with the baby. She was there for the very last session I had with the LC, in which she prescribed a 48-hour breastfeeding boot camp (“boob camp,” my friend dubbed it). She was determined to help me achieve my goal, but after four dismal attempts to get my son to nurse – all of which devolved into him crying and screaming his head off – she got a little PTSD and actually started to encouraging me to sit some sessions out.

“Go get some sleep,” she told me. “You need it.”

By mid-January, I was pretty much done. And I was almost okay with being done. I would be an exclusive pumper. This is still considered breastfeeding; it’s just doing with a bottle and not the boob. One of my closest friends had gone this route. I was ready to board that train.

But of course, this is when my son started exhibiting strange behavior. Sometimes I’d bottle feed him without my top on, to get more skin to skin time in. After these feedings, he’d start crawling across my body, rooting at my breast. If I was wearing a bra, I’d pop out a boob and offer it to him. He’d take a tentative lick or suck and then start crying. Not just a little – a lot. He’d thrash around angrily, but he’d keep trying, over and over again, to take the breast. Each time only seemed to make him angrier. At points he’d quite literally push me away.

Every time, it broke my fucking heart.

Every. Single. Time.

And then the Boob Whisperer came back into my life. I’d subscribed to her blog, and a post was delivered to my inbox: The Confusion About Nipple Confusion. In it, she wrote:

When a baby is given anything other than a soft mama nipple to suck on, a pacifier or a bottle, it stimulates a reflex on the roof of the baby’s mouth that makes him suck. This sweet spot is right at the juncture of the hard and soft palate in the baby’s mouth. This is not however, the same reflex that babies use to suck at the breast. The root reflex (like when baby tries to eat his own shoulder) is the reflex that gets a baby latched on and sucking. The problem comes when a baby becomes used to using the suck reflex instead of the root reflex to suck.

Anyone who has put her nipple in her baby’s mouth and had that baby refuse to suck, then put a bottle in the baby’s mouth and he instantly sucks, knows what I am talking about. He doesn’t like the bottle better than you; he is simply a reflex-driven animal. When your baby is frantically thrashing around at the breast with the nipple in his mouth like an angry trout on a fishing line but will not suck, he is nipple confused. He is waiting for that “super stimuli” to make him suck, but he simply won’t get it at the breast.

Can you see the light bulb sparking above my head? THIS IS WHY MY BABY CRIED EVERY TIME HE TRIED TO TAKE MY BREAST. It wasn’t because I tasted funny or smelled weird or because he had developed breast aversion. IT WAS BECAUSE HE WAS NIPPLE CONFUSED.

I sent the Boob Whisperer (Katie) an email. I filled her in on my journey and how after reading her post I finally understood what was going on with my kid. I told her what a relief it was to realize that he wasn’t rejecting me, he was just frustrated beyond belief. I told her about how, after nine weeks, I didn’t seem to be any closer to my goal of getting my son back on the boob. I asked her if she thought I was a hopeless case.

She did not.

In fact, she called me that afternoon. “Your email broke my heart, lady,” she said. “I’d like to work with you. Would you like to work with me?”

“Yes, please,” I replied.

At our first session, Katie identified some major problems. Getting my son into a good position was a big one. Normal nursing pillows weren’t working so well for me, in part because they were too small. There were more pillow towers to be built. And there was the floppy boob issue, including no side boob support. So we created some complicated structures for my boobs using blankets and burp cloths – basically shoving shit underneath each breast until it was firm enough to take the nipple shield. I (finally!) learned how to use the dreaded shield. And guess what? My kid latched on. HE LATCHED ON. And then he nursed for a twenty-minute stretch – the most he’d done since the hospital.

I may have cried; I don’t remember.

I celebrated my 40th birthday by breastfeeding my son for 40 solid minutes. It was epic, truly epic. The best gift anyone could have given me.

At our next session, Katie had an inspired idea: what if I ditched the normal nursing pillows and tried out a twin one? She strapped me into the double Brest Friend pillow, which was so big we started calling it “the kitchen table.” But it was genius, absolutely genius. One of the biggest challenges I’d had was instantly solve.

Our son started to nurse with the shield. Halfway through, Katie took it off and worked with me until he’d take the bare nipple. Which he did. It didn’t take much wrestling, and before we knew it, the kid was breastfeeding shield-free.

“I’m going to give you two a moment,” Katie told us. “You’ve earned it.”

When she left the room, I turned to my husband and said, “Two sessions. That’s all it took.”

“She really is the Boob Whisperer,” he agreed.

Of course, in the 10 days since, I’ve only gotten my kid to latch without the shield once, for like five minutes. But now he latches with the shield 100% of the time. And I keep experimenting with new tools that I hope will be as genius as the twin pillow thing.

We had our third session with Katie today. I walked in and joked, “Why am I trying to do this breastfeeding thing again?”

“Good question,” she said. “Why are you?”

It’s a question I’ve been asked by many people, many times, in many different ways. And to be honest, I don’t have a great answer. I mean, I pump enough milk now, and that milk can be given through a bottle. What’s the difference between that and him getting it straight from the tap?

I could talk about the bond it creates between us, but you can create an equally strong bond with a bottle. I could talk about the convenience of not having to pump, but between my ginormous pillow, rolled blankets, etc., it’s not like I can nurse the kid any time, anywhere anyway.

The real answer is that I am stubborn. I am not used to failing. When I have a goal, I do whatever I have to in order to achieve it. I almost never give up. It’s just not who I am.

But in Katie’s office, as we talked through things, I realized that it was more than me being stubborn. My kid smiles every time he drinks from my breast. Literally smiles while he feeds. He calms down when he’s tucked under my arm and next to my boob. He makes these little sighs of contentment that are priceless. His eyes roll back in his head like the milk-drunk little booger he is.

He’s also kind of ornery, often popping off and using his little hands to move my boob into a better position before relatching himself. So what if it’s on the shield? I know in my heart that if we eventually get him back onto bare boob he’s going to nurse like a champ. He’ll just reach up, grab on, and drink away. And I want to have that relationship with him.

“You can have that relationship,” Katie told me. “This will happen for you. And I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t believe it.”

So we will keep at it, because I am not ready to give up. Not yet. Not when we’ve come so far. Not when we’re so close.

A week ago, my husband and I were talking, and I had a revelation. I told him, “I’ve hated my body my entire life. As long as I can remember, I’ve hated it, even when I was, like, four years old. But this body grew our baby. This body makes the food that feeds our baby. How can I hate my body when my body makes miracles?”

And this, ultimately, is what breastfeeding means to me, and why I’m so determined to have that relationship with my son, even if I’ve struggled to articulate it. The mere fact of his being has healed so many things that were broken inside of me. Loving him has taught me so much about loving myself. And yes, I understand how hippy dippy bullshitty that sounds, but it’s 100% genuine emotion.

You may wonder why I am going into such excruciating detail here, especially about such a deeply personal issue. But after all of the Googling I’ve done the past three months, how could I not share my story? How could I not talk about what worked and what didn’t and how I felt the whole time? If even one person stumbles across this post and has the light bulb moment I had after reading Katie’s blog, then something really wonderful could come out of an incredibly painful journey. (I mean, besides the part where my kid finally gets back on the boob.)

So, yeah. That’s my story. It’s still unfolding, and I’m okay with that. The Boob Whisperer believes in me. But even more than that, I’m starting to believe in myself.

I am the 1 in 4.

As of today, I’m roughly two to four weeks away from delivering my first child, a little boy my husband and I have been calling the Burrito (so named because for the longest time, I didn’t look pregnant so much as like I’d been eating too many burritos). But a couple of weeks ago I finally started to pop, and as I sit here typing this our little bundle of joy is punching and kicking me from the inside. Seriously, my stomach looks a little like Sigourney Weaver’s before that alien exploded out of her.

The Burrito will be our first baby, but he’s not our first pregnancy. Our first pregnancy ended two-thirds of the way through the first trimester, due to suspected chromosomal abnormalities. The loss would’ve been devastating no matter what, but it was made all the more so for us as we A) had been trying to conceive for nearly four years and B) put ourselves through two and a half years of infertility treatments before finally seeing a positive pregnancy test. It didn’t matter that we knew early on that my hormone levels weren’t doubling appropriately, and that the pregnancy was likely to fail, because at every ultrasound, the baby grew, its heart beating strong. Doctor after doctor told us that we shouldn’t be seeing what we were seeing, but that once a heartbeat had been confirmed, blood tests became way less important than what was on the screen.

So we watched and we waited and then waited some more.  Eventually the outcome we feared came to pass. But because of all of the medications I was on, due to conceiving as the result of IVF, I couldn’t even miscarry naturally. I had to be induced. And I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say the physical loss of that baby was literally one of the most traumatic events I’ve ever had to endure.

When I told the people who needed to be told that we’d lost the baby, I did it in the most perfunctory way possible. I asked them not to make a big deal about it. I told them that we were fine and eager to try again. The latter half of that sentence was 100% true; the former, not so much.

I know a lot of women who’ve suffered miscarriages and even stillbirths, to various levels of devastation, but not a single one of us felt “fine” immediately after. How could we? We’d grown a life inside our womb, baked a baby we’d never get to know.

After you have a miscarriage, you learn just how many women you know have gone through the same thing – some multiple times, even. It’s like you’re indoctrinated into a club, albeit one you wished no one ever had to join. In my experience, women speak more freely about pregnancy loss with someone who’s gone through or is going through the same thing. Maybe because, on some level, you will never be able to understand what it’s like unless it’s happened to you, too.

As for me, I didn’t want to talk about my miscarriage because talking about it would involve talking about my infertility, and I didn’t want to talk about that because I was still in the trenches, fighting my way out. Some women find their infertility embarrassing, but I am not one of them. Our infertility was largely caused by doctors, at least initially – one who administered drugs to my husband without informing him that they’d render him sterile, the other who removed what turned out to be my “good” ovary rather than trying to save it (even priding himself on the speed with which he’d done so).

When you are a woman of a certain age, trying to conceive yet failing to do so month after month, cycle after cycle, people start to offer you a lot of unsolicited advice. Things like, “You just need to relax” or “If you stop eating dairy, you’ll get pregnant right away.” (For the record: neither of those things worked for us. And trust me when I say we tried just about EVERYTHING.)

Worse than that, though, are the soft, pitied looks, the sad eyes and heartfelt frowns. I didn’t like people asking me for updates, especially when I didn’t have anything positive to report. So I didn’t talk about my infertility, and about a year into our diagnosis, I stopped talking about wanting to have kids altogether. In fact, I was so mum on the topic that when we announced our pregnancy this past spring, several coworkers told me they thought I didn’t even like children, let alone wanted to have one of my own. Of course, I probably contributed to this misperception; whenever new babies visited the office, I refused offers to hold them – not because I didn’t like babies but because it would hurt too much to hold one that wasn’t my own.

It’s easy for me to talk about those years of struggle now, when we’re so close to crossing over to the other side. But the pain of infertility never really goes away, even for those of us lucky enough to find success after it. The same can be said for the pain of miscarriage. I still think of that little gummy bear of a baby who didn’t make it. I still wonder what might have been.

I’ve been crafting this post in my head all month long. Probably even longer than that, as I knew when the miscarriage happened that some day I’d write about it. And yet I’m doing a horrible job at conveying everything I felt, everything I’m still feeling.

I will say this: Pregnancy after a loss is a weird, weird thing. At least it’s been that way for me. I spent the Burrito’s first trimester convinced that another loss was inevitable, despite an abundance of evidence proving otherwise. I’ve spent this last one half in a daze.

So, why write about my miscarriage now, when I’m about to welcome a new life into this world? Because October is Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness Month, and I feel compelled to add my voice to the conversation. Plus I don’t ever want to forget the baby that didn’t make it. She gave me a lot of things in the few short weeks I carried her, but the biggest was hope. That, and the courage to keep going, even when everything inside of me was ready to give up.

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My complicated relationship with Thanksgiving.

Beautiful Bird

Look at that beautiful bird! Wendy’s handiwork, Thanksgiving 2010.

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that I love in theory and dislike in practice. It’s not because I’m not thankful – I am, for so many, many things – but honestly? When you come from a small family, Thanksgiving is more about the food than anything else. And it’s kind of a pain in the arse.

Here is a snapshot of my family:

I am an only child.

My mother had one brother that she didn’t get along with 50% of the time. He’s lived in California all of my life. He had two daughters with his first wife, my cousins Lisa and Caroline. I’ve met Lisa exactly twice in my life. Caroline I’ve hung out with three times, but to be fair, we keep in touch on Facebook and sometimes via texting. My uncle Dick had two kids with his second wife, my cousins Chelsea and Jordan. I’ve met Chelsea once, when she was barely out of toddlerhood; I’ve never even met Jordan. Ever. We’re also friends on Facebook.

My mom’s dad died when I was seven. Her mom, my nana, passed when I was a sophomore in college. They lived in Boston and I saw them a couple times a year if I was lucky. My nana kind of hated me because she thought I looked too much like my father. Well, everyone says she didn’t hate me, but she sure acted like she did. I am still wounded from the times that I would answer the phone with a cheerful, “Hi, Nana!” and she’d snarl, “Put your mother on.”

We spent one Thanksgiving in Rancho Mirage with my uncle, his then-wife Suzanne, Chelsea, and my nana. It was a very strange trip in that I was 12 and had my period for only the third time in my life. My mom got angry with me on the plane because I hadn’t mastered how to use a tampon yet and it was a really long flight. When we got to my uncle’s house, his big dog – I don’t remember what kind, but to 12-year-old me, it was ENORMOUS – tried to…um…have his way with me. It was beyond traumatizing.

My cousin Chelsea, the one and only time I met her. This was Thanksgiving 1988, I believe.

My cousin Chelsea, the one and only time I met her. This was Thanksgiving 1988, I believe.

My father has one sister; that’s my aunt Barbara. We’ve always been close and she’s been like a mother to me since college. She and my uncle Jeffrey have two boys, my cousins Zach and Josh, and they’re like brothers I don’t get to hang out with all that often. Funny thing: Zach has worked in Delaware for years and now actually lives here, but I still pretty much ONLY see him when Joe and I drive to Fort Washington for Shabbat dinners.

I actually lived with these guys for the eight months after I fled Fort Wayne but before I left for grad school. And when I moved home after I got my MFA, and the boys were still in school, I used to drive up for Shabbat dinners/Family Game Night almost every Friday. Then Zach spent a semester in Israel, and Josh was working the bar- and bat mitzvah circuit, and that kind of stopped.

I don't have any Thanksgiving pictures of these guys handy, so here's one from a trip they took to the beach a few years ago.

I don’t have any Thanksgiving pictures of these guys handy, so here’s one from a trip they took to the beach a few years ago.

I still miss those dinners.

My aunt’s mom passed when she was 13. My grandpop remarried, and that’s the only grandmother I knew on that side of the famlily. Grandpop died just a few days before my 17th birthday; his funeral was actually ON my birthday. Grandmom died in February 2006.

When I was little, Thanksgiving was spent at Gram and Grandpop’s house. After Grandpop passed and Gram moved to Virginia, to live with her sister, my aunt took up the mantle. Sometimes her in-laws would come down. I still dream about my uncle’s mom’s chestnut stuffing. It had a pinkish hue but was OMG good.

Delicious stuffing aside, I spent most Thanksgivings kind of bored. The men watched football. Zach is almost nine full years younger than I am, and Josh three years his junior; they tended to play video games. I was the only one in my generation and most of the time I was considered too young to help out in the kitchen. I read a lot to keep myself occupied.

I longed for a big family gathering, one filled with touch football games and annual traditions. But when you come from a small family, this isn’t the norm.

When I stopped speaking to my father – this was back in grad school – I lost Thanksgivings with my Fort Washington family. I thought maybe we could trade off years, but my aunt felt strongly that no one should be alone on a holiday. We started a new tradition of dinners together the following day, for post-Thanksgiving Shabbat.

So then I started having Thanksgivings with my mom and stepfather. Literally, just the three of us. My mom and I would prepare these enormous menus that would result in about four times as many leftovers as we ate on the actual day. She’d stress herself out – holidays were almost ALWAYS stressful for Mom – and there was some other general unpleasantness. Like I said: no love lost between me and Thanksgiving.

I spent one Thanksgiving with Joe’s family before his grandfather passed away. It was a big, noisy affair with aunts, uncles, and cousins streaming in at different times. Their tradition was to watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation after dinner. They shouted out lines with each other. It was nice. We’d planned on making this our new tradition.

The Royer clan, Thanksgiving 2008.

The Royer clan, Thanksgiving 2008.

But Pop passed in spring 2009, and Grammy didn’t host the following year. We had Thanksgiving with my mom and stepfather instead.

My mom, on the last Thanksgiving we ever spent together.

My mom, on the last Thanksgiving we ever spent together.

The year after that, my parents went to West Virginia for Thanksgiving, and we were displaced. This is the year that my best friend Wendy insisted that Joe and I come to Thanksgiving at her house. I felt odd, like I’d be invading her family gathering. Nonsense, she told me. I insisted on making stuff, because that is what I do. So I brought a pot of my mom’s pumpkin and sausage soup, a batch of her cornbread dressing, a kale gratin, and a goopy cranberry pie with botched homemade crust that we affectionately dubbed “Frankenpie.” I made Ina Garten’s gravy, which is so good that Wendy eats the leftovers like it’s actually a soup, at her house, just before turkey was served.

Frankenpie, Thanksgiving 2010. I still haven't mastered homemade crust. I probably never will.

Frankenpie, Thanksgiving 2010. I still haven’t mastered homemade crust. I probably never will.

Here’s the thing about Thanksgiving with Wendy and her family: it is, typically, a drama-free affair. Everyone is generally pleasant and no one argues. There’s a lot of laughing. We all help out in the kitchen. Wendy’s husband, dad, and uncle watch football in the basement. Joe watches YouTube videos with Wendy’s kids. I catch up with her brother’s girlfriend Jenna, whom I adore. We all eat too much pie. Wendy sends everyone home with leftovers.

It’s really, really nice, is what it is.

And that’s what Joe and I have done for the past four Thanksgivings. And I actually started to look forward to the holiday again, if you can believe it.

So when I told Wendy that this year we wouldn’t be coming – that Joe’s aunt Brenda was hosting a big family Thanksgiving and had invited us to go – I felt really sad. It’s not that I don’t like Joe’s family, because I do. And I love his aunt Brenda, who’s this totally ballsy badass who says whatever comes to her mind and doesn’t censor a single thought. Plus, we don’t get to see Grammy and Joe’s brother Archie enough – or see ANY of his family enough, really.

But. You know.

Going to Wendy’s for Thanksgiving had become OUR tradition. Joe’s and mine. Her kids start asking about the pumpkin soup weeks before. Hell, they thought I was bringing it to Easter dinner. If it were up to them, they’d have pumpkin soup at every holiday (kind of like how my cousins would prefer to have my aunt’s matzo ball soup at every holiday).

When Joe got aunt Brenda’s invitation, he started dancing around our living room like a little kid. He is SO excited to spend Thanksgiving with his family, and that excitement is infectious. Plus, we got off easy this year; I’m making a double batch of my mom’s soup this morning and we made our semi-famous Sour Cream Apple Pie yesterday afternoon. That’s it. No stuffing, no gravy, no kale gratin.

Tomorrow, we’ll go to aunt Barbara’s and have a lovely second Thanksgiving with my second family, and then Thanksgiving will be officially over until 2015. I’m more than okay with that.

Besides, I have to start planning this year’s Christmas dinner. I’m hosting my stepfather and his neighbor Charlotte, who was one of my mom’s best friends. I’m looking forward to it. Christmas was always my mom’s holiday, after all.

Let me end on a positive note: I honestly have so much to be thankful for this year. More than I ever thought possible. And if Joe’s and my biggest issue on Thanksgiving is figuring out which of our many loved ones to spend it with, then we don’t have any real issues at all.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Words with friends.

Tomorrow I have an early-morning writing date with my friend Carolee, who I met when I was teaching a creative writing class at the Brandywine Y some 11 (or is it 12?) years ago. We meet up at Panera semi-regularly, do a quick catch-up on our lives, and then dive right in, laptop to laptop.

It’s great because writing is such a solitary activity by nature. And writing dates are like gym dates in that they keep you accountable. Plus, if I’m going to schlepp all of my gear to Panera I’m less likely to pack it in after just 45 minutes. So I’ll often hit my daily writing goal and keep on going. One time this summer I put in something like seven or eight hours in Panera – long enough to eat two meals and drink several cups of coffee.

All good things, right? (Well, maybe not the several cups of coffee part. I switched back to decaf about six weeks ago.)

It’s shaping up to be a busy weekend, but I’m glad that I can carve out a couple of hours to spend with Carolee. Even if we will spend most of that time typing, not talking.

The dogs in my life.

Yesterday, I wrote about the whole cat people vs. dog people thing. Today, I thought I’d introduce you to the canines who hold my heart in their fuzzy little paws.

Jake & Daphne

JakeIn November 2003, I moved back home for the first time since I was 17. I wanted to save up for a house, and my parents decided to help me out by giving me a place to live and work. That Christmas, the three of us drove to a rural patch of Maryland to pick out two schnoodle pups. When we got there, we were taken to a barn. The seller opened a door and let in a bunch of puppies and told us to pick out the ones we wanted. Looking back, we’re pretty sure the outfit was a small step up from a puppy mill. But at the time, all we could see was their cute, fuzzy faces.

Daphne was hands-down the prettiest puppy I ever saw in my whole life. I couldn’t stop staring at her on the ride home. And Jake?

Well, he peed on my shoe.

They are funny dogs. Jake always looks a little depressed. I call him Eeyore. He loves playing with bouncy balls. In fact, one time when we got tired of playing ball with him, he ran up the stairs with one in his mouth, spit it out at the top landing, and then chased after it. And then did it again. And again.

DaphneDaphne sometimes acts like more of a cat – like she can’t be bothered with you. She’s moody and at times neurotic. For a while, they had to give her Prozac daily, to keep her from gnawing at her paw, OCD-style. (I forgot to mention that Jake has massive panic attacks whenever there’s a thunderstorm and/or fireworks. It’s bad enough that my mom used to have to give him Valium to keep him from having a complete meltdown. The holistic stuff, like the squeeze machine shirts, just didn’t work.)

Jake was totally a mama’s boy, and Daphne is definitely daddy’s little girl. I love them both like crazy. I helped raise them from tiny fluff balls into grown up doggies. I was the one who removed Daphne’s first tick. The one who took Jake’s temperature when he had his first cold. When I eventually bought my house and moved out, I would come back to my mom’s almost every night just to see the dogs.


Chester was a new edition to the family. My mom brought him back from Florida, after a month-long visit with her neighbor and close friend Charlotte, who has a summer house down there. She saw him at some sort of craft bazaar – a pet adoption thing – and fell in love with him. He’d been badly abused before he got rescued, and he needed a lot of attention.

ChesterAfter my mom passed, my stepfather Mark found it difficult to care for all three dogs on his own. He commutes to his job and is out of the house a lot of the day. So, he hired a dog walker to come each afternoon. Even with the extra help, Chester struggled. He still wasn’t fully housebroken. Mark realized Chester needed more attention than he had to give and tried to find him a new home. There were no takers.

This summer, Mark went to visit his family in Connecticut and asked me to watch the three dogs. I of course said yes. Chester was mostly housebroken by that time, which helped. He was kind of obsessed with me, though; whenever he and Jake and Daph would come stay with me, Chester would sit in my lap and constantly try to lick my face. He’d kick Jake away from me. He wanted me all to himself.

When Wendy came over for our Friday night scrapbooking date, she met Chessie for the first time. And, like my mother, she felt instantly in love. Later she texted me, “If Mark’s still looking for a home for Chester, tell him I’ll take him.”

So, the following week, Chester found a new forever home with the Kinnas. They love him and Wendy spoils him rotten…which is exactly what he needed. They recently added another rescued wire-haired dachshund to the clan: Toby. All dogs are happy and thriving at Case de Kinna.


ScoutMy baby. The World’s Cutest Dog. The first month of his life, I wanted to wring his tiny neck. He bit me. A lot. I would have to hold him in one hand every time I took out the trash, because if I didn’t, he’d escape through the front door and I’d have to chase him across the neighborhood. He was crazy hyper and I was certain he was untrainable. Whenever I went to leave the house, he’d have a complete canine meltdown. I remember going to see the vet and saying, “You’re going to have to give him something to calm him down. He’s crazy. It’s like we’re not on the same team!”

The vet talked me down. He gave me some tricks to try for Scout’s separation anxiety. He told me Scout would grow out of this phase. I didn’t believe him.

He was right.

Now, at nine, Scout can still be hyper. Strangers always ask, “How old is your puppy?” and I’ll say, “Nine,” and they assume I mean months, not years. And he still hates it whenever we leave the house. About a year or so ago, he started biting us on the ass whenever we walked out the door. He’s definitely a pack dog. If it were up to him, Joe and I would be total shut-ins.

These are not the only dogs I’ve ever had or loved, but they’re the ones who populate my now. And they are why I am and always will be a bone-a fido dog person.

Four Barking

Cat people vs. dog people.

This is a picture of me and my fur-child Scout, circa fall 2011.

This is a picture of me and my fur-child Scout, circa fall 2011.

According to a semi-recent study by Carroll University, cat people are smarter and more sensitive than dog people.

To that, I say: bullshit.

Maybe this is because I myself am a devout dog person. I have always preferred them to animals of the feline persuasion. Cats are smelly. They are rude. And they’re just too aloof for my liking.

Dogs are way better. They are loving and loyal. They are super cuddly. They get crazy excited to see you when you come home from work (or even come in from taking out the trash). When you’re sad, they can sense it, and give you extra love. I’ve had more than one dog lick tears off my face.

The Carroll University study also says that dog people tend to be more extroverted and prefer to follow the rules. Okay. I am kind of a rule-follower. But insensitive? Extroverted? No. Not at all.

If you clicked the link above, you know this study came out in June, which yes, was almost six months ago. So why am I writing about it now?

Because I spend a lot of time thinking about the differences between dog people and cat people. A lot of time.

There are several cat people in my life, including my stepdaughter Sadie. (She is kind of obsessed with them.) And, to be honest, my husband Joe is one, too. If you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s an equal-opportunity animal lover. It’s true that in his life, he’s had both types of pets. But when you take him to a pet store, all he wants to do is play with the kitties. He can spend hours shining lasers into their cages, making them go crazy as they chase the red light.

We do not have a pet cat, nor will we ever. Not because I’m a mean cat-phobe, but because I am horribly allergic. Like, if I spend too much time in a cat-filled house, one of my eyes (usually the left) will turn into a cherry tomato. If I’m heading to a house of cats, I will often take Benadryl preemptively. It’s really that bad.

Joe and Scout - Halloween 2013

Joe and Scout, Halloween 2013. Joe walked around and asked people, “Have you met my sous chef? He eats more than he makes!” Like, all night. To everyone we encountered. (It was pretty cute, though.)

What we do have is a dog. Our fur-child, Scout, a nine-year-old Schnoodle. He is my heart, this 11 lb. ball of love. I got him when he was just eight weeks old and small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. He’s so adorable and funny and smart that even people who don’t typically like small dogs fall in love with his fuzzy little face.

Scout adores Joe. He was only about a year and a half when Joe and I started dating, so really, Joe’s helped raise him from a pup. My cat-loving husband is so enamored with our pooch that he once told me, “I didn’t know I could love any animal as much as I do Scout.” (Reason #42 why I married him.)

My canine proclivities are likely genetic; I come from a long line of dog people. The one exception is my father, who is more of a cat person. But everyone else is all about the dogs. At a recent family get-together, my cousins Zach and Josh riffed for like 13 minutes on how cat people are the worst. (I got secret video, but I think they’d kill me if I uploaded it.)

For Sadie’s sake, I am trying to grow more tolerant of cats. And even I have to admit that kittens can be pretty cute.

You know, if you don’t inhale too deeply.