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We decided to accompany my mother-in-law on a trip back to her hometown of Wabash, Indiana. Still skittish about taking our 15-month old, Eddie, on an airplane, we decided to drive. It was a 12-hour journey, but my husband’s parents, who were in their mid-eighties, said they would be driving, so we thought if they can do it, so can we. A few days before we left, we learned they’d decided to fly.

With a long journey ahead of us, we vowed to leave at 4 a.m. We pulled out about noon. My husband, Bruce, drove the first five hours, but when we stopped at a rest area, I told him I’d take over for a while. Bruce took Eddie over to a grassy field next to the parking lot so that he could run around for a bit after being cooped up in the car for several hours. I went to get gas. I’m not accustomed to self-service gas stations because in New Jersey, someone had the ear of someone and it’s now the law that we can’t pump our own gas. I put my card into the machine, and just as I was about to input my PIN, someone pulled up behind me and asked, “How do you like your Subaru?” We chatted for a about a minute, and by the time I turned my attention back to the machine and tried to input my PIN, it wouldn’t accept it. I tried to cancel the transaction so I could start again, but the machine jammed. I pressed “cancel,” over and over again to no avail. I got back into my car, backed up to the pump behind me and put my card into the machine, but it again jammed right after I input my PIN. I asked the man using the pump behind mine if he, too, was having trouble. He was not. I pushed the “Call for Assistance” button, three times. No one came.

A small park at a rest stop in Ohio.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I said and jumped back into my car, backed up and tried to find a third pump, but by that time, all the slots for cars that have their gas tank on the passenger side were now occupied. I sped around to the front of the gas station and did a U-turn so that I now faced all of the pumps, a manuever that enabled me to get a pump usually reserved for cars that have their gas tank on the driver’s side. A bird’s eye view of the situation would show a bunch of people calmly getting gas, and one errant car buzzing around them like a fly trying to penetrate a closed window. I inserted my card, and this time it worked, though the nozzle kept shutting off prematurely as the tank filled. I kept having to pull the handle on the nozzle again and again to keep the gas coming out. When the pump registered $40, I figured it must be filled. I got back in my car and picked up Bruce and Eddie.

“What took you so long?” Bruce said.

“Don’t ask,” I said.

I had been driving about 25 minutes when I whizzed past two state troopers sitting in the highway median. I saw in my rear view mirror that one of the two cars pulled out and got into my lane, a few cars behind me. What are the chances the trooper suddenly wanted to leave the median just after I drove by, and now wants to be in my lane? Coincidence? Soon, he was directly behind me and put on his flashing lights. The worst thing about a ticket isn’t the money. It’s the indignity of being scolded so publicly. I was once put in the “baby chair” in kindergarten because I cried in class. This felt similar. We pulled into a rest area, and he wrote me a ticket for $111. Bruce got into the driver’s seat.

At about 8.30 p.m., we pulled into Cleveland and planned on staying the night. I like to stay in old, majestic hotels, but the Renaissance, one of Cleveland’s most regal, was $239 for the night, and given that we just spent $111 on a speeding ticket, we opted for the Radisson.

It seemed adequate, particularly since we were leaving early the next day and would barely see the hotel. I overlooked the fact that we were directly across the street from a sports arena, but once inside the room, it was hard to overlook what sounded like a loud machine going on and off. The noise followed an arc, first revving up, reaching full speed, and then ramping down until it stopped, only to start again a minute or two later. I called the front desk.

Open kitchen at Lola in Cleveland.

“There’s a loud noise in our room. What the heck is it?” I asked, and began mimicking the sound so the clerk could identify it. He showed no recognition.

“I can move you,” he said. “I’ll keep you on the same floor.”

I hadn’t indicated a particular affinity for that floor, but I said all right.

I hung up and walked down the hallway, trying to figure out what the sound might be and whether the other rooms were likely to be better. I initially thought it was the ice machine but when I walked by it, I heard no sound. I walked all the way to the end of the hall and while the machine wasn’t as noisy down there, I could still hear it. I considered that it might be the elevator but thought it unlikely. A hotel couldn’t operate if its own elevator was so loud, people couldn’t sleep. That would be counterproductive, like opening a bakery near a foul-smelling landfill, or eating your young. I figured it was one of the big rooftop generators I observed outside our window.

Bruce and I decided I should go ahead to the restaurant and secure a table before everything closed. He would meet me there with Eddie. As I walked through the lobby, I told the man at the front desk that a new room wouldn’t be necessary.

“What was that noise anyway?” I asked.

“The elevator,” he said. “People in the room next to yours always complain, but I thought your room would be fine.”

It wasn’t that he didn’t recognize the sound I was making. It was that he did.

We decided to have dinner at a restaurant owned by celebrity chef Michael Symon, of Iron Chef fame. I don’t watch Iron Chef nor have I ever heard of Michael Symon, but I figured if he’s famous, it’s hopefully for good reason.

The inside of the restaurant was lovely, possibly too lovely for a 15-month old, but the hostess didn’t seem to mind. She seated us in a beautiful dining room with a vaulted ceiling, little light bulbs that were suspended from the ceiling by long wires and were surrounded by chandelier crystals, and a view of the kitchen, which was wide open so diners could watch their food being prepared.

Soon, Bruce and Eddie arrived, and I ordered sweetbreads, despite Bruce’s warning. Eddie had pierogi, and Bruce and I had oysters, scallops and sliced pork, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes. I also had two martini’s – enough for me to momentarily forget what sweetbreads were but not enough to stop me from remembering. And as soon as I did, I couldn’t eat another bite.

The next morning, I got up just before 7 a.m. to find a café with an internet connection in which I could do my morning copy editing job. It’s a job I’ve had for 10 years and do remotely wherever I go. The woman at the front desk of our hotel directed me to a new café on the adjacent street, but when I got there, I found it was closed. I wondered where the cafe’s owner got his morning coffee. Certainly not his own café. I went back to the street on which we had dinner and found a café there that was open. As I settled in with my laptop and coffee, I noticed the music playing over the sound system and got up to ask the woman behind the counter who it was. I can’t remember if she had a tattoo and a nose ring, or if that’s just how I remember her because she was young.

“I’ll go check,” she said and disappeared into a back room.

The man standing next to me at the counter said, “I did the same thing last week. I heard this great song and just had to know who it was.”

He looked to be around my age – mid- to late- 40s – and seemed to share my vantage point of modern culture – from about 10 steps behind.

“So who was it?” I asked him.

“Oh, this guy called Alexi Murdoch,” he said.

I was writing down the name just as the young girl behind the counter returned.

“It’s Outkast,” she said. “Wheelz of Steel.”

“Oh, Outkast!” the man said.

I guess he’s only five steps behind. I’d never heard of them. And it irritated me that they spelled “Outcast” and “Wheels” incorrectly.

As I sat back down, I thought about how far removed I am from popular culture, like a raft that’s slowly drifted out to sea, so imperceptibly that I didn’t realize it was happening until I looked back toward shore and could no longer see it – without my readers.

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Ben Franklin said there are only two things in this world of which one can be certain: death and taxes. I’d add a third: if I have put Mardi Gras beads on my son, Eddie, he will no longer be wearing them once my husband gets home.

A baby with beads

“He can choke,” my husband, Bruce, will say.

“They’re not even real beads. It’s all one piece,” I’ll say.

“He can hang himself,” he’ll say, intimating the child might walk by some random hook or knob and be left hanging in mid-air by the hair-thin strand of beads. I suppose that’s true on some planet where spaghetti can lift meatballs or thread can carry clothing, but there are hundreds more likely dangerous scenarios in which our son will find himself in our home, such as pulling a lamp off of a table or eating one of the various coins my husband leaves all over the house.

Okay, so putting beads on my son is not going to earn me mother of the year, but I certainly wouldn’t be the first. If you search on Amazon under baby and necklace, you get 13,000 hits. Babies wear necklaces, and people don’t call child services when they see one. But none of this matters because the real reason my husband doesn’t want Eddie wearing beads is not about safety. It’s about gender.

“No son of mine is going to wear a necklace,” he’ll say. “People will think he’s a girl.”

“That’s stupid,” I’ll say.

It isn’t the first time Bruce has contested Eddie’s attire. A friend gave us two beautifully knit yellow sweaters. One fits like a little jacket and has buttons down the front. The other flairs out a bit like an angel’s wings, but instead of having buttons, it has two little strings on top to tie it closed, like a cape. Bruce didn’t like either, because of their color – yellow is for girls — but he found the sweater with the strings particularly offensive (I would put it on Eddie when Bruce was at work).

One night, we went out to a local restaurant and wheeled Eddie over in his stroller wearing the yellow sweater with the buttons. As we waited for a table, Bruce went to the bathroom. Just then, our old neighbor, Theresa, who is a waitress there, saw me and came running over and peeked into the carriage.

“What’s her name again?” she said.

Etude in yellow

“Shshsh,” I said. “It’s a ‘He.’ “

“Oh, sorry,” she said, whispering.

When Bruce returned from the bathroom, another waitress came over to say our table was ready. As she walked us to our table, she looked down at the carriage and said, “She’s so cute! Look at that sweater!”

Bruce looked over at me.

People break gender rules all the time. Our babysitter said she bought her grandson a kitchen set, and he loves it.

“You bought a kitchen set for your grandson, the one whose father is a cop?”

“Sure. Why not?” she said.

“And the father didn’t say anything?”

“Why should he say anything?” she asked. “He has to learn how to cook, especially if he winds up with a wife like me.”

It’s not that Bruce is homophobic. As the saying goes, some of our best friends are gay. It’s that Eddie’s a boy, and Bruce wants to make sure the child – and everyone else — is aware of that. And boys wear blue and girls wear pink and never the twain shall meet.

Since Eddie was born, we’ve been playing him the album, “Free to be You and Me,” – Marlo Thomas’ 1970s anthem to individuality – and I cry every time I hear the song, “William’s Doll.” It’s about a young boy who wants a doll more than anything, a desire for which he’s mocked and ridiculed by everyone around him. His father tries to gently guide him away from his desire by buying him a basketball, a badminton set, marbles and a baseball glove. William is good at all of those activities and actually enjoys them but when he’s finished playing, he turns to his father and says, “Can I please have a doll now?”

His father doesn’t buy him one, but his grandmother does, when she comes to visit and sees just how much he wants one. When the father frowns, the grandmother explains:

“William wants a doll,

so when he has a baby someday,

He’ll know how to dress it,

put diapers on double

And gently caress it

to bring up a bubble

And care for his baby

as every good father

should learn to do.

William has a doll

William has a doll

‘Cause someday, he is going to be a fa-ther, too.”

I don’t know what it is about the song that makes me weep — whether it’s the notion that my son may one day be ridiculed for being different, or it’s that I was. And mine were such small infractions: wearing Wrangler jeans instead of Faded Glories, or wearing navy blue stockings with white shoes. I think the larger infraction was in my head, a feeling that no matter what I did, it was wrong, simply because I was the one doing it.

William wants a pink grocery cart

In some ways, Bruce is more sensitive to Eddie’s needs. When we used to use wet washcloths instead of wipes to clean him during diaper changes, Bruce would dry off Eddie’s bottom or let it air dry before putting on the new diaper because he thought the baby would be uncomfortable if he were damp. Bruce still warms up Eddie’s milk bottles, even though we no longer have to. When he draws Eddie’s bath, he keeps it shallow – while I make it deep – because he’s seen the child feels steadier when there’s less water.

But if Eddie ever wants a tutu or an easy-bake-oven or a grocery cart that’s pinker than pink, he need only say one word: Mom?

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The summer after sixth grade, my best friend, Eileen, threw me a surprise party because our family was moving away. The party was in her backyard, and she invited our whole class, including our teacher and Steven Mitchell, a boy with blonde curls and big front teeth, like a beaver, on whom I had a crush. When Eileen and I entered her yard, my classmates shouted, “Surprise,” and I fell backwards onto my ass as if the wind had blown me down. I then got up and ran out of the backyard, and Eileen had to chase me down and bring me back to the party. My entrance has become part of my family folklore because it was captured in a home movie that’s been played so many times, it’s like a recurring pattern on wallpaper. I enter the yard, I fall down, I run out of the camera shot, and moments later, I’m escorted back by Eileen. I enter the yard, I fall down, I run out of the camera shot, and moments later, I’m escorted back by Eileen.

Thankfully, my son, Eddie, has a bit more social grace. We just threw him a party for his first birthday, and while none of the attendees were his close friends – he doesn’t yet have any — he moved through the party with the ease and warmth of a seasoned politician.

I have arrived!

He was actually taking his nap for the first hour of the party, but the second he woke up, he uttered a small, audible cry, which could be heard over the baby monitor in the middle of the party. Three women ran up the stairs to his nursery (I was not one of them), and moments later, he was ferried down the stairs by my brother’s new girlfriend, followed by a small procession of my mother and some other woman, whose name I can’t recall.

Eddie was wearing his new red onesie, which has a decal of gold buttons and tassels across the chest, making him look like a member of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As he emerged into a room full of people staring at him and calling out his name, my son flashed a huge smile and I’m not sure from where he picked this up, but he raised both arms high in the air as if to say, “I have arrived.” (I later realized he does this, in part, because every time he achieved something, I would lift his arms up in the air and sing the chorus to, “We Are the Champions.” He now lifts his arms up for successes as large as walking and as small as finishing his breakfast).

For the next two hours, everyone wanted a piece of him. Our friend, Hank, said he was holding Eddie for about five minutes when he could feel the pressure of the crowd bearing down on him, waiting for him to pass the baby along.

“I felt guilty,” he said. “I knew there were five other people wanting to hold him, and they’re just looking at me thinking, ‘Who’s this clown?’ “

A hand works like a shovel.

Eddie took it all in stride, smiling, throwing his head back in exaggerated enthusiasm, making everyone feel special.

It amazes me how much he’s grown in the last year. He walks, he talks – though its gibberish – and he can turn on the television with the remote. When I dress him now, he puts his arms through the sleeves, himself. I used to have to put my hand up the sleeve and fish around for his, pulling it through and out the cuff, like threading a needle.

He’s also begun to express his opinions. I’ll put a hat on his head, and he’ll take it off. I’ll put it back on, and he’ll take it off again. If he doesn’t want to go somewhere, he’ll do that loose-arm thing I’ve seen children in Wal-Mart do, where they make their arms limp like water, making it impossible to lift them. My husband, Bruce, and I refer to it as, “He’s on strike.”

The cousins helped him open presents.

When it was time for birthday cake, everyone piled into the kitchen. I pulled out a box of candles and started to stick several of them into the cake when I realized I needed only one. I lit the candle and held Eddie up in front of the cake and waited for him to blow the candle out. He just looked at it. I blew out the candle and took his finger and stuck it into the frosting to smear his name, which was written across the top of the cake in blue icing. My friend, Patti, said she wondered whether I would serve that piece or cut around it. I served it.

We gave Eddie a small slice of birthday cake, which was a chocolate double-layer cake with butter cream icing. I also gave him a small pink cupcake with a little football on it that was a gift from the woman who works in the local bakery. I handed Eddie a spoon, and he used it a little more than usual, a feat I attributed to the sugar content. The spoon enabled him to shovel in more food, faster, though after a while, he found his hands gave him a more ample serving. We’d already detected he had a taste for sugar around Christmas, when we threw a party and someone brought a box of Krispy Kreme donuts. We left the box by the front door to remind us to take it out for recycling, and Eddie apparently knocked over the box, dislodging the remaining glaze that had been stuck to it. When we found him, he was lying face down licking the bits of glaze off the floor.

After about 10 minutes, the pace with which he was eating the cake began to slow down, and his eyes, which peered out above a beard of chocolate frosting were beginning to glaze over. With cake now in his nose, his hair, and all over his hands, his belly protruding like a Buddha, he had reached his limit.

Starting to fade.

I pulled him out of the high chair and sent him off into the living room to open his presents. He sat on the floor surrounded by his newfound cousins, who he’d only just met at the party, and they helped him open his gifts, sometimes before he could even get to them. After about six gifts, I thought it was probably getting tedious for the other guests. I told everyone we would open the rest of the presents after the party. I received a long, persuasive, well-thought-out argument from Eddie’s four-year-old cousin, Connor, about the virtues of opening the rest of the gifts now and not later and how Eddie would really prefer it that way and that it really is the best way to go regarding these matters. I let Eddie open one more gift.

The last of the guests left around 6 p.m., and Eddie was so wired from the excitement, he never had an afternoon nap. We usually put him to bed for the night at around 9 p.m., and it’s sometimes a struggle. Tonight, he fell asleep easily around 8 p.m. without a pacifier, the chocolate frosting still lodged under his fingernails.

A whirlwind of a day.

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January 12, 2012 The Felix Factor

This morning as I stood in front of Eddie’s high chair feeding him breakfast, he stuck his hand into his bowl of oatmeal and banana and grabbed a fistful.

“Noooo!” I exclaimed and yanked the bowl away.

Food, food everywhere

He looked at me, paused, and then let out a wail. I considered putting the bowl back in front of him and letting him swish his little fist around in it, but my neat sensibilities wouldn’t allow it.

I don’t seem like a neat person. My hair is sometimes unruly. My shirt tails stick out in the back. I’ve dropped a dab of food front and center on so many of my shirts, it looks like a family crest. But the thought of Eddie having food on his face and hair, and of cleaning it off his high chair, was too much. I ran over to the paper towel rack and grabbed one, held it under the warm water, and ran back to the high chair before his porridge-encrusted little hands could cover any more ground.

I don’t know if I’m supposed to let him root around in the food with his hands. I can’t tell if it would be a freeing exercise that would embolden him and give him a sense of independence, or if it’s a bad habit I should nip in the bud. I handed him a spoon. He threw it on the floor.

I tried to make up for having pulled the bowl away by waiting until it was nearly empty and then holding it low enough for him to reach in. “Go ahead,” I said and braced myself. He looked down at the bowl and then up at me, and he let out a wail.

My husband, Bruce, lets Eddie play with his food like it’s finger paints. Perhaps that’s why the baby likes Bruce better than me. But Bruce doesn’t have to clean up the high chair afterward, digging into its seams and holes that have gotten plugged up with sweet potato and broccoli. I do. Bruce makes an effort to clean the chair, but it’s like the effort he puts into making the bed: whatever can be done with one hand and one eye in less than one minute. I usually have to give the chair a once-over after Bruce has cleaned it, to get the remaining bits he missed.

Every afternoon, the babysitter is here, and I’m upstairs in my office working for a few hours, and when I emerge, I find her sitting in the middle of the living room floor with Eddie, surrounded by all of his toys. The three different kinds of blocks are blended together. The plastic boat has been dumped and all of its primary colored shapes – the red squares, blue circles and yellow hexagons – have been scattered. Pieces from three different puzzles are in different parts of the room like families that have been separated by war.

I love the sight of it, the randomness, the freedom it exudes. If toys could sing, they would be belting out a discordant note but boldly and happily. And yet after the babysitter leaves, I spend the next 15 minutes putting the puzzle pieces back in their respective slots, the circle-, square – and hexagon – shaped plastic pieces back inside the boat, and each of the different types of blocks back into their respective boxes. The toys then go back into the toy chest we use as a coffee table — though I place the two wooden puzzles and the bead maze on top of the toy chest in case Eddie wants to play with them. I like the way it makes the room feel like a kindergarten classroom – though one you might find on the cover of Country Living magazine.

Toys that escaped from the toy box

I like the boat with the primary-colored shapes. It appeals to my sense of order. The boat has colored windows that match the colored shapes, and I like pushing the shapes through the appropriate windows. In fact I have a hard time playing with the boat with Eddie because as soon as I’ve dumped the shapes out on the floor so we can play with them, I’m putting them back in the holes and cleaning them up.

I clean up everything. I gave Eddie a bowl of dry Cheerios this morning. Four times he dumped them out on the floor as he was eating them, and four times I picked them up and put them back into the bowl. The upside? He would get excited every time he saw the bowl filled anew. The downside? His mother’s a wing nut. I might as well be following him around the room with a brush and dustpan.

It’s not hard to see where I got it. My parents were neat and orderly. My father tried his hand at painting once by drawing a grid on top of a playing card and copying the image in each box onto a canvas until he had replicated the card precisely. My mother loved to do crafts, but everything she made had a pristine little bow on the front of it like a birthday present.

There’s a story in my family folklore in which my mother and I were at my paternal grandmother’s house, and when my grandmother went to feed me soup for dinner, she spilled it onto the floor in front of me.

“What are you doing?” my mother shrieked, to which my grandmother replied, “It’s going to end up on the floor anyway. Why not start it off down there.”

“My daughter is not an animal,” my mother said. She told on my grandmother when my father got home.

I like the babysitter’s scattered approach, but it comes at a cost. She takes a similarly scattered approach with her personal belongings. She’s lost her wallet, her keys, and her coat in the short time I’ve known her. And she always brings a black and silver coffee cup when she arrives but rarely remembers to take it home when she goes. Yesterday, she left her cell phone on our counter.

I try to make up for my Stalinist approach to toy-playing by being zany. I acquired the giant Easter Bunny Eddie once saw in a shop window, and when the light in it didn’t work, I replaced it. A glowing bunny now stands three feet tall in our kitchen, next to the Christmas bubble lights and the light-up Chanukah lights I strung in the doorway. I pull out the bubble wand and surround Eddie in a cloud of bubbles when he seems blue. When he pulled all of the tissues out of a new tissue box, I didn’t scold him. I held a few of them over the heating vent until they floated up in the air and then danced to the ground like feathers.

Has his own Easter Bunny

Yesterday, our babysitter sat Eddie inside a little seat in one of his toys. It wasn’t really a seat but rather an indentation in the toy that used to be covered by a plastic piece that’s since broken off. After putting Eddie in there for a moment, the babysitter picked up his Winnie the Pooh doll and placed the doll in the seat. Eddie looked at the bear, pulled him out of the seat and neatly placed him back in the toy box where he belonged.

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The examining rooms at our pediatrician’s office are painted with murals of aquatic scenes. One room has a big sandy beach in the foreground and a sliver of where the ocean meets the sky in the background.  Another has a surfer riding a huge wave. The third has a big tank filled with brightly colored fish, seahorses, corral and crabs. We were most familiar with that one because that’s the room with the scale they kept using to weigh our baby, and they weigh him quite a bit – about three times a week. The nurses like to use the same scale for every weight check to make sure they’re comparing apples with apples.

The Fish Tank Room

Our pediatrician thought the baby wasn’t gaining weight fast enough so she had us supplementing the breastfeeding by giving him a bottle of formula after every time I nursed. She then had us coming in to her office two to three times a week to have the baby weighed. He was now gaining more than an ounce a day — more than the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends.

Pleased with our progress, I decided to try to slowly wean the baby off the bottle. Instead of giving him formula after every breastfeeding, I gave it to him after every other feeding. But two days later, when we were back at the pediatrician’s office, the baby’s weight appeared to have stabilized — a phenomenon that, given the tiny increments we were measuring, could have been the result of a dirty diaper the last time he was weighed. Still, our pediatrician said if the baby didn’t gain weight faster, she might have to consider him a case of “Failure to Thrive,” and he would have to be hospitalized. I was sure she had the Department of Youth and Family Services on speed dial.

I don’t know who came up with the term “Failure to Thrive,” but it should be reserved for situations like a baby bird withering away, its little heart beating perceptibly through paper thin skin before it expires. It should not be thrown at two college-educated yuppies, who have access to a grocery store, a credit card, and a scale.

Glug, glug, glug

Or so I told myself. The reality was, I feared I might accidentally starve our child. I’d struggled with the breastfeeding from the beginning. But lately, things seemed to be going better, so I was chomping at the bit to get rid of the formula. I knew the longer we gave the baby bottles, the more likely it was that we’d never be able to get rid of them. I figured the baby would get tired of having to work for his food by sucking it through my leathery old nipple rather than getting it through a bottle, where I can actually hear the glug, glug, glug as the milk pours down his throat. Who could compete with that?

I also feared that the more we supplemented, the more likely it was that my milk supply would fall. That’s because breast milk is produced according to demand: the less demand, the less produced.

I theorized that if I skipped the bottle after every other feeding, the baby would be hungrier at the breast for the next feeding and thus get more milk out of it. He was never going to have a voracious appetite for breastfeeding if we kept giving him bottles of formula. I knew the baby’s weight might stabilize, temporarily, as it took time for him to realize the only game in town was my breast. It was a leap of faith, like when someone leaves a job to start a business and has a temporary dip in income as their business ramps up, or how a heavily pruned tree might look barren for a season before it comes back with even more blooms. But our pediatrician was monitoring his weight so closely, it made my plan impossible to execute.

“I don’t think you have enough breast milk,” she said. I tried not to cry, but I could feel my lip quivering. “I didn’t want to say that, but I think that’s what the problem is,” she said.

“But I sometimes pump as much as 1.5 ounces,” I told her. I felt like a child bragging about how many sit-ups I can do.

She asked me if I could feel it when my milk let down? I said I couldn’t. She asked if my breasts sometimes felt taught if I went for a long time without a feeding? I said they didn’t.

I was frustrated. I have large breasts. Always have. And yet I couldn’t seem to produce enough milk. I felt like a well endowed man who can’t rise to the occasion. Interestingly, when I would talk about the issue to women with smaller breasts, instead of comforting me, they seemed compelled to tell me how their milk would shoot out by just looking at their child.

“I’d get into the shower and as soon as the warm water would hit me, the milk would run down my stomach,” one said.

“I’d blow through three shirts a day because I had so much, it would just leak out,” said another.

The day before, I’d called one of the lactation nurses from the hospital at which our baby was born to see if she had any advice.

“Some lucky women have so much milk, they just produce bottle after bottle when they pump. And then some try and try and can’t make it work,” she said. “Just try to enjoy your baby,” she said. I took that last sentence to mean she didn’t think my future in breastfeeding was bright.

We left the pediatrician’s office, and by the time we got to the car, I told Bruce I didn’t want to go back to supplementing after every feeding.

“Why do we have to listen to her? Because his weight dipped one day? Scales aren’t exact. I’ve overeaten for days and not gained any weight, and then a week later, the scale will say I gained three pounds in one day!” I said. “Why is she in our business, anyway? Why are we weighing the baby so much? It’s like he’s a fucking wrestler trying to make weight.”

The baby is too fat, the baby is too thin

I was angry, but the truth was, the pediatrician had me so worried about the baby’s weight, I bought a $100 scale for our home. I feared that in my zeal to breastfeed, I might inadvertently starve our child. Every time we would reduce the amount of formula we gave him, I thought I could see the ribs above his belly, his face would look bone thin, even anemic. But then every time she would force us to increase the amount of formula we gave him, his cheeks would suddenly look swollen like a chipmunk’s, his belly would blow up like a blow fish. Even his hands would look fat.

I felt so guilty every time he cried, I assumed it was because he was hungry. I forgot babies sometimes cry for other reasons.

And yet despite my fears, I didn’t want to go back to giving the baby a bottle after every feeding. We were making progress in reducing his reliance on formula and bottles. I didn’t want to go backwards just because of one bad weight day. I had no intention of watching our baby wither away as I tried to get the breastfeeding right, but I wanted a little wiggle room.

Our pediatrician was going on a ski trip to Vail for 10 days. I suggested to Bruce that we continue to only give the baby a bottle every other feeding, at least until the weekend. If the baby didn’t gain weight by then, we’d still have time to fatten him up with formula before she got back from vacation. Bruce reluctantly went along with it.

The baby did gain weight – though perhaps not at the hefty rate the pediatrician sought – and so we continued to supplement every other feeding. I felt good about our progress, until the pediatrician returned from her trip, and we were scheduled to go back to her office to have the baby weighed. I knew if she saw the baby hadn’t gained at least an ounce a day, she was going to wonder why, and we were going to have to explain why we didn’t follow her instructions.

“Let’s lie, and tell her we’re giving the baby a bottle after every feeding,” I said, and paused. “But only if she asks. If she doesn’t ask, then we don’t say anything.”

“I don’t want to lie to her,” Bruce said. “We shouldn’t be lying to our medical doctor. If we’re going to do that, we should find another doctor.”

If I wanted to lie, I had to do all the talking, he said.

As we pulled into her office parking lot, I said, “Fine. I won’t lie.”

We decided to tell her what we wanted to do: supplement after every other feeding instead of after every feeding.

“How about if we try it your way for the weekend,” the doctor conceded.

“I don’t think that will be enough time,” I said.

“Okay, let’s go until next Wednesday,” she said. “And then you come back, and we’ll weigh him.”

I agreed. It sounded like a fair compromise – though by the time I got to the car, I felt like a dog that marches into his owner’s house to demand his leash be removed only to come out with one that was a little bit longer.

Did the baby's indented chin affect his latch?

It was a Pyrrhic victory. The baby was indeed hungrier being given fewer bottles, but it didn’t help him get any more milk out of my breasts. I was starting to wonder whether the problem wasn’t inadequate milk supply but rather that he wasn’t sucking properly. I couldn’t understand why my breasts felt heavy with milk, and every time I squeezed my nipples, milk would come out, yet he would suck and suck, and at the end of every feeding, he still seemed hungry. I would stare at his throat to see if he was swallowing anything. I would put my ear to his mouth to see if I could hear gulps, like the ones he made when he sucked on the bottle. I tried massaging my breasts, even compressing them – advice I’d found after scouring the internet for advice – and yet he always seemed to come off my breast hungry.

He was also getting stronger and becoming a hindrance to the process. Given the choice between my hand, his own hand, and my nipple, he’d start sucking first on my hand, then his own, before finding my nipple. And when I’d try to latch him on exactly as I was taught at the hospital, he’d get his hands in the way, or instead of making him latch onto the nipple and some areola – as I was taught to do in the hospital – he would latch on and then push himself backwards away from me, so he’d end up with just the nipple in his mouth, rendering the latch ineffective. Sometimes he’d be really hungry and wanting to breastfeed, yet as I moved my breast closer to his mouth, he’d push it away. There’s a life lesson in there: I want this thing so badly, and that is why I will do everything in my power to stop myself from getting it.

Unknown woman breastfeeding child

Occasionally, it would work. He’d get near my breast and pounce, and for a few precious moments, I could feel him getting milk. His little hands would hold my breast like a big balloon (when they’re filled with milk, they’re bigger than his head. My father once took a photo of me standing at the base of a blimp. The size differential between his head and my breast is similar).

But mostly, we struggled. I started to feel like a fraud every time I put on the special nursing bra. I felt like I was donning the accoutrement of the breastfeeding population, and yet I had no right. My baby wasn’t really breastfeeding.

As I tried desperately to make the breastfeeding work, a part of me was slowly trying to get used to the idea that my baby would have to be raised on formula, almost the way a terminally ill patient will try to reconcile the fact that they’re going to die. Obviously, the stakes are higher with terminal illness, but there’s a similar process, of denial, then anger and tears, and then the quiet submission.

I started looking at children and wondering whether or not they were breastfed. Not just real children. I was watching a television commercial the other day for a pharmaceutical product called Reclast, and I wondered if the young boy in the ad was raised on breast milk or formula. I wondered if formula babies were as happy. The funny thing about formula is that people who are smart enough to understand the benefits of breastfeeding and yet raise their kids on formula will always start the conversation with how smart their kids are, despite having been formula-fed. I’ve begun to look forward to a time when he’s on solid food, and this whole breastfeeding saga is behind me.

When we got home from the pediatrician, our neighbor, Judy, and a friend of hers dropped by with a nurse from the neo-natal nursery at a nearby hospital. I was in the bathroom when they arrived, but I heard Judy open the door and yell, “Caren?”

“I’m in the bathroom,” I yelled back.

“Caren?” she said again, obviously not hearing me.

“I’m in the bathroom!” I yelled, hastily pulling up my pants. I quickly flushed the toilet and ran out into the living room to find the nurse had taken the baby, who was sleeping, out of his bassinet and was rocking him in her arms.

“What are you doing?” I said. “We have a no-touching policy.”  It was all I could think to say. I was stunned that a complete stranger had walked into my house and lifted my sleeping baby out of his bassinet.

“A no-touching policy?” she said, looking at me as she continued to hold my child.

“We don’t let anyone touch the baby, except for immediate family,” I said. Our pediatrician had suggested the policy for the first eight weeks, to prevent him from getting sick.

“Why?” she said, continuing to rock my baby as I plead my case.

“Germs,” I said.

“I work in a nursery. I touch other peoples’ babies all day long,” she said, finally handing me back my child.

I don’t know why I didn’t throw them out of my house. Instead, I asked them if they wanted tea, and we all sat down in my living room. Sometimes I do that. When what I want to do is light someone on fire, I instead will ask them if they want tea.

Judy had brought the women over to see if I had any questions about caring for a newborn. I had so many questions about breastfeeding, I decided to make use of having a nurse at my disposal. I fired away: How often should I feed the baby? How long should each feeding be? If I’m supposed to feed him according to demand, how do I know when to stop? He doesn’t give me any indication he’s done, I said.

“I just fed him for an hour, and the only reason I stopped is because, well, I was done. I felt like he could go on until we both died,” I said.

The Three Fates of Formula

“Well, maybe he’s not getting enough from you,” the nurse said.

She asked me to give her a bottle of formula, with 1.5 oz. She said if he’s full, he’ll push it away.

“He’ll do that?  You’re sticking a bottle in his mouth, and pouring this stuff down his throat. How can he stop it?”

“He can stop it. He’ll push it away with his hand. I’ll show you.” she said.

She gave him the bottle, and I watched with bated breath, hoping he would push it away. He didn’t. Instead, he began to suck, and suck, and suck. As I watched the level of formula go down in the bottle, I hoped his hand would come up to say he didn’t want any more, but it never did.

“He’s still hungry,” she said.

She asked for another bottle. I reluctantly gave it to her. The baby once again failed to push the bottle away and instead began to drink, and drink, and drink. I watched the level of formula go down and down in the bottle, again wanting him to stop, but he didn’t. It broke my heart

“He grabbed that one like a barracuda,” Judy said. I wanted to punch her.

“He’s a hungry little fellow,” the nurse said.

“But I don’t get it. He’s gaining weight. And the doctor said if he’s only getting 12 ounces a day from the formula, and he’s gaining weight, then he must be getting the rest from me, “ I said. I was trying to convince this woman that I indeed had breast milk.

“You may have milk, but he may not be sucking strong enough,” she said.

“But when I massage my breast while I’m feeding him, I can hear the milk squirt,” I said.

“Yeah, you’re squirting it into his stomach like a water gun,” she said.

She asked for a third bottle with some formula, and I gave it to her. She stuck it in the baby’s mouth, and I watched his eyes start to glaze over.

“He’s tired,” I said. “You should stop.”

“He’s still drinking it,” Judy said.

I wished these three women had never come into my house. They looked like the three fates from Macbeth, sitting there on my couch.

“No, really. He’s getting tired. Look at his eyes,”

At the end of the third bottle, the nurse finally said, “He is looking a bit tired now. He’s still awake, but he’s drinking slowly now. Can you see that?”

Fuck, yeah. I could see his drinking had slowed when he was on the second bottle. I wanted them to leave.

When they finally did, I cried. And then I pumped a whopping 2.5 ounces.

Let Them Eat Cake

I later found out that giving a baby bottle after bottle of formula is not how to determine how much one should feed him. Babies, like beagles, can eat well beyond what they need.

I also found out that women with large breasts are not likely to feel full or engorged, and they may never feel their milk let down.

A few weeks ago, a friend, quoting some mommy book she’d read, said to me, “Just do the best you can. Remember that at the end of the first year, no matter what, your baby will be eating birthday cake!”

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