I called my breast pump “Paella” in honor of the only word she ever spoke to me. Her familiar robotic hum — PIE YAY UH, PIE YAY UH — was the whistle while you work of an old prospector mining for liquid gold. And it was gold. Each ounce of breastmilk was a triumph, a unit of maternal value redeemable for the priceless gift of a superbaby, immune to everything from asthma to peanut butter. She also offered me the promise of an even more precious and elusive gift — inoculation against maternal guilt.
When we met, I was on the rebound from a breastfeeding relationship that hadn’t turned out the way I hoped.
Despite my best efforts, and a coven of lactation consultants, my newborn never latched. I’d read all the books but missed the chapters on what to expect when the most natural thing in the world doesn’t work out. Formula wasn’t an option. I needed to prove I was ‘mom enough’ to give my baby breastmilk, no matter what.
So, there we were: mother, child, and Paella — the pastel yellow interloper who bridged the gap between us — embarking on an act of maternal madness known as exclusive pumping. To simulate nursing, I pumped every three hours, day and night. Like most relationships built on dependence, ours was fraught with resentment. I was helpless without her, but there was never enough milk. I blamed Paella, cursing her with each scoop of supplemental formula I came to need.
I pumped as my baby cried, eager for her bottle. I pumped while I cried: longing to nurse, to sleep, to stop and surrender to the convenience of formula.
I could see how milk-crazed I’d become, but I couldn’t stop measuring my maternal worth in ounces.
I was suffering, but what kind of mom just quits? After five months, my body gave up for me. Thirty minutes of pumping earned me two measly ounces. I conceded, donating the milk storage bags I’d never needed. I vowed to limit pumping to a casual relationship with future children.
I welcomed my second child with nervous anticipation. As the staff whisked him away for the customary newborn assessments, I nagged, “Just let me nurse him!”
When I finally got my chance, cradling him against my chest, I held my breath. His first suckle was interrupted by my squeals of laughter and relief — and more disruption as I tried him on the other breast, just to be sure.
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My deliriously happy state soon turned into actual delirium. My first night home, I awoke crying: feverish, confused, and shaking from severe gastroenteritis — an unwelcome hospital parting gift. Confined to the bathroom, violently ill, I yelled for my husband to get Paella. It wasn’t safe to nurse, but my milk was coming in. I had to pump. Between bouts of illness, I did my best, but my supply took a permanent hit. I was still able to nurse, but only in tandem with Paella and supplemental formula.
I resigned myself to an open relationship; Paella and I were sister-wives of a sort, working together to care for my son. There was intimacy in the nightly ritual of delicately hand-washing her fiddly parts and in the shared misery of public bathroom pumping. I undressed for her, harnessing myself into the strappy black trappings of a hands-free pumping bustier like a lactating dominatrix. After a year, we ended things amicably. I was grateful. I was also fantasizing about burning her in effigy when my nursing days were finally over.
It was a complicated relationship.
Pregnant with my third child in four years, I’d learned to expect the unexpected. And my last baby delivered… two weeks early. She was small, but we got the hang of nursing. I’d left my job, so I was confident I’d only need Paella occasionally, just a hookup for a fun night out. But two days after I left the hospital, I was back again with dangerously high blood pressure. Even worse, my baby couldn’t stay alone with me, in case the worst came to pass, and I had a stroke. It was the middle of the night; we couldn’t reach anyone. As my husband and newborn left with formula freebies, a hospital-grade pump was wheeled into my room.
I recovered with just enough milk to nurse exclusively, but my baby remained underweight. I suspected low production was to blame. Thankfully, parenthood had offered me the opportunity to come to terms with all that I could not control. This time I let my pride give way to practicality and reason. I had done my best, and it was good enough.
I expected a slow, sentimental goodbye to nursing. It turns out, my daughter thought drinking formula from a bottle was pretty fantastic, and she quickly lost interest in nursing. I kept trying to entice her one last time. But with camera in hand, prodding her with my nipple, I succeeded only in capturing the first of many side-eyes. I was content. I was also swollen and sore: I had more to give, and nowhere for it to go but Paella. Fittingly, she was my first and my last.
My milk-making days are over, and while I talked a big game about parting ways dramatically, I’ve yet to part with Paella.
She’s on my mind lately as I sort through the remnants of babyhood. Letting go has been easier than I expected, save for those adorably impractical baby shoes and Paella. The thought of getting rid of her makes me wince. Pumps make for poor heirlooms, so I must be holding on to something else.
I thought Paella and I stayed together for my kids, but the truth is we stayed together for me. If my children never had one ounce of breastmilk, you know what, they’d be just fine. I was the one with something to prove, and I put it all on Paella.
I’ve never burdened an object with so much: guilt, determination, love, shame, hope, and helplessness — the whole of motherhood held in that little black box.
With her by my side, I grew. I don’t need to prove that I’m ‘mom enough’ anymore, I’ve made peace with ‘good enough’ instead. In the journey of parenting, that’s as close as it gets to a win.
Forget the baby shoes. She’s my trophy, and I’m keeping her.