Confessions of a Closet Bottle Feeder

“To breastfeed or not to breastfeed?” That was the question people always asked during my wife Pam’s pregnancy. Breast or bottle? No supermarket line, restaurant table, or movie theater was safe from “the question.” I hadn’t heard that much interest in female anatomy since high school.

To each query, we’d answer with all the confidence of ’60s flower children, “Breastfeeding, of course.” Then we’d give each other a look of surprise that said, “What else is there?” Little old ladies clucked their approval and then assaulted us with horror stories of women who were foolish enough to do anything else. I began to wonder how any children had survived the Dark (pre-LaLeche) Ages of the ’40s and ’50s.

But deep down, the seeds of doubt sprouted. As we dutifully watched the Lamaze propaganda films, we thought that breastfeeding looked easy enough—smiling, blissful mothers and quiet, contented babies. But if it was so easy, why all the fuss? As we discussed natural childbirth, one couple blurted out that they’d purchased a three-year supply of bottles and formula. Our doubts grew.

“What’s this?”  I asked, holding a Playtex trial nurser kit like a dead mouse.

“A home brewing kit,” answered my glowing spouse. “And don’t give me that look. My mother bought it just in case.” I thought to myself, “In case of what?”

Our fears were somewhat allayed when our friend Sue had her baby a month before Pam’s due date.

“How’s Jennifer taking to breastfeeding,” we asked in our best nonchalant voices.

“Great,” Sue answered as she stifled a yawn. “Just fine. Every two hours.”

She seemed sincere enough although we did notice that she avoided eye contact and there was a suspicious bulge in her diaper bag.

Christopher Ryan made his appearance at 4 a.m. After twenty-five hours of labor, feeding anybody wasn’t high on our list of priorities.

Our first stumble on reality’s road was in trying to sleep. Sleep is a foreign word in a hospital, especially in a maternity ward. Between our own visitors and the noisy circus that entertained Pam’s roommate, exhaustion replaced what little elation we had left.

The second stumble was catching a nurse feeding Christopher from a (gasp!) bottle.

“It’s just water to keep him hydrated until Pam’s milk comes in,” she explained.

From that moment on, however, the die was cast. The one factor we had taken for granted in all our discussions was Christopher, which was a major error. As it turned out, he enjoyed nursing so much, he was asleep within thirty seconds. Until he started crying from hunger, that is.

After 47 hours of crying and eight ruined blouses, the moment of truth arrived. I went into the kitchen and prepared a bottle of formula. But first, I closed the curtains. The bottle was an unqualified success once we enlarged the hole to satisfy our offspring’s impatience. We should have guessed that a child whose parents had replaced their dashboard St. Christopher with a statue of Ronald McDonald wouldn’t be interested in the slow hard work of breastfeeding.

Peace came at last, and with it, a chance to sleep. “Do you think he’ll be all right?” Pam asked as she peered through the curtains.

“Of course,” I answered bravely. But new doubts arose, and for the next two weeks, we fed off each other’s guilt (the gift that keeps on giving).  We approached Christopher’s first check-up with all the fear and anxiety of a confessed murderer awaiting sentencing. Visions of an angry squad of social workers waving child abuse laws danced in our heads. Every time Christopher coughed in his sleep, we jumped. Sleep became so elusive that the few dreams we managed were about sleeping.

The doctor walked into the check-up reading the chart as intently as a stock market report. I prepared myself for  tongue-lashing.

“Strip him to the diaper,” he commanded.

Pam fumbled with the snaps as I hovered nearby.

“What’s his weight?” I asked. I was afraid of the answer.

“He’s gained two pounds since birth.”

“Oh, no,” I groaned. “Isn’t there something we can do? Are there any wet nurses available?” I stammered.

“Two pounds in two weeks is sufficient,” he said. “You’re not fattening up a turkey, Mr. Parent.” He pointed to his far wall, which looked like a grocery shelf, and asked us to point out which brand of formula we were using. Satisfied with our answer, he told us to come back in two weeks.

Relieved, we dressed Christopher and walked out into the waiting room and found our friend Sue feeding Jennifer with a bottle.

“Hi,” we said, staring at the bottle, which contained a suspicious white liquid.

“I’ve got an infection,” Sue said quickly.

“Sure,” we both nodded.

“If you breathe a word of this to anyone, I’ll tell all the teenage girls that you keep a padlock on your refrigerator.” We promised secrecy and went on our way.

Despite our early fears, our son packed on the pounds at a healthy rate. His only bout of tummy trouble was quickly solved with apple juice (nonfermented). We certainly grew tired of puns on our last name, but one lingering doubt in my mind about bottle feeding was dispelled as I got up for Christopher’s 3 a.m. and saw Pam’s smiling face as she slept.