Laura McNeal brings a small man into the world with a detailed account

My life as a mammal

When I informed my best friend almost nine years ago that I was expecting a male child, she said, after a distinct pause, "I can't even imagine you with boys."

I couldn't imagine it either, in spite of the fact that I'd been trying to get pregnant for four years and had just conceived with the help of a fertility stimulant. I knew that boys could be and frequently were the outcome of pregnancy. I was just assuming that, given my personality, a boy wouldn't be the outcome in my case.

It's not just that I am ignorant of baseball, basketball, football, and the subtleties of world wrestling. It's not that my main hobbies are baking, knitting, reading, and watercolor painting. I do not camp. I do not ski. I do not surf. But for hundreds of years, women did none of these things and managed to raise boys.

So I think it was something else that my friend was contemplating during that distinct pause. I think we both knew the odds. There are certain children who are going to run screaming through the house with imitation guns and certain children who are going to sit and move the Fisher-Price people in and out of the toy barn, and we all know which genders are most likely to do which.

I am the sort of person who would do well with a child who wanted to move the Fisher-Price people in and out of the toy barn.

Still, month after month, the doctor studied the quivering black and white lines on the ultrasound and said it looked like a boy to him. I reminded myself that Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, my father, and my husband had once been boys. Boys could be pensive, bookish, and sweet, like Christopher Robin. As a child, my husband had collected baseball cards and listened to entire Yankee games on his radio. My father had sat beside his mother's stove at age three and pretended the rectangular bits of coal were train cars. Of course, when he got a little older, my father moved on to blowing up mailboxes and shooting hawks, rats, lizards, jackrabbits, beer bottles, tin cans, and cottontails.

I decided to concentrate instead on the act of giving birth. Giving birth was what women talked about the way veterans talked about war. Giving birth was so painful that it was routine to numb the whole lower half of the body or to cut open the mother as if she were a wolf in a fairy tale. Giving birth was what I began to prepare for: how to do it without numbing or cutting.

I tried to assure myself that I was a mammal, and a mammal does two things. It gives birth to live young, and it nurses them. These are the two seminal qualities. There is nothing else: not "mammals have two legs" or "mammals live on land" or "mammals like to sit quietly and color." You'll notice, in fact, that men don't even qualify as mammals by this definition. It's the women who certify the species for mammal status, and they are thus equipped, like whales and wild coyotes, to do these things without technical assistance.

This was the working principle of my doula. A doula is a birth assistant, a woman without the medical training of a midwife who takes the historical role of the mothers, aunts, and elderly females in the cave, who would, I gathered from my reading, help the birthing woman push the baby out while men were clubbing edible mammals. I was still planning to go to the hospital, just in case, but I knew the doctor wouldn't be there until the last minute and the nurses would be busy with all the other birthing females. I also knew that if my husband said, during the 16th hour of labor, "You're doing fine! Keep pushing!" I would look at him and know he wasn't even a real mammal — how would he know?

My doula, on the other hand, had given birth herself. She had helped other women push out live young, and if she said I was doing fine, I would believe her.

What the doula said to me in the last month of pregnancy was this: You are just like a whale or a wild coyote. You can, if necessary, give birth all by yourself. If you go into labor on a dirt road somewhere, and you don't have a phone or a human being to help you, you can give birth all by yourself.

I found this extremely comforting. I was built to give birth! It was my destiny! I could do it all alone!

Obviously, it's not 100 percent true. I've read enough history to know women used to die giving birth to live young. Frequently. But I had also read The Good Earth in ninth grade, and the only thing I remembered about it was that the main character works in the fields for a while, goes in the house, gives birth, and goes right back into the fields, as if all she'd done was take a coffee break.

When the contractions began before dawn on April 28, 1998, I started out like a good Chinese peasant woman. I worked all day at my desk. I wrote most of a story about the revival of the Lindy Hop. Then the doula came over and we walked around in a field. By 9:00 p.m. the contractions hurt enough to make me say the word, "HOSPITAL," so my husband and the doula and I went to the hospital so that I could be a coyote/whale/Chinese peasant in a bed, wearing a gown.

For the next seven hours, the doula sat beside me and said, "You're doing fine." She did some acupressure on my right hand. The nurse came now and then to measure and count. At 3:30 a.m., the doctor appeared, and at 4:00, I pushed like a coyote, or perhaps a whale. For a moment, it seemed that I was the coyote and Sam was the whale. But then he emerged. Our baby was alive, human, healthy, and fine. We admired him tearfully for one, maybe two triumphant minutes, and then it was time for Sam to do what nurses call "latching on."

I had just pushed live young through a narrow and sensitive orifice without painkillers or screams. I felt like one hell of a mammal, and I was not afraid of the Second Mammalian Imperative. My breasts would fulfill their destiny. The nurse helped me arrange myself. My tiny naked boy latched on.

This is the moment I began to question Nature and my place within it. In the first place, a "latch" is a piece of metal or plastic that clamps down hard on an insensible object. I was not insensible. It was all I could do to keep myself from prying my tiny naked helpless baby off my nipple. Suckling was not the gentle process of milk passing from breast to mouth that I had observed in Old Master paintings! It was latching on.

I was glad when the nurse said we could stop and test his vitals now.

All the next day, in a kind of sleep-deprived ecstasy that was quickly turning into primal fear, I admired Sam in his capsule and tried, with the help of various nurses, to become a food source. I had been warned by Lamaze classes and pregnancy books that the worst thing I could possibly do in the hospital would be to let my baby sleep outside my room with the nurses. If I did, they would feed him with bottles. The baby, spoiled and greedy, wouldn't bother to learn the more technically demanding art of breast-drinking and he'd be addicted to formula, then Kool-Aid, and no doubt heroin later on.

But the nurses studied my breasts with guarded skepticism. They would stand to the side and show me how to pinch my nipple and thrust it into Sam's mouth. "Does it hurt?" they would ask.

"Yes, it does," I would say.

"Then he's not latched on properly." They would have me stick my finger into Sam's mouth, thereby breaking suction, and try again.

"Does it hurt?"


"Can you hear him swallowing?"

I listened. I could not.

"Is your milk letting down?"

How would I know? Nothing had ever happened inside my breasts before. For thirty years, they had just sat there.

"I don't know," I said.

"Well, your milk may not have come in yet."

This was an alarming detail. For the last 40 weeks I had been preparing for this baby -- signing up with a diaper service, buying a crib, prewashing his layette in gentle laundry soap, ordering birth announcements -- and what I should have done first was call the breastmilkman and make sure I had plenty in there when the baby arrived. What kind of survival plan was this that the mammal's milk would arrive several days after the live young?

My doula reassured me by telephone that during the first hours or days after birth, the baby was drinking colostrum, a sort of maternal vitamin syrup. Colostrum was so concentrated that the baby couldn't really chug-a-lug it, so probably things were going just fine. We'd watch Sam's diaper and see. We'd watch for wetness and we'd watch for poo.

The situation made me consider my breasts with the eye of a used-car salesman. They were not large. They were not medium. They were undeniably, disturbingly small. As a relative once cheerfully put it, I was built for speed. This might mean, I suddenly realized, that I was not built for milking. I reassured myself that the pregnancy books and my childbearing friends had said the size of one's breasts has absolutely nothing to do with how much milk they contain. They all said, in various ways, that it is not like comparing a gallon jug to a one-cup carton.

Still, as I lay in my hospital bed next to Samuel, waiting for him to produce solid proof that my hooters worked, I recalled an alarming conversation with my doula. When I was eight months pregnant, she had casually asked if my breasts had grown. "Have you gone up a cup size or two?" she asked.

A cup size or two? No. Perhaps a demitasse.

"Sort of," I said. Having large bosoms had always been a secret dream of mine, and pregnancy was a guaranteed boob-inflater. I couldn't stand to admit that I was so flat-chested that not even pregnancy worked.

"I think so," I said. "Yes."

Recalling this possibly important lie, I tried not to worry too much. Sam slept in his capsule, his tiny head soft and round in the knit cap, his body tightly bound in flannel, the incarnation of sweetness and need.

It was at this point that I turned on the wall-mounted TV and watched a sprightly educational show about the animal kingdom. The camera zoomed in on a koala bear that had just given birth. "She simply isn't making enough milk!" the zookeeper said, and then the zookeeper described how they were going to give the koala's baby to a different mother. The next image showed the hapless koala, her nipples exposed to the whole world, her baby gone.

I felt a slow, panicked recognition. Le koala bear, c'est moi! I needed to avoid zookeepers at all costs. In any case, Samuel was a very quiet little package. Why not just go home? Everything would be absolutely, completely fine.

I have a notebook on my shelf that contains phone numbers and interview notes. I was writing a weekly column when Sam was born, and the notes go right from questions about turtle gardens and the Lindy Hop to a fanatically detailed account of my time with Samuel from Thursday, May 7, to Wednesday, May 27.

Sam cried when he wasn't nursing, and he nursed nearly all the time. I nursed him until my nipple felt, with each compression of his mouth, as if it were being pierced by a sewing machine needle. I stared out the second-story window of our house at the pink climbing roses. The spring was wet and cloudy that year, and the roses trembled in the wind. A pair of bluebirds had nested in a bird house I could see from the sofa where I sat hour after hour, nursing, and I watched the father bluebird carry insects to the chicks and then come out again with their droppings in his mouth. Well, at least I don't have to do that, I thought.

I took Sam to the pediatrician for his one-week checkup, and he was found to be losing, not gaining weight.

"The thing is," he said, "not all women can nurse. Babies can be fed in other ways. You're probably going to have to supplement."

Le koala bear, c'est moi! I held tightly to Samuel and considered the word "supplement." The doctor meant formula, and it's hard to convey the distaste with which natural-birth people view formula. For nine months I'd heard that formula is the junk food of the infant world and the loathsome tool of corporate greed, sold to Third World women who have no choice but to mix it with filthy water. Cans of Similac, like cigarette packages, contain a small government message: "Breast milk is recommended."

I had also read about the legions of sadly misinformed women who give up on nursing because of perfectly fixable problems like the failure to latch on properly. Maybe this was a perfectly fixable problem.

So like any sane, flat-chested koala bear, I asked the doctor if he knew a lactation consultant in town, and he made a phone call that probably went something like this: "Hi, Lottie. This is Dr. S. I'm sending over a new mother in a few minutes." I imagined him lowering his voice. "A little worked up, yes. Remember Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction?"

Lottie, whose name I have changed here, was also a children's dentist, and she did breastfeeding consultations in the back room of a building that smelled like mint and high-speed drills. She had a motherly air and, underneath her dentist's smock, breasts much larger than mine. (I suppose only Hugh Hefner is more focused on this part of the anatomy than I now was.)

Once Lottie had me seated in the lactation room, she smiled, admired Sam, and asked me how many times a day Sam soiled his diapers. I said that sometimes not even once a day. Again, I was quizzed: Did I feel my milk let down? Did Sam seem to be swallowing? Did I hear liquid going down his throat?

He did not. I did not.

Lottie hesitated. She had become a lactation consultant because breastfeeding was wonderful for her and because she had been surprised to learn, after her own success, that some women had trouble with it. She wanted to help those women. But in my case, the doctor was right. I had to supplement. It was like a priest telling a supplicant she was going to have to fornicate with the devil.

I don't remember everything in the right order after that, due to excessive, non-Chinese-peasant-style weeping, but I know that I rented a breast pump. Lottie told me to nurse Samuel and then to give him an ounce or two of formula from a tiny medicine dropper (not from a bottle, because he might learn to prefer the silicone nipple to my own) and then pump my breasts to stimulate further milk production. If he didn't wake up every two hours at night, I needed to strip him, tickle his feet, apply a wet washcloth to his head and rouse him because he needed to keep eating. He needed 12 feedings a day.

I put the breast pump in my car and drove Samuel to the obstetrician's office. There I was to be checked in the lower region, the region where all had gone well. I held in my arms tiny Samuel, who weighed less than six pounds. Seated in the waiting room was a woman I knew who had also given birth recently. As Hugh Hefner would have noticed, her breasts were large. Her baby was immense. Thank heavens there was not a zookeeper present, because the answer would have been clear. I waited my turn, clutched my baby, and then took him home to nurse, bottle-feed, pump, nurse, bottle-feed, pump, nurse, bottle-feed, pump.

Lottie had told me to keep a log of Sam's feedings and the contents of his diapers, so I wrote down, to the minute, how long he nursed on each breast, how much formula he subsequently drank, and for how long afterward I used the breast pump. Then I wrote down how much milk was in the vial after I pumped. The log goes on for many pages, all of them filled with tiny black notations such as Van Gogh probably made right before he picked up the ear knife.

I was not a good dairy cow. I was too self-conscious, for one thing. If you have ever removed your bra, attached a suction cup, and flipped the "on" switch, you know what I mean. Dignified, it was not. It was also not encouraging. Milk didn't flow, pour, or spray from me as the air contracted inside the suction cup. It dripped like rain from an eave after the rain has stopped falling.

A few days later, when Sam still wasn't producing the desired number of soiled diapers or gaining the desired weight, I rented an electric baby scale from Lottie so that I could measure the ounces Sam imbibed naturally. It worked like this: before I nursed Samuel, I weighed him, and after I nursed him, I weighed him again. Sometimes he weighed two ounces more after nursing. Two ounces is half of a newborn's baby bottle, half of what bottle-makers call a "serving." On one giddy occasion, I wrote: "lots of swallowing and some actual slurping."

The bluebirds flew in and out of the bird house with crushed crickets in their beaks. The Cecile Brunner roses turned their pink petals to the rain. Lottie called to tell me that she had found a case like mine in a textbook. I had, she said regretfully, "insufficient mammary tissue."

I'd never heard of this as a biological diagnosis. That self-assessment had come to me many times in the dressing rooms of lingerie stores and swimsuit departments, but not while I was reading breastfeeding tracts.

I suddenly wondered if that was why I had needed fertility pills even to conceive a child. All by myself, without the makers of Clomiphene and Similac, I was incapable of rearing live young. I wasn't really a mammal after all.

I hung up the phone.

I held Sam in my arms and he latched on. It didn't hurt anymore, perhaps because of the lanolin. A chemist somewhere, or maybe a desperate shepherd, had discovered that pure lanolin — the oil found in wool — would heal a cracked nipple without harming the baby. I considered giving up the nursing as I nursed. Unfortunately, Sam was happy in only two situations: while nursing, or while in constant motion, as I carried him through streets, stores, fields, and parks. He didn't like pacifiers or bottles or anything except the authentic article, and in this we were the same. When he nursed, I felt like a real mother, like the incarnation of the most sacred idea we have.

For the next three months of Sam's life, I bought formula and mixed it and heated it and offered it to him after the nursing sessions. Often, he cried when I tried to give him the bottle, perhaps because he was full, perhaps because he was sleepy. Once, I was so tired and frustrated, so afraid that he was still going to starve, that I threw the rejected bottle across the room. Bottles are made of plastic now, so not much happened. To give my husband his due, he did the bottle-feedings whenever he could.

At four months, Sam refused the bottle so many feedings in a row that I decided to risk it. I decided to go breasts-only. It was the trial of the mammary tissue.

I watched him day by day, hour by hour. He still wet his diapers about the same. He still fretted about the same, but not more. At Sam's checkup a nurse told me that it was okay that he only soiled his diapers once or twice a week (instead of ten times per day). "That's within the range of normal," she said. "The outer range, but still."

I wondered where she had been in the early weeks, when it seemed that if my baby didn't poop enough he was going to die. Anyway, we went bottle-free. I felt as if I had overcome an addiction to heroin. We were on the wagon, by God, and we were doing it the natural way.

Many people are probably wondering, as my own mother did, why I felt so strongly about this. Probably it was egotism: the unwillingness to believe that some part of me was insufficient. It was also an ingrained aversion to plastic. A man named Eliud came once a week in a Tidy Didy Babyland Diaper Service truck and picked up a sack of soiled diapers and dropped off a stack of snowy white clean ones, one hundred percent cotton. I felt better about those diapers, too.

When I was expecting Sam, I had believed everything I was told about how much newborns slept and how easy it was to feed them. I did not believe this anymore. My husband and I had a name for babies who were Not Like Sam. Usually they were female, but sometimes they were male. They were Sitcom Babies, named after the ones who are held briefly by television characters and then set down in playpens so that the characters can do other things. These babies do not cry when attention is turned away from them.

Sam prompted two diametrically opposed responses from people. If I was out shopping for groceries or walking along the beach with Sam strapped to my chest, his face forward and his legs kicking manically against my hips, he invariably smiled so hugely at the people we met that they said, "What a happy baby!"

If I were in a closed-in space, like my house or the doctor's office, Sam cried, and people — including child-care workers, nurses, and parents of five or more children — would say, "What's wrong with him?"

I didn't know.

Other mothers seemed to live in harmony with their babies. Their babies slept, ate, or observed the world on their mother's schedules, graceful appendages who needed a lot of time and care but who when given this time and care enjoyed their existence.

Sam did not enjoy his existence. If I nursed him at exactly the same times, if I fed him exactly the same ultra-smooth puréed foods, if I carried him or played with him nearly all the time, if I was moving from place to place and not stopping to peel potatoes or study the back of a box of cereal, he didn't cry much. I believed that I had made him this way. Nature or nurture, it was my fault. There was the lack of mammary tissue, which had made him work so hard in the beginning. Furthermore, I was stubborn, controlling, melancholy, and overly analytical. Of course I had produced a baby who could not enjoy a Pat Mat.

Still, we went on, as people do. We walked and we nursed and we tried to arrange our day so that more people said, "What a happy baby!" than said, "What's wrong with him?"

I was still nursing Sam when he turned 13 months old and I became pregnant. This time, it had been simple biology: no fertility pills, no anxious tests. As before, the doctor did an ultrasound. As before, he saw the unmistakable shape of a little boy.

I was thrilled and I was very, very afraid. I thought of that Sylvia Plath poem in which she says she's a riddle in nine syllables, that she's boarded the train you can't get off.

Plath, of course, lost her mind.

While I was trying to be more thrilled than afraid, we hit another snag with Sam. Always too small to be above the tenth percentile on the charts, always smaller than you would expect the child of a 5´10´´ woman and a 6´1´´ man to be, he was still adorably, alarmingly small. He still ate too little, even though he was now eating solid foods. The doctor called it "failure to thrive," a diagnosis more common for listless babies and toddlers.

The doctor, who had five grown children, two of them boys, watched Sam tear around the examining room, opening every cupboard, tugging at me and the rolling chair and the toys, and he shook his head. "It's strange," he said. "He could take this place apart."

But everything else was worrisome. Why didn't he grow more? The doctor ordered tests.

First we eliminated cystic fibrosis. Then we did an X-ray of his hand to see if he had something called primordial dwarfism.

Fortunately, he was not a primordial dwarf. He was just little, and he was picky.

I grew rounder, and we waited for the baby, whom we called Hank. Sam began to say words. When people saw us out together, they invariably said, "You're going to have your hands full."

As the due date approached, the doctor told me, somewhat strongly, that I should really go ahead and wean Sam before the baby was born. I was only nursing Sam at bed and nap time, but I was so worried that Hank would have Sam's feeding troubles that I was essentially calling the breastmilkman. I was not going to have empty mammaries when the next baby showed up.

Nervously, a month before the due date, I weaned Sam.

Hank was born on St. Patrick's Day, the holiday of green beer. It is also, for me, a privately religious holiday. It is the day of the Miracle of the Breast Milk, the day when I ceased to be a defective mammal, the day the only person in the world who could have set Sam and me free arrived.

It was like that dream we all have of rewinding the tape and doing it over. I was in the same hospital room in the same season of the year. I was wearing a gown, and I had a newborn baby boy. But this time I knew what I was doing, what to listen for, and how to proceed. Milk was needed, and milk was there. When people weighed Baby Hank, they did not look concerned and afraid. They looked nonchalant. He wet. He soiled. He nursed. He slept. We went home to watch the father bluebird carry poo out of the nest.

For the first two months, Hank showed signs of the kind of fussing that had once driven me to wish, while driving a speeding car on Highway 76, that I could drive straight into a pylon and hear no more crying, ever again. But either because I stopped eating ice cream, cheese, milk, and yogurt or because of some mysterious process that will never be known, Hank stopped fussing and became content.

This was the saving of us all. I no longer believed that I was the cause of everything my children did or felt. Sam was a boy. Hank was a boy. We had made them from the same genetic material, I had nursed them both, and yet they were not alike. If we had produced a girl, we would have thought that was the difference — that girls really were easier than boys. Had we produced only Hank, we would have consciously or unconsciously taken credit for his sunny, placid self. But I knew that I had not made Hank that way.

So perhaps I had not made Sam so passionate either, so demanding, so pensive, so bookish and sweet, so completely unwilling, at the age of three, to move the Fisher-Price people in and out of the barn. Although the nurturing could certainly be laid at my feet, his nature could not. His nature simply is. That he lived, and remained mine, is also a miracle. I think of that sometimes when I see him running through the house with an imitation gun, screaming, or hurling a baseball, or grinning at strangers, his legs as thin as Christopher Robin's. We escaped the Darwinian fate of the unfit and walk the earth as grateful mammals, no longer failing to thrive.

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