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01/05/2005

Gee, why didn't I think of that?

Since I became pregnant with Charlie, the one piece of advice I've been given most frequently is this:

Talk to a lactation consultant.

It got downright comical, in fact, and became the immediate answer to any number of questions, practical and rhetorical. "How do you get red wine stains out of a white heirloom damask tablecloth?" "Ask a lactation consultant." "Is the Pope Catholic?" "I'm not sure, but I know who you could ask..." "Who's on first?" "Lactation consultant's on second!" ("Yeah, well, Hit-you-in-the-face's on third.")

And I always thought I would talk to a lactation consultant, since until now my experience with my breasts has been purely recreational. In fact, they've been a barrel of goddamn laughs, exactly the kind of companions you'd like to get drunk and do something stupid with, like trying on a chiffon spaghetti-strapped slip dress. (Yes, the police were called, but no citations were issued.)

Only lately have they become worthy of the terrified respect I now accord them. These breasts mean business, and as my pregnancy continued and they got larger and larger, I came to understand that they must be approached with the exquisite diplomacy of, say, the 1945 Yalta conference. (Left breast: Stalin. Right breast: Roosevelt. Now who wants to nestle in my cleavage?!)

Breast artSo it was always part of the plan to get some help with breastfeeding, which for some reason is often called "the womanly art," making me anxiously wonder whether my breasts should be spraying jets of tempera paint, or girded in a prickly net of macramé, or perhaps glazed and fired in a kiln.

When Charlie was born so early, unable to breastfeed, getting that help became imperative.

When your baby can't be put to the breast soon after birth, you need a way to deliver the necessary stimulation to your nipples. That stimulation is what encourages your body to make milk. And you need a way to empty what your body makes. That emptying is what signals your body to make more. If you eventually want to breastfeed, you need to get these processes in motion shortly after delivery. So the day after my C-section, when I incoherently asked one of the nurses about, well, nursing, I was unceremoniously introduced to the breast pump.

There's not much trick to pumping. You plug your breasts into the plastic cones, hit the power button, adjust the suction level from "Dustbuster" to "irresistible vortex that will draw out your soul through your milk ducts and fling it into another dimension," and sit more or less patiently while you drip.

Once your baby is ready to begin nursing, though, things get a little more complicated. It is somewhat more difficult to stuff your nipple into the moving target of a baby's mouth than it is to jam it into the clear plastic vessel of the machine. As far as I am aware, Charlie has no helpful transparent gauge along his side to indicate when he has consumed the requisite 55 cc. And a premature baby doesn't have the stamina of a full-termer — they get tired before they get full, so you can't keep them at the breast for long as they try to figure it all out.

Enter, therefore, the lactation consultant.

I learned how to hold Charlie while nursing. I learned how to make an appetizing nipple sandwich for him to gum. I learned how to make him open his mouth wide to take it in. (Since his mouth is small and my breast is large, this requires him to unhinge his jaw like a python. Viper in my bosom, indeed.)

Charlie did well, I thought. He latched like a champ, his lips ostentatiously flanged around the croque madame I'd made for him. He didn't make a squeak of protest as I deftly whirled him around from football to cradle. He could deliver a few strong sucks in a row before having to rest, and his eyes looked up at my face, calm but alert, unblinking.

And do you know what the lactation consultant said to me, after several lessons, after watching us move through the intricate steps of our milky mother-son ballet?

"I think," she said carefully, "when you get back home, you should..."

Wait for it, wait for it, this is gonna be good...

"...Talk to a lactation consultant."

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