Breast-feeding story: Nora

At a baby shower before my older daughter, Nora, was born, I held up each newly unwrapped garment and device for the shower guests to admire  with a big, stiff smile, because I had no idea what to do with any of it. I was the youngest of four children, and while I babysat as a teen-ager, I was never the girl people were clamoring to have watch their infants. In any case, baby technology had moved along quite a bit since then.

The theme for my first few months as a mother was discovery  — oh, yes, indeed, many, many discoveries, made usually in a panic, in the middle of the night. Breast-feeding, like everything else, was uncharted terrain for me. My mom had tried to breast-feed a couple of my older sisters but told us she was too "nervous" to succeed. As a baby, I was premature and colicky, and wound up thriving on soy formula.

I don't think either of my sisters who had children breast-fed. (They are both deceased, or I would ask them. Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be smokers.)

By the late 1980s, though, breast-feeding was common but still spottily supported. Interviewing pediatricians a few months before my due date, I remember my delight when I found a male (!) doctor I liked a lot who supported my plan to breast-feed exclusively for several months. (His wife had breast-fed their four children, which can dispose a male doctor to be more supportive of breast-feeding than he might be otherwise.) He left the practice about a week before Nora was born. So much for planning.

At the time, my employer offered an unpaid 12-month maternity leave. Even though my husband was then serving an apprenticeship as a reporter at the old City News Bureau of Chicago, pulling down $11,000 a year, we had saved prodigiously and agreed I should take the full 12 months. So I was free to breast-feed without the constraints of a job.

It went well — not perfectly, but well. I vividly remember the early days, holding the newborn Nora on my forearm, her head against the crook of my elbow, her tush cradled in my hand.

At one point, though, I had a bout of mastitis, which was terrifying while in progress, as my breast hardened, heated up and turned red. I managed to find a lactation specialist who advised me over the phone — they seemed to be scarce and far-flung at the time. My best source was a calm old book, Nursing Your Baby by Karen Pryor, which a friend had recommended. It never failed me.

I breast-fed Nora almost exclusively for about five months. (She did get the odd bottle, including one her first night of life, in the hospital — not my idea.) I thought breast-feeding was beyond easy — always available, always satisfying, and so blissful for both of us. However, I did feel like a combination of Cinderella, always scampering home from the ball in time for that next feeding, and Bossy the Cow.

Nora had eight teeth by the time she was eight months old, when she hit on a delightful (for her) new game. She bit me, hard, at the end of every feeding. She never broke the skin, but she hurt me. She would laugh heartily while I jumped and howled, and then she would hop down and crawl off. Every feeding.

I spent two weeks soliciting advice, reading books, trying all kinds of things to get her to stop. Nothing worked. It seemed to me that giving me that good painful chomp was the best part of breast-feeding for Nora now, while I dreaded every session. She was eating all kinds of food and drinking from a cup. Most women I knew breast-fed for several months — seldom more than a year — and the recommendations hadn't yet come down that advise staying the course for at least a year.

So I weaned Nora. It took two weeks. She was nine months old when we finished. She was a bright and busy girl, and she barely noticed. At first, I wept, then I was sad for a long time.

But I had a life again. I was still Nora's mom, I still wasn't back at work, but I could move freely out in the world. My mind began to re-focus on activities and issues that went beyond parenting. At the time, I felt relief weighing against the regret. I still think it was not a bad thing for that child, at that time, or for me.