I am hooked to a breast pump and my babies are fussing. Eleanor just cried out in earnest and I can only watch her from the monitor to ensure she’s not in trouble. They ate recently, their diapers changed, the swaddles wrapped to favorite positions. Eleanor: legs tight, arms free to stretch over her head. Henry: one arm pinned, the other free to press the binkie to his face. They wake and fall asleep with some regularity as I wait for the pump to finish its work, and I think about crying.
I recently saw an Instagram post that I probably shouldn’t have. A friend with a new baby liked it, and as someone with a new baby who belongs to a similar demographic, Instagram’s algorithm threw it on my feed. It talked about the sinister origins of “cry it out”—a sleep method apparently created by a man who thought babies were being coddled too much. In decrying its methods, I began to worry that I wasn’t holding my children enough. I quickly remembered the rules of social media: the post was not anything personal, and I scrolled away before I could reach the last slide or clicked on something to learn more.
I didn’t scroll fast enough. Here I am days later, thinking about that post, about how holding your child to quiet them is the natural way of parenting. Humans are social animals, we live in groups, there should always be arms to hold baby. Holding baby keeps them calm and calm earns trust and without trust baby will never sleep soundly…
I saw a lot of advice in the months I spent preparing for their arrival; don’t rely on swings or they’ll never sleep without it. Don’t use a binkie or they won’t ever latch. Don’t let baby suck their thumb or they won’t ever stop. Don’t move baby after they’re sleeping or they’ll become disoriented. Don’t use mobiles; they simulate flying predators and stress out your baby. Don’t use formula if you can help it; breast is best* breast is best breast is best.
My breasts didn’t start producing milk for a week and a half after my cesarean, and in four days from birth Henry had lost an entire pound. He only started with 5lbs 5oz. There wasn’t much to lose.
When we met our pediatrician, she told me that my children had lost too much weight and I was to start them both on a high calorie formula meant for preemies. This was direction, not advice, from a confident woman who radiated an air of experience*. I wanted to hug her. I needed that permission from her, because the nurses were insistent that I feed my children from my dry nipples when their tiny premature mouths could not fit around them. Even with the mothers in my life reminding me that fed is best, the cult of breastmilk got into my head and made me feel inadequate. I couldn’t feed my kids. What kind of mother am I?
Even now, I can only produce about 80% of what they need. They get the rest of their calories from formula. Erik has mentioned if they were one baby, I’d be producing 160% of their needs, and I remind myself of that while I ask WIC to include formula with our benefits. I mention it to the woman on the phone as well; they are two. Their needs are greater than a single baby, and I am only one woman.
When they are both crying, I try to be 160% mother. Sometimes I can be. When they’re both crying for food, I set them both up on a pillow and see if they can each take a bottle from my hands. But sometimes Henry is crying so hard that he thrashes away from the nipple in his mouth and he needs my full attention. Sometimes Eleanor falls asleep while eating and only takes in a third of what she should. And sometimes they’re crying to be held, but they’re still too small and floppy for me to safely cradle them both. One goes in the swing or under a mobile, while I tend to the other.
I don’t care if they fall asleep in the swing. I don’t care if the binkie causes nipple confusion. We’re already past the stage where I can get them to latch onto my breast (is best is best is best). I don’t care if the mobile simulates predators because it got my daughter to smile and quiet herself mid-meltdown and it gave me the time to feed my thrashing son. And if none of this is enough to calm them, one just has to cry.
It hurts when they can’t stop crying. Sometimes one will rile the other and both are inconsolable. But I can’t let it into my heart, because crying will happen even if I could be 180% mother to one baby 100% of the time. They can’t talk yet, and the world is confusing. The world is confusing for a 36 year old woman who can talk (even if she chooses not to.)
There is a lot of advice for mothers, a lot of it contradictory, or simply unfeasible when combined with the rest of the advice received. There is not enough time in the day to incorporate all of it. And when I am crying along with my kids, I wonder if I’ve done something wrong. Maybe Henry won’t calm down because he spent too much time on his tummy today. Maybe Eleanor is mad because she spent too little. Maybe I’ve missed something key when I was flooded with a thousand small suggestions for a perfect baby, a perfect night’s sleep. Or maybe I can listen to my pediatrician, and let the rest of the noise land wherever it may lie. I will use whatever tricks and cheats it takes to make my kids happy. And when they fail, I will hold my kid as soon as an arm becomes available, and apologize for the wait, and rock with them while they calm back down.
Henry and Eleanor came as a pair. They will never know a world in which they don’t have to share me. I’m not half a mom to them because my attention is split. Although it can feel like I’m only half of what each of them need, but I am wholly theirs.
I don’t have a solution for this feeling. Maybe if I write it out, I can scroll past it. Keep scrolling. There’s baby pictures below.
*I am certain this slogan caused more anxiety for me than any cries I have heard from my children. I spoke with friends who are mothers who know that formula fed children vs. breast fed children are no different when they get to school age, and yet I had internalized this stupid slogan enough to just cow to the night nurse who told me I needed to try latching the kids before she’d get the donated breastmilk for them. It also poorly affected my decision making skills on whether to ask for donated breastmilk or formula while we were still learning the kids needs.
*thank you, Dr. Kathuria. Your guidance in that moment and every moment since has eased my mind immensely.