By Dharini Bhaskar Aug. 07, 2019
I was clear that if ever I had a child, I would breastfeed him. Yet it wasn’t that simple. My baby and I were unable to sustain a latch. This wasn’t how it was meant to be.
When I try reimagining the birth of my son – his passage from my womb into the world – most of the details feel indistinct. What I recall with startling vividness though is the snapping of the umbilical cord, so my child – until then a vital part of my body, connected to me by tissue and blood – is separate. What I recall next are my doula’s hands leading him toward my breast. I see his mouth opening, an “O” seeking, clutching. So, all at once, as he breastfeeds, we are stitched back together. We’re of one piece.
Before I conceived almost two years ago, baby-rearing was an obscure country – one I had no views about. I had ignored the debates raging around parenting – if infants ought to co-sleep with their parents and if caregivers ought to babywear. Perhaps the only aspect of caregiving I felt vaguely attached to was breastfeeding. In truth, I was attached to my mother’s stories of breastfeeding – of how, after delivering me, she held me close all night so the hospital would not sneak in a bottle of formula; of how she ignored the pleas of her mother, who would remind her, “We are educated people, I tell you, we don’t need to nurse on demand!”; of how she kept breastfeeding me until I self-weaned at three.
When I’d listen to my mother, I’d see breastfeeding for what it is – an act of fierce maternal love, yes, but an act, too, of feminism, of honouring the female body’s voice. I sensed that nursing a newborn was a primal biological impulse – one that propelled a new mother to keep alive the story of sustenance, one that empowered her so she could gift her baby nourishment at the breast as she once had within the womb.
I was clear – if ever I had a child, I would breastfeed him, let my blood grant him strength.
Yet it wasn’t that simple. Soon after my son was born – after my doula ensured he had had his fill of colostrum, first milk rich in antibodies – it became evident. He and I were unable to sustain a latch.
This wasn’t how it was meant to be. I had pictured breastfeeding as organic, easy even – my child’s mouth making his way to my breast; my breasts yielding milk; my child and I, content in one another. Yet there I was, less than a week after my son’s birth, howling by my bed. Five days of exclusively pumping by the hour, of storing minuscule quantities of milk in the fridge, of unfreezing cupfuls to spoon-feed an insatiable newborn, had left me with frayed nerves and a touch of cynicism regarding the entire myth of breastfeeding.
I was ready to give up. I was ready to admit that I had been vanquished by total exhaustion and by a body intent on letting me down.
I was ready to give up. I was ready to admit that I had been vanquished by total exhaustion and by a body intent on letting me down. I was, in truth, saying that nursing wasn’t for me.
And yet, as I held my son against my sobbing body, as I felt his hands, so tiny, desperately clutching my breasts, I found building within me a strange kind resolve – I owed him a gentle start.
It took a month of perseverance, and the benign guidance of four lactation consultants, for my son and me to move past an overused breast pump and learn the subtle art of feeding at the breast.
That it is art is a certainty – an art that benefits from mentors; an art that demands tenacity; an art that asks for technique. To establish a successful breastfeeding association, I had to be trained in a series of tricks, largely to do with methodology – how to align a heap of cushions so my baby would be at the perfect height, how to hold him such that he could latch without difficulty, how to offer him my breast so his grip would cease being shallow. But beyond this, I was taught how to rein in the mind, so it would stop churning, stop dispensing messages that would hinder the release of milk. Breathe, I began reminding myself every hour, by the hour. Inhale – you can provide. Exhale – your child is nourished.
For months, my baby and I fine-tuned our breastfeeding association. We were not unlike two soloists trying to perform a duet – perfecting each scale and note. I was beginning to read my child’s cues, balance him in the crook of my arm, align his head by my breast. He was beginning to open his mouth wide, gulp in a mouthful of skin, suck forcefully. It took time and patience, the way any composition would. Eventually, what burst through was a moment of perfect harmony.
Today, breastfeeding feels effortless – my son’s clamber into my arms at night, my offering of milk, both of us barely conscious. It’s a part of our every day – whether we are in aircrafts, in moving vehicles, or in shops and restaurants with milling crowds. It’s how we navigate life – by staying close, feasting.
On an ordinary day, when my son breastfeeds, he’s having an early lunch or dinner. Then there are those extraordinary moments embedded within each week. When nursing turns into an exchange of notes of love. At such times, breastfeeding is pure music.
Dharini Bhaskar’s first novel "These, Our Bodies Possessed by Light" will be published by Hachette. She was the former editorial director of Simon and Schuster India and was one of five young Indian writers selected for Caravan’s Writers of India Festival, Paris.