Bursting with Milk, Smelling Like Coleslaw: One New Mom’s Journey


The baby monitor started squawking as I finished the dinner dishes. Walking into his room, I found my 10-month-old son, Matthew, sobbing and clutching the crib railing.

We settled into the rocking chair, the glow from the night light shining across his pudgy cheeks, highlighting a tear and a quivering chin. As we rocked and I hummed a lullaby, I could feel Matt’s weight sink into my chest. With each rocking movement, he let go a bit more, until, with his trademark little shudder-sigh, he fell asleep.

It was a scene I dreamed about when I was expecting. That is, when I wasn’t devouring pregnancy books. I didn’t have to be hit over the head with a breast pump to get the message: It’s All About Bonding.

Talk to my baby in the womb? Check. Play music that he will recognize later? Check. (I even bought a tape, “Yosemite Sounds,” to commemorate the vacation my husband and I took while I was pregnant.)

But these were small potatoes compared with the two mommy-baby-bonding biggies: natural childbirth and blissful breastfeeding.

I never missed a Lamaze or breastfeeding class. I even stopped by a La Leche League meeting, looking for tips. By my eighth month, I was more than ready to bond with my little guy, who was probably ready to bolt from the womb screaming “Mom, enough with the Yosemite tape!”

Somehow my well-planned birthing experience turned into 32-hours of labor, an hour of pushing and finally — with the mother-to-be cursing and “hee” breathing all the way to the operating room — an emergency C-section three days before Christmas.

So much for placing the naked baby on my chest while my husband and I wipe away tears of joy.

Actually, there were tears of joy. And I did get to touch my son while the doctors sewed me up. But I could almost feel the experts’ disapproval.

In the Bonding Olympics, breastfeeding wasn’t our strongest event, either. After consulting with two obstetricians, three lactation specialists and one nurse, I still found myself in a frustrating, exhausting, every-two-hour cycle of pumping milk while my husband fed Matthew with an eye dropper. I think we all were relieved when, after several weeks of round-the-clock angst, we threw in the towel and switched to formula, at our pediatrician’s suggestion.

But even quitting was no picnic. I had to bind my chest to decrease milk production, but my breasts still ached miserably. Then I read somewhere that applying cabbage leaves could reduce swelling. So there I stood in the kitchen, in tears, holding cabbage leaves to my breasts while my husband wrapped my chest with an Ace bandage.

Looking back, I can laugh. But standing there in the kitchen, full of milk, pain and guilt, I felt like a failure. By the experts’ accounts, I had blown it big time.

Never mind that I held my newborn son on Christmas eve as we listened to carolers singing “Silent Night” outside our hospital room.

Or that, after bringing him home on Christmas Day, we’d spend evenings in the living room, lights off, listening to Bing Crosby while Matthew clutched my finger and stared, wide-eyed, at the twinkling tree lights.

And never mind that he gazed into my face as we snuggled in his grandma’s afghan for 3 a.m. feedings, with Matthew eating happily until every part of his tiny body was asleep except for his bottom lip, which kept making little sucking movements.

Never mind that 10-month-old boy who nestled peacefully against my chest that night as we rocked, heartbeat-to-heartbeat. Or the happy squeals that greeted me the next morning. Or that little tango we do that makes him giggle in anticipation of the “dip” at the end. Or the hundred other simple ways we weave ourselves into each other’s hearts.

When it comes to “proper” bonding with my son, the experts would probably throw the book at me.

But finally, I can honestly tell myself, it’s OK. After all, my sweet Matthew, you and I didn’t do it by the book.

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2 Responses to “Bursting with Milk, Smelling Like Coleslaw: One New Mom’s Journey”

  1. Kathy Sena says:

    Hi folks — Thought you might be wondering “why cabbage leaves?” Here’s the scoop:
    P.S. Why Cabbage Leaves?
    According to a report in the medical journal Birth, researchers studied both a control group and a group of women who used cabbage leaves to help reduce soreness from breastfeeding. After six weeks, the women who applied cabbage leaves to their breasts between nursing sessions were more likely to still be breastfeeding exclusively, and they breastfed significantly longer than women in the control group.
    The researchers concluded that the use of cabbage leaves resulted in fewer women giving up breastfeeding. They added that extensive anecdotal evidence from nursing and midwifery experts also supports the use of cabbage for this purpose.
    One reason for cabbage’s effectiveness may be that sulfur in the amino acid methionine (found in cabbage leaves) increases blood flow to the area. This dilates the capillaries, relieves the engorgement and inflammation and allows the mother’s milk to flow more freely.
    (The authors neglected to mention one side effect: It makes Mom smell as if she’s been swimming in a vat of coleslaw.)

  2. What a beautiful post. We can each do only what we can do and you got the little guy here.
    Not to slip into grandma mode too much - but my son, his wife and 2.5 year old left in August for school six hours away the same day…. my 18 year old left for school 3 hours away. My older son and his family lived next door for four years. This was tough.
    You know what’s cool tho - it’s been tough for them too. Somewhere along the line, the whole bonding thing worked!