Our daughter arrived with the snow. We decided to commemorate that on her birth announcement, a card with a snowflake-decorated border. Not for over 20 years had there been such a cold winter in normally temperate southeast England. We skidded to the hospital on ice-covered roads and watched the growing snowdrifts through the window of the maternity ward. When we took her out into the world for the first time, bad roads blocked our passage, forcing us to park some distance from our street. In her baby album is a photo of her homecoming: My husband’s figure recedes into the distance ahead of me as he trudges across a barren expanse of snow-encrusted playing fields under a slate-gray sky. Only in the center of the image is there a flash of color: the scarlet-red cushions of the car seat he is carrying, a bright protective shell encasing the pearl that lay within.
From that moment, we had one job in the depths of that dark, cold winter: to keep our baby alive. I reassured myself we wouldn’t really be alone in this unfamiliar endeavor. Friends could be phoned, and relatives would come to stay. My mother marveled that a weekly baby clinic was held just across the street and that we expected our first postnatal home health visit soon. She recalled the isolation she experienced as a new mother in 1970s America, her uncertainty, her loneliness. I was lucky.
Feeding was the most fundamental element of helping our daughter thrive, and, of course, we knew what to do. The antenatal class facilitator had emphasized it, the posters in the obstetrics department proclaimed it, the parenting books championed it: Breast is best. At the maternity ward orientation, they brandished disembodied demonstration boobs at us, crocheted or maybe knitted, areolae and protruding nipples rendered in contrasting orange-red wool.
When we are in uncertain and unfamiliar territory and someone in a position of power and authority tells us how to act, the majority of us obey.
At first, I was apprehensive — not about breastfeeding itself but about my ability to carry it off. The doctor who examined me before the birth had observed a physical anomaly I share with 10–20 percent of women. To my joy, though, my daughter suckled and seemed content. Just before discharge, a nurse had nodded with satisfaction as she observed us together, and she jotted down “feeding established” on my chart.
Our new daughter was what they call a “good baby.” She rarely cried and slept well. The first health visitor came, cooed over her, and pronounced a clean bill of health. What was it, then, that made me feel uneasy, that provoked me to send my husband out under cover of darkness to buy plastic bottles and powdered formula from the 24-hour grocery store? I don’t remember that now, but when he returned, we huddled with her by the fire in the warm front room and dropped bits of formula into her mouth with a tiny syringe. No one else was there to question or judge, but still, I felt it. The shame.
When the second health visitor came, she was as terrifying as the first had been benign. She saw the powdered-formula container and barked at me, told me that I was forcing my daughter into a dangerous state of nipple confusion. By allowing her to feed on this poisonous concoction of unnatural foreign chemicals, I was ensuring that she would never return to the breast, and then we could kiss a healthy immune system and at least 10 IQ points goodbye. I stood wordlessly by as she bundled up the formula, bottles, and sterilizing equipment into a bag. “Put this away where you can’t see it, so you won’t be tempted,” she ordered.
She then strode into the kitchen and seized a pair of scissors from a container of kitchen implements. She smacked them down on the countertop. “Cut two holes in a T-shirt,” she said. “Just let them hang out so you’re always ready. No formula, no bottles. Everything will be fine — as long as you persist.”
A blast of cold air and a scattering of snow gusted into the house, the door slammed, and she was gone. Clutching my silent daughter to me, I stood numbly in the hallway. My husband was at work, and my mother-in-law had not yet arrived. I was alone.