The coming in of milk

Initially, under this title, I had meant to elaborate on how judgemental I used to be about the women who chose to give their babies formula, instead of breast milk — about how I had always assumed that milk (at least sufficient enough to dispel hunger) just always came in, once the baby is born.

I had thought at length about the ways in which I would write of my lesson in humility, after the birth of my son — and my subsequent struggle with expressing by hand, colostrum, debating between IV fluids and formula in the first twenty-four hours after my caesarean, latching, pumping, an apathetic lactation consultant, nursing very poorly before nursing just a tad better, days that turned into weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit first at one hospital and then another, those kinds of things.

Husband

I had further meant to include (post-op) a little about the kind of man I had been blessed enough to marry — from rinsing pump parts to disposing off nursing pads, holding my splayed-out arm in the operation theatre (with my cut-up baby area and insides on full, glorious display) and telling me we were almost there when I simply could not stop crying (or shivering, thanks to the freezing blankets pre-op) or that most precious first picture, when the midwife brought over our son, fresh out, and barely a few minutes old for Mumma’s first look: the usual all-inclusive ways in which a good, kind and noble man transforms into a most beautiful husband, soulmate and father, those kinds of things.

(Disclaimer — he is not a saint, and neither am I, and we both have our share of fumbles in the fascinating marital roller coaster that is peace-comma-house-and-baby-keeping.)

Home

There were also some disconnected bits and pieces about the aftermath of having a baby, something about a publisher who was looking forward to reading my poetry, and how the last I had written to him was months ago.

How there was always this illusion of time whenever our son napped during the day (nighttime was also nap time until well into his fourth month, which is when he gave us our first full five hours, waking only to feed before going right back to sleep), but never any actual energy and freedom from fatigue to do anything constructive — the notion of an ideal space in my pre-delivery head where I would alternate between napping with him and organizing the house, making my home more beautiful, more warm and more welcoming (my best friend is of the opinion all those social media mothers who appear to have accomplished that either have nannies or other full-time caregivers for support — maybe, but perhaps not; I rarely looked that pristine even in my single days), and of course, writing away into oblivion.

How I knew it would have made everything so much easier to live with my parents those first crucial months after bringing our son home, but how much I wanted all those newborn experiences, and to learn all about the taking care, for myself, and to share just with my husband, those kinds of things.

The wife from the other couple

But something happened a few weeks ago that turned all those fragments into subplots. We were gathered at my husband’s friend’s place to offer our condolences on the passing away of their relative, where another couple had also just dropped by, amidst other members of their family. My husband had known this couple previously, and the conversation took a light-hearted turn, including lots of cuteness overload references to our son, how much my husband loved a rice delicacy from their homeland, and so on.

Now, it is a rare occurrence for me to ever enjoy a social gathering outside of the few close friends I consider family, and of course, those in my family I consider my close friends — in light of which, I have only two states of being.

If a), I am in a crowd, the size of which is manageable, I can small-talk myself almost into the no man’s land bordering authenticity. And b), if the crowd is of an unmanageable size, nothing can save me, and in any and all interactions (even those involving basic courtesy and a stranger), my hijab is the only differentiating feature between me and a malfunctioning robot.

But this evening, with company present who appeared to share our values, my husband and son in tow, I found myself in a comfortable space — and by some miracle, I was actually having a nice time.

Until the wife from the other couple, out of nowhere, hurls my way the age-old question, ‘are you breastfeeding?’ I had not been facing her, at the time, and so I pretended not to hear — when she went on to ask the same thing again just a little louder, and there was no way I could have not heard her this time, but I carried on anyway, in the hope that she would get the message.

She proceeded to ask a third time, and before I could say anything, my husband came in graciously with whatever unfolded after, and which is not really relevant.

Sisters in faith

I was livid. All the way home, and for days after. Perhaps even now, as I write this.

My husband understood it as an elderly grandmother type of enquiry, one that I would not have minded as much, now having learned that the majority of mothers (from anywhere, and with children of any age range) are keenly interested in whether or not a new mother is breastfeeding her newborn.

It was the room full of men — the use of the words ‘breast’ and ‘feeding’ (an action that is primarily performed using the mouth), the very many pictures these words paint especially when placed side by side, in their presence — that really drove my rage home.

This was no gathering of close friends or family, or even the kind where food and drink over a secular dinner table brings collective ease to its guests who generally know each other, this wasn’t even a gathering of people who I had met at least once before.

Then how could she possible think her query, which I had recognisably evaded at least twice already, was acceptable in any way, shape or form?

And she appeared to be a practising Muslim woman, and of conservative background and ideology. Furthermore, she had been living in Canada for the better part of at least twenty years, and would surely have interacted with and maintained social relationships with (as was evident from the many times my husband had lunched with them) those outside her cultural domain.

What ever happened to the common courtesy that women (prudent or otherwise), let alone sisters in faith, generally accord each other — both privately and especially, in a public space?

‘Are you breastfeeding?’

I wanted to conclude with something on this Wikipedia definition of akhlaq — the practice of virtue, morality and manners in Islamic theology and falsafah (philosophy).

But I am not preach-angry, I am not even keep-your-nose-out-of-my-business-angry; in reality, I am terribly-terribly-sad-and-heartbroken-tears-streaming-down-my-face-angry.

How I wish she would have gently taken me aside, and whispered even if not kindly, then at least quietly, ‘are you breastfeeding,’ allowing me a chance to explain just how much I wanted to, how determinedly I wanted to, how desperately I wanted to, how despairingly I wanted to, how mournfully I wanted to, how faithfully I wanted to.

Never, not once did it occur to me in all the years, and then months, leading to the birth of our child, that I would perhaps not have enough milk to breastfeed exclusively.

I just always assumed that once the baby came, the milk (and enough milk) would eventually come in.

I wanted to tell her how much it broke my heart, every time I had to make him a bottle because he was still hungry, how the phrase ‘supplementing with formula’ — concerning which, there is no wrong or right, but absolutely the personal beliefs, choices and circumstances of the caregivers — had never existed in my personal dictionary and just how excruciating it had been, having to write it in myself, how many times a day and night I had felt like a complete loser (not just a failure, not just having failed, but a loser, having both failed and lost something precious that was so easily accorded to many others) for not being able to nurse as much and as many times as he needed, those kinds of things.

My mother

When I was born, I was always hungry, and my mother always had milk. When my brother was born, my mother had so much milk, she would have to express by hand (she talks about how much easier my double-breasted pump would have made her life) just to throw it out. Those two stories encompassed the depth of my knowledge, and my subsequent assumptions, on all that was breastfeeding.

Of course, I know better now. Some mothers have milk, some have more milk, and some have enough milk. There are also some mothers who have no milk.

Some who have children, some who have more children, some who have enough children. There are also some who have no children, and some who cannot have children.

This one night, I was having a really hard time nursing. Our son was teething, and the suckling was putting pressure on some nerves causing him a lot of pain in the process. But the doctor had told me not to feel dejected, and to try and nurse first, before offering the bottle, and then to pump afterwards.

All those steps are most certainly not as easy in succession as the commas in the single sentence make it seem – it is an ordeal. And having reached my frustrated maximum for the night, one I could not help but complain about to my mother, asking her why God had chosen this particular struggle for me.

She said, simply, ‘do you have a child?’ ‘A healthy child?’ ‘And, however much, are you able to nurse him at all?’

‘Do you have food in the fridge that you can go eat if you are hungry?’ ‘What about a decent space to call home?’ ‘Running hot water?’ ‘Clothes, comfortable shoes, books?’

‘A good, kind husband, who is also pious, and an absolute support system?’ ‘A family who cares, and is eager to help at any given moment?’

‘Are you under the protection of the Ahlulbayt (a), do their blessed names light up your heart?’

‘Do you know and love and seek Allah?’

‘Does He?’ 

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