When I was pregnant with my first child, I had a recurring dream. I was nursing a baby–in an icy parking lot, at a dinner party in the bedroom where the coats were piled on a bed, lost in the desert. I would nurse a baby at one breast, put her to the other, and there would be no milk. Sometimes the baby wailed with frustration and hunger, and sometimes the baby just looked at me with sad eyes. I always woke shaken. I must be worried, I thought, about being an adequate parent. But that wasn't it. My body was sending me a literal warning.
Ten days after my second child was born, my husband, daughter, new son, and I got into the car to drive three hours from our apartment in Jersey City to the annual picnic for the Amish food co-op we had recently joined. The three hour drive became five, or more, because we had to stop again and again so that I could nurse the baby. It was crazy of us to go.
My husband must have been dying to get out. He really only got to leave the apartment to take our daughter to the park, take our laundry to the basement, or go for groceries. Our daughter was happy about the picnic. We told her that we were going to a farm and would see animals. Honestly, she would have been just as excited for a trip to blow bubbles on the front steps. What had I been thinking as I packed up the big battery powered breast pump, the formula, the clean bottles, the snacks, all of the gear for a brand new baby and a toddler? I must have wanted to be with my young family in a place that felt, in some spiritual sense, like home.
When we got to the farm, my husband and daughter got out of the car and wandered around the meadow that had become a parking lot for the day. I sat in the car and pumped, since the baby was asleep. I had weighed trying to wake him up to nurse but figured it was more important to fit in one more pumping session before losing track of time at the picnic. I had pumped as we drove down the turnpike in between roadside feedings, shirt up and clear plastic funnels held to my chest, all hail semi-trucks and tall SUVs. There were four precious days left before the lactation consultant said my meager milk supply would be set. I had to extract every drop of milk I could to send the message to my body: make more. This trip was a risk. Besides this, I refused to do anything that could disrupt the routine of feeding and pumping. I wouldn't be away from either baby or pump for more than half an hour.
With my first baby no one could figure out what the problem was. After a series of baffled lactation consultants, I found the most expert person I could, an internist who specialized in lactation. She examined me and the baby, ran tests, and could find nothing wrong. I must have made a mistake during the first weeks after the baby was born that set my supply to low, like not nursing frequently enough.
I was stunned, because I'd existed practically shirtless from the moment the baby was born, nursing her every time she whimpered or stirred. I gave her the smallest amount of formula I could soothe her with at a given time, having read that every ounce of formula I gave would be an ounce my body wouldn't make. I was taking all the herbs all of the other lactation consultants had prescribed, pumping every time I had a spare moment. I was doing everything anyone had ever suggested might help. I was desperate to feed her. I was more determined to figure this out than I had ever been about anything in my life.
I always thought that breastfeeding was a choice. I had chosen it. But then it became more than a choice. It was a primal need, an obsession. I didn't want bottles and pumps and powders. I wanted to be an animal with my baby animal. I just wanted to be with her like that.
Though virtually every mainstream doctor advocates breastfeeding, most of them, even ob/gyns, haven't studied it. It's also no secret that our culture is simultaneously obsessed with and freaked out by women's bodies. There is a lot of money to be made selling things that relate to these obsessions and fears. The medical establishment and the culture both tell women that they should breastfeed, without having the knowledge or the structures in place to support it. I was ready to take up this fight. If it meant starving my baby while I taught my body what it surely knew, I would do it. There was ancient knowledge locked away within me and I was determined to find the key. I was raising a girl. For her sake and mine, I would take this as far as I could.
But my baby was hungry all the time. And very thin.
"So," I'd asked the internist, "if we were lost together in the woods, my body wouldn't figure it out?"
"No," she'd said.
"What would happen?"
"It's called failure to thrive. She would die."
"But I read that only 2 percent of women actually can't nurse."
"In my experience, it's more like 20 percent."
"But we're mammals," I'd said.
"You're starving her. You have to give her more formula."
And so I did. She suddenly wasn't a fussy baby at all, but a happy baby. I continued to nurse until she was over a year old and supplemented with formula, all the while taking tinctures and teas, the diabetic drug metformin (the internist said this was a long-shot, but gave me the Rx), pumping whenever I could.
With my second baby, I knew five days after he was born that I was entering the hell of starving a newborn. This time, I found an even more expert expert, a lactation consultant who was also co-author of the breast feeding bible The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, Diana West. She was the first person I'd met who knew what was wrong. The diagnosis was hypoplasia, which is an insufficient development of glandular tissue. No one knows for certain what causes it, but Diana had a strong hypothesis. Besides her consulting work, she is a researcher working on a book about the science of breastfeeding. She examined me, examined the baby, watched me feed him, asked me about my experience with my daughter and now my son. Then she sat back on her heels on my living room floor and said, "Can I ask you something?"
"Sure," I'd said.
"Are you from a rural area?"
I grew up in a big white farmhouse in Indiana. My parents weren't farmers, but they loved the house. There was a barn on the property that had served as a blacksmith shop but it was our garage. There was a pine tree outside my bedroom window that I would climb halfway down and then be found and coaxed the rest of the way by my younger brother. There was a clothes line in the middle of the yard, a chicken coop that we used as a playhouse, and one apple tree that produced small, wormy green apples. It was a perfect place to grow up.
In retrospect, though, the setting also feels a little ominous. I've tried to remember when I was exposed to pesticides as a child. None of the families we knew farmed. Everyone who owned land leased it to large conglomerate operations. But there was farmland everywhere. I used to climb the fence behind the elementary school and wander the soy bean fields alone. I would pull out raw beans and eat them. There was the more daily use of pesticides by my family, a lice treatment once, a termite treatment, dousing our Christmas tree with RAID when we brought it inside and all of the bugs came back to life. Our pets were dipped to ward off fleas. Our kitten wandered through the neighbor's yard after their grass had been sprayed by Orkin.
One of my earliest memories is sitting with the kitten in the garage as it died, mewing and trembling on towels in a cardboard box. But what seems more significant is the well water we drank and the air we all breathed that swept over the vast commercial bean and corn fields surrounding us in every direction.
I stepped out of the car on that late spring day and unfolded the sleeping baby from his car seat. He stretched but then was instantly heavy again with sleep like a kitten. I slipped him into a sling and looked out at the fields all around us and the woods beyond the fields. My daughter was crouched down picking clover. There was the smell of a spicy flower in the air. We walked down the hill together. Look at us! I thought. See, I can do something not completely related to breastfeeding this baby. We crossed the road, paid a man sitting at a card table fifteen dollars, and headed toward the two barns and farmhouse.
We already belonged to a local farm co-op in Jersey City but decided to try the Amish guild at our friend Stuart's recommendation. The brochure he gave us about the farm and the benefits of raw milk felt like propaganda, but interesting propaganda. We paid a small fee and signed paperwork that promised we wouldn't turn the group in to the government since the raw milk and cheese they sell is illegal.
And the brochure was right, the food was amazing. Besides all of the produce and fresh meat and eggs and zucchini bread we started to order every other week, we started drinking raw milk from big glass gallon jugs. Supposedly, raw milk can cure all kinds of problems that plague contemporary urbanites (eczema, allergies, lactose intolerance, asthma), but I think we mostly liked the idea of it. Drinking illegal milk, picturing the utopia that had produced it just a few days before, felt wholesome and subversive all at once. We hadn't placed an order with the Amish since the new baby had been born, and part of me was a little less eager for the raw milk now. I dreaded seeing the giant sloshing gallon jug in the refrigerator door as I reached for the glass baby bottle I collected pumped milk in, teaspoonful by teaspoonful.
We felt awkward when we first arrived at the picnic, but dove in. There were maybe seventy-five members of the Amish community and about as many members of the co-op, who appeared to represent all manner of foodie neurotic from Upper East Side ladies interested in optimal nutrition to Brooklyn chicken farmers to progressive suburban parents in unflattering sun hats. I had picked a spot to sit with the baby at a long table under a maple tree with some compatriots from the co-op and an Amish man. My husband and daughter went into the house where they could fill up their plates with homemade food and pick up plastic cups of raw milk, mint tea or fresh grape juice.
The other co-op members seated at my table had obviously traveled to the event together and were maybe all related. I didn't feel like trying to enter their conversation. The Amish man across from me was keeping to himself so I smiled in a neutral-yet-friendly way and looked around. There was a big swing off to the side of the yard, a plastic toddler riding toy next to that, and then bright green fields and trees as far as I could see. There were children of all different ages playing in the yard. All of the Amish women were barefoot as they walked in and out of the open front door of the house.
The wife of the man who was sitting across from me came up and sat with him. She was probably my age, probably of a similar ethnic heritage as me, with fine hair pinned in the same bun as all the Amish women wore, her face slightly sunburned and, of course, she was not wearing make-up. She had brought her husband a plate of food and sat down with him. An older girl of about ten walked up and handed her a baby, a one year old boy in an outfit that was an exact miniature version of what his father was wearing. With the introduction of her baby, there was something to say. I pulled back the top of the sling so she could see my baby's sleeping face. She said that he was a nice baby. Her baby was smiley and plump, very beautiful. I said that he was a nice baby too and she nodded. I said it was nice that they invited everyone to the farm. She smiled and said that her brother-in-law had done this for years. While undeniably generous, I realized that it was also a smart business move. He knew that the co-op members were curious about where the food came from, and so he invited everyone for lunch.
The woman handed the baby to his father and went in to help in the kitchen. I was holding my sleeping son waiting for my turn to go inside for food. But then it happened. He woke and was fussing. I knew I needed to nurse him. I bounced the baby. There was the Amish man eating across from me, with his arm around the baby perched on his knee. Is it appropriate to nurse in the presence of an Amish man? As I so often did, I began running a list of pros and cons for nursing in that moment. This man is a farmer. A farmer who raises cows and sells milk, raw milk is the whole reason we're here, so it's likely fine?
But on the other hand I had to wear something modest to be allowed to come to the picnic. The invitation explicitly asked women to dress modestly. I had a nursing cover, so I wouldn't be immodest but I was aware of having made people uncomfortable in airplanes, at restaurants, at relatives' houses for dinner while nursing my babies under their floral sheet. This man was a father, but did his wife nurse in front of him? Did his sister-in-laws or aunts or cousins? How do nursing and modesty converge for the Amish? The baby kept fussing, so I pulled the cover over his head and began to feed him.
As I nursed the baby, I stole looks at the Amish man who had since been joined by another. Neither of them seemed to notice me. They had a piece of paper with accounting on it and were debating the figures in German. I fed my son, but I knew I would need to pull out my gear soon. The baby drifted off, but fitfully.
My husband was back and held the baby while my daughter played on the swing with another child. I went in to get a plate of food. I filled my plate with homemade noodles, hot and sour chicken wings, boiled potatoes with dill and butter ("Just dug up this morning"), salad, and green beans. The porch was occupied by a huge table of berry pies and shortbread cookies and coolers of homemade ice cream. After I had gone back for seconds and then dessert, I put the baby back in the sling and walked around while my husband and daughter went to see the cows be milked. She was used to seeing her mother hooked up to milking equipment, but not cows, so it was a treat. There was a girl her age acting as the assistant to her father, carrying pails and supplies. He wasn't humoring her, she was genuinely helping.
I watched for a bit and then walked over to another tree at a picnic table full of people who were members of the co-op, sitting apart from the Amish and talking about them. There was the woman who organized the co-op, sitting in a folding chair at the head of the picnic table. She seemed like the kind of sarcastic but sweet mom who would drive her teenaged sons to Magic tournaments. She had the most information about the head farmer and was talking about a new refrigeration system he had in one of the barns. Also at the table: an acupuncturist; a retired teacher who had been cured of some disease through eating Amish food; and the nice young couple who were the delivery drivers for my neighborhood, her with long hair and bangs getting in her eyes in a hip way, him with his communist hat.
Suddenly I smelled the fragrant breeze I noticed when we first arrived. The smell got stronger. The baby started to stir. The smell became an over-powering patchouli. A man in a Knicks T-shirt walked up to our group and rested a moment with his arm on the maple, a batch of flyers printed on yellow paper in his other hand. I soon found out the flyers were for his aromatherapy healing business. As I took a flyer, the baby woke up, crying to be fed.
I put on the nursing cover and settled him in to nurse, but soon it was clear that he had already taken all there was to be had and he was starving. Here it comes, I thought. I was not wrong. I pulled out the small can of Enfamil and the glass bottle I had pre-poured three ounces of water in. I opened the can with one hand while holding the baby in the other. I felt everyone's eyes on the can of Enfamil. I don't remember what she said, the co-op organizer, was it "You give him formula?" or "Why are you giving him formula?" But I was newly armed with a diagnosis. I knew that if I merely said that I had "low milk supply" I would be barraged with advice, so I spelled it out. "I just found out that I have hypoplasia, which is an insufficient development of milk glands. It might have happened because of exposure to pesticides when I was young."
Everyone was nice about it and said that pesticides are the worst and that that was really too bad. And then after a pause that was longer than what most mothers are afforded before advice is delivered, one of the delivery drivers said, "isn't there some kind of tea for that?" The acupuncturist said, "Yes! Fenugreek tea!" It totally helped a client of his. The aromatherapy guy had heard of fenugreek and said he would be happy to meet with me about herbs.
I'd like to think I just nodded and smiled at them, but I started listing all of the supplements I was taking, the insane pumping schedule I was on, the credentials of the person I'd been diagnosed by, the study she'd told me about that uncovered the connection between low milk production and pesticide exposure. It involved a mountain and a valley and two groups of women in Mexico. The ones in the valley (with all of the pesticide runoff) couldn't nurse their babies.
There was also the heartening example of another woman from Illinois who looked exactly like me, boob-wise, we were practically twins! Anyway, like me she was a country girl with a bad case of hypoplasia, but ate so much oatmeal and pumped so often that she developed an almost full supply of milk. Maybe because it was clear that my case might be legitimately hopeless, the co-op organizer asked if I'd heard about Weston A. Price homemade raw milk baby formula. She had a friend who used it. She explained the ingredients and the method and how much better it was than commercial formula. I said I would check it out, knowing that I had just come into contact with my personal baby-care limit. I would do anything, but this was the step I wouldn't take. Imagining standing over the stove melting gelatin in a soup pot, pouring in whey and the other seventeen ingredients, I felt an exhaustion I hadn't experienced yet.
My husband walked over with my daughter running ahead. I always like to see him walking toward me. When we met I had the feeling that he was from another place and time. He was capable and strong, in a way that seemed related to where I come from, a place of laborers, totally different from the artsy boys I knew in college and the circles of writers I ran with after. I thought that we could handle anything together.
It turns out that feeding our children would be one of our first and hardest tasks. After our daughter was born, he sat up all night with me in our Ikea bed, me in some state of undress, the baby stuck to my chest turning red from hunger, him with the laptop on his knees burrowing into the tunnels of breastfeeding advice on the internet. Sometimes during those early first days of parenthood he slept beside me, a rock that had sunk to the bottom of a gravel pit of exhaustion, and sometimes he took the baby to scream in the bathroom so that I could sleep for an hour or two.
My daughter collapsed on the grass beneath the tree and he bent down to tussle with her. I was happy to be with them, the people I belong to, amid the strangers we had sought out together. As we were leaving, an older Amish woman, tall and thin with white hair in the same bun as the younger mothers, stopped me to see the baby. We talked about babies. She said she had eighteen grandchildren. She admired my son and then looked at him tenderly and touched his feet. She said his feet seemed a little cold. I had noticed that all of the Amish babies had been wearing socks while mine had bare feet. It had been advice from an early lactation consultant. Keep their feet cold and they'll wake up more often to eat.
There were so many things I wanted to ask her. Did she have any problems when she had nursed her babies? What did Amish women do when they had low milk supply? Did that problem ever happen here? I was in a place where people didn't read blogs or pay to join support groups to figure something like this out. These questions were probably the real reason I came to the Amish picnic. But I didn't ask any of them. We stood together looking at my boy.
"I love babies," she said.
"So do I."
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]