The Story of Kai: Chapter One

February 2, 2021

Dear Family,

“Our planet is poorly equipped for delight. One must snatch gladness from the days that are.”
- Vladimir Mayakovsky (from the poem "To Sergei Esenin”)


A Zen teacher saw five of his students returning from the market, riding their bicycles. When they arrived at the monastery and had dismounted, the teacher asked the students, “Why are you riding your bicycles?” 

The first student replied, “The bicycle is carrying this sack of potatoes. I am glad that I do not have to carry them on my back!”

The teacher praised the first student. “You are a smart boy! When you grow old, you will not walk hunched over like I do.” 

The second student replied, “I love to watch the trees and fields pass by as I roll down the path!”

The teacher commended the second student, “Your eyes are open, and you see the world.” 

The third student replied, “When I ride my bicycle, I am content to chant nam myoho renge kyo.”

The teacher gave his praise to the third student, “Your mind will roll with the ease of a newly trued wheel.” 

The fourth student replied, “Riding my bicycle, I live in harmony with all sentient beings.”

The teacher was pleased and said to the fourth student, “You are riding on the golden path of non-harming.” 

The fifth student replied, “I ride my bicycle to ride my bicycle.”

The teacher sat at the feet of the fifth student and said, “I am your student.” 

- Zen proverb


What a fast few months have just slipped by!

I can now say from experience that one way to navigate this insane political climate, as we hurtle toward a precipice of ecological collapse while fumbling and hesitating and trying to understand how to simply process the media coverage concerning the world in which we live without bursting into tears five times per day…is to Stay Busy, encourage ones kids to pursue interesting (school)work, focus on what is personally possible, make a lot of chicken soup, Coordinate a Large Project such as A Cross-Country Move Followed By House Hunting...and have a baby. Babies are fantastic for making time turn to quicksilver.

(In this way, one might only end up bursting into tears four times per day, and sometimes from happiness.)

When he was around three weeks old, Kai opened his big eyes, staring up at me while he nursed with such intelligence that my heartstrings were quite undone. So much sweetness in one small package!

Before he was even born, I made a vow: this time, I will not take my baby’s infancy for granted. In honor of all the times when my other babies were tiny when I was too exhausted or depressed, or the baby and we were too collectively unwell, for Appreciation of Babyhood to happen…I spent this past fall appreciating the heck out of my amazing baby (not to mention not-being depressed!) It didn’t hurt that Kai didn’t seem allergic to my milk...and could therefore sleep a lot at night.

I think all those double-negatives are in the right places: I am very grateful.

In the weeks after Kai was born, #Team Family made breakfasts and lunches, I even took naps sometimes, and I stayed in bed for an honest-to-goodness baby moon. (In fact, I did so few kitchen chores that the Touch ID on my iPhone worked for almost three months without me having to reset my fingerprint!)

Dressing Kai was still very much like trying to insert a skinny, very wriggly cabbage patch doll into into impossibly tiny clothes that were still too big for him, so he didn’t wear much for those first weeks - just stayed right up against me or another warm family member, snuggling.

On November 12, he smiled for the first time, as I celebrated my 41st birthday and my Birthday Kai.

But all did not go entirely smoothly in this first chapter, especially starting around Kai’s week four. He had been doing pretty good, sleeping amazingly well, but his happy demeanor was less happy, and his nursing was not right either. I knew that he had a posterior tongue tie from the beginning, because his tongue wasn’t able to reach over his lower gums very well, it was difficult for him to latch (in a very familiar way), and I was just barely able to deal with the pain - plus, he could never fully empty my breasts. My super low-bar for breastfeeding pain - “Anything That Isn’t Super Horrendous” - was not serving me well here, because I tolerated a lot more pain (and therefore Kai tolerated more hunger) than I wish in retrospect. But anyway.

I had wanted to spare him the frenectomy surgery, so I held out, hoping that Kai’s tongue would increase in mobility as he grew. Instead, by Week Five, he was ravenous. He was probably having a growth spurt, and he started nursing every waking moment without ever seeming satisfied. For that week or so I still hoped he was possibly getting enough, but he dropped quickly from the 53rd percentile to near zero. By that time I had started pumping and giving him my milk in a bottle, and we made an appointment to get the tongue-tie clipped. But suddenly - since he effectively gave up breastfeeding due to his inability to get enough, combined with the ease with which the bottle dispensed my milk - I no longer had a nursing baby.

It happened that quickly. The next month was a total blur. We drove to Philly for the surgery at the end of November, and there was the terrible moment (I’ve gone through this now six times with four of my babies plus my own tongue-tie), after Kai’s tongue was lasered, when I held my tiny, quivering boy in my arms and felt the incredible sadness of not being able to nurse him (he would latch, but not suck and swallow) or provide what should be an Ultimate Comfort for his now-hurting mouth. I was giving him my milk, but spending all those hours balancing tubes and flanges and bottles and pumps, and many fewer hours holding my little one.

Kai’s big siblings were tolerant, but it was a strain. Ivy would come by my room to check in: “Is Kai ANY better at nursing today?”

Eliza would explain: “Mama’s braid isn’t for prettiness, it’s just to get her hair out of her face so Kai can try to nurse better.”

“Are you ever going to eat downstairs again?” Ivy asked forlornly. And then later, she came in while I was trying to bottle-feed Kai with one hand while pumping and balancing the flanges with my other: “I wish you could hug me with both your arms!”

At least we had to deal with similarly crazy feeding insanity for three of the older four kids, so intellectually I didn’t have much to feel guilty about: I spent all this time and more on you, kid! And you! And you! (Jem, sorry, you had to put up all the others’ issues…but at least you had a nicely nourished babyhood!)

And at least I wasn’t bored. From atop my bed, while feeding my baby, I had the chance to settle heated disputes on such topics as light switches (on or off??) and serving sizes (of breakfast), provide piano and schoolwork reminders, witness adorable pretend-play adventures, explain exactly which B vitamins are contained in beans, and at one point one of my children bounced into my room to inquire: “Mama, are you gay, or are you straight!?”

No, definitely no boredom here.

I knew, based on previous experiences with frenectomies, that results are nothing magical. I knew that it is not a slam dunk for a baby to re-learn how to breastfeed after 9 months in utero (practice-sucking with a tied tongue), followed by 7 weeks of nursing ineffectively with a tied tongue, followed by a painful surgery. Suddenly, Baby has access to an effectively longer but weak and floppy tongue over which he has not much control. But I really hoped he could learn to nurse effectively.

Before and after the surgery, I did all sorts of feeding- and physical-therapy techniques with Kai that I learned from a lactation consultant. I pumped every couple of hours. I offered my breast in every possible position, with every possible comforting cuddle that I could think of. And while Kai did not love the bottle, and in fact did a very poor job of sucking milk out of it, he could not figure out breastfeeding either. The days ticked by, my older kids gradually and heroically getting used to the fact that Mama Doesn’t Come Downstairs Anymore, and still Kai could not nurse.

I won’t even dwell (too much) on my PTSD: every time I tried to latch him and he cried and turned away and refused, I would flash back to Eliza’s babyhood, for the 13 months of pumping and her nightmarish inability to suck and swallow even from a bottle (not to mention her inability to sleep for more than 1-2 hours at a stretch, even at night), and the way that she never learned to breastfeed even while my breasts were constantly full and my hormones were dying to nurse her.

At the beginning of December, I was doing a lot more crying than I wished to admit, and it had nothing to do with “The Baby Blues” and EVERYTHING to do with wanting to nurse my baby.

After less than two weeks of this, I decided that I had to stop trying to nurse Kai. I could feel myself losing both self-esteem and what mental health remained in my head, and I knew I had to “give up” trying. What that meant was, I stopped researching new exercises to help him nurse, I stopped telling people that I hoped he would be able to nurse…and I tried to stop hoping he would eventually learn. For a good solid week, I only occasionally tried to nurse him - like a few times at night, I would see if he could latch, and maybe once an hour during the day, and sometimes before I pumped, and every so often after I pumped, and often right after a nap, and sometimes when I was just cuddling him, I’d see if he wanted to try to suck and swallow…

So, well…yeah. I am hopeless at trying not to do things that should be done and are important!

Meanwhile, if you looked at our nine-week-old baby, with his wobbly head, his not-quite-able-to-focus-and-track-you eyes, you might get the mistaken impression that he was just a little bit dim, not really a problem solver, nor yet a very intelligent kid. But this would be a mistaken impression.

Kai would take the bottle, but he did not love it. And even though I can’t tell you exactly how one should go about sucking in a way that most effectively transfers actual milk from a breast, I can tell you that it is not a simple task.

Three weeks after the surgery, Kai was basically not transferring milk at all, except for when my milk let down (a few swallows’ worth) and for some rare night-time feeds when he would keep sucking a tiny little bit even after the let down.

But inside that wobbly head of his, he was working. Every time I offered him the breast, he would try (even if it was only for a moment), and sometimes he would look at me as if to say, “I’d like to figure this out, Mama, but damn, it’s tricky!”

Marilee our midwife kept calling to check on us. “That baby wants to nurse,” she kept saying.

“Well, yeah,” I kept responding despairingly, “I am dying to nurse him! But he can’t do it. Every time, he just moves his mouth uselessly and doesn’t transfer milk.”

“I just know he can,” she kept saying. “He sure doesn’t like that bottle very much! I’m not a lactation consultant, but that baby wants to nurse.”

“What if you only offer him the breast, and stop with the bottles?” she asked, about a week before Christmas. “If you stop pumping, there will be more milk in there for him.”

“But he’ll starve!” I protested. “He isn’t getting practically _anything_ from me, and I’m pumping like 25 ounces per day!”

“He’s not going to starve if he misses some feedings,” she pointed out. “Now that you’ve got him plumping up, you can weigh him every day if you want - and you could just try for a week.”

It sounded like a blissful idea, to throw that damn pump away and just cuddle my baby to my breast…and she was right: we wouldn’t let him starve. And so on Monday, I stopped pumping.

In case you haven’t had much experience pumping your milk to bottle-feed a growing infant, there is a very basic feedback loop that works like this: Pump for 15-30 minutes, every couple of hours, and your body makes milk to meet the demand. The more frequently you pump today…the more milk you make tomorrow. So when I _stopped_ pumping, my body didn’t immediately stop making milk, since the order had been put in the day before. By the end of the day on Monday, all I had to do was put Kai to my breast and a fountain erupted for him, despite his inability to suck. He swallowed some out of sheer necessity. On Tuesday, I still had a tremendous amount waiting for him. On Wednesday…my supply began to slow down, since the orders weren’t getting put in very fast anymore, and Kai was starting to really get hungry. He would try to suck, and try to suck, and then he’d cry, and pull off, and cry some more. By Thursday, I was crying too, and I started pumping again. I was too scared that he would starve, and that my supply would go down precipitously.

On Friday I was about to give up again, this time REALLY for real, even though I didn’t know what that would look like, apart from being tethered to the breast pump for the next six months while stifling my sobs…and Marilee came over. “That baby WANTS to nurse,” she said again, watching me bottle-feeding my baby with tears dripping down my cheeks, while he kept rooting toward my chest. “I understand if you don’t want to keep trying, because you know what’s best for you and your baby. But I will come back to weigh him on Monday, and that’s the only way you can truly know if he’s transferring milk.”

She was slightly wrong: I could tell Kai wasn’t transferring milk because after years of dealing with babies who have feeding issues, I _totally_ know how it feels to nurse a baby with a functional suck. I also know how to identify a weak suck, or no suck at all. Kai’s suck was decidedly dysfunctional, and he was frustrated and hungry after nursing as added proof.

But Marilee was more right than anything: on Friday afternoon, for no reason that I could figure out, when I tried to put Kai to my breast for the zillionth time…there was a glimmer: I felt three distinct flutter-sucking sensations that indicated actual milk-transferring. He couldn’t repeat that trick for the rest of the afternoon, but the next day it happened three more times. He wasn’t quite there, but the scientist in him was figuring stuff out. That afternoon, he shoved the bottle away and cried when I tried to feed it to him. He worked at nursing, and would cry in frustration, and then go back to work, managing to Get Things Going about 60% of the time. I tried every position described in the breast-feeding literature, and nothing worked consistently until I came upon the least ergonomic, most tricky position I could possibly sit in, at which point he wrapped his little arms around my breast and commenced to suck and swallow rhythmically until he was absolutely satiated.


Short Story Long, Kai has been a fully-breastfed baby again since that afternoon of December 18th. He is still unable (or unwilling) to nurse in any but our One Position (a modified “football hold”), which is doing a number on my back and neck - but he is gaining weight quickly. And oh, the chub! I have never been so proud of fat legs on a baby as I am of his. :) We have to hide away in a bedroom to nurse during the day in order to avoid distractions, but it is a small price to pay for the incredibly mundane chance to feed by baby by breast.

And Kai is such a happy, sweet, adorable, loving, peaceful baby. He is loved by everyone in the household, and he is happiest when everyone is around.

More news later!