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Hunger Strike

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Sitting in Bloomingdale’s ladies lounge this past November, nursing my ten-week-old son, my cell phone rang. It was a creative director of an ad agency I’d wanted to work for since I was in college. “I wait twenty years to have a baby and now you make an offer?” I say, half kidding.


Summer of 1986—I’d driven halfway across the country from University of Texas at Austin to interview at Chiat\Day. Now, twenty years later, the same creative director was finally dangling a carrot.


Was this some test of the universe? Sell my soul to advertising or nurture my sweet son during these precious primal months of his life?


Just prior to my son’s birth, I’d been freelancing partly in advertising, partly in the travel-writing world. I hadn’t planned to return to the work force in either capacity until after the New Year, and then, only to freelance from home. 


Having just braved a child solo at forty-four as a single mom, one of us had to bring home the diapers. My son, Ames, had yet to start sending out resumes.


I sobbed about a job I would otherwise be doing cartwheels over. It seemed unthinkable of leaving my baby so soon and so suddenly. But after days of weighing the long-term benefits, I accepted the offer.


Bottle Stand-off


Ames had other ideas. My 100 percent breast-fed being, who took a bottle of my pumped milk from Grandma his first six weeks of life, had suddenly gone on a hunger strike. He would not take a bottle. Not from one of the nanny candidates, not from me, not from Grandma (back in town to transition/bless the nanny), not a friend—no one. 


All of the books had warnings about the timing of when to introduce a bottle. Not too soon so as to refuse mommy’s breast, but not too late so as to refuse a bottle altogether. Given Ames’s early eagerness, I hadn’t bothered to try and feed him a bottle since Grandma returned to Texas. If he could master the bottle at his first six weeks of life without a hitch, what was the point of pumping and feeding him the next six weeks when he had free reign of my breasts day and night?


Unlike the other mothers in my breast-feeding support group, I didn’t have any reason to bottle-feed as there was no husband to bring into the feeding ritual for Ames. It was Mommy’s Café la Teet open 24/7.


I had two weeks to find a nanny and to get my son to take a bottle again before I started my new job—the pressure was on.


It became a part of the nanny screening process. The true test for a top nanny candidate was to see if she could get Ames to take a bottle.


We went through several bottle choices—from the big fatty nipple of an Avent, to one of the skinnier Dr. Brown’s. Ames spit them all out like they were tinged with arsenic, and added a look of disgust and betrayal to boot. In “I don’t like Green Eggs n’ Ham” style, Ames wanted no part of a bottle no matter how it was served.


At the Pump Station in Santa Monica, California, where I attended a breast-feeding support group, I told Corky, one of the co-owners, “Ames has turned into little Mahatma Gandhi protesting my return to work.”


“He won’t starve,” Corky promised. “Your nanny can try every bottle and nipple out there or even a cup of your milk. Worse case scenario, even if he doesn’t eat all day, he’ll get his nutrients from you at night.”


That evening, I move Ames from his co-sleeper where he slept next to my bed into my bed. Knowing I would soon be away from my baby all day—I had to have him next to me all night. Snuggled closely, Ames seemed to nurse non-stop. But at least this didn’t require stirring from my sleep that much. I quickly learned to let him night feed and still get decent rest.


Bottle-Taking Strategies:


At a breast-feeding support group specifically for working mothers, also at the Pump Station, Ilka Sternberger, the lactation consultant who led these groups suggested trying a transitional lovey like a Comfort Silkie.


Silkie’s are satiny soft on one side and fuzzy on the other. She suggested sticking it between my breasts so it would pick up my scent and let Ames hold onto when he nursed so he would begin to associate it with me.


When the next nanny tried to feed, we slipped one in Ames’ defiant clenched fists. She tickled his lips with the bottle’s nipple (a Dr. Brown’s skinny nipple), and then brushed the Silkie on his cheek so he could catch a whiff of Mommy.


Ames chewed on the nipple at first, just gumming it like a cigar. The nanny waited patiently and tried another technique Corky suggested. Using reverse psychology, the nanny tried to take the nipple out before Ames had a chance to spit it out on his own. He began to suck.


Spying from the other room, I whispered, “Pet the crown of his head like I do when I’m nursing.” Ames took a few more sips.


Next, we added my breast-feeding pillow to emulate the nursing association as much as possible without getting him too close to the nanny’s chest (or he’d leave a wet mouth print on her shirt trying to nurse on her).


Ames would take a half-ounce here, a half-ounce there, and then remember his reason for the bottle stand-off.


It was hit or miss depending on his mood and, perhaps to a larger degree, mine. He could sense my angst about the bottle and my heart wrenching decision to leave him at home all day. 


True Test:


I left for work the next day feeling like I’d just abandoned my young cub. I phoned home almost every hour to check in on him. Ames was just fine. My little non-eater had succumbed to the harsh reality that, like it or not, Mommy was going to be gone a good part of the day and while it would be heartbreaking for both of us (me more than Ames everyone assured me), it would suck less if his stomach wasn’t growling.


The nanny logged the number of ounces and time fed in Ames’s journal. He ate just enough to wet his whistle the first two days.


The true test was the week’s end weigh-in at the Pump Station. He’d gained steadily. He wouldn’t starve to death and I could leave him in the morning with a few more ounces of certainty that I wasn’t causing irreversible harm to my precious little one.


Four Months In:


Sixteen weeks into the job and Ames is still 100 percent breastfed! I manage to pump three times a day at work using Medela’s Pump In Style Advanced breast pump, which I love. I never supplement with formula because I learned doing so lowers milk supply. If it’s a stressful day at work and my supply is down, I add an extra pumping when I get home at night or first thing in the morning.


Before I head to work, I nurse Ames one last time. If I can nurse him till he’s breast-milk-passed-out-happy and quietly tuck him in his crib to nap, I can leave, confidently knowing he won’t waste away, starved for food or the love from his Mommy!





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