Almost Perfect

New-mom lesson: A little flexibility goes a long way.

young breastfeeding mother in bed

Just like most first-time mothers-to-be, I had a lot of concerns—OK, neuroses—about caring for a newborn. After all, what did I know about changing a diaper (something I hadn't done since babysitting in my teens), let alone cleaning an umbilical cord stump or, most terrifying of all, a fresh circumcision (oy vey)? But I was fairly confident I could master the whole breastfeeding gig. I simply assumed it would be the easiest part of being a mother—something innate and virtually impossible to screw up. I was so sure I'd be nursing my son for at least a year, I nearly tossed out the free formula samples I kept receiving via the various mommy-to-be websites I'd signed up for.

The night that baby Jack arrived, a nurse showed me how to get him to latch on. The next day or two went well, and I bragged to anyone who asked that my kid was breastfeeding like a champ. Then my milk came in—and things went horribly wrong.

Jack flailed and wailed, refusing my breasts in a way no male ever had. Twenty-four hours later, fearing dehydration, I called the pediatrician, who instructed me to give Jack some distilled water. "Nooo! " screamed my inner nipple nazi; I'd been warned about "nipple confusion" and would not introduce a bottle, not offer a pacifier, not put anything in my baby's mouth but the almighty mammary for at least four weeks.

Reluctantly, I gave Jack the water. He certainly seemed happier ... until the next day, that is, when he continued to refuse the breast. At this point, deciding the damage was done, I broke out the breast pump. If my child didn't want to nurse, I'd bottle-feed him my milk.

Unfortunately, since my supply hadn't been established, I couldn't express enough milk, and that's when I really did the unthinkable: I pulled the promotional formula from the back of the pantry and fed my son from a can! All the while, the words on the container—breast milk is recommended—echoed in my head.

Guilt-ridden, I phoned a local lactation consultant, who told me to keep pumping and supplementing until I could see her. At the consultation I was lucky enough to discover there weren't any problems with my milk or my nipples or Jack's ability to nurse. Somehow I'd just lost the hang of positioning him correctly. Within five minutes our problems were practically solved.

In the weeks that followed, I transformed into a multitasking earth mother, working around the house and at the computer with Jack attached to my breast. At night he suckled sweetly while drifting off to sleep. And soon my boobs became like a toy he delighted in pinching and batting—which could, on one level, help explain pop culture phenomena like Pamela Anderson and Hooters and, on another, prove equally annoying (and painful).

For Jack, nursing was a source of nourishment and comfort. But for me, breastfeeding ultimately became much more: a veritable, er, fountain of parenting lessons. I learned that rules are made to be adapted, that black-and-white must give way to shades of gray if parents and children alike are to be healthy and happy. I fully realized the power not only of perseverance, but of flexibility and perspective as well.

That's not to say I don't still suffer from a baby-related neurosis or two. I'm OK with that. The way I see it, I'm a first-time mom—and worrying is part of the job description.