Excerpt from "Sabbatical"
A story about a woman who decides to take a break
by Cate Stern
It was the pumping.
Dirty diapers, sleep deprivation, the stretch marks — none of it bothered her quite like the pumping. Armed with the latest research on the benefits of breast milk, Meredith was fully prepared to do what it took to get Hadley, her first child, the antibodies and immunity benefits only Meredith could provide her. “Breast is best,” that's what everyone in the mom's group at work said, and Meredith had no reason to doubt it. Always one to make sure the odds of success weighed in her favor, Meredith had an appointment with the hottest lactation consultant — a seemingly omnipresent older woman named Deb, the week after Hadley's due date.
Four days after Hadley came screaming into the world ahead of schedule, Meredith had Ted practically bribe Deb to come as soon as possible; there was something wrong with the way Hadley was feeding. Deb, with her bowl haircut and dry, cool hands, started the appointment by weighing Hadley, marking the 6 lbs in a notebook. She then examined Meredith's breasts and nipples, making a clucking noise and letting loose a “hmmm”.
"Your left nipple is not what we'd call inverted, but it could be what's causing an issue for baby. Let's try a feed, then, and we'll see."
A practically inverted nipple? Meredith wanted to sink into their couch and disappear. Ted stayed on the perimeter of the apartment, wanting to appear supportive but from a safe distance. Her hands trembling, Meredith held her tiny baby in her right arm and gently nudged her left breast toward Hadley’s mouth. Hadley was so red and angry, mouthing at the air like a mole rat, and Meredith began to sweat.
"Here, you take the breast in your left hand, and smoosh it, almost like a hamburger bun, you see? And you edge it into baby's mouth like so." Deb smooshed Meredith's breast and shoved it into Hadley's mouth; it seemed like too much for such a small creature, and Meredith feared her poor child might suffer from a condition never before seen in medical literature: infant breast choking syndrome. But the baby sucked, and soon Meredith felt the let-down response, oxytocin flooding her veins as she fed her child.
After a few minutes, Deb weighed Hadley — without announcing the results, which bothered Meredith -- and repeated the same exercise with the less suspicious right breast. Deb consulted her notebook again before delivering the verdict.
"Alright, Mom, baby is feeding, which is good. But she's not getting enough. It's that left breast that's not producing as well. I need you nursing baby as much as she wants, and at least for the next few weeks, I need you pumping after each feed. This will encourage your supply."
"Right, of course," Meredith said, holding back tears. "Whatever's best for Hadley."
There was no problem in life so far that Meredith had not been able to hustle her way out of; and her baby would not want for an ounce of breast milk -- she would make sure of it. Later that day, Ted picked up the big yellow hospital grade pump from a baby store on the Upper East Side. With the carrying case, it could easily be confused with a French Horn. Nothing could have prepared Meredith for what came next: She placed a plastic funnel-like device — it's proper name, a “flange”, to those in the know — on each breast and turned the dial on the pump, starting the motor and then the suction. She watched, slightly horrified, as her nipples slid in and out of the cylindrical connection. She ignored the pain, her heart beating quickly as she inspected the bottles at the bottom of the flanges for evidence of milk, which soon appeared although in a tragically small amount.
On Deb's advice, each time she'd finish feeding Hadley, Meredith would attach herself to the pump and squeeze out what was left. Despite what her friends and her sister said, the pain never lessened. Her poor nipples seemed permanently cracked and sore even though she slathered them in the pungent creams she purchased on the recommendation of her mom's group. Then there was the whole thrush incident, which involved high-heat sanitation of all bras and shirts and required Meredith to air dry her breasts after she washed them in a water and vinegar mixture. But between breastfeeding and the supplemental bottles she pumped, Meredith was able to feed Hadley, who was steadily gaining weight. No one slept, and Meredith barely showered, but it was temporary, she knew. They just had to get through the trenches of the first few months.
As she felt an inkling of satisfaction that she was mastering this feeding challenge, Meredith returned from the bathroom one morning to see Hadley covered in red-tinged vomit. She screamed for Ted who dialed Hadley's pediatrician, his cheeks flushed and voice uneven. Everything was probably fine, but out of an abundance of caution, the doctor sent them to the emergency room. Hours and a battery of tests later, the doctor concluded that Hadley's red vomit was not blood from an internal bleed, just Meredith's poor nipples leaking blood into the milk; there was nothing to worry about after all.
* * *
Eight years after the bloody nipple vomit incident, Hadley was a strong and healthy second grader, none the wiser as to the excruciating pain her mother had endured each day just to feed her. The same, too, with her younger sister Avery, the comedienne of the kindergarten — she had no sense of the scars on her mother's breasts, the way they sagged more than perked the way they used to, the hours of meetings she had taken in a lactation room attached like a cow to a milking device. None of this bothered Meredith tremendously — it was all part of the natural course of events.
Reviewing this history, memories dancing around her as the cab stopped and started in heavy traffic, Meredith knew she loved these girls, which made it harder to stomach how she had let them down. Overreaching, overspending, taking for granted her bonuses, and letting Ted dally around in his various startups and hobbies — how could she have been so reckless with their finances? She still didn't understand how she had lost her job. Thousands of hours a year she had devoted to McBride & Co., flying around the country to shit towns to talk re-branding, re-purposing, and reentry in markets. Her performance reviews had been flawless. “We are downsizing, Meredith, and unfortunately your position has been affected,” they said. At least it was a good severance package — she would be covered for the next eight weeks.
"Terminal A?" The driver slowed into the mess of cars in the departures ring.
"Sure." Meredith hesitated. "Yes, here is fine. Thank you."
Inside John F. Kennedy airport, people scurried around her with purpose — dragging around large bags, jogging to security, pleading with stray family members to hurry up. Meredith felt as though she was watching herself from some perch above, walking up to the line of people waiting for the Delta ticketing counter. She hadn't really intended to leave town when she packed her bag; it was a plan born of adrenaline and abject fear of being around Ted and his mother while she processed this latest turn of events. She couldn't reconcile old Meredith — the bread winning, attentive parent, with new Meredith — the unemployed, negligent mother trying to figure out how to get literally anywhere else but home with her family. But now it seemed to be the only sensible next move: Get out of town and clear her head. She'd return home once she had a more permanent plan.
Ted thought Meredith was on a business trip, and her destination would have to match that expectation. It would have to be economical, too, given the firm would not actually reimburse her for this adventure, or whatever exactly this was. Weighing these considerations in the ticket line, Meredith walked up to the open kiosk, her own voice strange to hear.
"I'd like to purchase a ticket, please."
"Ok, one second." The agent clicked and clacked away at the keys on her computer. "And where would you like to go?"
Meredith cleared her throat as she handed over her credit card and license.
Excerpt from Sabbatical, a story about a woman who decides to take a break, by Cate Stern. Read more on WattPad (https://www.wattpad.com/story/170320376-sabbatical). Updates on Fridays.
Cate Stern is a mother of two girls, a writer and an attorney.
Image of Pina Bausch’s dance in dirt, in le Sacre du Printemps.