My kids are two and three. If you're new to the blog it bears mentioning that we have two two-year-olds and two three-year-olds. It hasn't gotten easier yet although people keep saying it will.
These toddlers each drink a bottle of milk before milk. Our babysitter thinks we should have kicked this habit long ago. In fact, when the kids spend the night with her they don't drink bottles. That's one of many differences in how they are with her and how they are with me, or with us. At her house they take naps. Not just one but two. At her house they go to bed easily, without fighting. At her house they don't get up from the table until everyone is finished eating. At her house they have structure. The last few times she's been with the kids and with me she's looked at them with eyebrows raised and asked "Who are these children?"
Because with her they behave and with me, with us, they go nuts.
But that's not why they still have a bottle. That's a brief commentary of some of the challenges that come with sharing the raising of your children with someone else. It's not just hard that I dread bedtime and I know that were they at her house they would go straight to bed, it's hard knowing that we seemingly could change the routine in such a way as to improve bedtime. And yet we can't. It's not them, it's us. Or it's probably them with us. Sigh.
My kids still drink a bottle at bedtime because they love it. They go soft and relaxed, their little hands curved around the plastic bottle, their little lips pursed around the rubber nipples. We usually all sit on the couch, which we're rapidly outgrowing, and they drape themselves on limbs and under blankets, and we enjoy the ending of the day in some type of quiet. Then the bottles are empty and we get ready for bedtime which is in no way impacted or made easier by the bottles. It still takes over an hour for the four of them to settle down and one or both parents is tight-lipped and menaced by the whole procedure. So why keep the bottles anyway?
I thought I would be a breastfeeding mama but I was mostly a bottle-feeding, pumping mama. That was one of the first departures from my idea into the reality of what parenthood would be and is for me. During the decades of wishing for a baby and hoping to someday be able to get pregnant, I imagined not just the physical changes of carrying a baby inside me but the intimate moments of looking down at their sweet littles heads as they suckled, feeling the closeness, the quiet sighs, the connection between a mom and her child. What happened instead was my babies came early and went straight to the NICU where their intake was measured and commented upon and we feed them with the smallest nipples and bottles out there. That was after they graduated from the gavage, where my milk was dripped into their mouths and down their throats in the early days when they were still figuring out the suck, swallow, breathe combo that early preemies are two underdeveloped to know how to do on their own. I spent every two to three hours in the little pump room, experiencing my first session of mom failure as I compared my output to the moms around me and blamed myself for not pumping often enough, for not eating the right foods, for being two old, for my body being too messed up from all the meds over the years. Although I occasionally breastfed my eldest daughter, they were mostly bottle babies.
Those first several weeks even Lily would stop breathing when she drank. We referenced As and Bs, the asystoles and bradycardia preemies go into when they forget to breathe because they're focusing on sucking or swallowing. Those fucking monitors would go off and we learned to stop and wait for the baby to start breathing again, on occasion needing to rub a body or a head to get them going. Those were the bad ones. I'm used to the ICU more than most, both from personal experience and from work, but it still got to me, that being on high alert and learning what every sound meant.
My son came home on a feeding tube, taped to his little face and threaded up one nostril down his throat and into his belly. This was two months after he was born and he still wasn't efficiently eating enough on his own to be allowed to come home. It often took an hour of holding a tiny bottle to his mouth to get even the lowest acceptable amount into him. My husband was so patient, trekking up to the NICU for as many feedings as he could, coming up with the complicated dance that was needed to get Cyrus to keep drinking. Put him on your lap but don't touch him. Unswaddle him when he starts to lose steam. Undress him and change his diaper when he needs to be re-stimulated. I think there was some head rubbing. I did not have the patience. I was holding in screams of frustration at needing this baby to eat so we could leave and feeling disappointed by this tiny human when he didn't eat enough. We finally told the team we needed to leave and they taught my husband how to insert the feeding tube and we got to go home. He was still a bottle baby, just not really that committed to the bottle yet.
Their babyhood was a combination of me pumping, trying to nurse Lily, trying to nurse Cyrus, trying to get Cyrus to drink from his bottle, and giving Lily a bottle. They started getting formula in the NICU the day after the night I chose to sleep a few extra hours while others cared for my newborn twins. Their demand outpaced my supply after that and I felt awful. Like I wasn't doing enough.
Did I enjoy their babyhood? I don't think so. I got pregnant when they were four months old, we found out when they were six months old. The closest emotion I can come up with to describe the feeling in our eyes as we looked at each other with the news is despair. The big twins were just starting to sleep more at night and we were just starting to think that maybe there was a light at the end of the tunnel. . .and then we fell into a new, darker tunnel that we'd have to navigate each with a baby on our backs. The pregnancy explained why my milk supply had dried up, though I know some moms who are able to still nurse while pregnant. Not me. I was not enough.
The little girls were born when the bigs were just a year old. They came early too and went into the NICU. They drank bottles too. Each of them nursed right away, the first day I held them, and I felt hopeful. This time I was determined to pump more diligently and be able to feed my babies. I saw the lactation consultant. I tried a nipple shield. I did produce more. But I didn't live in the hospital this time, because I had two other babies at home. I wasn't there for every feeding and it took coordination to be there at the right time in order to try to nurse and also be able to pump. They did better with the bottles. I stopped pumping when they were three months old and the relief was deep.
By that time I was taking Zoloft for PPD. The idea of being left alone with my four babies made me feel so anxious and hopeless that I never let it happen. Our babysitter came five days a week and she fed my little girls more often than I did. Those moments I dreamed of, of gazing down into my baby's eyes as I fed him or her? They almost never occurred.
We propped lots of bottles. You're not supposed to do that, according to. . .I' not sure who. The experts. I think it's not safe or they might choke or something. We did it all the time, propping bottles on folded blankets. Some of it started because my son preferred to not be held while he ate. And some of it was because the times the babies ate were times when we could . . .not hold babies. Take a break. People often asked and ask us how we do it. How do we have all these children around the same age. Lots of shortcuts. Lots of doing what works. Lots of lowering of expectations. We just do it because what else is there to be done?
I knew some moms stopped nursing when their kids were around one, and I briefly considered stopping the bottles for the bigs at that time. But they suddenly had two baby sisters and they were still so little themselves and I didn't see the need to take them away, even though they also drank from sippy cups by that point.
I thought about it when the bigs turned two. But it didn't seem fair to take the botttles from the littles after only a year and there was no way we would be able to give bottles to two of them and not to the whole crew.
So now they are two and three and they still each drink one bottle of milk a day, before bed. Sometimes more if we're travelling because a bottle on a road trip is a better guarantee of a car nap than a sippy cup.
These babies came so hard and so fast that I hardly had time or energy to enjoy them. I look at my kids now and marvel at the fact that they are long and lean, that they are kids. Not babies. I have never once wanted time to slow down since becoming a parent; I've been keeping my head above water and trying to make it through the day. I have never had a moment of "Oh, my baby is getting bigger, maybe it's time for another one." It happened too fast for those windows to open up.
I know I won't have another baby and I do not mourn that fact. I have enough children. And they are still little and still exhausting but they are growing and changing all the time. They are aware of the world in new ways, as evidenced by the questions the big ones ask and by the way they all act. They aren't babies anymore. But for a moment each day they snuggle in and drink a bottle and relax in the safety and coziness that comes from being little, being cared for. They will grow up fast enough and I'm not ready to take the bottles away yet.