Our Lady of the Slaw

No matter how many books you read, no matter how many parents you know or kids you've spent time with, there is no mentally tangling with what will actually happen once the lodger is born. Not only are you unprepared for taking care of this floppy, altogether too small little person, you are unprepared for the peripheral scenarios. The hospital stay was a tad misleading. The baby was diapered by pros, nurses came in to make sure that the bun was being fed at regular intervals (going so far as to manhandle my breasts, sticking one in the tot's mouth if they felt so inclined), everyone looked after the baby's (and my) every need, and even though the food sucked, at least it was hot and I didn't have to cook it. By the time we were ready to check out we were positively chomping at the bit, filled with the false confidence to get on with our lives and take care of a newborn. I wasn't sure of much, but the hospital stay made this parenting thing all seem a relatively tidy affair.

The drive home was, as you can imagine, eye-opening. Apparently, the honeymoon was over: upon being released, the impatient nurse pushed me and the precious cargo out the front doors, tapped her foot, and then whipped the wheelchair out of sight as soon as my husband pulled up ("What kind of car does your husband drive?" she asked as she was wheeling me at mach 30 down the elevated ramp from the lobby. "I'm pretty sure I see him," she stated, warming me up for the unceremonious dumping I would be getting curbside). Without so much as a congratulatory pat on the arm (or more importantly, a little help buckling the baby into the baffling car-seat), she disappeared back into the building.

Unfortunately, we couldn't figure out how to fasten the straps in the mysterious "car seat," so we took our maiden voyage home with our brand new baby only partially buckled in, breaking the cardinal rule of baby-raising before we had even left hospital grounds. I climbed into the back seat to throw my body across the bun in case there was an unexpected meteor shower, or Truck-a-Saurus went careening off course while I fantasized my conversation with the police officer after our now-guaranteed car accident: "Yes, I know that we were supposed to buckle him in, but we couldn't figure it out and we were in a loading zone, and the nurse was mean, and we just wanted to get home. Yes, officer, he is only two days old. We're idiots. I don't know what else I can say."

There is no more terrific and strange moment than when you walk in your front door carrying a third person. Curiously, you may have imagined this moment more than any other, but it will be the most inaccurate. I felt completely inept as I stood in the door with the baby in my arms. Everything came into sharp relief. The house was a death trap. The cats looked like predators. I had no comfortable chair in which to feed him. It was a perfect house for a couple; It was a terrible house for a family.

We both stood dumbfounded for some time, trying to figure out where to put the baby. Obviously, the coat rack was right out. Thank god my friend bought us the bouncy seat or I would have carried him around for days before I ever figured out where to set him down.

Then there were the creeping, quiet moments when we all waited. We had no schedule. We didn't know what to do. There was a baby, but really, what do you do in those first minutes but wait for the bun to dictate what comes next? I was actually relieved when he started to cry. It gave me somewhere to focus my novice efforts by trying to stick a nipple in his mouth, or unsuccessfully changing a diaper, or simply soothing him in my fumbling way.

That first week was a lesson in crisis management. Things that I had expended tremendous energy planning before the baby was born seemed patently ridiculous once he had arrived, and my husband, always impatient with things he deems inefficient, had dismantled virtually every baby thing in the house and moved it before the baby had been home a day. Rational thought in a time of crisis is elusive at best, and betraying our complete ineptitude was the rearrangement itself: in a fit of pique, my husband ripped the changing pad off of the cabinet I had set up as a diaper station, and set it on the kitchen table instead, thrusting aside not only convention but basic hygiene as well. The bassinet became a repository for anything but the bun: burp cloths, baby books, eyeglasses, water bottles.

And the bouncy seat, which was the one thing in the house that made sense to us, was placed gingerly on the coffee table. I wish that I could explain why, but apparently Fisher-Price, anticipating first-time Bozos like us, put a huge warning on the back of the seat reminding us that really, a seat like this, with a tiny defenseless baby in it, should really be nowhere but the floor. In a few short hours the diapers were co-mingling with the dinner plates, the baby was in the air, I had nowhere to feed the tot that didn't give me spinal twists, and no idea how to do it anyway. It was entropy.

It was in this climate of swirling chaos that we confronted the cruelest joke in the maternal world.

"Engorgement" was one of the many words I skimmed over in my obsessive-compulsive pregnancy book readings; because it had no frame of reference, I filtered it out as so much extraneous information. Boobs too full? What could be so bad about that? The kid gets plenty to eat! One less thing to think about.

But on the fourth day after the bun was born, I realized what engorgement meant. I was having difficulty feeding the boy anyway; he had had a troubled entry into the world, and was a little slow showing interest in the finer points of boob-manipulation. I was an amateur myself, so I was no help. But while I was inexpertly trying to convince him that my boobs were the location of the finest dining anywhere, the boobs themselves were betraying me.

At first it seemed that they were just a little on the stiff side, like peaks of overwhipped merengue. We had a free appointment with a lactation consultant referred by our doula, and by the end of the day it was clear that we needed it. By the time the consultant arrived, I was in pain and the poor tot couldn't gain purchase because the whole apparatus was taut like a skin drum.

I have never been so happy to hand control of my breasts over to another person in my life, including my husband. She poked and checked and squeezed and asked a battery of questions, which made me realize that all the reading I had done prepared me for nothing, and that answers I should have known were not even in the white noise area of my noggin. In the span of the two-hour consultation, my boobs went from bad to worse as she watched. It became clear that the bun could not take care of my problem; she needed to bring in the big guns. Out of her car came the hospital-grade breast pump with full apparatus to hook me into.

She handed me two flange-shaped horns to hold to my poor chest, connected by thin air hoses to what she told me was a breast pump but I'm fairly certain was a converted film projector from my elementary school. It was a peculiar shade of institutional blue, and stood propped on four rubber feet, and what would have been the film threaders were enlisted to rock back and forth, creating suction to the bottles. When she turned it on, I was mildly alarmed to note that I looked like I was hooked up to a prop from Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," and felt exactly as defeated as Tuttle. It was embarrassing to be plugged in like a lamp and to watch my breasts contort to the will of some factory-farming device. After she tapped the keg (a paltry ounce was all my congested boobs would give up) and gave me instructions for how to ease the pain and help keep the faucets running, she rented me the milking machine and said her farewells. She assured me that it would get better over the next few days.

That night it became clear that it was going to get worse before it got better. My boobs had taken on a life of their own; an excess of milk was rushing in to feed the boy, but had nowhere to go because the ducts were literally backing up like a stuffy nose. My nipples became so hard and misshapen that the bun couldn't gain purchase which compounded the problem: whatever small alleviation of the pressure he could have provided by eating was foiled by my too-full boobs. My skin was hot to the touch and a violent red. Veins were popping above the surface of my skin. There was so much milk that my breasts began to encroach into other real estate: into my armpits, up my sternum. My boobs were literally under my chin. I started to cry in earnest horror when I realized that the top of my breasts were now bulging under my clavicle.

We were using hot packs to loosen the tissues, cold packs to reduce the swelling, hot showers to entice my boobs into giving up their excess baggage. We hooked me onto the milk machine, only to watch in pain and sadness as no droplet was released. By midnight I was an emotional disaster area, sobbing in pain, unable to feed our crying newborn and unable to help myself. My husband, desperate to do something, anything, decided that it was time to investigate one of the recommendations that the consultant had made.

My husband raced into the night in search of this miracle remedy. But when he pulled up to the 24-hour market, he discovered it's doors were locked. "We're not 24 hours anymore," an employee said, standing outside and pulling on a smoke.

"It's an emergency!" he said. He paused, wondering if he could convince the man that the store should reopen for him, but the last two firing synapses in his head made him realize that no amount of cajoling would ever convince this person that opening the store after hours for his wife's abundant breasts was anything more than a cruel Candid Camera joke. "My wife's boobs are enormous and we need help!" he would cry.

"Where's there another 24-hour store?" he wisely asked instead.

"Try Safeway."

He flew through the doors in Safeway like a spastic angry mongoose, surprising the security guard and the cashier who were idly bullshitting away the wee hours of their graveyard shifts. It was clear by my husband's manner and intent that the safety of the Free World rested upon his shoulders; an international incident could only be averted by his delicate and precise handling of this extremely important and dangerous mission. Time was of the essence, and by god, the people depended on him!

The cashier and security guard sat with their mouths hanging slack in the cash drawer upon the revelation that this frenzied maniac raced through the store at two in the morning to buy what appeared to be, by all standards and objective reasoning, a head of green cabbage.

"Whatever he's been doing," they must have thought, "it's gotta be stronger than this coffee."

About this time I was beginning to panic. Clearly there had been a horrible car accident or a fatal robbery attempt since all my husband had intended to do was buy some cabbage and come right home. He'd been gone far to long for that. I was hovering over the sleeping baby, watching him breathe to insure that he didn't keel too, since my husband had left his beloved wife and four-day-old son to fend for themselves in the cold, harsh world by themselves. I started planning the funeral, and then tried to figure out how to juggle single parenthood with the new job that I would have to find. By the time I was fending off creditors from foreclosing on our house, and selling our furniture to feed the baby, I realized that I should probably call my husband.

"I'm on the way! I'm almost there!" he shouted before I had a chance to say anything. "I'm so sorry! But I have the cabbage!"

I wept. The hero was returning from battle war weary, not without scars, but intact.

When he arrived, carrying the precious parcel with care, he peeled a couple of leaves and crumpled them slightly, just like the consultant recommended. I put the cabbage in my bra. Then we collapsed into our bed, exhausted and drained. It was four a.m. The house was silent, save for the barely audible sound of our tiny bun's light breathing.

"I have cabbage on my tits, and I'm so happy," I said. We laughed as though all was right in the world.