From: Mary McCarthy, The Group
Priss Hartshorn Crockett was nursing her baby. That was the big news. ‘I never expected a breast-fed grandson,’ said Priss’s mother, laughing and accepting a martini from her son-in-law, Dr. Sloan Crockett, the budding pediatrician.
He was in the nursery now, behind the plate-glass window at the end of the corridor roaring his head off; his feeding time was six o’clock. Priss was drinking an eggnog, to help her lactate; liquids were very important, but she had lost her taste for milk during pregnancy, doing nothing and having to force herself to drink that quart a day that the doctors insisted on if she were not to lose her teeth building the baby’s bones. Now, to tempt her, the nurses flavoured her milk with egg and sugar and vanilla and gave her fruit juices on the hour and ginger ale and Coke - every kind of liquid but alcohol, for if she drank a martini, Stephen would have gin for his dinner.
‘No politics today,’ said Mrs. Hartshorn firmly. ‘We’ve declared a moratorium. Priss has to think of her milk.’
Lakey, she went on to Polly, had sent the most exquisite christening robe from Paris, fit for a dauphin - a great surprise, because she had not written for ages; she was doing her doctorate at the Sorbonne. And Pokey Prothero Beauchamp, who had had twins herself the year before, had sent a baby scales, a most thoughtful gift. Everyone had been frightfully kind. Dottie Renfrew Latham had arranged, from way out in Arizona, for Bloomingdale’s to deliver a sterilizer, all complete with bottles and racks, instead of the conventional baby cup or porriger. That would come in handy later on, when Priss’s milk ran out.
Mrs. Harshorn glanced at her daughter and lowered her voice. ‘Just fancy little Priss being the first of your set to do it, Polly. She’s so flat there she’s never had to wear a brassière. But Sloan says it’s not the size that counts. I do hope he’s right. The miracle of the loaves and fishes, I call it. All the other babies in the nursery are on bottles. The nurses prefer it that way. I’m inclined to agree with them. Doctors are all theory. Nurses see the facts.’ She swallowed her martini in a single draft, like medicine; this was the style among advanced society women of her age. She wiped her lips and refused a ‘dividend’ from the silver shaker. ‘Which way progress, Polly?’ she demanded, in a slightly louder voice, shaking her white bobbed locks. ‘The bottle was the war-cry of my generation. Linda was bottle-fed. And you can’t imagine the difference. For us, the bottle spelled the end of colic, and the frantic husband walking the baby all night. We swore by the bottle, we of the avant-garde. My mother-in-law was horripilated. And now, I confess, Polly, I’m horripilated myself.’
‘Medicine seems to be all cycles,’ continued Mrs. Hartshorn. ‘That’s the bone I pick with Sloan. Like what’s-his-name’s new theory of history. First we nursed our babies; then science told us not to. Now it tells us we were right in the first place. Or were we wrong then but would be right now? Reminds me of relativity, if I understand Mr. Einstein.’
Sloan ignored this excursion. ‘By nursing Stephen,’ he said patiently, ‘Priss can give him her immunities for at least the first year. He won’t be liable to chicken pox or measles or whooping cough. And he will have a certain protection from colds. Of course, in some cases the mother’s milk disagrees with the child. You get a rash or stomach upsets. Then you have to weigh the advantages of breast-feeding against the negative side-effects.’
‘And psychologically,’ appended Polly, ‘isn’t the breast-fed baby supposed to have a warmer relation with his mother than the bottle-fed baby?’ Sloan frowned. ‘Psychology is still a long way from being a science,’ he declared. ‘Let’s stick to measurable facts. Demonstrable facts. We can demonstrate that the breast-fed infant gets his mother’s immunities. And we know from the scales that Stephen is gaining. An ounce a day, Cousin Louisa.’ This was his name for Mrs. Hartshorn. ‘You can’t argue with the scales.’
The sound of a baby’s crying made itself heard in the silence that followed this speech. ‘That’s Stephen again,’ said Mrs. Hartshorn. ‘I recognize his voice. He yells louder than any other baby in the nursery.’ ‘Shows he’s a healthy young fellow,’ replied Sloan. Time to worry if he didn’t cry for his dinner. Eh, Priss?’ Priss smiled wanly. ‘Sloan says it’s good for his lungs,’ she said, grimacing. ‘Develops them,’ agreed Sloan. ‘Like a bellows.’ He drew air into his chest and released it.
Mrs. Hartshorn looked at her watch. ‘Can’t the nurse bring him in now?’ she wondered. ‘It’s quarter of six.’ ‘The schedule, mother!’ cried Priss. ‘The reason babies in your time had colic wasn’t because they were breast-fed, but because they were picked up at all sorts of irregular times and fed whenever they cried. The point is to have a schedule and stick to it absolutely!‘
In the middle of the general laugh, a nurse tapped at the door. ‘Excuse us, ladies and gentlemen. Feeding time.’ When the room was cleared of guests, she closed the window Mrs. Hartshorn had opened and then brought the baby in on her shoulder. He was wearing a long white nightgown and his face was red and swollen; she placed him next to Priss in the bed. It was exactly six o’clock. ‘Which one is it tonight, dear?’ she demanded. Priss, who had managed to lower one shoulder of her nightgown, indicated her right breast. The nurse swabbed it with cotton and alcohol and laid the baby to suck; as usual, he made a face at the alcohol and pushed the nipple away. The nurse settled it firmly in his mouth again; then she went about the room emptying ashtrays and collecting glasses to take back to the diet kitchen. ‘You had quite a party tonight.’
To Priss, this sounded like a criticism, and she did not reply. Instead, she gritted her teeth. The baby’s mouth always hurt her nipple at the beginning, like a bite. Her breasts were very sensitive, and she hated to have Sloan touch them in love-making; she had hoped that nursing the baby would get her over that. People said that nursing was very satisfying, sensually, to the mother, and she had thought that if she got in the habit with the baby, she would not mind so much with a grown man. Though she had not told Sloan, this was one of her principal reasons for agreeing to breastfeed Stephen: so that she could give Sloan, who was entitled to it, more fun in bed. But so far nursing, like most of sex, was an ordeal she had to steel herself for each time it happened by using all her will-power and thinking about love and self-sacrifice. The nurse was watching her now, to make sure that the baby was drawing at the nipple properly. ‘Relax, Mrs. Crockett,’ she said kindly. ‘Baby can sense it if you’re tense.’ Priss sighed and tried to let go. But naturally the more she concentrated on relaxing, the more tense she got. ‘Bless braces, damn relaxes,’ she joked feebly. ‘You’re tired this evening,’ said the nurse. Priss nodded, feeling grateful that someone knew and disloyal, at the same time, to Sloan, who did not know that it wore her out to have company, especially mixed company that sat there discussing her milk.
But as the baby (she wished the nurse would call him ‘Stephen’ not ‘Baby’) commenced to suck rhythmically, making a little noise like a snore, Priss grew somewhat easier. She did not enjoy the sucking, but she liked his fresh, milky smell, which made her think of churns and dairies, and his pale fuzz of hair and his warmth. Soon she was unaware of his sucking, except as a hypnotic rhythm; the nurse put the bell in her hand and tiptoed out. Priss was almost asleep when she came to, with a start; Stephen was asleep himself. His little mouth had ceased to tug, and the noise he was making was a light snore. She joggled him a little, as she had been taught to do, but her nipple slipped out of his mouth. He turned his round soft head away and lay sleeping with his cheek flat on her chest. Priss was terrified; she tried to turn his head and thrust her breast into his mouth. He resisted; his little hands rose and beat feebly at her breast to push it away. She shifted her position and looked at her watch. He had only been nursing seven minutes, and he was supposed to nurse fifteen to get the milk he needed to carry him through till the next feeding, which would be at ten o’clock. She had been cautioned before not to let him fall asleep. She rang the bell, and turned the light on outside her door.
No one came; she listened; there was complete silence in the corridor. Not even the sound of a baby crying came from the far end at the nursery. They were all being fed, obviously - all but poor Stephen - and the nurses were all busy, giving them their bottles. She was always fearful of being left alone with Stephen and usually she contrived to keep a nurse with her, making conversation.
Still no one came; another three minutes had passed. She thought of Sloan, who would be in the Visitors’ Lounge with her mother and Bill Edris, talking and enjoying himself; it was against the hospital rules for the husband to watch the mother nurse, and this was one rule that Sloan did not care to break. Perhaps a passing intern would notice her light. She raised her arm to look at her watch again; two more minutes gone. She felt as though she and Stephen were marooned together in eternity or tied together like prisoners in some gruesome form of punishment. It was useless to remind herself that this frightening bundle was her own child and Sloan’s. Rather, she felt, to her shame, that he was a piece of hospital property that had been dumped on her and abandoned - they would never come to take him away.
‘Is he all right? I’m afraid I lost my head.’ ‘Stephen’s just plain mad, isn’t he?’ the girl said, addressing the baby. ‘Does he want to go back to bed?’ She picked up his blanket and wrapped him in it; she patted his back to ‘bubble him’. ‘No, no!’ cried Priss. ‘Give him back, please. He hasn’t finished nursing. I let him go to sleep in the middle.’
‘Oh, my!’ said the girl. ‘You must have been scared, all right. I’ll stay with you this time till he finishes.’ The baby belched and the girl unwrapped him and laid him, under the covers, on Priss’s breast. ‘Somebody should have come in to bubble him,’ she said. ‘He swallowed a lot of air.’ She gently slid the nipple into his mouth. The baby pushed it away and began to cry again. He was evidently angry. The two girls - Priss was the older - gazed at each other sadly. ‘Does that hapen often?’ said Priss. ‘I don’t know,’ said the girl. ‘Most of our babies are bottle babies. But they do that sometimes with the bottle if the holes in the nipple aren’t big enough; they get mad and push the bottle away.’ ‘Because the milk doesn’t come fast enough,’ said Priss. ‘That’s my trouble. But I wouldn’t mind if he pushed a b-bottle away.’ Her thin little face looked rueful. ‘He’s tired,’ said the student nurse. ‘Did you hear him this afternoon?’ Priss nodded, looking down at the baby. ‘It’s a vicious circle,’ she said gloomily. ‘He wears himself out crying because he’s famished and then he’s too exhausted to nurse.’
The door opened again. ‘You left Mrs. Crockett’s light on,’ the older nurse chided the student. ‘You should remember to snap it off when you come in. What was the trouble here, anyway?’ ‘He won’t nurse,’ said Priss. The three women looked at each other and sighed jointly. ‘Let’s see if you have any milk left,’ said the older nurse finally, in a practical tone. She moved the baby’s head slightly to one side and squeezed Priss’s breast; a drop of watery liquid appeared. ‘You can try it,’ she conceded. ‘But he’ll have to learn to work for his supper. The harder he works, of course, the more milk you produce. The breast should be well drained.’ She squeezed Priss’s breast again, then clapped ‘Baby’s’ head to the moist nipple. While both nurses watched, he sucked for another minute, for two minutes, and stopped. ‘Shall we prime the pump again?’ said Priss with a feeble smile. The older nurse bent down. ‘The breast is empty. No sense in wearing him out for nothing. I’ll take him now and weigh him.’
In a moment the student nurse was back, breathless. ‘Two ounces!’ She reported. ‘Shall I tell your company they can come back?’ Priss was overjoyed; her supper tray appeared while she was waiting for her family to return, and she felt almost hungry. ‘We’ve heard your vital statistic,’ announced Mrs. Hartshorn. ‘Is two ounces a lot?’ asked Allen dubiously. An excellent average feeding, declared Sloan: Priss’s milk was highly concentrated though the volume was not large; that was why the baby was gaining steadily, despite the little fuss he made before meals.
Priss picked up the last number of Consumer Reports; she was hoping they would have an article on bottled baby foods. She know she was letting herself slip, mentally, in the hospital. She lived on the bulletins the nurses brought her of how many ounces Stephen had taken - they weighed him before and after each feeding. If the nurse forgot to come and tell her, she nearly died, imagining the worst and not having the gumption to ring and ask. The other important event was the regular morning weighing, before his bath, which showed his over-all gain for the day. Nothing but these figures and her own fluid intake interested Priss now; she was always having to ring for the bedpan because of the gallons of water she imbibed. The nurses were awfully co-operative, though they disapproved, she knew (except the student), of her breast-feeding Stephen. They thought Sloan and her obstetrician, Dr. Turner, were barmy. But they too were impressed, nolens volens, by the evidence of the scales. The child was growing.
If it had not been for the bulletins, Priss would certainly have lost faith. Sloan and Dr. Turner did not have to hear Stephen crying. The nurses and Priss had to hear it. At eight o’clock that night right on the dot, down in the nursery Stephen started to cry. She knew his voice - the whole floor knew it. Sometimes he would whimper and then go back to sleep for a while, but when he began noisily, as he was doing now, he might cry for two solid hours - a scandal. It was against the rules for the nurses to pick him up; they were allowed to change him and give him a drink of water, and that was all. The babies were not supposed to be ‘handled’. And if they gave him a second drink of water, he might not nurse properly when feeding time finally came.
Sometimes merely changing him would quiet him for the time being. Often the drink of water would quiet him. But not always. A lot depended, Priss had discovered, on when he got the water; if they gave it to him too soon, he would sleep briefly and wake up again, howling. If he woke up midway between between feedings, the nurse usually let him cry, after changing him, for an hour, and then gave him the water, so that, tired from crying and with a deceptively full stomach, he would often sleep through until the next feeding. That was the best for then he was fresh when he was brought in to nurse and would draw with might and main from the nipple. But if he woke up shortly after a feeding, it was horrible: after an hour’s cry, he would get his water, sleep, wake up and cry again without stopping - his record, so far, was two hours and three-quarters.
The idea that her child disturbed the other infants greatly troubled Priss, though the nurses tried to reassure her: newborn babies, they said, quickly got accustomed to a familiar noise. Still, Priss could not refrain from framing an apologetic sentence to the maid. ‘Oh, dear, Catherine,’ she said (she had made a point of learning the maids’ names), ‘Do you hear him? He’ll wake up the whole hospital.’ ‘Hear him?’ replied Catherine, who was Irish. ‘He’ll wake the dead. When are they going to let him have a bottle for God’s sake?’ ‘I don’t know,’ said Priss, closing her eyes in pain. ‘Ah, don’t take it so hard,’ the maid said jauntily, straightening Priss’s covers. ‘He’s exercising his lungs.’ Priss wished everyone would not say that. ‘It’s not my place to ask,’ said Catherine, moving closer to plump Priss’s pillows, ‘but I’ve been wondering. What put it into your head to nurse?’ Priss felt her neck redden. ‘Im-m-munities,’ she stammered. The maid looked at her curiously. ‘You know,’ said Priss. ‘Like vaccination. He can’t get any diseases I’ve had, like mumps or chicken pox or measles.’ ‘Always something new,’ said Catherine, shaking her head. She poured Priss fresh water. ‘They’re always inventing something, aren’t they?’ Priss nodded. ‘Would you like your radio on, now? A little music? You won’t hear him, over the music.’ ‘No, thank you Catherine,’ said Priss. ‘Can I crank you up a bit, Mrs. Crockett?’ ‘No, thank you,’ Priss repeated. The maid hesitated. ‘Good night, then, and cheer up. Look on the bright side. They used to say it developed the bust.’
Priss could not help treasuring this last remark; she saved it to tell her mother tomorrow, in the brogue, if she could without stuttering. At the same time she had to admit that she had been secretly hoping that Stephen would be a bust-developer and she had made Dr. Turner laugh when she asked him anxiously whether she wouldn’t need a nursing brassière. Her mood lightened; outside, silence reigned - Stephen must have had his drink of water while she and the made were talking.
This calm was broken by the head floor nurse, Miss Swenson, who was going off duty. She came in and closed the door. ‘I want to tell you, Mrs. Crockett, that I’m going to speak to Dr. Turner in the morning. To recommend that Stephen be given a supplementary bottle.’ The nurse’s casual tone did not fool Priss. A supplementary bottle - the phrase sounded horrid, as if Miss Swenson had said, ‘I’m going to recommend a dose of strychnine.’ The very word bottle made Priss bristle, no matter what adjectives were attached. She braced herself against her pillows and prepared to give battle. Miss Swenson went on smoothly, as if she had not noticed the effect of her announcement on Priss. ‘I know this will be a great relief to you, Mrs. Crockett. We all understand what you’ve been going through. You’ve been a wonderful patient, a remarkable patient.’ Even in her shock, Priss recognized that Miss Swenson, whom she had always liked, was speaking with real earnestness. ‘But why?’ she brought out finally. ‘The scales ...’
Miss Swenson, who was in her thirties with blond hair in a bun, came to the bedside and took her hand. ‘I know how you feel, my dear. Torn. Most nursing mothers cry when I have to tell them that I recommend a supplementary bottle. Even when the child is failing to gain weight. They want to keep trying. You’re exceptionally brave not to break down.’ ‘You mean this happens often?’ asked Priss. ‘Not very often. But we have one or two younger doctors who like to have the mothers nurse as long as they’re able. Not all the mothers agree, of course. There’s still a prejudice against breast-feeding, especially - and this will surprise you - among ward patients. They feel that a bottle baby is socially superior.’ ‘How interesting!’ Priss exclaimed. ‘And we see that same attitude with our Jewish private patients. Even when they have plenty of milk, and the doctor encourages it, they don’t want to nurse; they have the idea it’s lower East Side.’ ‘How interesting,’ Priss repeated thoughtfully. ‘Oh, being a nurse one sees a great deal. And the class differences are quite extraordinary.’
‘Do higher-income women have a lower milk supply?’ She did not like to use the words upper class. Miss Swenson avoided answering this blunt question; probably she was afraid of depressing Priss with the thought that her case was statistically pretty hopeless. She looked at her watch. ‘I want to explain the supplementary bottle to you, Mrs. Crockett.’ To Priss’s surprise, she found that this phrase no longer sounded like a death knell. ‘But if he’s gaining the right amount ...?’ she protested, nevertheless. ‘He’s an unusually hungry baby,’ said Miss Swenson. ‘Your milk is quite adequate from a nutritional point of view, but it doesn’t give him enough volume. What I suggest, Mrs. Crockett, is this. After his six o’clock evening feeding, starting tomorrow, we’ll give him a small amount of formula in a bottle. Your milk supply is at its lowest then, I’ve noticed. At ten he gets enough volume from you to hold him. On a full stomach he’ll sleep through till two; so will you, poor girl. In fact, with the supplementary bottle we may even be able to train him, before you leave the hospital, to sleep right through till six in the morning, so that you’ll have an unbroken night. We like to do that anyway for our mothers, before they go home; once the baby has the habit of the two o’clock feeding, it’s hard for the mother to break it herself. A baby works like a little clock, and we like to have it set right before the mother takes over.’
Priss nodded. How wonderful, she thought, of the hospital to plan ahead for the mothers. None of this would have been possible a few years before. ‘If he’s still fretful, even with one supplementary bottle,’ Miss Swenson went on, ‘we may have to give him more. Some babies take a supplementary bottle after each time at the breast. But in Stephen’s case I don’t think this will be necessary. You may even find that your flow of milk increases, once Stephen is more comfortable.
‘Have you got a watch?’ Norine asked, yawning. Priss told her the time. ‘Are you nursing?’ she asked, stealing an envious look at Norine’s massive breasts. ‘My milk ran out,’ said Norine. ‘So did mine!’ cried Priss. ‘As soon as I left the hospital. How long did you nurse?’ ‘Four weeks. Then Freddy slept with the girl we had looking after Ichabod, and my milk went on strike.’ Priss gulped; the story she had been about to relate, of how her milk had run out as soon as they gave Stephen a supplementary bottle was hastily vetoed on her lips.
From: Mary McCarthy, The Group
Compiled by Jack Newman, MD, FRCPC