If you've ever tried to breastfeed, people like to refer to your attempts as a "breastfeeding relationship." It took me a while to realize that this term does not refer to your relationship with your child, whose well-being is the reason you're putting yourself through this to begin with, but with breastfeeding itself. And from the very beginning, breastfeeding and I badly needed a couples therapist.
I encountered breastfeeding obstacles from the start. My son, Sol, was premature and stubbornly refused to latch for months, no matter how many lactation consultants I visited or little rubber hats I tried to pop onto my nipple. He still shrieked at the sight of my breasts, treating them as if they owed him money.
I still wanted to provide Sol with at least some breast milk, so I decided to switch to pumping. But no matter what I did, I was only able to produce a few ounces per session. For months, I stayed hooked up to a pump for at least 3 hours a day, watching Real Time With Bill Maher while trying to eke out the last drop of milk from my nipples. I tried everything to increase my supply: using a manual pump, adding pumping sessions, taking fenugreek, drinking mother's milk tea. But nothing seemed to work.
Then I remembered what my lactation consultant had taught me to do in the hospital a few days after I gave birth: hand expression, or expressing my breast milk manually. When she first showed me how to do it, I was completely skeeved out. I wasn't about to literally tug on my own nipple and milk myself like a cow, I thought. After all, I had some semblance of dignity. But as most new moms know, dignity goes out the window the second you ask your husband to hold your hand during your first postpartum poop, so I was willing to give it a try. I decided to hand-express for 7 days, using my pump only when I felt like I was engorged and needed more relief. What follows is my account of those 7 days.
Day 1: The Marmet technique
Before I started hand-expressing, I wanted to find instructional videos on how to do it right, considering I'd only gotten that one tutorial in the hospital. I was shocked to find that aside from a few articles on the La Leche League website, there was very little information on the internet about it. Considering there are literally thousands of articles devoted to the theory that the title of the Berenstain books is proof of a parallel universe, I was surprised by this.
The Marmet technique is ostensibly named after a lactation consultant who invented it, but that I like to imagine was invented by a literal marmot.
Aside from a slew of adult nursing fetish videos, I did find a few YouTube videos devoted to the "Marmet technique," a hand expression technique that is ostensibly named after a lactation consultant who invented it, but that I like to imagine was invented by a literal marmot, who wears a lab coat and provides gentle encouragement to new mothers.
The Marmet technique essentially involves placing your thumb and first two fingers in a C-shape around the nipple and gently squeezing milk out, then rotating your hand to get milk out of all of your "milk reservoirs." Upon reading this, I am, as they say, shook. I had no idea there were multiple milk reservoirs in the breast. I thought the milk droplets were just patiently sitting in one area waiting to be dispatched, like the spermatozoa in Woody Allen's Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex.
I follow the visual aids for the Marmet technique on Medela's website and begin squeezing. While it's a little awkward to literally squirt milk into a bottle, it doesn't hurt at all. I'm also surprised to see that the milk comes out in thin jet streams from multiple pores of the nipple, unlike my pump, where the milk just kind of lazily oozes out.
I haven't pumped yet today, so I express about an ounce fairly quickly. My husband comes home to find me squeezing my breasts into a Medela bottle. "What are you doing?" he asks. "What happened to your pump?"
"It's called the Marmet technique," I say primly, a tone that is totally incongruous with the fact that I'm topless with my gut hanging over my sweatpants. "it was invented by a marmot."
"What's a marmot?" he asks.
"It's a woodland rodent," I respond. "They're common in the Northwest." He shakes his head and walks away. I feel incredibly primitive and mammalian, and I'm pretty sure I'm never going to have sex again.
Day 2: It's a race, it's a race
At this point, I've become something of a master of the Marmet technique. I figure out why you're supposed to roll your hands around and squeeze from multiple angles: so you can massage any ducts that might be clogged in the breast and unclog them. It's pretty cool to literally feel your breast soften and drain out in your hand, which is not something you experience with a pump.
I have discovered the ability to projectile squirt milk from my nipples, like a superhero or the waterworks at the finale of a Disney World parade. This discovery is, quite frankly, a game changer.
I know hand expression is cheaper than using a pump (mine costs $90 to rent monthly), but I want to conduct an experiment to determine whether it's more effective. So I set my stopwatch on my iPhone and see how long it takes to express an ounce from my breasts. It takes about 13 and a half minutes. Later, I use my hand pump. It takes 4 minutes and 4 seconds (below).
Clearly, when it comes to efficiency, pumping is the clear winner. But in terms of effectiveness, I'm not sure if that's the case: though I often end pumping sessions still feeling swollen, after I hand express my breast feels almost completely drained, thanks to the ability to focus on draining individual ducts. Hand expressing also has the added benefit of dramatic effect: I have discovered the ability to projectile squirt milk from my nipples, like a superhero or the waterworks at the finale of a Disney World parade. This discovery is, quite frankly, a game changer.
Day 3: With great power comes great responsibility
Of course, like any superhero, I have to learn how to harness my newfound powers. While expressing in the office conference room, I quickly discover that if you don't angle your hand and the bottle the right way, the milk can take on a horizontal trajectory, which can be a little bit messy. I quickly clean it up, but when I get home I realize I have a drop of milk on my dress. Apparently, I've been walking around like this all day, which is awesome.
Day 4: I am bored
After I come home from work and try to hand express while Sol is playing in his baby gym, I quickly discover another drawback of hand expression: it's really f*cking boring. Unlike pumping, where you can do work with the help of a hands-free bra or just sit and watch as many Shark Tank episodes as your lazy ass desires, hand expression requires both hands and intense focus, so you can make sure the milk is actually getting in the bottle.
"Be quiet," I say. "I'm doing this for you, so you can get antibodies and go to an Ivy League school. Do you think I enjoy doing this? Do you think I read Foucault in grad school so I could sit on the floor and squeeze my tits all day?"
My attention is divided between Sol and my leaky nip, and he is not thrilled by this, to say the least. He starts crying.
"Be quiet," I say. "I'm doing this for you, so you can get antibodies and go to an Ivy League school. Do you think I enjoy doing this? Do you think I read Foucault in grad school so I could sit on the floor and squeeze my tits all day?" But he remains unswayed.
"You're right," I say. "Foucault is terrible." I put the bottle down and pick him up to play with him. Expressing would have to wait till later.
Day 5: My cat is not a fan of the Marmet technique
My sister comes over for lunch. I am eager to show off my newfound powers to a captive audience. "Look what I can do," I say, and squirt my cat in the hind legs with a thin jet of breast milk. My sister and I can't stop laughing. The cat is somewhat less amused.
Day 6: Bruised, broken, and bleeding
The Medela website advises you not to squeeze your breasts while you're expressing, and I'm starting to realize why: my boobs are starting to look like the name of a metalcore band. I have bruises on the underside of my right breast, as well as a small red rash right above both nipples. It doesn't itch, but it's definitely irritated.
Worse, I'm starting to feel slight soreness when I express, which never happened when I was pumping. I'm sure this means that I'm doing something wrong, and I keep imagining Mrs. Marmet coming into my conference room and chiding me to move my hand counterclockwise, or not squeeze so hard. But the fact remains that I'd be in much more pain if I were engorged, so I soldier on for one more day.
Day 7: Sol better get into Harvard
At this point, I've been providing Sol with breast milk, in some form or another, for about 4 and a half months. Although I'm not breastfeeding him, I'm still feeling like my body is not my own, like there's some thin string that is constantly connecting my nipples to him. And nothing really crystallized that feeling more than hand expressing for a week.
If nothing else, the one thing that my "relationship" with the Marmet technique taught me was the lengths moms go to to continue to breastfeed. Before I had a baby, I never in a million years would have imagined that I'd be crouching underneath a conference table in my office, furiously pasting links into my work Slack with one hand and squeezing milk out of my boob in another. And yet, not only was I doing that, I was doing it happily, on the off-chance that it would in some small way contribute to my son's well-being.
When I had Sol, I insisted that I wasn't going to compromise my dignity or a great deal of my time or even my sex appeal for my child. Yet here I was, in a topknot and sweatpants, milking myself in front of my husband.
When we have kids, we are tacitly signing a contract that we are willing to do absolutely anything to help them, even if we're not exactly sure what we're doing even helps. When I had Sol, I insisted to anyone who would listen that I wasn't going to do this; I insisted that I didn't think motherhood was synonymous with self-sacrifice, and that I wasn't going to compromise my dignity or a great deal of my time or even my sex appeal for my child. Yet here I was, in a topknot and sweatpants, milking myself in front of my husband; here I was, ignoring the rash on my boobs to duck out of a meeting and quickly express, not knowing or caring if the curtain was thin and people could see me. I was kidding myself. I'd signed that contract the moment Sol came out. And this was proof.
Anyway, would I recommend the Marmet technique to any mothers struggling to maintain a "breastfeeding relationship" with their children? Hell, no. It's not 1736. We don't need to spend hours and hours kneading our nipples so we can get milk into a tiny saucer. We have machines for that, and lactation consultants. But I would recommend trying it once or twice, if only so you can give your cat the surprise of her life.