Breastfeeding in public… in Lima

The boy is almost six weeks old. I took him to church today for the second time. I’m still not used to the additional planning and hassle of taking a baby with me, but I’m learning. At least I don’t have to worry about bottles and formula. But then… I am an American, and I’m not absolutely sure what the “rules” are about breastfeeding here. Back in the US it can be a charged political issue, depending on where you are. Which means that however you feel about breastfeeding, if you do it in public, someone is going to feel that you are A) making a political statement, or B) committing a terrible breach of etiquette.

I’d seen women nursing just about everywhere here, and the children being nursed are a surprising range of ages, so I figured wherever I need to feed him, it’s probably OK.  But I’m still a bit timid about it, so I try to find an out-of the-way spot and not expose acres of skin.

At church, he wanted to nurse for most of the liturgy, so I nursed him in the pew for a while, and when he got fussy and needed a diaper, I went out to nurse him outside and in the church hall. No big deal. The pew was tucked into a corner and nobody even noticed. After church we caught the bus to the mercado, and went to lunch at a pollo a la brasa place. The boy had passed out in his sling as soon as we left church, and stayed asleep through most of lunch. As we were finishing up, though, he got cranky and hungry again, and we had to scurry to pay and leave so we wouldn’t be those people with the screaming baby in the restaurant. We walked out, and looked for a good place to sit and feed him. He cried all the two blocks up to the merchants’ street, where there are nice shady benches.

Those benches are in the middle of a large and busy pedestrian thoroughfare, but I spotted one that was sheltered on one side by the back of a vendor’s booth–something resembling privacy– so we sat down there, next to a nice-looking middle-aged couple, and I rearranged clothes and sling to nurse him. He happily settled in for lunch. The woman next to me asked how old he was, and whether he was a “mujer” or an “hombre”, and what was his name. Then, a lady with a three- or four-year-old boy in tow stepped out of the foot traffic toward me, speaking rapidly and enthusiastically to the boy. I picked out the words “bebe”, “leche” (milk), and “teta” (breast)…  something to the effect of “look! the baby is drinking milk from this lady’s boob!”  Everyone around us seemed to think this situation was totally normal, so I mustered my best smile-and-nod, and we did the usual round of questions again– age of baby, yes he’s a boy– and she did the usual cooing and “bonito!” (or “que lindo”, or “chiquito nino” etc.), and I said “gracias” and she went on her way.

The lady next to me pointed out that he had mushed half his nose into my boob and I should rearrange him to breathe more easily. So I did. Hardly had she finished helping me with my latch when another woman with a slightly older boy in tow stopped by to admire the baby (all the while he is still eating) and to chat with the woman next to me, while they both peered at the baby and discussed the color of his eyes. The maintenance ladies in our building had almost the same conversation about him when we first brought him home– apparently it is a generally known fact here that all gringo babies have blue eyes, but few people ever have a chance to verify this firsthand, so when an actual gringo baby comes along, it must be checked out.

It all reminded me of those anxiety dreams I had back in school, where I’d show up for class, but had forgotten to wear a shirt… I’d feel terribly self-conscious about it, but nobody seemed to notice, so eventually… it was ok and didn’t really matter. Breastfeeding is not political here, as far as I can tell. It’s perfectly normal, and having a cute baby in your arms gives everyone permission to come talk to you, whether the baby is eating or not. I’m still not sure how to react to this, but so far smiling, nodding, and saying “thank you” to compliments seems to be acceptable.

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Unsolicited Advice

Advice– especially the unsolicited kind– is one of those things I see other pregnant ladies/moms routinely complain about, right up there with leg cramps and strangers touching your belly. Until this week, I had been entirely spared.  There are some areas where the language barrier can be advantageous.

But last Sunday, at church, one of the Romanian ladies, who speaks decent English, launched into a dissertation about how important it is to schedule feedings for the new baby, so as not to spoil them or have them nursing all the time. I did my best smile-and-nod, and fumed to my husband on the way home: the science says breastfeeding on demand–ESPECIALLY in the early days and weeks– is what establishes a good milk supply. Scheduling feedings, when a baby wants/needs to feed more often, leads many an insecure new mother to believe she is defective, and cannot produce enough for the baby’s needs. It’s a quick route from there to formula. Sure, it doesn’t always end that way, but why risk it?

Tangent: anything that might lead me to formula-feeding here is not just undesirable: it’s dangerous. I haven’t a clue how I would go about sterilizing bottles and bottle parts, in a city where the tapwater is not safe to drink. Two days ago I discovered tiny, tiny little worms crawling in the drainboard, which holds nothing but clean dishes, ever. Were they larvae from something that laid eggs there because it was wet for so long, or did they actually come from the rinse water? I don’t know. But I’ve seen how long it takes for anything plastic or jar-like to dry after I’ve washed it…  (shudders). Breastfeeding is not just a good idea: it’s the only safe option, here. And this is a major metropolitan area, not some rural third-world backpacker experience. The Chlorinated States of America should be ashamed for so heavily exporting its formula-feeding habit to the rest of the world. That stuff may be safe in the US, but it could easily kill my baby here. Anyway, stepping off my soapbox…

Advice: It’s not all bad. This morning one of the maintenance ladies spotted me coming down the stairs from the roof with the laundry, and let me know by way of encouragement that the exercise is good for me, and will help the baby to move downward and maybe arrive sooner. I knew this already, of course, but the maintenance ladies don’t speak any English, so I am actually grateful for all these small exchanges on familiar topics– they help my vocabulary. They also give me a bit of practice/confidence with responding intelligibly.

Manta tying lessons, astonishing weight gain

36 weeks. Wow.

At my checkup yesterday, we found that I had put on three kilos in three weeks, which would freak me out in any other circumstances, but…  for the first time in the whole pregnancy it puts me into the “green zone” for weight gain: above the 25th percentile line, and still safely below the “way too much” line. Hooray!  Whatever position-changing magic act the baby has performed in the last week, his or her head is still downward so all is well.

At class, we all trekked upstairs and tried out different delivery positions for water birth, in the big tub (dry), which was fairly hilarious but also enlightening. There was also an extended discussion of poop (i.e., yes, during childbirth the baby’s head can squeeze poo out of you involuntarily– don’t worry about it!) which I (shockingly) understood almost all of. The lesson here is: if you want me to understand something in Spanish, figure out how to bring poo into the discussion.

Today, we had the internet tech in to fix the internet, which had been out for a day. This meant the whole gaggle of building ladies were in and out of the lobby and our apartment, along with the internet tech, with much heated and unintelligible debate. But whenever I’m in the room, the discussion turns to due dates and baby stuff. I’m getting good at this conversation, because I’ve had it so many times– you’d think this would get boring, but it’s really a fantastic way to pick up bits and pieces of the language. We established that yes, we’re due sometime around the new year, more or less, that we are currently at 36 weeks. The third maintenance lady, whose name I am deeply ashamed not to know, made an inquiry about a “colcha”. We had to consult the dictionary. It’s some kind of blanket or quilt. I dug out a couple of blanket-like things from my baby stash to see if we could clarify– the bombasí was not what she meant, and the hooded knit cotton thing was for baths, she said. I pulled out the manta we’d bought a while back and she brightened up. It was not a colcha or a colchita (the baby-sized version) but she showed me how it was supposed to be worn, and how to arrange it for carrying a baby Cusqueña-style , which was extremely helpful!

We knew that’s what it was for when we bought it, but it was such a small square I could not figure out how to tie the thing. She tied it diagonally, and instructed me to then use a diaper pin to secure the loose ends of the knot. The knot goes up on my shoulder and the body of the manta goes under the other arm. For the two dangling corners of the square, you tuck in the one closest to your body, and the other one can be used to cover up the baby.

I am not sure why everyone insists on covering up babies here. Most of the Lima ladies seem to carry them around smothered in blankets, so that you can only tell by the outline that there’s a kid in there at all. Is this to protect them from… chills? Smog? The germ-infested strangers who would otherwise think it’s ok to touch the baby without permission? It does not seem to be a modesty thing for nursing, which is done quite openly.

Sleep deprivation and altered tempo: rotten combination

The baby has been messing with my thermostat– I keep waking up at night sweating a lot and drooling a little, while my husband sighs comfortably under the blanket I’ve kicked off. The bedcovers are a disaster in the morning. I had already been getting up 1-3 times a night to pee, and I really didn’t think my sleep could get any more disrupted, prior to the kid’s arrival (after that all bets are off). I guess late pregnancy is to make sure you are ready and willing to go through childbirth just to get it over with.

The lack of sleep makes me grumpy and intolerant.

The thing I am most often grumpy about is the way my husband eats. This has never bothered me before, but now I can barely stand to be in the same room with him if he is eating. Every little slurp or grunt or chewing noise is stomach-churningly disgusting. I actually avoid eating breakfast and lunch at the same time he is eating, so that I can put on my headphones and listen to podcasts that drown out the noise.  I steel myself to sit through dinner like a civilized wife. But it’s not just that he eats noisily: he eats too fast. Like he’s late for something, and in a rush to finish.  Maybe it’s the natural result of growing up with older brothers: if you finish last you have no chance at second helpings?

Maybe not, though. pregnancy seems to have slowed my whole tempo. I walk more slowly. I think more slowly. I’ve been forced by my creaky joints to move more slowly. I probably even breathe more slowly.  I’ve gotten used to it. And this makes my husband seem like a caffeinated hummingbird, flicking from website to website, from the computer to the kitchen, from making tea to pacing the floors. It is supremely irritating.  When he wolfs down his dinner, I feel threatened. Not by him, personally, I just pick up on his frantic pace, and I have to fight to avoid speeding up to match it– it makes some part of me think there must be an emergency, some kind of danger, like we might have to jump up and dash out of the house at any moment. Where? What is it? Where shall we flee to?

I’m worried about this. It’s making me crazy. I feel like I need to go with nature here– slow down, relax. But I can only do it when I’m not around my husband. Even when he’s trying really hard, he seems totally incapable of slowing down. He gives frantic back rubs and staccato foot massages that leave me with clenched teeth. And as desperately as I need him to be present when our child is born…   I feel like I might have to kick him out and let him pace the halls while I give birth, because I can’t afford to have him flitting around making me tense.  That makes me want to cry.

There are a lot of advantages to giving birth in a foreign country: I’m not being coerced into procedures I don’t want, I can give birth outside the hospital with a midwife (in my home state this is largely illegal), we can actually afford the medical care involved, our kid is eligible for dual citizenship…  there is so much to like.  But it’s lonely.  If it turns out I can’t have my husband around during labor, there aren’t any other familiar people to turn to. We know a lot of extraordinarily kind people here, but we haven’t been here that long. Not people I know well enough to have with me for who-knows-how-long, who would be comforting to have around while I am tired, naked, and in pain. Only my husband, the hummingbird.

Heartburn, Planning a Border Run

This week, the heartburn started. I’ve had reflux before, and while unpleasant, it’s not a huge deal.  The pickles keep it under control. The heartburn is a whole different story. Heartburn is a whole new experience for me, and while the pickles help a little bit… they’re not a cure.  Staying upright after dinner has become very important to me. And dinnertime has been creeping earlier to accomodate.

One of the awkward things about being here is that, while it’s totally easy to get a six-month visa on arrival, there is no way to renew it if you want to stay longer. And in the interest of not having to go home, change care providers and re-enter the absurdly expensive US health care system to have a baby…   getting another six months is essential. Theoretically, of course, we could just let our visas expire and pay a not-too-hefty fine when we leave, but…  there are some legal concerns with that. They won’t throw us in jail or anything– they like tourists who stay and spend money for a while– but it doesn’t seem like a good idea to have expired visas while we are trying to wade through all the bureaucratic paperwork to get a passport for the baby, register the birth with the embassy so we can sort out citizenship properly, etc.

What this means is that before our visas actually expire in a couple of months, we will need to travel to a neighboring country, spend the night, and then come back home, crossing the border and getting our passports stamped for another six months in the process. It’s a fairly common thing to do, and there is a regular bus service to the nearest border crossing. It is, however, a 19- hour bus ride. Each way. I’ve made such trips before, and since I can’t sleep upright, it’s very, very unpleasant. We could also fly, but that would be considerably more expensive.

Timing is key. Right now, I feel up to the trip, but it’s too early to do it. We have to wait at least a few more weeks to avoid our visas running out *again* before we have all our papers together to make the trip home. It’s also important to make the trip before I get to the too-uncomfortable-to-travel stage of things. I feel like time is running out on that one, at just about five months now.  Decisions, decisions…

Pregnant Ladies Everywhere, Baby Transport

It could be my imagination, or perhaps just some kind of selective pregnant-lady visual filter, but it seems like there are pregnant ladies everywhere here. The supermarket is not far from our house, but any time I walk there, I can spot at least one, and usually a handful, of obviously pregnant ladies. It’s oddly comforting. I mean, I stick out no matter what, thanks to the pasty complexion and not-black hair, but once I get large enough that my rain jacket won’t hide my belly anymore, at least that won’t actually make me look even more strange. It may even cause me to blend in a little bit.

Logically, there also seem to be ladies with babies everywhere.  What interests me is the way they’re carried. I hardly ever see strollers, which makes a lot of sense since so few people drive– I can’t imagine trying to haul a stroller, no matter how compact, on and off the chaotic buses. Most ladies here in the big city seem to carry their infants in their arms, covered in a blanket. I’m not sure if this is to protect them from the chill, the smog, or the stares of strange gringas in the street. Up in the mountains, where we spent a month before moving here, the preferred baby-conveyance is a brightly-woven shawl, generally tied in a knot at the mother’s collarbones, bulging at her back with the shape of an unconscious baby or toddler. On the odd occasions I saw the children awake, the shawl and the child had been shifted around so that the child could sit upright in the shawl and peek over mother’s shoulder. When the ladies sit down– whether to ride the bus or to nurse on a public bench, the shawl just gets scooted around so the child is in front. This seems like a pretty handy system, and I may try to learn it myself. Up in the mountains, the women don’t just carry children this way. I’ve seen them removing all sorts of things from their shawls: bundles of goods for sale, groceries, lunch, even baby llamas. Down in the city, you don’t see the shawls much– one wonders if this is just one of those things only the “indios” do, and therefore subject to cultural bias, or what. Maybe it’s just more comfortable if you’ve been using a shawl to haul loads since childhood, and city folks aren’t used to them.