Into the blender glugs Tropicana orange juice, I stuff two giant handfuls of spinach, and plop frozen berries and mangos on top. The smoothie whirls into a stiff frozen paste and I slam the base of my janky blender against the counter an obnoxious amount of times to get it to mix completely. I pour it into my tall red Six Flags souvenir cup with the whistle straw, drink it down, and the baby in my belly dances. I imagine those dark green leaves being absorbed into her body and the risk of spina bifida, cleft palate, and cleft lip evaporate. I also pray it, coupled with my prenatal vitamin, reverses the effect of the mug brownies I devour each evening before bed. I feel so confident in the ways I am nourishing my child.
Four months later, I place the silicone shield over my breast and try to persuade my newborn to latch on. For weeks, I dance and sway and shush trying to get her screaming mouth to accept my body’s milk.
I breastfeed for 18 months even though it pains me, both physically and mentally, to do so because someone told me once, (and the internet shouted its echo over and over again) “breast is best!” My nipples sting, my body is touched out, and I am tired beyond all comprehension. I cannot leave her because I am so scared she will become hungry and my breasts will be out of reach. I wish someone would have told me it was okay to feed her formula.
It is Sunday morning and I scramble my two daughters the last two eggs, halve the last banana, and throw a couple dates onto their plates. They’re still hungry, but the pantry is now bare. I feel like I should tell you that we just moved and finances are different and we are trying so hard to ex out the nonessentials. I feel the need to explain myself, but the fact remains, my children’s stomachs are still growling and I don’t have food to feed them.
I skip breakfast and give them everything I have to offer. I take the sacrament bread at church. It tastes different today. I ask for forgiveness for their hunger.
I feel like I should tell you that we use our savings to buy bananas and cereal and almond milk after church. I am grateful we stashed away that extra tax refund cash into our savings account. I bake a loaf of bread, and Ana is hungry and hungry and hungry again and that bread is gone by bedtime.
I call and make an appointment with WIC the next morning.
Our four person family, including my husband in his stiff military uniform, sit in a stuffy waiting room with a single mom and her 18 month-old, and a young couple with a baby in a too-small car seat. We fill out our forms in sequence, and I want to run out the heavy glass doors. Classism hisses in my ear saying I don’t belong here, but our annual income says that we are right where we belong.
I force myself through the doorway of the first room where they ask about breastfeeding and I remember the struggle to feed them then. They send me onto the next step, and we sit on multicolor plastic chairs, until their names are called. The kids are measured and weighed and then they have to check their iron levels.
Ana’s body contorts away from the lady in the white coat. She pricks her finger, as my child screams in panic. She tells us to hold her at the elbow to keep her arm in place. I feel sick, my mind tells me I am torturing my child for free food. I imagine all of the milk we will be able to afford, the milk that will fill her belly on nights her legs are growing longer and our empty pantry cannot satisfy her hunger.
Olive’s iron is low and they tell me to feed her better. Anabel is underweight and they tell me to feed her more. A beautiful brown woman in a hijab tells me that two tablespoons of peanut butter are equivalent to one serving of meat and that I should feed her beans before bed. I feel like a bad mom for not knowing she needed to be eating more.
I feel like I should tell her I am trying, but more nights than not, I throw any meat offered to Ana in the trash. As a woman in the western world, I never imagined feeding my babies would weigh on me so much. I feel stupid saying this, I know we are blessed, but I still ache thinking that I am not doing enough, that I am relying too much on the government. The same government that my husband puts a uniform on every day for. We wait for the paychecks and I contemplate working every single week, but day care for two kids isn’t affordable, or practical—even on two incomes.
I walk through the aisles of the grocery store and read the manual WIC gave me, over and over again. I decode the pamphlet and try to find the brands they allow. Nothing is labeled and it takes me thirty minutes to find five items. I am embarrassed as I walk around aimlessly with my yellow folder wedged under my arm. I feel so stupid and dependent; taking things that don’t belong to me. I get to the cashier and I have to leave the eggs, juice, and cheese behind because somehow, I grabbed the wrong things. I accidentally picked the “natural” JIF peanut butter and not the original, so I sprint back to the aisle and grab the right one. I am out of breath and I feel like a burden to those waiting in line behind me. I want to weep for the women who rely solely on this program to feed their hungry children. I know it sounds ungrateful, but this system is an obstacle course. And there is so much shame attached to it.
I felt that shame when I considered shaking powder into a bottle when my girl was I baby. I felt that embarrassment force me into a bathroom stall to balance atop a toilet to breastfeed her. I felt it when I had to use a plastic shield over my nipple to trick her into eating. I felt it when the doctor told me she didn’t weigh enough when she was three months old, and again when we sat in that WIC office and she was too small, again. I felt it when I used those government appointed checks and the cashier huffed and puffed at me because she was confused with how to input the checks into her system. And I felt it in the eyes of my neighbor as her eyes filled with pity when I told her we enrolled in WIC.
I didn’t feel it when I saw full plates with peanut butter sandwiches and full cups of milk that resulted in full bellies—like a weight off of my back.
My girls are fed, and that is enough for today.