Monday, June 6, 2011

Babies Do Come with Instructions

    The kids, the dog, the cats and I live in a tiny furnished apartment in Paris. The weirdness of that reality aside, I am confounded that I still cannot use the appliances properly. I cannot manage the temperature on the convection oven and have yet to even tackle the awesome steamer machine that supposedly cleans everything to spotless perfection. I will admit, I would like to use that wondrous contraption, but aside from taking apart and putting the vacuum cleaner back together when I was a kid, I have no idea how to work objects with knobs or buttons, especially where the possibility of electricity following some alternate route is involved.

There are instruction manuals for every appliance in the apartment neatly tucked into a drawer for my perusal. The thing is, those manuals are all written in French. I speak very little French. I read a lot more French than I speak, but this is technical stuff. Still, I am curious, so one day very soon, I will haul the manuals out and try to translate them into English.

It is a strange experience to live in a world where you feel incompetent to do the things people take for granted everyday. That you yourself take for granted when you live in a familiar place. It has taken me months just to know how much money I am being asked to pay at the market. When I first lived here, clerks would be so annoyed with me because I always paid with large bills, just to make sure I was giving them enough money.

Last year, someone asked me what would possess me to move to a foreign country that includes in the bargain, a foreign language I do not speak. I replied that apparently, I need to experience the sense of disorientation, incompetence and helplessness that allows us to remember that we are flexible, adaptable and thoroughly capable of growing and expanding at any time.

Mostly, these days, expanding takes on the form of fumbling through. Sometimes I ask for help. I hate that part, but when you really want to do something and you can’t figure it out, you have no other choice. And since I really want to thrive, not simply survive, the only real solution is to learn a language I do not know.

Meanwhile, here in my apartment, I am disconnected from the information I need by my inability to read the French appliance manuals. Everything I need is there, but to me it’s all foreign—inaccessible without translation. If it were my native tongue, I would have sorted out all the appliances by now. When I lived in Toulouse, I had to look up the words labeling the washing machine cycles to be able to set the machine correctly. I am certain I didn’t do it exactly right, but the clothes got clean anyway.

I think this is similar to what it feels like for us when we have babies. We are generally so competent in our worlds that we suddenly feel at a loss when a whole new world envelops us, quite literally in a heartbeat. Yet, I doubt we are ever truly left helpless by Mother Nature and I think babies actually come in with a very useful instruction manual. All babies. Hard-wired into their physiology is all the information we need to meet their needs, and the manual that provides access to that information can be had at the breast. In other words, I think breastfeeding is the language of the instruction manual we imagine to be so elusive.

So long as we are able to read the instruction manual, we can find our way—come to know our babies and be responsive. But, for so many of us raised in Western cultures, the manual is like my French appliance manuals—written in a foreign language. I think the hormones of breastfeeding, oxytocin and prolactin are the “universal translator”, if you will. When we are tuned in hormonally, it’s as if we are taking a journey through a foreign land with a translator at our side.

All too often, given the realities of medicalized, invasive birth and the fact that we begin our journeys late in life (it is best to be exposed to foreign languages during childhood when we are more open), we may have a very difficult time navigating, even with the aide of our translator. I know that I can type all of the words from my appliance manuals into Google Translator, but chances are the translation will be incomplete and even inaccurate in parts. I will need a native speaker to clarify the subtleties. Or I can manage through trial and error.

If you grew up in a household or community where French in my case, or the language of infant feeding in the case of a new mom, was spoken during early childhood, you would have an easier affinity with it as an adult. If it had been introduced to you as part of your education, chances are, like me (I took French in school), you’d have some grasp of the vocabulary and grammar. But, if you were told that is was a dead and unnecessary language, or a language only spoken by “other people”, then you might really struggle to learn it and might easily want to give up. Learning a new language is difficult—for anyone—even more so for others.

Sometimes, when a task as simple as mailing a letter or renting a car feels like climbing a mountain, I want to give up. When I can understand enough words to know what I need to do, but not how I need to do it, I get completely frazzled. But, everyday I understand more and more. It can feel like such an accomplishment to do something I once did effortlessly, just like finding the time take a shower feels like an accomplished day for a mom with a newborn. It’s just a language like any other and anyone can learn it. Even me. Even you.

There is nothing more frightening for me than speaking French. I can know all the right words and then they can’t seem to come out of my mouth. Or they come out the wrong way. Or I know enough words to sound really stupid, to feel like a failure or like I should give up. Experienced moms, La Leche League Leaders and lactation consultants are like the native speaker who helps you sort out the nuances and quirks of the foreign language. The baby communicates perfectly, your hormones respond but your fear of getting it wrong can get in the way. Or you are missing a few words and don’t quite understand what is being asked of you and it all seems worse than it really is. It's like me, not wanting to speak French in public--I prefer to do it discreetly so no one sees how uncoordinated I am!

There is no flaw in the instruction manual--the baby, no flaw in the language--breastfeeding. Breastfeeding works. It’s how we are designed to communicate with, understand and read our babies. The baby knows what is needed and once you follow the baby, so will you. It’s like speaking French—in the beginning, a class or book might no be enough--you might need someone to translate for you or you might even need a tutor, someone to be encouraging, but eventually, it begins to be familiar and you make it your own. The more frequently you immerse yourself among others speaking the same language, the faster you learn. Becoming a breastfeeding mom takes support and education. But once you make it your own, you unlock the instruction manual. The baby is all yours to read.


  1. Nicely put! And I understood it perfectly!

  2. Absolutely MASTERFUL! This is perfect (and eloquent, fittingly) analogy!

    C'est magnifique, mon ami! Formidable! OUI!