Breastfeeding was hard. But not the first time; in fact, the first feeding went fairly well. In the months leading up to the birth, I had devoured Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding, attended the breastfeeding class at the hospital, and annoyed breastfeeding friends, no doubt, with my requests to see “how they did it.” I was prepared—or so I thought. When I sat down with Boone that first time, I was all “nose to nipple,” as I’d been schooled. He latched on perfectly (or so it seemed to me) and suckled. I was very pleased with myself. I was breastfeeding! The midwife said “that’s grand” and handed me a pamphlet. By the time I left the hospital, I was fully confident in my assumption that breastfeeding was going to be easy, the least of my worries. He had fed twice, on both sides, after all.
What I hadn’t prepared for—what I could never have prepared for—was Boone’s overwhelming desire to be alive. I mean, he really, really wanted to be alive. He cried out, begging me to keep him alive, all the time. The daily visits from the magic-fingered midwives and my frequent consultations of my trusty Ina May helped but could never assuage this desire of Boone’s, nor soothe my poor sore nipples. I tried not to wince but still my toes would defy me and curl under for every feed. Sometimes, there would be a reddish-brown streak in Boone’s spit up and I’d scream, thinking that my baby was suffering from internal bleeding. It was with a sense of both relief and horror that I’d realise I was the one bleeding and that Boone had swallowed my blood, the vampire baby.
On the third day rubber bands went snap, snap, snap along my milk ducts. I could feel this once dormant part of my body coming to life, fizzing with electricity. Veins popped up, just like on a cow’s udder. My boobs were massively uncomfortable. None of my so-called maternity or nursing clothes could contain them. Huh, I thought, so this is the look plastic surgeons are going for. “Is that your nipple?!?” shrieked my sisters. “It looks like a doorknocker!”
Amidst all the soreness and my somewhat crazed wailings to lactation consultants and other healthcare professionals that my nipples were being “formed into a conical shape” and that I was getting thrush, I was really impressed by this milk production. Milk! Milk that drip dripped every time Boone cried, milk that seeped at the edge of his mouth as he fed, milk that sweetened his breath and made him smell even more like caramel. Eventually, the soreness subsided as we both learned how to do this thing until one day it didn’t hurt at all and Boone, good student that he is, had a latch that looked just like the idealized cartoons in the midwives’ pamphlet. Best of all, I could see that first layer of fat being laid down, turning his spindly little newborn limbs into chubby little baby ones. I couldn’t have been more proud, or felt more important.
I spent most of my days feeding Boone and feeding myself so that I could feed Boone. I thought I had had an appetite when I was pregnant but it was only at this point that I was really eating for two. As I lay supine on the couch, I thought about all the animals I’d ever seen feeding their young and how the mothers would lay there, supine—just like me. The maternity-leave lattes I downed in the name of calories and calcium began to tang in my mouth in a very unappealing way. I would ignore this, of course, and remind myself that I needed that latte and while I was at it, that hunk of cake with cream, thank you very much. As the months went on and breastfeeding took on a greater significance (that is, it was everything—comforter, sickness and teething gauge, sleep aid, love transmitter), I became more and more uncomfortable with consuming dairy. One day I heard a voice say loud and true: that milk’s for the baby cows. A chance visit to April’s family’s dairy farm and her explanation of the dairy process confirmed these persistent little niggles I’d been having. I thought about becoming vegan.
This wasn’t the first time I’d thought about becoming vegan; the last time was in Portugal when I had eaten a whole chicken. The idea had been bouncing around in my head for a while when about this time three years ago, I was watching Oprah when my BFF (that would be Alicia Silverstone to everyone else) came on. She was promoting her vegan cookbook, by way of promoting Whole Foods, by way of promoting a Broadway play she was in at the time. I did no research; I simply let the Oprah marketing do its thing and I ordered the book. Just to, you know, try it out.
It arrived right when I needed it, smack in the middle of dissertation writing. I couldn’t have asked for a better distraction. Since I was looking for a really good distraction, I decided to forego the vegan lite section intended for beginners, with its easy recipes and inclusion of mock meats, and go straight to the back of the book, to the advanced vegan section with its labour-intensive, Japanese, supremely clean, macrobiotic madness. My BFF, she tried to warm me. She had made suggestions like going out to eat in Asian restaurants and getting store-bought snacks. My quest for dissertation distraction, however, was such that I had to cook every single breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and every condiment and snack in between), each meal consisting of several individual components that needed to be steamed or roasted or simmered gently for a good 40 minutes. More than once, I thought that I really could do with one of those industrial looking six-ring cookers.
The intense change in both the foods we were eating and the new style of cooking we were doing was equally matched by an intense improvement in our well-being. After just over a week of millet porridges, miso soups, and sides of steamed green vegetables with everything, we felt vital, energetic, amazing. We’d never felt so good!
It was never going to last, of course. Since I’d approached it as an experiment and had gone about the cooking as if I was in some sort of vegan bootcamp, it doesn’t surprise me that after about six weeks, I gave up. I can remember having a heart-sinking moment one of the very few times I’d eaten out during that six-week experiment; I was in a vegetarian/practically completely vegan restaurant, sitting down to have my meal and cup of tea, all proud of myself, when my hand automatically shot out to the milk jug on the table. I retracted my hand sheepishly only to look up and see that I was sitting opposite an ice-cream parlour. So this is what it is to be a vegan, I thought. Then, one evening in the middle of trying to enjoy a soya yoghurt, its grainy texture and overall taste proving anything but enjoyable, I declared that life was too short to go without dairy, specifically Irish dairy in the form of plain natural yoghurt. There were also the other white obstacles like mayonnaise and butter and ice-cream to contend with, not to mention the fact that I couldn’t get used to non-dairy milk in my tea.
We told ourselves that we had tried but it was just too hard. We couldn’t eat anything. It was just too hard. I was also pregnant by then, which had the effect of turning me off most food items. Food was fine as long as it had never ever been anywhere near a clove of garlic or slice of onion. It was also fine as long as it didn’t have any flavour or resemble food, in general. But about a year later I was breastfeeding and food (the stuff that had flavour and texture!) and the fact that I needed so much of it, was brought back into focus. We’d gotten ourselves into a rut of relying on cheese and eggs because they were convenient. I ended up eating my own weight in beurre aux cristaux de sel de mer on our holidays. I wish I could remember the copy on the packet but it went something like this: aaaah, creamy butter melts on the tongue to give way to the suprising crunch of a salt crystal, at which point you just about come all over yourself. At the time, this copy was relevant to me. In the space of a week, I’d managed to consume two blocks of the stuff and even I, self-proclaimed lover of heart-hardening butter and salt, had to admit that it was too much. The not too subtle thoughts I kept having about baby cows wouldn’t stop, either. All of this pulled me towards going vegan again. This time was different. This time, it was a conviction, a calling. This time I didn’t say to myself that I was going to try out being vegan but that I was going to go vegan.
I didn’t have a timeframe, nor did I know exactly how I was going to make this change but I knew that it was going to happen, somehow. Sure enough, once I had made the decision, things started happening. I came across vegan blogs, had chance conversations with people who’d either given up dairy or were at one point vegan. All of the things that I’d previously seen as obstacles became small, solvable details. I ordered a few more cookbooks and dipped in and out of my BFF’s book and shock, even went so far as to cook dishes from the easier section. Unlike the time of the six-week experiment, I didn’t feel great immediately. I had cravings for chocolate or bread or “something sweet” constantly. The cheese craving kicked in at about the five-week mark. I persevered, I experimented more, the cravings eventually passed. About three months in, I began to feel nourished. I felt good in my blood. My taste buds changed and things I’d never really considered delicious before, simple things like black coffee with toast and jam, or bruschetta with chopped tomatoes, tasted delicious. I discovered almond milk and how nice it was in my tea. I became a sentimental fool for vegetables and developed the compulsion to write romantic pop songs for kale. Ooh baby, you’re so good to meeee, I can’t wait to get you into my machine, etc. At almost every meal I found myself saying “I love being vegan!”
Soon enough the notes I’d been taking along my “vegan journey” took a decided turn for the woo-woo. It wasn’t just a dietary change anymore but something much bigger, that bigger thing being a thing called . . . love! I had started out thinking that I had made this change to accommodate my new-found empathy for other breastfeeding animals but slowly I realized that was I was doing was actually an act of love. I wasn’t too surprised to find that this love extended to other beings but what did take me aback was what an act of love it was for me. I have had to practice saying no in the face of pervading culture, to stand up for myself and to ask for what I want, and often as a consequence of this, for help. Doing all of these things have been to the benefit of not just the good feeling in my blood but also how I feel about myself in my brain. None of these things I’ve had to do were easy. It was very difficult, at first, to say no to kindly offered cakes at friends’ houses, or to ask for something not explicitly stated on a menu in a restaurant, or to let friends know that I’m vegan, full in the knowledge that they would then freak out about what they could possibly give me when I visited. I must have thought really badly of people before because the first time I asked for soya milk in my latte, I was trembling with the thought of putting someone out and this leading to rolled eyes on their part and a bright red face on mine. As it happens, none of this has ever happened. Well, I probably have gone red-faced but the types of response I’ve gotten to my “special requests” have fallen into one of two categories: nonchalance and/or niceness. Asking for help, it turns out, invites care. Some people even seem to appreciate the challenge. All of these responses, I appreciate and welcome with open arms. And a special note to friends: whenever you make an effort, no matter how small or humble you think it is—be it offering peanut butter or beans on toast or buying vegan biscuits or stepping into a health food shop for the first time in your life—this generosity means the world to me and makes me feel loved. Thank you!
A lot of people say to me that being vegan sounds like a lot of work. And I have to concede that it is; I’ve had to learn new cooking methods and experiment with unusual ingredients, overcome shyness and open myself up to alternatives, to become comfortable enough with my own values so that the discomfort of others doesn’t bother me, and to always, always bring a snack. While this work may not always be easy, it’s also not that hard. In fact, all of this work is a pleasure. It’s like the idea I came across in yet another book I read when I was pregnant, the National Childbirth Trust book called Your Birth Year where they advised that if you didn’t love your new baby straight away to act out love through care. They said that by simply carrying out basic babycare—feeding, bathing, dressing—the love would come. This idea of love through action really struck me; the notion that love can be an active work, not passive acceptance or patient waiting, but real work. For me, the work of being vegan is love in action and, as with breastfeeding, it is a gift.