It’s easy to become desensitized to newspaper photos. Hurricanes. Train wrecks. Kidnappings. As we flip blithely through oversized, peril-heralding pages, the images become small, muddy-colored windows into worlds we can’t really relate to, and don’t especially want to visit.
Every once in a while, though, an image still tweaks me right where it counts. Like the recent photo of a frowning Chinese infant strapped to a hospital bed, his wrists restrained to keep him from pulling out the various needles and tubes taped to his bare chest and arms.
He’s one of more than 50,000 babies who’ve been sickened by industrially tainted infant formula in China. And his picture hit me hard: I had chills, then nausea, then tears. I had empathy, then anger … and then guilt.
Which is strange, because researchers confirmed it wasn’t me who killed four babies and left 13,000 hospitalized. It was melamine, a white, fire-resistant powder used to make plastic. When added to watered-down formula, it makes the product appear higher in protein. When ingested, it can cause kidney stones and renal failure.
The Chinese government has arrested more than a dozen melamine suppliers and contaminated milk manufacturers. But that doesn’t dull the agony the babies, and their parents, are enduring.
“When I look into his eyes, I feel so guilty,” Mo Chongjian told the L.A. Times after learning that his year-old son has stones in both kidneys. “I couldn’t protect him.”
I can’t say I know what it feels like to stand in line at a public hospital with your wailing infant, waiting for the ultrasound that will tell you whether his food source has poisoned him. But I know what it doesn’t feel like. It doesn’t feel like you’re a good parent.
My sons consumed a lot of formula because I had trouble nursing them. For whatever reason, I couldn’t produce enough breast milk to keep them satisfied, or even healthy. I knew from childbirth classes and parenting books that, nutritionally, breast-feeding is the best thing a mother can do for her kids. Studies show children who nurse are somehow smarter. Plus breast milk is free and — unlike formula — doesn’t stain. Fantastic!
No sooner was my son delivered from my womb than he was lifted to my breast for his first gulps of sustenance. Providing this customized baby fuel known as “liquid gold” was my first job as a new mother, and I wanted so desperately to rise to the role and prove my maternal mettle.
But I couldn’t. No amount of pumping, herbal supplementing, or even beer-chugging (a nurse told me secretly that the yeast might help) could encourage my feeble postpartum physique to step up production on the newborn nectar.
I hired consultants. I filled prescriptions. I put myself and my firstborn through too many sweaty sob sessions trying to convince us both that failure wasn’t an option. But ultimately, he drank formula. Gulped it. Guzzled it. Chugged it down with a glee, and an expression of utter peace, that I had never seen cross his face before. And despite my malfunctioning mammaries, he thrived.
Photos from China’s formula fiasco brought back the feelings of desperation, failure and, as Mr. Chongjian said, the guilt that marked my first few months of motherhood.
What I’ve learned since then is this: You get thousands of opportunities to prove your parental pluck, to protect and provide for your children. The parents of China’s ailing infants may find, as I did, that parental success isn’t measured in how well we control the uncontrollable. It’s in how we react to those events, getting our kids whatever they need — be it food or medicine — to find peace.
Here’s hoping they get that chance.