My 4-year-old niece climbed up next to me on the couch where I sat nursing my weeks-old son. Enthralled by her first cousin, she couldn’t wait for him to be done eating so that she could pat his head full of hair and examine his little fingers and toes again.

“Baby Hartley is drinking milk?” she said, looking down at the blanket that shielded his face from a house full of family members who had arrived with grocery bags and gift bags and smartphones at the ready for those first baby pictures. “From a bottle?”

No, I told her.

“From a sippy cup?” No, again.

She peeked over the edge of the blanket, and her eyes grew wide.

“He’s eating you?” she said, then slowly, awestruck: “That’s so crazy.”

That’s exactly how I felt about it.

I had expected breastfeeding to be difficult, painful sometimes and exhausting most of the time. But I knew it would provide the best nutrition for my baby and it was an experience I truly wanted to have. I had no idea just how hard it would be.

In the hours and then days after Hartley was born, the nurses at Mercy Hospital helped my husband and me teach him how to suckle a finger and then latch on to the breast. My mind was consumed with worry about whether my milk would be enough to help my baby, born small, to reach a healthy weight. My mother brought traditional Lebanese meals, family recipes – lentils and rice, and beef slow-cooked with green beans – to the hospital, warming them in the microwave down the hall so that we could have home-cooked meals.

In the days after we came home, as I learned how to track my fragile son’s feedings night and day and I watched him closely for signs that he was gaining weight; my mother-in-law made Korean beef and seaweed soup, the same dish that her family served to her when her son was born, meant to help a new mother recover from childbirth.

Later, as I learned what it meant for a baby to cluster feed, or to nurse almost constantly, for hours on end, my sister simmered big pots of broth and served it to me by the mugful for easy nutrition.

I appreciated these meals, recognizing them as a mediation of well wishes, a service of love. I have often enjoyed being the giver of such gifts, host of a thoughtful dinner party or a boisterous potluck, organizer of meals for a struggling family or a sick friend, deliverer of fresh produce from my garden to another’s kitchen.

I had expected breastfeeding, in the best moments, to feel something like that: the sweetness of a warm dish shared on a cold day. Of course it does sometimes, when my husband lays awake next to me in bed studying our tiny son’s new toes as I nurse, or when Hartley falls asleep, heavy on my chest, completely satiated.

What I didn’t expect was the loneliness that comes as I wake again in those early morning hours when the quietness of the house creates a din. Or, the emptiness when his hunger is endless and there’s nothing left in me to give. Or, the exhaustion so deep that it seems to erode something inside me.

But, then, the changes happen quickly: He outgrows his newborn onesies. His cries turn from soft mews into throaty howls. His cheeks become plump and round, yielding to one perfect dimple and the beginnings of a smile.

Those changes accumulate into a healthy little boy, and I realize my niece was right. He is eating me, my flesh and blood sustained by the work of my flesh and blood.

That is crazy love.

Features Editor Chelsea Conaboy can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @cconaboy