By Jennifer Mattern
The bacchanalia is taking place in my living room, right under my nose. They think I am not paying attention, that their cheerful depravity has escaped my notice. The revelry began a few hours ago at the coffee table, then meandered suggestively to the couch. Now, the merry participants have spilled salaciously, en masse, from the couch onto the floor. It is impossible not to look. I struggle to remain impassive, which is exceptionally difficult in the face of such licentiousness: The canary-haired mommy breastfeeds the bow-legged ballerina in the purple leotard, the ugly little sister suckles in the arms of the ice-cream man, the Neanderthal-browed daddy nurses the family dog. Libertines, all of them, offering themselves to each other without shame on my living room rug.
I am no Margaret Mead, but within the culture of my living room–as I once knew it–this is anomalous social behavior. I am witnessing a veritable dairy orgy, a breastfeeding blowout: jubilactation. No one is turned away; everyone here gives and receives milk freely. In this village, it does take a village to slake everyone’s thirst. Can I nurse? the natives ask one another, joyfully, over and over. I can see that the request is ritual, not requisite, for the answer is as fixed and immutable as their dazedly happy faces. Sure, you can! Me, too? Sure!
They are a blissful people. I imagine their tiny veins, coursing happily with half-and-half. But the small denizens of this human creamery outpost are made of molded plastic and have no veins to speak of. The fact that they are made of hard plastic, rather than gratuitously pliable flesh, is one of two reasons that I allow them to pursue their wanton suckling ways on my living room rug.
The other reason: The small deity running this free-love, free-milk universe is my twenty-seven-month-old daughter, Sophie. She is the master puppeteer, and all strings lead to milk.
Breastfeeding has never been a casual, take-it-or-leave-it proposition for Sophie. Only four-and-a-half pounds at birth, she burst forth from my body ravenous. The first few weeks of her life, I nursed her almost hourly, around the clock. She wanted only this, endless hours at the breast, and nothing else could console her or keep her nameless melancholy at bay. She was an unhappy infant, a brooding baby who seemed to see the entirety of her life stretching before her and liked what she saw not one whit.
I told anyone who would listen (and there were fewer and fewer all the time, for what can be more tedious than the lamentations of a newly minted mother?) that each feeding would be the last, that I could not bear it, this nursing. There was pain, staggering at times, in spite of my plentiful milk and her textbook-perfect latch. In the beginning, she milked with a vengeance–not, I perceived, directed at me but, rather, aimed outward at the universe. She nursed with something akin to defiance: See this? I’m here! Take that! She nursed, and therefore, she was. Who could deny her this? Certainly not I.
And so the story goes: In time, the pain ebbed and became discomfort. Soon, the discomfort subsided altogether. I was surprised to discover that I was happy to nurse her most of the time and happier still when the smiles began to come. Her first smile, as I nursed her. Fourth, fifth, tenth, fifteenth smiles: as I nursed her. I would stop nursing her, I told myself, when her teeth came in/if she began to bite/when she could crawl/when she could walk/when she showed waning interest. I had been told stories of such infants, fickle creatures who simply lost interest in the act of breastfeeding and weaned themselves virtually overnight. I read countless Web postings of brokenhearted mothers, cut off from nursing when their cold-hearted babies turned up their noses. What, breastmilk again?
Sophie’s interest did not wane. In fact, over time, nursing only seemed to provide greater comfort, which had come to be in short supply. At four months of age, a medical condition caused her left arm to swell and fester. At its worst point, her tiny arm ballooned grotesquely. It developed two deep ulcers that looked as if she had been shot at point-blank range with a BB gun. It was easy to imagine that the pain could not have been worse for her if she had, in fact, been shot. She smiled rarely during this time and took to shaking the afflicted arm obsessively, as though to shake the pain loose and scatter it upon the floor. Some mornings, her crib sheets were sticky with blood. Daily, I held her tightly (pinned her down, in truth, though it is painful to remember it this way) as my husband dressed her open sores. I remember that it came as a shock that an infant should sob with pain, not merely cry or even wail. She sobbed for two hours after every cleansing of her wounds, weeping with the force of an adult. My husband and I were wholly unprepared for the intensity of her suffering. The only thing that eased her despair was limitless nursing afterward–an entire evening spent at my breast. It was, I suppose, an apology, a peace offering. A promise of something better–a sweeter, more benign future, perhaps–a promise I was determined to make but uncertain that I could deliver.
Her arm healed in time, and her smiles returned–followed, stunningly, by laughter, a sound that, to this day, never fails to knock me off-balance. Nursing continued to be her preferred source of comfort, but it was (as it had always been) much more. It was both a calling heeded and a passion pursued. Her locomotion changed–from wriggling to crawling to toddling to running–but her destination remained the same. She nursed in all places, at all times of day, with undiminished and unabashed ardor. Always, she greeted my breasts reverently, even trembling at times as though in the presence of a long-lost lover. The months quickly hit the double digits, and in that particular leapfrog way that life is fond of unfolding itself, I suddenly looked about and realized that I was the only mother I knew who was nursing a child who spoke in complete, if short, sentences.
And then, another leapfrog, a beginning and an end: A new creature–a sibling–has taken up residence in my womb.
At the first prenatal visit to the doctor’s office, I mention that I am still breastfeeding my toddler. The nurse briskly sets down her pen. Well, you’ll be stopping that immediately, she instructs me. I bristle; there it is, I bristle. I tell the nurse that everything I’ve read leads me to believe there’s no reason to wean. She eyes me suspiciously, shakes her head slowly, then moves on to the next question. At this very second, I decide I will continue to nurse my daughter for as long as possible. I will nurse her until she is twelve, fifteen, if she wants. I will take Polaroids of us, me with a suckling Sophie and siblings (a lactation orgy much like the ones that Sophie will soon orchestrate with her dolls in my living room, though I cannot foresee it at this moment). I will send these Polaroids to the nurse’s home in plain brown envelopes. I will avenge.
It is my body that breaks this vow. My breasts, almost overnight, decide they have had enough and are ready to call it quits. Our nursing, effortless for so long, has become painful once again, almost as painful as it was in the beginning. The pain is sharp. I cannot relax through it, though I try, using the water-buffalo breathing I learned but never used in labor. Why my breasts have turned on us, I cannot say. I only know that I am not the only one hurting here.
I know that I would continue nursing her were it not for the pain, but this is cold comfort to my daughter. I tell her it is not her fault, not my fault, no one’s fault. It is only that Mommy’s body is changing because of the baby in her belly, and the nursing has become painful. The baby doesn’t hurt? she wants to know. No, I assure her, the baby is fine, the baby is not hurting me. It’s just that my breasts, her favorite place of reverie, are no longer their old selves. I want to nurse. Please, Mommy. I need to nurse. At first I acquiesce, weak-kneed in the face of such bald-faced yearning and anguish. I wince, I cringe, I twist in our favorite Shaker rocking chair, the one with the woven cotton-tape seat, two shades of blue crisscrossing in serene harmony.
Two needs in opposition: She needs to nurse. I need to not hurt. In the end, my need trumps hers. This is the first time this has happened, and we both sense that we are on shaky ground, a heaving terra incognita. The earth is shifting beneath our feet, and neither of us can steady the other.
I tell her that she can visit my breasts whenever she wants, and that, although joint custody is no longer an option, supervised visits are permissible. She pulls up my shirt. Can you push this up too? she says, yanking urgently at my pink bra, which seems too cheerful a hue, too blithe a color for such a melancholy occasion. I want to see them. I need to see them. I oblige. She regards them solemnly, her former dominion, now conquered by unseen, inexplicable enemy forces. She is vanquished.
Can I touch them? she asks. She pats my breasts gently with her small hand. The timidity of the gesture cracks my heart, another rift. My heart is etched with fault lines now, where it had once been smooth. I watch her, gazing mournfully at my breasts, and I cannot help but think that perhaps not all of us are born with hearts unmarred. There are those who would accuse me of sentimentality, of conjuring legend (or schmaltz) from thin air, but looking now at my daughter, I suspect that there are some who arrive here with faint cracks already in place.
I tell her she can still look at them, touch them, talk to them, that they will always be friends, my breasts and she. Can I lick them? she wants to know. It is a challenge, a gauntlet tossed. I weigh my options. Okay, I tell her, but only once or twice. She grins, a rare sight of late, and puts her open mouth on the side of one breast, a careful distance from the nipple. Boldly, then, her tiny tongue darts from her mouth–a small pink arrow, pointing to what it cannot have. I cannot help myself. I laugh, and the mirth is contagious. She crawls over my chest, giggling and licking me with her surprisingly dry tongue, a lizard rooting for bugs or whatever it is that lizards seek. After ten minutes of this, propriety rears its ugly head, and I end the game abruptly, depositing her on the floor beside the bed. Still laughing, she hoists up her own shirt and yells, Mommy, can you lick my breasts? I wonder what it is like at the headquarters of Child Protective Services, if I will be given a cup of coffee, how many phone calls I will be allowed. I hope, fleetingly, that the media will portray me in a sympathetic light. My first phone call, I think, should be to the La Leche League. I make a note to myself to carry their toll-free number in my shoe (or, more poetically, pinned to my bra) from now on.
When I tell my mother of Sophie’s request that I lick her breasts (and of my fervent wish that Sophie will not speak of this at her daycare), my mother laughs, then asks, What did you do? Did you lick her? Of course not, I say, not actually certain of the correct answer. My mother laughs again, embarrassed now. She whispers through the phone: I probably would have.
Her admission both surprises and charms me. My mother attempted to nurse me for only a few weeks. She received no encouragement; in fact, her doctor told her that I was too hungry a baby and that she did not have enough milk. Though breast size is supposedly not a factor, I find it hard to believe that our ripe, earth-motherly genes would not have come through for her. I had more milk than I knew what to do with, and it seems likely to me that my mother, with support, also would have blossomed into a spouting font of breastmilk.
Of course, I remember nothing of those early weeks with my mother, her crying into my first strands of hair, her desperate worry that I am starving to death in her lap. It’s a blessing that we don’t remember, I once heard someone say of our first years beyond the womb. I am told that my daughter, too, will forget. For she is no different, is what they mean. Soon, I am told, she will not remember a minute of the thousands of hours we have spent nursing, curled into one another’s softness, breathing one another’s warmth.
I cannot possibly believe it. Who forgets bliss? And, conversely, who forgets grief? In my own life, isolated moments of bliss and grief are all that remain of the past. The moments of bliss particularly are the ones that linger, the moments against which all else is compared. Is my daughter–anyone’s daughter–so different, simply for being so young? Do we forget these early experiences only because there is no one to help us remember? When words were still new to her, she expressed to me in no uncertain terms that breastfeeding was her one true love: Nurse. Please. Thank you. Happy. If it is true that she will not remember this, that what seems so rightfully hers will be taken away, then I want to know who is to blame.
There are shades of grief, some subtle, some not so. I see them all in my daughter, and for the first time, I am helpless to provide solace. Why does no one speak of this, the profundity of her loss, the validity of her mourning? There are other things said: It’s a natural process. Some kids take it harder than others. She’ll get over it. You have to think about the baby on the way. You’re doing the right thing. The pain is your body’s way of telling you it’s time. Better for her to learn now that you don’t belong to her alone.
But I do belong to her. If I’m not hers, then whose?
To be fair, I am dissatisfied with all opinions. I am irritated by those who think I nursed too long, irritated by those who think I could have nursed longer, and irritated by those who think I am making the right choice. A reasonable person might suggest that these points of view seem to cover all the possible bases. And yet, I feel there is something I have not heard and need to hear.
I do what I always do when I am in doubt: I read. This time, I avoid Internet offerings (too colloquial, too common, I think, for I am insufferable in this way) and turn, instead, to the writings of anthropologists, sociologists, historians, linguists–assorted scholars of the ages. At first, they too are of scant help. The cryptic, tight-lipped linguists, for example, reveal only that the word “wean” is a synonym for both “estrange” and “nurture.” I don’t know what to make of this; I am not sure this is something I can use. And so I press on. I will know the right words when I see them, I think.
But the Grail eludes me. I do not find what I’m looking for–not quite. The search has not been completely in vain, though. Ultimately, it is the gentle historians who lead me to a brief passage in an 1880s Victorian London household manual, a passage I find myself reading again and again: The period of weaning is one of great anxiety. Make the change gradually. A little self-restraint in keeping out of sight when the child may naturally be supposed to be hungry, is the greatest act of kindness to the little one. The most favourable time for weaning is in warm weather, when the infant can be amused and kept much out of doors.
My husband and I take Sophie to the ocean for the first time, hoping it will be an antidote to her grief. At the beach, she is suddenly, overwhelmingly melancholy. Noth-ing is right, nothing will do, nothing will hold her interest, not even the hot-dog-and-lemonade picnic we have planned for her. Our blanket is smeared with mustard and relish. I toss a piece of my daughter’s untouched hot dog to a one-eyed, one-legged gull who has stood bravely by for some time, a wounded sentinel. My husband, a mountaineer, not a beachcomber, is appalled by my gesture, which predictably entices hordes of gulls–ominous, suddenly, in their numbers–to the perimeter of our blanket. But you have to feed them, I say. It’s what you do.
My daughter soberly regards the birds, then walks through them and away from us–the parting of the white-and-gray sea. She has no desire to watch them be fed, watch while I give and they receive.
I follow her down the sand. For a moment, I think she is leaving bird tracks in her wake before I realize one of the gulls has already traveled this way. Her father begins trailing her. I seize the opportunity to walk into the ocean, up to my knees, and though I can hear nothing but the crash of the waves, I turn around. She is running to me, crying, begging. The tide is going out, and she knows it.
Can I sit by your breasts? she pleads. I nod, and she nestles against me. It is cruel of me to have worn this swimsuit, a limp and loose two-piece that sags in the chest, flaunting my breasts. I feel cheap, callous. She weeps quietly against my collarbone. This is not for show. Please can I nurse? I need to nurse, Mommy. It has been over a month now; there is nothing left to offer her. I’m so sorry, I tell her. I’m so sorry. How is it possible that I can have no more than this to give? I rock her awkwardly in the sand, my swelling belly a hindrance she and I both try to ignore. I kiss her hair, and the sand she has poured on her head earlier sticks to my lips.
Can we talk about your breasts? she wants to know, must know. Of course. I can give her this. Swaddled in one towel, we watch the ocean and talk about my breasts. The gulls leave us finally, in search of another, more generous, benefactor. In their absence, the sound of the waves is suddenly deafening.
When there is no more left to say, I continue to rock her. She allows me this, for the moment. I realize as I hold her close that I have been scanning the horizon. I know my geography as well as anyone, but still, I find myself looking for a scrap of land rising from the sea, a halfway point between here and there.
Author’s Note: When I wrote “Memo to the Unborn” before Sophie’s birth in 2001, I had no idea my breasts would continue to play such a critical role in the tragicomedy of my motherhood. What’s been most surprising to me is the entirely different brand of passion that my postpartum breasts ignite. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about how my breasts should be used (or not used), and how my breasts could best serve me, my child, and the country at large. Truly, they are rabblerousers, these breasts, the mammary glands that launched a thousand oh-nos, a thousand tsk-tsks. Most of the time, I am dismayed rather than angered by the opinions offered me, bemused, even, on a good day. I would have liked to have kept nursing Sophie–not merely as an act of earth-motherly protest, but because it was, quite simply, the least complicated facet of our relationship as mother and daughter. With nursing, nothing was lost in translation. And that’s a hard thing not to miss.
Brain, Child (Winter, 2004)
About the Author: Jenn Mattern writes all kinds of stuff – poems, plays, essays, terrible haiku. She is the Content Editor at Cool Mom Picks. She is also a sucker for elderly canines, sickly kittens, good grammar, Sailor Jerry tattoos, submarine movies, ghosts, and Meryl Streep, with whom she shares a birthday. A former playwright and actress, Jenn’s career highlights include co-starring in a shockingly terrible play with the Verizon “Can you hear me now?” guy, and baring her tatas onstage to a matinee crowd of appalled senior citizens. After Jenn got knocked up by a Canadian puppeteer in NYC, she decided to leave all the fame and glory behind to raise her family in the sleepy Berkshires of western Massachusetts. A single mama of two comediennes-in-training, Jenn stars in her own pretend 24/7 sitcom, documented in her longtime blog, Breed ‘Em and Weep.
Art by Oliver Weiss