By Sara Levine
It came in the mail, unrequested, and it was called Nurse-a-rama (not it’s real name). On the cover was a woman in a mandarin collar blouse smiling down at her nursing baby, who was very pretty and reminded me of mine.
“Look,” I said to my husband. “This cover baby’s a lot like Sally!” No sooner had I made this claim than I realized that the baby’s face wasn’t visible in the photograph. What I was looking at was a Caucasian baby in the cradle hold, her face averted. The baby had no visible gender, very little hair, chunky arms and legs. One fat hand clutched the mother’s mandarin-collared top, a style I might enjoy, according to the catalogue, all summer long. I was about to correct myself when my husband said, “Oh my god! She totally does.”
That should have been the first sign that I was baby mad and baby worn. And that my husband was in no position to check me.
This story takes place three weeks after my baby was born. At that point, I had no designs on a new wardrobe, which is what the catalogue was hawking. I was reading Nurse-a-rama for the pictures: page after page of big beautiful babies lounging on their mothers’ breasts.
I didn’t immediately think about the draw here, didn’t analyze why this shook my maracas. Not because I didn’t want to know, but because of the way my headspace, formerly a great sprawling park, had shrunk to the size of a parking spot. With so much mental energy focused on the survival of a small, helpless, wriggly person, who had time for reflection? I chose to thumb through the pages of the Nurse-a-rama catalogue instead.
I said I was looking for a nightgown, but I was lying to myself, and I knew it even then.
Nurse-a-rama nightgowns come in three different styles and two different colors. But the babies come in more styles and colors. Sally had been nursing for only five minutes when I snagged on a plump page-seven brown-skinned baby with curly dark hair. Boy, he looked like a lot of fun to nurse! I imagined running my hand over his little t-shirted body, ruffling those curls.
That was the first infidelity.
There was also a redhead, much older than Sally, nursing under a tree. A pale Irish kid, who had to be pushing two, twizzling his mother in a hammock. And a girl with shiny black bangs, lolling with her mother in a field of wheat.
By the time Sally burped, I had nursed a bevy of babies—in the café, in the mountains, in the forest. I, who hadn’t set foot out of the house in days, was nursing babies off the Kiani coast. A newborn baby needs to eat often, at least every three hours. I kept the catalogue around, and soon enough it got to be a habit. I’d sit down to nurse Sally and instead of paying attention to the weight of her body or the smell of her hair, I would get lost in fantasies about what it would be like to nurse the Nurse-a-rama babies. Sally’s hand might tug gently at my shirt and Sally’s mouth might latch onto my breast, but in my mind, I was on a beach, wearing a Chantilly Lace Support Cami, nursing a stranger in a cloth diaper.
“Reading Nurse-a-rama again?” My husband asked. “No,” I said.
“I see it under the pillow. Look, there’s no shame in browsing. If you want some new clothes, just buy them.”
This was a man who, three weeks before, had watched his wife labor thirty-seven hours, had watched her push for three and a half hours, and had held her hand as she told a chain of residents from anesthesiology that the epidural wasn’t working. And I think it was because my husband had been attendant during this long and shocking labor—in which the baby clung to the uterine walls as if she were saying “You will have to dynamite me out”—that my husband urged me to buy those clothes, letting some cocktail of emotion (sympathy, gratitude, tenderness) trump fiscal sense. Our family didn’t have money for clothes, especially not specialized clothes with slits and flaps in them.
Besides, if I thought about it, I loathed the clothes in the Nurse-a-rama catalogue—shapeless, loosely cut, printed with hectic designs meant to masquerade milk stains. Sometimes I’d look at them, but in a perverse way. I’ve just had a baby; okay, how else can I ruin my looks? Should I go to a party wearing the day lily sundress with vertical flaps?
No, I didn’t want the clothes, and I didn’t want to nurse other people’s babies, either. The fantasy was good only as a fantasy. If my friend Bella had handed her son over to me and said, “Nurse him for a minute, will ya?” my milk would have dried up in terror on the spot. So what did I want with Nurse-a- rama? A view into a world, a completely artificial, slick, faked up, felt up, gorgeous breastfeeding world in which women nursed their babies as casually as they might, say, water a plant. Who cares if you slop a little water into the saucer or rustle the leaves with the spout of the watering can? I needed to see that kind of insouciance in action, even if it took nine supermodels, eight babies, seven photographers, and a six-day exotic-location shoot to concoct it. I needed to believe that breastfeeding could happen naturally because the message I’d gotten in the hospital was: You won’t know how to breastfeed unless we teach you how.
Or, as the Russian nurse who stood and glowered over me in the hospital bed said, “People zink they know how to do it! Does not “know how to do it! Need instruction.” And she was just the first nurse. A forty-eight-hour hospital stay meant that four different nurses showed me how to nurse my baby. Their techniques varied, though all shared the view that I was doing it wrong or not as well as I could. “You need to get the whole areola in her mouth!” “You need to sit up straight!” “Head higher than her body!” “Don’t do football hold, do cross cradle!” “Don’t do cross cradle, do football hold.” “Cross cradle too hard, do cradle, good for new mothers.” “Don’t let her hang on the nipple.” The first few hours after a new human being emerged from my body, I sat on a blood-soaked ice bag while experts pitched the baby at my breast and commented on my technique. Of course they meant to be helpful. “Don’t worry,” said the second nurse on the first day. (Had I been worrying?) “The lactation consultant is coming!”
Come she did. The queen of experts swept into my room and after a perfunctory “How are you?” embarked on a lecture on how breastfeeding is like eating a submarine sandwich. She showed me her profile and demonstrated how she would compress a sub to get it into her mouth. Then she rolled up her sleeves and made for my breast, which she compressed, while another nurse picked up Sally and led her into the latch. The three of us breastfed Sally, four if you count my husband, who got into the spirit of the thing and leaned over us, offering pointers.
“This isn’t working,” said the lactation consultant. “I’m concerned about your milk supply.” She whispered instructions to the nurse and departed with a brisk reminder that I could purchase her services in the future if I felt stuck. The room, once she had gone, sagged a little. Even the furniture seemed to have lost its luster. Sally and I were bad at breastfeeding! The nurse announced the lactation consultant’s plan for me: I would feed the baby formula through a little tube taped to my breast “to give her incentive,” and I would pump before and after every feeding because my milk supply was “in danger.”
“Get out of that hospital,” hissed my sister-in-law on the phone. It was way too early to assume my milk was in danger, she said. “Check out early! Go on!” This was good advice, but we were young and the labor had made us stupid. Did I say that when we’d checked into the hospital we’d given up our brains? They were in a little jar behind the reception desk; we’d get them back when we checked out. So we stuck around and fed Sally formula through a tube, though I still don’t understand why. When we left, I had seven pounds of baby in my arms and, in my head, a gnawing anxiety that I didn’t know how to feed my own child.
Once we were home, I nursed Sally around the clock, relieved to do so without the experts watching. If my husband offered a tip (“Belly to belly, remember?”) or my mother rearranged one of my thirteen pillows, I snarled like a wolfhound. Those pillows were extensions of my body and at the same time a mountain range that I had to build every time I sat down. (Why, to nurse a newborn, do you need so many pillows, all of which shift precariously in your lap, inspiring concern that your baby is going to tumble into the crevasse and suffocate, or else topple fontanel-first to the floor, an incident which you imagine having the consequences of the most ghastly alpine accident—Tony Danza skiing into a tree, let’s say, collapsing his lung, crushing his ribs, pulling his leg from his hip socket? Maybe only mothers with hardwood floors worry about this?)
Back home I was paranoid that I wasn’t feeding Sally right, and yet I was too stubborn to let anyone give me pointers. How would I know if this milk thing was working? The baby opened her mouth wide, her latch seemed adequate, her mouth never covered the areola, but sometimes, in my anxious probing, I’d yank her off too soon and milk would spill out of her mouth. Was that proof enough? No. Therefore the way we used to study books and newspapers, we began to study her diapers. Yellow crystals in the urine? Consistency of the bowel movement?
We made charts!
On top of it all, our pediatrician was a brassy, bouncy, back-whacking baby lover who, after Sally’s two-week weigh-in, called us late at night from her car phone. Typically doctors want your baby to have regained her birth weight by then, and our doctor, Dr. Brassy, was “concerned” that at two weeks, Sally weighed an ounce and a half less than she’d weighed when she was born.
“I don’t want to scare you,” said Dr. Brassy, “but we like to see babies weigh more than this so if they get sick, they have some fat reserves to draw on.” She asked me to feed the baby in the office so she could see what was going on. I assumed the cradle position and Sally began to eat; the doctor walked over and corrected my positioning so I was in the cross cradle. Then she went away. As we sat in the little examination room, Sally sucking away, my arm feeling heavy and awkward in the new position, I felt sad and incompetent. There might have been a sign on the door: BREASTFEEDER ON TRIAL HERE.
Dr. Brassy came back in and weighed Sally again. She weighed one ounce more. “I’m concerned,” said the doctor. “Feed her more often.”
I called my sister-in-law who said, “Why is she quarrelling about ounces? I’d fire that doctor.”
So we did. We found a calm, pleasantly skeptical, hands-off doctor who said that as long as Sally seemed alert, we needn’t worry. Of course I continued to worry. Was I feeding her frequently enough; was I holding her in the right position; was her latch all right? Could I nurse her the way I wanted to, or was I costing her calories with my stubbornness?
We peered into other people’s strollers and front-packs, measuring plumpness. Cast an eye back on Sally.
She looked fine. Alert. Skinny.
And then that Nurse-a-rama came in the mail.
* * *
I’m thirty-three years old, or was at the time of the story I’m telling, and I had never seen anybody nurse up close. The women I knew moved stealthily to a corner or to the back room at parties; they nursed discreetly. Sometimes they bottle-fed their kids in public and saved the nursing for home. Maybe I got off on Nurse-a-rama because it gave me a chance to gawk, to get a good hard look at how other women do it and check out the positions.
“You know,” said my husband, “I don’t think those babies are really eating. It looks like the models are holding the babies up to their chests, a few inches away.”
“Of course they’re eating. What are you saying?”
“How can they be? Look here. See the distance here … “
He was pulling the expert talk on me—how the baby was held, whether her mouth could be completely covering the areola.
“Well, how can you know?” he said, trying to drop it.
But I didn’t want to drop it. “I want to know,” I said. “I’ll call them.”
* * *
On the Nurse-a-rama website there is an e-mail address to place an order and an e-mail address to talk to someone in customer service. And then there is an e-mail address “for all other requests.”
That would be me.
“I would be happy to talk with you,” wrote the President of Nurse-a-rama three hours later, when I was still in my pajamas. “Just give me a call and we can either talk then or set up a time.”
Of course I hadn’t said I was a Nurse-a-rama addict. Nor had I said I disliked her fashion sense and treated her catalogue like porn. I told her a story that seemed plausible, some- thing that came true later but wasn’t anywhere near the truth then: I told her I was writing an article on breastfeeding.
Wow, I thought. All this time spent reading Nurse-a-rama and now I was going to talk to the person who made it. She would have the low-down on my fantasy world. The adult models, were they really the babies’ mothers? Were they nursing in the photos or faking it?
Most importantly, she would know the babies.
What, Mrs. President, are they really like? You can tell me!
While I was waiting for the President to call me back, I trolled around the website and discovered that Nurse-a-rama had a mission apart from hawking clothing: to educate women about the benefits of breastfeeding. The President cared about the health of babies, she cared about the earth’s resources, and she was counting how many cans of formula breastfeeding women saved from the landfill.
I began to regret having an appointment to talk to an obviously superior human being. My confidence wasn’t great in those days. It didn’t help that I wasn’t getting out of the house much. What had happened, I wondered, to my political edge? I’d expected it to get stronger with the onset of motherhood. In my early twenties, I’d read Grace Paley’s playground stories, those witty, sharp-mouthed stories about mothers going and singing to the Board of Education, and I’d thought, This will happen to me; I will become a mother and start caring, big-time. In college I was an ardent but bookish feminist, taking part in a handful of political actions, baffled by my own discomfort when I stood up at rallies and tried to shape my mouth around group chants. But I was patient, because I assumed radicalism would come later, with motherhood. It was like a package I had ordered that was coming, say, book rate from all the way around the world. I would wait, years maybe, and my radicalism would arrive. I would find it intolerable to sit on my butt any longer. The causes I cared about, in an armchair way, I would now get up and do something about for the baby’s sake, but also because I would feel those causes coursing through my milk ducts, and at last I would have a reason to feel connected to the planet.
(I still, by the way, have hope for myself.)
But my baby had been wiggling on this planet for three whole weeks, and how could I pretend I was en route to becoming radicalized when I’d given up even reading the newspaper? Those times I was nursing Sally were my only opportunities to read, and instead of reading Mother Jones, I was reading Nurse-a-rama. I had a bookmark in Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, and that bookmark moved more slowly than I did. I wasn’t radicalized; I was lobotomized.
As I dialed the number for Nurse-a-rama and punched in the personal three-digit extension of the President of Nurse-a-rama herself, I thought, God knows what I am going to say. My only plan was to let the bright bird of my true concerns be camouflaged by dense shrubs of questions I didn’t really give a hoot about—the underbrush, if you will, of the interview.
As it turned out, the President of Nurse-a-rama volunteered immediately that the models were nursing their own babies. “That’s what most people want to know,” she said. “For years people have written, asking if the models are nursing. People say I’ve never seen mothers nurse before, I’m leafing through the catalogue looking at the positions, and I feel like you’re right there in the living room with me! “
“Really?” I said. If I had felt like the President of Nurse-a-rama were in my living room, the nursing fantasies would have been off. On the other hand, I might have grabbed her by the mandarin collar and said, “What the hell is happening to me?”
The President of Nurse-a-rama went on, professional, informative, cordial. Clearly she had given this interview a million times, to people who, unlike me, were writing articles on breastfeeding.
She explained that she hired her models through a New York agency that represents pregnant and nursing models. She told me about some models who bottle-fed but tried to pretend they were nursing so they could get the job. “You need a seriously nursing baby to get a shot,” she said. “You need that baby to nurse for twenty minutes. Babies who usually get their milk from bottles aren’t that interested. Every once in a while we’ll get a model who has a nanny or works for a living and is not that well bonded with her baby.”
“How can you tell?” I prodded, alert to a shift in tone, the confiding, slightly sneering tone to which I was morbidly sensitive.
“You can feel it on the set. The child is unhappy and not easily satisfied.”
* * *
After we hung up, I pondered those unhappy, ill-satisfied children and their non-breastfeeding mothers. They haunted me, those poorly adjusted mother-child dyads, the insufficiently bonded. Could specially informed people see bad bonding the way a dentist looks at a nice smile and sees Streptococcus mutans? It spooked me that the President of Nurse-a-rama might pick up deficiency like a vibration or a scent in the air. I’d read enough articles that talked about the necessity of mother-child bonding to be prone to worry. At my first meeting with an obstetrician, when I was about twelve minutes pregnant, I’d said, “Will I be able to breastfeed as soon as the baby is born? Will I be able to have the baby on my chest? I’ve read that if the hospital whisks the baby off for her APGAR, I’ll miss the crucial bonding—”
“Yes,” the doctor said with poorly disguised impatience. “That’s no problem.”
(In fact, the baby was whisked off for her APGAR and my husband cried out, “Honey, do you want me to bring her back so you can breastfeed?” Slumped in the bed, already drifting into sleep, I grunted, and luckily my husband knew the grunt meant, “Hell no, I could use a freakin’ minute.”)
Having hung up the telephone with the kind and cordial and informative President of Nurse-a-rama, I now worried that I was that kind of mother, the mother who shows up on the set, hoping to make a pretty picture, but anybody can see—okay, not anybody, but certainly those natural-woman types like the President of Nurse-a- rama—that something was wrong.
What was wrong?
Not belly-to-belly, not mouth-not-on-areola.
I loved my baby, but I also wanted to work. Was I the sort who was a little too cold, not quite attached enough, not attentive? One of the terrifying things about the early days of motherhood was how ill suited I felt my personality was for parenting someone. Suddenly all the little foibles of self were magnified, writ large. When you don’t have children you can just keep evolving at your snail’s pace. There’s no pressure to get it together. If you fail to be as generous, brave, active, and courageous as you wish to be, whom do you hurt besides yourself?
With Sally there, though, small and helpless, I felt like everything about me was now visible, legible, and about to clobber her. How easy, comparatively speaking, were the terrors of the first day home from the hospital. I had walked the baby to the car and eyed the pavement suspiciously. So hard and sinister—did it mean to trip me up? On the highway, I shuddered each time a car barreled past. On the street, children’s voices rose up, harsh and strident. And the sun, why did it have to shine so bright? Think we could get some cloud cover for a minute? Jesus, we have a baby here!
This vulnerability wore off, but three weeks later what had replaced it was a sense that I was the threatening force. Oh my god, how am I going to protect my baby from the influence of me? I might consciously teach her some abstract lesson on, say, manners, but then she would see me grabbing the larger piece of cake when I relaxed, unawares, and there would be the real lesson in manners. My god, was I going to have to patrol myself all the time? Was I going to have to reinvent myself?
In a telephone conversation, I told some of this to a friend, who chided me gently. Why was I worrying about my poor character when I’d just given birth to a baby?
“When would be a better time?” I said. “Trust me, what you’re feeling now, it doesn’t last.”
“What am I feeling now?” I said (not a smart-ass, but truly, a stranger in my own strange land).
“I don’t know. I just remember the storm of those first few weeks—it doesn’t last.”
She was right. I had things out of perspective; the volume on the radio was turned up too high. This was three weeks in—I’m describing a mood here, an olio of hormones, reality, and terror. But for all the post-partum distortions, I’d put my finger on a real dilemma: The first task of motherhood is to learn how to love yourself, and there’s no way to do this quickly. We mark the mile- stones of infancy, but there are no charts for coming to terms with yourself as a human being. I wouldn’t do this project in three weeks, ten weeks; I wouldn’t buy what I needed from a catalogue, ask a question through e-mail and—zing!—get back an answer. I wouldn’t call a hotline, or even the professional, informative, cordial President of some Department of Self- Realization and Kick-Ass Self-Esteem. I was on my own, I thought, at the precise moment that I held a baby in the crook of my arm.
Author’s Note: The first few weeks of motherhood stunned me. I seemed to be nursing my daughter all the time and had forgotten how to get out of my pajamas. In this essay I was trying to capture some of the insularity and insecurity of that period. Time passed, as they say in bad novels, and quickly I forgot how nuts I was on the topic of breastfeeding. I’ve quit my day job and am promoting a series of instructional videos, including 10 Steps to Unforgettable Breastfeeding Technique and Super Nursing: Guide to Advanced Positions. Just kidding.
Sara Levine’s writing has appeared in The Iowa Review, Denver Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, and other magazines. She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Brain, Child (Fall 2005)