I’ve got milk. I’ve got it soaking through disposable nursing bra pads, small disks the size and shape of sand dollars, and dripping down my shirt. Jesus, how much, exactly, is there? you wonder. Or not.
But maybe you do. Maybe you pick up the phone, breasts engorged and leaking, and call one of the authors of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ breastfeeding recommendation you’d Googled. In the first four months, you calculate (with the doctor’s help), the average breastfed baby nursing on demand drinks 2,268 ounces. Eighteen gallons. Add another 11 gallons over the next two months. By the time your kid turns one, you produce 8,202 ounces of milk, give or take. Sixty-four gallons.
If the stuff were gas, I figured, I could drive from my house to the far side of Kansas. If I’d had twins, I could turn around and drive back home again. If I’d had no kids at all, I could fill up on coffee, crank up the volume, and redeye the road trip—a nonstop just-so story.
But then, I might not go to Kansas, though I’m told there’s no place like it.
My friend Catherine, she thinks the whole mess—the research, the stretch marks, all that pumping, tout—it’s just too much. C’est trop, she said one evening, twenty-three gallons in. My husband had taken our three-year-old son for a naptime stroll. Catherine’s balcony sat in partial shade. My daughter’s head smelled like buttered toast. I love buttered toast. A breeze cooled our skin, warm and also irritatingly rashy from a day at the beach. Suspended in a batik hammock, blouse lifted, nipples tingling, I could hear the plinking of glasses from inside as Catherine prepared dinner. Then, heels clicking on her polished floor, she rounded the corner from the kitchen and, through the parlor, seen us there.
“Encore?!” Her brows arched in a matching twin set of opprobrium and perfection.
“Je la nourris…,” I sputtered, “…a la demande.” My daughter, five months old, popped up from a swollen, sweat-soaked breast, her velvet cheek soft on my side.
“Cinq mois, deja?!” Catherine pursed her lips, setting out forks and knives. “Vraiment, c’est trop,” she said.
I could tell her the AAP recommends that mothers breastfeed for at least one year, I thought, six months exclusively—it makes them stronger, healthier, smarter. L’Academie Americaine du Pediatre dit que l’aillaitement, umm, “…decreases the incidence and/or severity of … bacterial meningitis, bacteremia, diarrhea, respiratory tract infection, necrotizing enterocolitis, otitis media, urinary tract infection…” But I was latched to a baby and translating “necrotizing” just wasn’t rising to the top. I also felt fairly certain that not even Dr. Sears himself, perhaps the proudest parent of the nursing-on-demand ideal, could assure Catherine, who’d breastfed, for one month and four, her two children— now fabulously healthy, kind, and intelligent adults—that “Breast is Best.” Non, I could hear her say, What does Monsieur know of the feeding of the breasts? Non. Vraiment. C’est trop.
Instead, I let my head drop. With bow lips and a vacuum smack, my hungry daughter reattached herself, and I closed my eyes and fell back to the reverie that breastfeeding inspires under certain conditions. No remembrances of temps or perineal integrity perdu. No regrets for colleagues missed or terror over income disparu. The only thought: As soon as my daughter is done eating, I will get up and help Catherine make dinner.
Catherine is smart and kind, has immaculately mannered offspring, five grandchildren, and, I couldn’t help to notice, a soigné bikini profile at sixty, but she still was cooking a five-course dinner for family and vacationing friends while her spouse, equally smart and kind and trim, was far away on business. “Ce n’est pas toujours facile,” she’d snapped one earlier afternoon, while grating carrots for the salad. Tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk. Tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk. Tsk.
Fourteen gallons before, I’d felt my way downstairs to brew a cup of tea. What I’d really wanted was a boot-sized mug of French roast, but then neither one of us would sleep. What I’d really craved that early stay-at-home morning was a true measure of my output’s value. And there, printed in homey script on the back of the box of Cozy Chamomile, was “An Ode to Mothers.” No, Celestial Seasonings couldn’t give me caffeine or economic independence, but they gave a remarkably potent market-researched equivalent of a hug. With jungle hair and slippered feet, I took the ode, Kool-Aid cloying, in great big gulps, fat post-partum tears slipping into the circles under my eyes, echoes— your “Feminine Mistake”— burning dark pin-holes in my heart.
I’d yet to arrive at anything resembling Renoir’s flushed Aline, this much I knew to be true. No radiant porcelain glow, I was cracks and blood and fragrance-free-lanolin-smeared flesh—an AAP-approved, all-you-can-eat, pump-assisted love buffet. I swelled from B to DD, a previously unimaginable stretch from where I’d been: uniformly self-supporting, directionally firm and forward.
Perhaps ten gallons later, I really couldn’t say, I tanked. I’d produced thirty-plus gallons, wasn’t that enough? It was a cold morning, and I tried to find the tea box again, rifling through the stale contents of our pantry cupboard. Kipling, Rudyard Kipling, yes, I’m sure that’s who it was. On his heart-darkest days, I recalled the tea box reading, Kipling would think of his mother. He’d imagine the endless other mothers nourishing their children with outpourings of love, and he would be filled with hope. Yes, that was surely it. Mothers fill the world with hope.
My daughter was plump and content, fingers like tiny wings feathering my ribs, curling around my own, but, like the job I’d chosen to leave behind—your choice, your choice—the tea box, and the assurance it had supplied, was nowhere to be found. I loved my daughter and I had chosen to be a mother and I’d lost thousands in paychecks and I was lonely. What if I got divorced? What if my husband drowned? What if we lived in Cagnes-sur-Mer?
I made another call. “You can do it!” the birthing center’s lactation consultant chirped, regurgitating AAP stats. Would this be easier, would I be smarter and stronger, if I hadn’t been bottle-fed? I actually wondered. Why wasn’t I breastfed?
The brims of my mother’s eyes filled when I asked. “I’d had an abscess,” she said. Later, she even wrote me a letter:
Your brother was five weeks old, just after the old clapboard rooming house next door burned down on a cold night in winter. I was twenty three, in a new world, far from family, and I stood on the long cement front walk holding him in the middle of the night, fire burning, and we watched seven body bags carried out. In the morning, in the hospital, a doctor lanced the abscess, in my left breast, and placed a drain in the opening. In the next bed, an older mother told the following story, which could have had the power to give me the courage to continue nursing on the one uninfected breast, but sadly did not: I nursed all my kids and with one of them had an abscess. It was lanced while I sat on the kitchen table and I just continued nursing on the other breast. She said this in a matter of fact, even humorous way. She then told me about a four-year-old coming to her when she was nursing a newborn, offering her a nickel, hopefully … Titty, Mommy … Please.
“My doctor told me I should stop.” And my mother looked into my eyes the same way she still sometimes does, even now that I’m all grown up, and asks, “Was it hard for you when I went back to work?” She’s never asked, “Was it hard for you that your father rarely left work?” God knows, he never did. Ask, I mean. His mother, who’d come alone from Ukraine to the US when she was young, never quit her job, in a mill, especially not after my grandfather died of pneumonia, leaving her single with seven kids. So, yeah, my father knew that, no, it wasn’t that hard. I was way more than fine in my milk-white skin. My mother, too, her sighs, every one a hot poker— I often think I should have gotten my master’s—aside. On the womanly spectrum, we were blessed. God Bless America, God Bless us every one, some, like me, more than others, because, policy-makers, they’re not around much for the women who make up the 65 percent of America’s low-wage workers, the US and Papua New Guinea the only countries—of 185—without paid parental leave.
I found the tea box’s words again. Years later. I was working again. On hot summer nights, our kids still smelled like toast, and, sitting beside them in a day’s last sips of light, I’d think, There is no place like home—my friends who can’t afford to quit their jobs will tell you that—and also, There is no place like work—as many Stay At Home Moms, and the fathers, we’ll call them SAHDs, will say. The kids were in school, and I was reading again: novels and news and research—“Toxins in breast milk have been associated with lower IQ, compromised immunity, behavioral problems and cancer.” “[M]others who breastfeed for six months or longer suffer more severe and more prolonged earnings losses than do mothers who breastfeed for shorter durations or not at all.” “Longer breastfeeding is associated with increased lower body explosive strength during adolescence.”
It took only a few careless clicks, and there it was, Kipling’s Ode to Mothers: “God could not be everywhere, and therefore he made mothers.” And, then, buried below in a deep well of words, but still quite close to the surface, another Kipling great: “A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.”
At sixty-four gallons, I let my milk dry up. At a well-baby visit, I asked our pediatrician about AAP’s recommendation.
The doctor, a new mother, looked like she’d been awake for hours, like she needed an ode all her own. Mothers could not be everywhere, and therefore we made equal pay for equal work, access to reproductive care, fair minimum wages, affordable childcare, shared care? Mothers could not be everywhere and therefore she made coffee?
“There are breast-fed babies who end up in prison, too,” the doctor said without looking up, filling in her chart. Head circumference, weight, length, the number of heartbeats per minute.
Rumpus original art by Mobius Design Studio.