I have been thinking very hard of the (just passed) World Breastfeeding Week, and what I would like to say, and I think what I would like to say is this. It’s my own story, because in many ways that’s what I can say, and because I know every human, and woman, and even mother has a different tale to offer. I hope that we can hear each other’s, and learn from each other’s, even when they don’t match up. So here goes.
Once upon a time, I gave birth to a tiny and very hungry girl in an also tiny (and perhaps hungry) New York City apartment, on purpose, surrounded by my caring and competent midwives, doula, and husband. I call her C. Sometime after that, I held her on my couch, surrounded by those same caring and competent attendants. She found my breast quickly, by its smell, but did not latch. The midwives and doula worked together to teach me how to feed C from my own body, suggesting I cup my hand like the same letter (c) to form my breast in the most accessible shape, where C’s mouth should be, how open, and at what angle, and various ways I could hold her.
Even with their help, it was hard. Whole hours hard, per latch. Which might be why every time it worked, it felt like a miracle, and also why my husband was nervous she wasn’t getting enough nourishment, and insisted I wake her up to try, nearly every time she slept. Thankfully our doula intervened by declaring her fine: she still had lots and lots of nourishment from when she was inside of my womb, and her belly was still very, very small. More thankfully still, nursing became easier and easier until it just worked well for both of us. (This is one of those specific places where I know my experience does not match up with every woman’s. Including many women who would prefer it to. And for that, I’m sorry.)
In those very early days, I covered up while nursing when those around me seemed uncomfortable, including in my own home, when male Mormon friends and family members visited. The most significant time (with the longest duration) happened on a cross country flight when C was exactly 4 weeks old. We were seated between two men, one whom I can fairly safely assume was an orthodox Jew. They seemed uncomfortable, which made me uncomfortable, then C even more uncomfortable as I tried to place a light blanket over her while she ate. The result is that she didn’t eat at all, then stayed up that entire night at our destination, nursing. I was lucky, because my generous sister not only shared her hotel bed with us, she also stayed up with me throughout that night, helping where she could, primarily with diapers and lullabies. (I still remember her strong voice singing O Brother Where Art Thou’s “Go to sleep my little baby.”)
That long night became a turning point for me. In asked myself why I would ever put someone else’s comfort above the needs of my own daughter, and as there was no satisfying answer, I made a choice that I wouldn’t do it again. And I didn’t. Instead, I nursed C everywhere she needed to nurse, in whatever way she needed to, which often (if not always) meant without a cover. Somehow the only explicit comment I received about it was from another of my own sisters, who observing me nurse at a public swimming pool accurately declared, “Wow! You nurse everywhere!”
My initial nursing goal was one year, almost entirely because that is how long my own mama nursed me (as well as all of my six siblings). But when a year came, it was still working for C & I, so we kept going. And then I found international airfare to London (and my best friend) for cheaper than almost every domestic flight I have taken home, and took advantage of it. C would come with me and need whole milk of some kind, until she turned two, and it just seemed easier to keep nursing (and carry myself around rather than bottles) through the end of that trip. Soon after that we hit the two year mark. And then a tiny bit beyond that. And it was still working! Until it wasn’t. (Which wasn’t aligned with getting pregnant with my son, S. Can we talk about sore?!)
C still nursed on demand upwards of 10-12 times a day. I worked for the next three to four weeks to get her down to three to four times. Shortly after that, I threw up in a trashcan in JFK’s airport in front of literally hundreds (if not thousands) of people, Facebook declared my pregnancy because I needed kind words, and boarded a plane by myself for my first Mormon Feminism: Essential Readings book events. My husband’s sister very graciously took care of C during the days, and my husband took care of her during the nights. She was effectively weaned while playing with–and being distracted by–sweet cousins.
I flew back (thankfully without throwing up), and my husband left for a conference in Italy the next day. Because C was with me, she remembered Mama’s milk. We both cried when I couldn’t give it to her. She also threw herself on the floor, and screamed, and kicked and hit me. Which things were all new for her. I had no one to tag team with, so I would just scoop her up and hold her while we cried again. Weaning was emotionally, and sometimes physically, painful.
A few more months passed, and I gave birth to my son, S, in my Connecticut home, surrounded by a new midwife–a Mormon one, who prayed to help deliver one of her sisters, as well as her assistant, and again, my husband. Baby S latched by himself within a minute of being born, and the thing that felt close to a miracle was his ability to find me, to know me as his mother. I thought nursing would be cake, or a dream, or whatever golden word I could use to describe it. But it wasn’t any of those things. I didn’t know it until later, but his tongue was slightly tied. It made his latches slightly shallow and my breasts more than slightly raw. They cracked and bled in a way that no measure of lanolin or nursing pads could solve. It was so, so painful and required all of the courage I had to nurse him every time he needed to be nursed, which in those days was almost always.
My midwives visited often and would observe his latch, teach me more tips, and give me much needed words of encouragement. They also offered (and then really did) FaceTime me as many nursing sessions as I needed it to do more of the same. If I didn’t hope that it would get better, and knew that it could and should be better, I would have stopped. (Statistics about nursing mamas doing just that in the first two weeks made all of the sense.) With S, too, I got fortunate, because it did get easier. Maybe not C level easy, but close-ish. He learned how to nurse with his slightly tied tongue in a way that gave him the milk he needed and didn’t hurt my body. He is almost 15 months now, and nursing is still working enough for us.
The end. Sort of.
Because now I have a book titled Mother’s Milk (subtitled Poems in Search of Heavenly Mother), that I started writing soon after my daughter C was born. Why this title for this book? What does it mean to me? The short answer is “So many things.” The longer answer is, well, longer.
“Mother’s milk” means Jesus and the beautiful scriptures describing him as a nursing mother. It means Søren Kierkegaard and the beautiful (albeit sometimes harrowing) explanations concluding the four parts of his exordia to Fear and Trembling (one of which I used to begin Mother’s Milk.) It means a long ago Metro ride to Brooklyn church when C was new, and watching my husband unsuccessfully try to feed her a bottle filled with my body’s own milk. She saw me standing there, and pierced me with her sad/confused/large brown baby eyes, reminding me that I’d once read that babies are more likely to drink from a bottle if they cannot smell their moms–if they are gone.
It means the first poem I ever wrote on Heavenly Mother, inspired by that experience (which is placed at the first part of the first chapter of the book). It means many more of my experiences, which I suppose becomes clear to every reader. I use my children’s names, and words, and cries, as well as my own. (It is just one reason why I want others to write heavenly Mother poetry and words, too. Their revelations would be different than mine–their truths, new truths.) It means lovely passages on milk and honey, for among those who offer milk without money and without price are surely mothers.
It also means thinking of mother’s milk metaphorically rather than only literally. What do I hunger for from the divine Mother? What do I want to flow down from heaven? What would that nourishment be? For me, a few of those answers are Heavenly Mother’s wisdom, closeness, care, love, mercy, and self. What would Heavenly Mother’s Milk be for you?