Before I had children, I didn't think much about my breasts. They were just a part of the package; one I was relatively pleased with, so I didn't expend much time or energy on them, unlike my pot-belly (obsessed over and catered to with control top panty hose and sit-ups) or my bum knee (which put the kibosh on my jogging regimen). But once I started nursing, my breasts took on a life of their own, expanding to gigantic proportions, becoming rock hard, and leaking and spraying milk at the slightest provocation. I think the way I feel about them now is the way men feel about their penises
-- a body part that seems to operate of its own volition and often with the express purpose of embarrassing the owner. I haven't gone so far as to name them yet, but they do feel like something apart from me, with their own agenda, which only occasionally coincides with mine.
When Drew was a baby, I attended a monthly mother's group. We were all first time moms and nursing joys and difficulties were a common topic of conversation. I noticed that it was impossible for any of us to talk about nursing without handling our breasts. The slightest mention of breastfeeding brought a hand to lightly touch the chest. More in depth discussion necessitated weighing a breast in the hand or even holding it forward in an emphatic gesture. Something about it was so visceral, it couldn't be confined to words.
When you're nursing an infant, your breasts govern your life. Even if you can coax your child to take a bottle, your breasts still must be emptied every few hours, or you risk painful engorgement and even infection. You can stay home with your baby, take her with you, or use a pump, but it's an obligation that can't be avoided. My days and nights are divided into the discrete units of time between feedings. Is there time to get to the grocery story before the baby will need to eat? If I leave him at home with a babysitter, will I need to find a place to pump? Is it worth it to go to sleep, when it's almost time for the next feeding? Mother Nature, that sexist old biddy, doesn't have much interest in co-parenting. She's arranged things so that, no matter how involved the father is, a nursing mother (or, at least her breasts) can't get too far away from her baby for too long without suffering dire consequences.
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After nursing three children for a total of four and half years (and counting), I've become fairly jaded to the prospect of strangers seeing my breasts. So much so that I often forget that to the rest of the world, a woman's breasts are an intimate and sexual part of her body. I've managed to flash everyone from my son's first grade teacher to the guy who mows our lawn, not to mention countless waitresses, aged relatives, and co-workers. Most people are polite about it, but I've earned my share of stares, horrified blushes, and averted eyes. Even when I'm not exposing myself, I'm likely to be fiddling with my bra straps (I can flick open the cup of a nursing bra with a speed envied by sixteen-year-old boys everywhere), or simply resettling my breasts into a more comfortable position. When you spend hours of every day with someone attached to your breasts, you tend to forget that polite society frowns on you handling them in public.
Now that Alec is six-months-old, my breasts don't leak as much as they did when he was a newborn. In a bizarre twist, when my milk does let down unexpectedly, it's usually not due to hearing a baby cry or thinking about my sweet boy, but because I've experienced a deep and profound rage. The angrier I get, the more likely I am to feel that familiar cramping fullness. Last week I got particularly worked up about George W. Bush and suddenly realized that my excellent rant was falling on deaf ears. My listeners had become completely distracted by the damp patches blossoming on my shirt. I have no idea what ancient hormonal process equates political fury with a need to nurse. Perhaps it's an accident of chemistry. Or maybe there's some evolutionary benefit to a mother's righteous anger. Whatever it is, it's a reminder that motherhood is more than Hallmark cards and Precious Moments figurines; it's also dark fury and murderous rage.
My breasts don't know it yet, but they're going to become redundant soon. Adam and I have shut down the baby factory at our house, and once Alec is weaned, my breasts will permanently return to the ornamental status they held prior to Drew's birth. The popular theory is that you nurse the last child the longest, knowing that once it's over, you'll never perform that profoundly intimate act again. Drew weaned himself at eighteen months. I cut Franny off after two and half years. If the pattern holds true, I guess my breasts still have a few more years of usefulness ahead of them. But after that, what? I remember after the first two kids were weaned, I would occasionally squeeze my breasts to see if I could express a little milk. I was always able to produce a few drops. As my children get older and more independent, finally leaving the nest and starting families of their own, will my breasts be patiently awaiting their cue to
relactate? I have to admit, there's something obscurely comforting about the thought of that last tiny connection to my babies never being completely severed.
About the Author:
Melissa Lipscomb lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and
husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's
just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Send feedback for Melissa to firstname.lastname@example.org
and visit her blog