Growing up in the 70s, before the women’s health movement caught hold and breastfeeding made a comeback, I knew very few women who nursed their children. As adopted infants, my sister and I were bottle fed, and my mother eventually called it quits, with no regrets, after a concerted effort to nurse our little brother, born when my sister and I were just 22 months old. In fact, I remember only once during my younger years witnessing a woman breastfeed her baby. One day, while playing at the home of a childhood friend, I came upon Mrs. Smith, nursing her infant son at the kitchen table. My friend later explained to me what her mom was doing in the same matter-of-fact way that she had previously told me there was no Santa Claus. I received the news of breastfeeding far better than I did the news about Santa, tucking it away and promising myself that one day, I would do what Mrs. Smith did and feed my baby with my own body.
It took almost three decades before I got the chance. At the time, I was a graduate student working on her dissertation, so I approached the situation as a practical scholar. I researched it from all sides, registered for a Boppy and a nursing stool (neither of which I ever used for nursing), and bought an industrial grade breast pump disguised inside a sleek black backpack. I was committed to success but vowed that my experience as a mother would not be defined by my ability to breastfeed my child for whatever time period I was able to do so (three months? maybe six?)
A few days after I gave birth to my first son, my milk came in, and the pain rivaled childbirth. One of the advantages of being a small-chested woman is that my breasts never got in the way. I savored my ability to slide head-first into second base during high school and college softball games. I never suffered from back aches while running. Until I had my sons, no male, or female, ever drooled over my front. But when my milk came in, my breasts went from being footnotes to stand-alone chapters in my existence. I was miserable. The night my milk arrived, I grabbed two bags of frozen corn from the freezer and took myself to bed to deal with my new reality.
Three months passed. Six months passed. Nursing hurt like hell until my son was nine months old. Everyone I talked to told me if it hurt that bad for so long, I was doing it wrong. Eventually, though, my nipples just went numb, and, right or wrong, my son and I carried along in bliss until he was 22 months old. A graduate school colleague from Tennessee drawled, “If they’re old enough to ask for it, they’re too old to have it.” Like their older brother, my next two sons, who weaned at 25 and 33 months respectively, not only nursed until they were old enough to ask for it but until they were able to do so politely, punctuating their requests with please’s and thank you’s.
When I say it is a point of pride that I managed to nurse three children into toddlerhood without a drop of formula, I don’t mean that as a commentary on anyone else’s choices or abilities. I’m grateful I could. At times it was ridiculously hard to keep going. My friends and I–children of hippies not included–are part of a predominantly bottle-fed generation that likes to joke, “If breast milk makes you smarter, just think what more we could have accomplished.” When it came to feeding my sister and me, my mother had no choice. Neither did my birth mother. And perhaps that’s why it was so important to me to nurse my sons. Perhaps that’s why I persevered. Because I had a choice, and they didn’t. There’s a larger cultural and political debate about breastfeeding taking place in the United States right now, and I’m acutely tuned into it, but my struggle and determination to nurse my sons was a personal one. The minute my breasts swelled with milk, I thought of my birth mother. I thought, “Oh, my God, did this happen to her?” I felt the ache that never found relief. I felt the body that could not hide its secret.
A week ago, just before she arrived in the United States with her new son, my sister asked me if I had any breast milk left in my freezer.
Not for a year or more, I told her. I had planned to turn the last of it into cheese, or soap, just for the fun of it, but our refrigerator died, and my friends and family were spared a round of one-of-a-kind holiday gifts that year.
“Do you think you could get any out?” she asked.
My youngest child just turned three. I weaned him, after an epic struggle, a few months before his birthday. I had no idea what might still be in there, but when your twin asks you for something, you do your best to make it happen.
“I can try,” I offered.
“I only need a drop,” she said.
She wanted the milk for her child, born in a place where milk bonds are on par with biological ones.
The next day I set up shop in a dark corner of the basement where I thought my three-year-old wouldn’t find me.
He caught me bent over a Tupperware container, wringing the life out of his favorite side.
Immediately, he began to cry.
“Good milks!” he sobbed. “I want some.” He paused. “Please.”
I thought of all the therapy he would need if I told him this milk was for another baby, especially after I had been praising him for months for being such a good, strong boy and drinking it all up.
“Just a tiny bit,” I said.
He stuck his tongue into the container and licked. I capped the rest and put it in the freezer for his milk-brother.
There are so many ways to to make a child your own.
This here is one of mine, poured from my whole being, every last drop, now offered to my twin’s son in a common communion cup of family and love.