an Essay by Susan Lerner
An ability to idealize. Imagine your not-yet-conceived infant blissfully suckling at your breast. Fantasize that your nursing infant will complete you in the way of lovers.
A vow to be the perfect mother, not like your own, who was distant, tried to breastfeed you once, gave up.
A move to a new city just after your husband knocks you up, preferably one where you know no one.
A mantra. Silently chant the LaLeche League tagline—“breast is best!”
Books. Read everything written about breastfeeding. Note the only suggestion common to every text: never wash your nipples with soap.
A goal. The American Academy of Pediatrics pushes for breastfeeding a full year. Recoil at glossy ads for Enfamil. Promise yourself you will feed your growing fetus nothing but your own perfect milk until he or she packs for college.
Obsession. Examine your knockers whenever you change clothes. Admire the heft, the curves, the way you fill out a sweater. Push up your hooters when you think no one is looking. Tread in smug satisfaction when you see, just before your due date, on the tips of your nipples, colostrum—the droplets as tiny as an infant’s tears.
Rage. After delivery, eye-dagger the too-cheerful nurse tickling the bottoms of your sleeping newborn’s tiny feet. Shush her when she declares loudly: “Time for lunch!” Feel pain knuckle up your throat as your daughter screams, turning her face away from your boob. Stare in horror as the nurse flicks your daughter’s cheek.
Resist the impulse to hit the nurse as she pinches your nipple.
A tendency toward depression. Cry during baby’s screaming jags. Leave PJs on for days. Call the nurse who says everything will be fine and reminds you not to use soap on your nipples. Call LaLeche woman who reminds you not to use soap on your nipples. Sob. Hurl phone across the room.
An ability to go numb when strangers handle your hooters. Discover that a nationally known lactation consultant lives only two hours away. Allow a swell of hope to bloom as your husband chauffeurs. Feel optimism ebb as you follow her Birkenstocked feet into an office with walls covered in handmade decorations. Take off your shirt. Zone out as she pokes and pinches. Leave with instructions. Buy from her capsules of fenugreek, an oregano-like herb. Line your bra with cabbage leaves.
Days without sleep. Your udders are your identity. The capsules have given you pizza breath; your boobs belong in a garden.
A desire to get sexy with plastic. Purchase a Supplemental Nursing System that hangs from your neck and drains through slender plastic tubes you tape to your nipples.
A perfect combination of laughing and crying that you dub a craugh. Smile through tears when your husband says you look like a porno circus performer. Roll your eyes at his request for a naked dance. Tear up when baby screams at tape and plastic in her mouth. Rip tape from nipples in one punishing motion. Rent electric breast pump. Position its plastic cups on your jugs. Do not laugh when your husband extolls your Wonder Woman boobs. Widen your eyes as the pump stretches your nipples like wide rubber bands. Descend into despair at their tiny offering of milk. Sob. Sob. Sob.
Timing. Know when to cry uncle! Hiccup through tears and send hubby for Enfamil.
Wild shame that will fuck you hard. Peel off your PJs. Join a New Mothers group. Watch other women hike up their shirts and feed their placid babies. Try to quiet your daughter’s screams. Grow hot in the face as you pull a bottle from your diaper bag.
A good pediatrician. Call baby’s doctor to report her shrieking. Tell about baby’s vomiting. Say that your floors are carpeted in heaps of puke-soaked clothes. Disbelieve “colic.” Listen as she says, “call back when the spit-up is strong enough to hit the wall.” Do your own hitting of the wall. Review your short history of motherhood. Wail.
Cases of Tide.
Savings. Toss out Enfamil. Buy different formulas. Toss out barely used cans. Make appointment with specialist. Let relief wash over when doctor diagnoses Milk-Soy Protein Intolerance. Take fleeting pleasure that he’s confirmed you’re not crazy. Shell out one-hundred dollars for imported prescription formula. Beat yourself up because—breastfeeding. Seep in guilt.
Timing. Know when to leave the party. Return to New Mothers group. Notice other mothers’ brushed hair and lipstick. Ponder contents of your diaper bag: bottles. Ponder contents of their diaper bags: diapers. Go home. Weep.
Perseverance. Watch your daughter grow despite everything.
A small amount of mathematics. Allow tragedy + time to = comedy. Laugh as you tell friends about walking around naked when your kid was a baby because of vomit-clothing. Chuckle as you tell them how little she ate, that she couldn’t finish a Cheerio. Pretend to be your girl when she was a toddler, hold up the half-Cheerio she left and joke: I’m so full, I couldn’t possibly finish.
Forgiveness. Reflect on motherhood, the kaleidoscope of your successes and failures. Realize that none of that had to do with milk. Forgive your mammaries. Forgive yourself. Forgive your mother. Your grown daughter, strong and whip-smart, still needs you. Be with her. It’s not too late.
Susan Lerner is a student in Butler’s MFA in Creative Writing program. She reads nonfiction for Booth: A Journal which also published her interview with Jonathan Franzen. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, Monkeybicycle, Atticus Review, The Believer Logger, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in Indianapolis with her husband, three teenagers, and Mischief, the family’s dog.