A Certain Kind of Mammal

Meaghan O’Connell on the joy, the triumph, and the prison of breastfeeding.

Meaghan O’Connell | And Now We Have Everything | Little, Brown and Company | April 2018 | 22 minutes (4,425 words)

When I was pregnant, every time someone asked me if I planned to breastfeed, I stammered and avoided eye contact. Of fucking course, what do you think I am, some kind of monster? I felt like the person had just asked me if I wanted to be a real writer someday. Obviously, I thought about it all the time but I didn’t want to jinx it by talking about it. Declaring my intentions felt too vulnerable, too potentially humiliating. The question was not whether I planned to breastfeed the future baby but whether I would physically be able to. What if the time came and the baby didn’t latch on or my body didn’t produce enough milk? What if my boobs couldn’t get it up?

The internet was full of stories about women struggling with just that. It was impressive but scary to read about them turning their lives upside down, willing to try or do anything if it meant they could check off this box. Take herbs, chug water, eat special cookies, go to meetings, buy a scale so they could weigh the baby after every feeding, hire expensive consultants, pump around the clock, give up dairy, give up gluten, get their infants’ tongues and gums “clipped” so they could open their mouths wider, spend an entire week in bed naked with their babies.

An outsider might find it easy to dismiss this as ridiculous, especially considering you can walk into any grocery store and buy a canister of formula. But, then, an outsider hasn’t lain in bed at night facing the harrowing uncertainty of motherhood, desperate to know she was giving her baby “the best start possible.”

Whether or not I would breastfeed if my body could do it, well, that hardly felt like a question to me, not when everything I’d heard or read promised multiple benefits, from increased immunity to a higher IQ. Every parenting website opened the topic with some variation of “Breastfeeding is best for you and your baby, but it can be hard work.” They added the part about hard work just for stubborn overachievers like me, I think. Or for people, also like me, who were desperate for direction and found guilt incredibly motivating. “Best, you say? Hard, you say?” My dog-eared copy of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding had a section called “How Important Is Breastfeeding, Really?” Answer: “Extremely! There is almost nothing you can do for your child in his whole life that will affect him both emotionally and physically as profoundly as breastfeeding.” Anyone with a grown child — anyone who’s a person! — probably can’t read that without scoffing. But before I had the baby, how did I know that? Everything else in parenting was so equivocal, such a gray area. The message in this book, and so many others like it, was the opposite.

I wanted to believe that if I ‘just’ exclusively breastfed my baby on demand for a year of his life, I could stave off all the other damage I might do.

“His nursing relationship with you becomes the foundation of the way he will think of himself and others,” the book went on. “One mother pointed out that it’s as if bottles fill his stomach, but breastfeeding fills his soul.

“Many bottle-feeding mothers wish they had breastfed, yet very, very few breastfeeding mothers wish they had bottle-fed.”

I wish I could say I was offended by or at least suspicious of this messaging at the time, but I was, in fact, the perfect sucker. Breast is best. It was so cut-and-dried, it even rhymed. “It’s hard work but worth it!” I so wanted to believe that if I “just” exclusively breastfed my baby on demand for a year of his life, I could stave off all the other damage I might do.

I bought nipple cream, nursing bras, special tank tops, reusable ice packs made for boobs. I spent an afternoon on the phone with my health insurance, then ordered a double electric breast pump through Yummy Mummy, a boutique on the Upper East Side. I wrote down the phone number of a local breastfeeding consultant and put it on the fridge, the way my mom used to write the number for our pediatrician on a sticky note for the babysitter. Just in case.

It was such a relief to be told exactly what to do.

***

I was six weeks into my breastfeeding journey when I decided it was time to go back to work. I was on what the staff at the website I edited called maternity leave, but said leave was unpaid and indefinite; I could go back whenever I was ready. I was ready.

In fact, for weeks I’d been desperate to get out of the house and do something I was good at, but so far breastfeeding had made that impossible. I’d taken a few short, hobbled walks to get a juice or a coffee and cry alone on a park bench, but I’d never been gone for more than thirty minutes, and the baby was always crying when I got back.

But now it was time.

I have to work, I started repeating in my head, trying to drum up a sense of urgency. Work would mean sitting in a coffee shop blogging. And while it wasn’t technically true that I had to do it, it felt true, which was enough. Work sounded like something noble, a good enough reason to escape the tiny baby who was hungry around the clock and dependent on my body to stay alive. An excuse to go sit alone somewhere, a person in the world doing something she was good at. I have to work, and soon, I thought, or else I’d get swallowed up.

“I think it’s time,” I said to Dustin one afternoon. I tried to sound somber, to keep myself from smiling when I said it. “I think I’m ready to try working again.”

“Okay,” he said, matter-of-fact. “When do you want to try it?”

“Tomorrow?” The coffee shop was just at the end of our block, far enough from our apartment that I couldn’t hear the baby cry but close enough that I could be home within minutes if I needed to be. Dustin would watch the baby in the morning, and then we would switch and he would go work too. Finally, we would start rebuilding something that more closely resembled a life.

***

“It’ll be an experiment,” I told him. “You know, an hour or two. Just to ease in.”

“An hour or so should be okay,” Dustin agreed, though I could tell he was nervous. “That’s about how long he goes between feeds, right?”

“Yeah!” I nodded my head vigorously, willing it to be true. “Like an hour and a half lately,” I said, but in my head I thought, Two hours. “Plus I could always pump?”

I had tried the breast pump a few times, recreationally, but not yet so as to explicitly buy time away with my own milk. The pump looked just like I’d imagined, like something you’d use to masturbate a farm animal. The bulk of the machine was a little yellow box the size of a toaster oven that gasped and sighed with a rhythmic, mechanical sucking noise that was initially disturbing, like it was trying to tell me something but couldn’t quite find the language. There were two snaking rubber tubes that ran from the box to the air-horn-looking boob funnels and from there into baby bottles that collected the milk. The horns were where the magic happened, where your tits went. Sucked into the machine, my nipples looked like long, pink taffy, stretched and then milked.

The first time I saw milk stream out of my body and into this contraption, I felt woozy and then oddly turned on. It’s not often in life we gain a brand-new secretion. But that was in late pregnancy, and now that the baby was here there was nothing sexy about it. There was nothing sexy about anything, actually. And sticking my ragged nipples into a milk machine in the hour between feedings seemed needlessly punitive.

Unless, that is, it buys you freedom. The next morning I packed my laptop in a bag and set the hideous purple Crocs I’d sworn I would wear only during late pregnancy by the door, then I lay down on the bed with the baby to breastfeed him. I put him on one boob and the breast pump on the other. I tapped my foot, looking from baby to pump to clock and back again, knowing that as soon as he unlatched, the timer would start: an hour and a half and he’d be hungry again. And that was being optimistic. He finally pulled off and I jumped up, practically throwing the baby at Dustin.

I’d pumped about an ounce of breast milk from my right breast, which was about a third of a decent feeding at the time. I frowned at it and stuck it in the fridge, knowing I’d be home soon enough anyway.

“When exactly will you be back?” Dustin asked with a concerned look on his face, instinctively bouncing and jiggling the baby.

“Uh, well, he just ate, so . . . eleven?” I swung my tote bag over my shoulder and tried not to make eye contact with either of them as I inched toward the door.

“Ten thirty,” he said.

“What!” I was a teenager negotiating curfew. “I can’t get anything done in an hour . . . ” My voice cracked and my eyes filled up with tears as I let go of the door handle and thought about “the old days.” Only weeks ago, I had whole days of solitude ahead of me. I would start outside somewhere, writing nonsense in a notebook, then sit in the library dicking around on the internet, trying to “get into writing mode.” Back then I was full of ennui and longing for some sort of structure, but now, after I’d spent six weeks in our tiny funhouse apartment, flailing with Dustin through each exhausting day (and night), all I wanted was to waste time, let my mind wander, listen to music, recover some semblance of an inner life.

My body felt like a tube of meat with legs and Super Soakers where my breasts should be, but at least the sun was out.

“Well, is there any milk?” Dustin said. He opened the fridge in a way that I could only read as accusatory.

“I tried,” I told him. I felt like a failure, like a fool. But what was I supposed to do? Breastfeeding was completely supply and demand; my body magically produced the exact amount of milk the baby needed. Maybe I should have been pumping all along, but to add one more chore, one more bodily intrusion? I looked at Dustin with pleading eyes, begging him to have mercy on me.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” Dustin said, his voice quivering now. “You don’t hear him scream whenever you leave, even for a few minutes. You can just pull out a boob —”

I don’t know what it’s like?” I cut him off, exasperated and ready for a fight but painfully aware of the clock ticking.

“Fine,” I snapped. “I’ll be back in an hour.” I grabbed my keys and slammed the door when I left. I knew I was being an asshole but as soon as I threw open the door to our building, I no longer cared. I was free. My body felt like a tube of meat with legs and Super Soakers where my breasts should be, but at least the sun was out. I wore sunglasses, leggings, and a T-shirt, my hair unbrushed. I thought about how wild it was that a person could see me and not know why I was so disheveled. I could be anyone. I could be a hungover child. I felt like I should be wearing a sign around my neck. Something like new mother. Or currently breastfeeding. A scarlet letter B so everyone knew my status. At least I was no longer pregnant. That’s something, I told myself, then put loud music on in my earphones and bounded down our front stoop, feeling like I might cry with happiness. I was rushed but free. Tethered but free. Freer than I’d ever felt when I’d had endless afternoons, no ticking clock.

My reverie was interrupted when I passed my elderly neighbor on his stoop and he shouted after me. “Hey!” he bellowed with real concern, his hands cupped around his mouth. “Where’s your baby?” He was wearing a stained undershirt and a bandanna around his neck.

I laughed and spun around to face him, earphones still in. “With his dad!” The next time someone asked me that, I swore I’d look around in a panic and start patting my pockets. My baby? I don’t know, have you seen him?

I’d had only ninety minutes. Now it was eighty-six. It would be eighty by the time I got my coffee and sat down, sixty-five by the time I started working. An hour left after that if you subtracted the time I would need to get back. This math made me want to kick something; it made me feel uncomfortably female. Trapped. But when I got to the corner of the intersection I needed to cross, I found myself leaping out into the street against the Don’t Walk sign, darting between parked cars the way I hadn’t done in months, in a year, maybe. I flung open the door of the coffee shop and let it sink in: I could leave the house alone now. Get on a train, cross under a river, be in a different part of town from the baby. He was no longer tapping at me from the inside. I could sit in front of my laptop for just under an hour without hearing him cry.

***

After all that worry during pregnancy about whether I’d be up to the womanly art, breastfeeding had come easily. Or as easily as it could. When the nurse handed the baby to me just twenty minutes after my C-section, I was lying on my back, still shaking from adrenaline and numb from the waist down. I hadn’t slept in days. They tucked the tiny shape of him into my armpit, and I, so eager to do the right thing, flopped my gigantic breast out of my hospital gown while everyone looked on. They were a formidable match for each other, my breast and my baby. He attacked it like he was a piranha, knowing better than I did what to do. My job was to just be still, to look at him with admiration, to let relief wash over me — the relief of being met, finally, halfway. He sucked and sucked, needing me like no one ever had before.

He was born knowing. Thank fucking God, this one part had gone right. I marveled at him in his little hat. The nurses clasped their hands together in joy and I beamed back at them, feeling like a good student. It was his first achievement, my first vicarious success.

Within a few hours, my proud smile faded into a wince. I sat forward in bed, vigilant, nursing him around the clock, my back aching, my arms shaking with overexertion. Sweat slid down my sides and into the new crevices of my emptied-out and rearranged gut, which was stacked up in a pile beneath my pendulous breasts, my stinging nipples. The nurses came in and out, adjusting him and me. Their advice was all contradictory. I couldn’t remember what The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding said anymore. Breastfeeding at this point didn’t feel like a success so much as an assault, something coming at me faster than I could cope with, happening almost constantly.

Tell me what to do! I wanted to scream. You do it if you know so much.

The head nurse came in and moved closer to me, to my sweaty breasts and a floppy baby I wasn’t sure how to hold. “It looks like you have the beginnings of an injury,” she said, frowning. I didn’t know what an injury meant in this case, but I knew I didn’t want one on my nipple. I imagined my areola dangling by a thread, like an eye popped out of its socket. My nipple felt bruised and sore. For that first week, my breasts felt like skinned knees that I had to crawl on. I wanted to bandage them up and hide them away but kept having to return them to the hungry fish’s mouth, the source of the injury.

For that first week, my breasts felt like skinned knees that I had to crawl on.

That early difficulty made it seem like “figuring things out” was the aim. Mastery. Effort. Survival. My nipples healed eventually. My breasts started producing real milk, and the baby stopped losing weight. (“It’s normal!” everyone insisted but it didn’t feel right, letting your baby waste away in those first few days before your milk came in.) My arms and his body grew to meet each other. We did it together.

And then the question quickly shifted from whether or not I could breastfeed to whether or not I would do it. Would I keep going, keep the timer up in my brain, keep unbuttoning my shirt, keep worrying about what I put into my body? It was such a straightforward way to feel like a good mother. I could use it to chase away self-doubt and know for sure I’d done everything right, done everything I could. This kind of effort was more reliable to me than love. It was empirical, actually happening. It was something I could point to in the middle of the night.

***

Setting up at a table in my old familiar coffee shop had me feeling like a person in a long-distance relationship, my writing and I on one of our rare weekends together. Our visits would be limited, and between them there was only longing.

I opened my laptop and immediately felt like a genius. It turned out writing was easy compared to taking care of a baby. Writing was something I knew how to do, technically. No one’s life depended on it.

Plus there was no time to procrastinate, not anymore. No time to get paralyzed second-guessing myself. I’d been afraid that having a baby would quell whatever ambition I had, but now the opposite was happening. I’d spent the past month or so rolling around in the human condition, writing essays in my head, and now I was manic, brimming with things to say. Writing was no longer the most important thing in my life, and that made me love it even more. It was dumb enough to tackle, suddenly; small enough to embolden me. This was it. Maybe this was why I’d had the baby?

I lost track of time, forgetting for a while that I had a body. That is, until my breasts started to tingle and I came back to myself with a jolt. The baby! I scrambled to finish the blog post I was working on, hit Publish, slammed my laptop shut, and all but ran home. When my milk came down, I imagined it manifesting as desperate hunger on the other end of some invisible thread between my son and me. The strange twinge I felt when it happened was a little like having to pee but less physically painful. It was like needing to pee emotionally. Like if holding your piss made someone else suffer.

I hurried across the street and down the block and imagined I could hear the baby wailing in our apartment already, Dustin growing more and more furious. My boobs were filling up with milk, hardening and tugging at the skin around my chest. When I finally made it home I threw open the door to the baby crying, just as I’d feared. A wave of guilt passed over me as I grabbed him from Dustin and muttered a string of apologies. (On other days later on, if I got home and he wasn’t crying, I’d feel a wave of regret — I should have stayed a few minutes longer. I should have finished my thought.)

***

As soon as the baby latched on, I burst into tears — of relief, of rage. I’d had this idea of what breastfeeding would be like. Not the physical experience, but the lived reality, the timing, the way it was supposed to fit between other things. I thought it would be something happening in the background while I went about my actual life. How else would it be tolerable? The faint sucking sound of a breast pump during a conference call, a shirt lifted up on the subway, so seamlessly nobody really notices it. Baby legs kicking in the aisle of an airplane, his head and my tits hidden under a gauzy blanket. I wanted to be one of those women who, without missing a beat, pull out a boob at a restaurant, mid-conversation. That’s how they sell it to you: It’s so convenient! Always with you. Natural. Completely free! “Breastfeeding: It’s So Easy!” is how one popular breastfeeding website puts it (every breastfeeder with an internet connection has spent way too many late nights online reading guilt-provoking articles from lactation consultants).

At the time, I feared that complaining or admitting how I really felt would make me sound like some unmaternal brat who couldn’t submit.

But this easy, natural bodily function took focus, if not on the task at hand, then on the clock. Skip a feed and you mess up the whole supply-and-demand thing. Skip a feed and the milk you didn’t express may never show up again, like a friend you cancel on too many times who no longer answers your texts. You can get a clogged milk duct, a painful, inflamed blockage that can then lead to an infection called mastitis, which is like having the flu and then getting stabbed in the tits at the same time. Worse, your baby can “fail to thrive,” just quietly starve, without you even knowing it. Your baby’s entire nutrition and most of his emotional well-being are completely reliant on your body.

***

“You know,” Dustin said on one endless morning, “you don’t have to do it. You can stop any time.”

“Ha!” I said. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh out loud or cry. “We’d just give him formula. It would be totally fine. I would be fine with it.”

“You have to say that.”

“But I mean it!”

I knew I could quit any time, even though it didn’t feel like that. Not when the Dr. Sears baby manual we had sitting on our coffee table said that breastfeeding on demand was “laying a solid foundation for the person your child would later become.” No, I couldn’t quit. Not when I had come this far, worked this hard. Maybe something will happen, I thought, a secret hope. Maybe something will happen and my milk will disappear.

I hated being so on the hook, and I hated that I hated it. To think of myself as genuinely limited, actually held back by breastfeeding, made me feel like a meta-failure. Considering that breastfeeding was something only I could do for the baby, something I couldn’t get a break from without suffering the consequences, it stands to reason that I felt overwhelmed and resentful, but I can see that only now, on the other side of it. At the time, I feared that complaining or admitting how I really felt would make me sound like some unmaternal brat who couldn’t submit. Shouldn’t I be grateful my body could do it in the first place? All of the books and websites and doctors and nurses and yoga teachers and childbirth instructors insisted that breastfeeding my child for at least a year if not longer was unquestionably worthwhile, and not just for the baby. It was supposed to be its own reward.

Breastfeeding was cheap, always available, and totally portable, argued one of the internet lactation consultants. “Don’t give up on one of the most incredible experiences of your life just because you have trouble at first learning a new skill. Give up, and you’ll wonder and regret. Persist, and you’ll know and be rewarded.”

I should have known to be suspicious of the supposed inherent reward of unpaid labor that can be carried out exclusively by the female body (breastfeeding: an unpaid internship you don’t get to put on your résumé), but I kept hoping it would come true. Natural childbirth was another supposed “incredible experience,” but I had fucked that one up already so there was no way I would give upon breastfeeding (wonder! regret!). I kept waiting for the reward.

I could feel hints of it occasionally, something ancient and primal, an alchemy in the middle of the night. I felt mammalian, like a cavewoman who’d found her life’s purpose. I love you; you need me; I feed you. It was my shortcut to maternal authority, and for that I was grateful.

The baby up against your body, tugging at you, both of you quiet and still and looking into each other’s eyes — it was clear that this intimacy was what we were all trying to get back to. The pleasure and the revelation was fleeting, though. It came on in flashes of contentment and then drifted away when the rest of my life rushed in. The whole world expects you to do it but it’s not like it waits for you. People don’t accommodate you. They don’t even know where to look when you do it.

That whole year I spent as a breastfeeder, I was still myself. I still had ambitions, desires. I was always doing math with the hours, testing the limits of time, trying to see how much living I could get away with. I still had to earn money. I still had to stay sane. Even when it got easier, when the feeds spaced out to every four hours and lasted only five or ten minutes, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something that had been oversold to me, something that was both more difficult and less important than all the books and websites and articles suggested. They had undervalued my time and my sanity. Or was it that they’d overestimated it? I couldn’t figure out whether motherhood was showing me how strong I was or how weak. And which one was preferable.

In any case, I did my duty, which was sometimes lovely but more often not. Breastfeeding was not the most incredible experience of my life, and my baby is still mortal. He still gets sick. I went to great lengths to do it, for reasons I can no longer relate to. Or none other than this: I so desperately wanted to do the right thing, and I had no idea what that was yet.

* * *

From And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell. © 2018 by Meaghan O’Connell. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.