The milk just kept coming and it wouldn’t stop. I got up to take a lasagna out of the oven. I was wearing my postpartum uniform, of course — topless and a Depends diaper, my husband’s boxers completing the ensemble. What was the point of donning a shirt? My breasts no longer belonged to me and were demanded excessively. Opening the oven door, I leaned over to retrieve our dinner. Fat white drops spilt out of my nipples without my consent and sizzled on the oven’s interior. My breastmilk was instantly baked. (And the lasagna may have gained some antibodies).
My porn star boobs were relentlessly full. There was no emptying them, no breast reduction procedure that would return me to normalcy. Keep nursing. Keep nursing. Keep nursing. That’s what they told me. It will go away. I touched the rocks on my chest and wasn’t so sure.
I drew a bath. My sanity-preserver. My escape from my harsh reality: Overnight, in an instant, I had become wholly responsible for a human infant. My human infant. This was on me. This was MY baby. Mine. It was more flattery than I cared for honestly. I felt that God had made a mistake in selecting me for such a task. Such a LIFELONG task. In my first six days of mothering it became clear to me that I had not been privy to the job qualifications before signing on:
- Must possess an inhuman amount of selflessness
- Must have the ability to function on insultingly little rest
- Must be willing to yield ownership of one’s own body
- Must not care about showering or brushing one’s teeth regularly
See God? I don’t have any of the qualifications, not a single thing on the list there. I don’t think this gig is for me. I mean, get real: this baby is ALWAYS hungry; he’s ALWAYS wet; he’s ALWAYS fussy. I can’t do always. I still need to be me.
I let the bath water run as hot as I could get it. It felt so good to not have to worry about potentially over-cooking a bun in the oven. My oven was empty and I was so relieved. I imagined my internal organs were having a reunion. What up, pancreas! Hey there, liver, it’s been a while! Yeah, 9 months, dude!
I stepped into the tub. It was too hot so I let the cold run a little bit and swirled the icy with the scalding. Perfection. I grabbed my soup pot of brewed postpartum herbs, all calendula and sea salt and magic, and poured it into the tub. My mom had scrubbed my tub on her hands and knees the day before till it shined; between that and my sister erecting and decorating a Christmas tree for us, I had never felt more pampered. Things that previously had been easy or mundane were now glamourous acts of love and I just wanted to kiss the feet of everyone who helped us.
Oh — the FOOD. The absolute angels who brought the food. Thank you, sweet Jesus, for sending so many people to our door with FOOD. I remember the chocolate chip pumpkin bread that I did not share with Simon. The authentic gyros that my part-Greek friend whipped up in our kitchen that have me salivating just thinking of them. The TWO chicken pot pies we received that were equally delicious. The to-die-for cookies that another friend delivered which I used as my personal justice system: Baby made my nipple bleed — eat a cookie. Was awake all night — eat a cookie. Nursing burns a lot of calories so therefore I can — eat a cookie.
I dropped my boxers and threw my bloody diaper in the trash. I stepped into the bathtub, my new happy place. I held onto the little bar above the built-in soap caddy, the bar I previously thought was used only by the elderly and infirm. I had to grip that thing for dear life in order to slowly lower my battered body into the depths of the tub. Oh-so-gingerly I sat down on the bottom of the bathtub, taking it at an angle with my hip touching the water first, careful to avoid any contact between my mangled vagina and the unforgiving ceramic. Ooh…ooh…ooh <clench teeth.> The inches hurt and as my hip skimmed the tub it was clear I still needed to be laying down a beach towel to cushion the surface. Still clutching that little bar, the one designed for the old and weak, I managed to hoist myself back up enough to swipe the towel off the toilet lid and toss it in the water. Once again I lowered my body, this time on top of the towel, trusting my still heavy body could easily flatten it to the bottom.
My vagina winced. She had been through so much. Held together by medical stitches, she felt so fragile, vulnerable, broken. Like Humpty Dumpty post-fall. (How embarrassing. Could she go lower? She had been so glorious). The king’s horses and men failed to reconstruct Humpty, and I wondered, despite my OB’s expertise, if I too would never be put back together again. Humpty Dumpty was just an egg. Who gives a rip about an egg? My lady parts were much more important.
I squirmed in the tub until I was able to sink down halfway comfortably. Ahhh. Peace. Respite. A brief time of pretending I had only myself to care about. With my index and middle fingers I stroked my ridiculous breasts from their shoreline right into the middle of the wake. Milk exploded out of my nipples, five or six hoses from each hydrant. With my two fingers I massaged all the way around the clock face of each breast. With each stroke milk obediently spurted out like the spray from a whale’s blowhole. I did this with my breast underwater because the heat was soothing and also because it kept my milk contained. Above the surface, my milk was liable to fly several feet and graffiti the bath spout and handles (I may have done this on purpose just a few times).
Underwater my milk could swim. It zigzagged for an instant before dispersing into the tea-colored bathwater, eventually altering the hue quite like cream does when poured into coffee. The briefly swimming milk reminded me of sperm, little tails whipping about in furious pursuit of the holy ovum. I was transported back to the evening of passion that had landed me in this milky tea bath with a maimed vagina, preposterous breasts, and overwhelming responsibility. I thought of my husband and his still-intact genitals and scowled.
I reached behind me to touch the raw place over my sacrum. In labor I had demanded that Simon repeatedly force his fist as hard as he could into my lower back, his huge biceps working overtime. I sometimes had wanted him to do this in conjunction with a too-hot-but-just-right rice sock. Twenty-eight hours of this left me with an angry bulge protruding from my spine. My skin was raw and appeared as though a giant had put out his cigarette on my back. It would take eight months for my battle scar to disappear. I rubbed the burn mark and scrunched my face up.
“I think he’s hungry!” My husband called to me from the living room. I could hear the crying crescendo.
I exhaled as to compose myself for an appropriate response. “Ok!” I shouted back and willed myself to get out of the tub. The clock mocked me. He just ate thirty minutes ago. I told myself to breathe. I got out of the tub. I was proud that I could now accomplish this alone without risking my life. Still weak but not quite as weak as I was. I felt more able and that felt triumphant yet also somehow pathetic.
A towel around my waist, I meandered back into the living room. I was not able to make it the ten steps from the bathroom to the couch without milk running down my stomach and getting stymied in terrycloth. I sat down on a pillow on top of the couch because the couch alone may as well have been a bar stool. I grabbed the two Boppy’s that were never far away and got myself into nursing position. Simon handed me the baby. He was Gabriel, my Gabriel, but tonight he felt more like “the baby.” The bath-interrupter. The life-ruiner.
He latched onto my nipple enthusiastically and lapped up the free-flowing milk. My nipples still had scars from where they had cracked and bleed the first few days before Gabe’s tongue tie was diagnosed and clipped. Thank GOD. It didn’t hurt anymore. My milk had come in violently on Day 4, in the car, on the way to Rolla for the must-have-NOW-so-we-will-gladly-travel-100-miles tongue clipping. I had drenched, and I do mean drenched, my T-shirt by the time we arrived. It was now Day 6 and I was still impossibly full. Though typically a limited resource, I had ounces upon ounces of frozen colostrum in my freezer. I could have fed an orphanage.
I felt quite like a cow. A big, fat, ugly cow. I was being milked by my baby, sometimes every half hour. He did not care about the way this made me feel. He just wanted the milk. And I just wanted a break. I felt hormones leaking out of my every orifice and I wondered if this is what it felt like to be schizophrenic. A psychotic break seemed one more cluster feeding away.
My godsend of a husband could sense this. I knew he had done everything he could to pacify our child before calling me out of the bathtub. His eyes gazed into mine with an apology that he did not also possess breasts.
“Why don’t you get out of here for a while? We’ll be okay for a bit.”
I hesitated but not for long. My tears convinced me I really needed to go.
I went to Starbucks. Alone. I had never felt so happy to be alone in all my life. Ordered a beverage. Sat down (ouch) and sipped hot chocolate and did not read the book I brought with me. Just looked at all the normal people surrounding me. College students studying for finals. Couples grabbing coffee after their Saturday night movie dates. I was jealous. Really jealous. My life was in flames and they didn’t know. They went on being normal while I was crumbling under the dictatorship of the baby I actually did love desperately.
I pulled out my phone and texted some mom friends. Told them I was struggling. Told them I was scared. Told them I didn’t know how I could ever do this. “I don’t miss my baby.” I typed the words on my smartphone as though I was confessing a grievous sin.
Delicious mother-love was texted back to me. My friends told me I was normal. That I was braver than I believed. That babies grow out of nursing every thirty minutes. That it was important for me to do as I had — get out of the house, take care of myself — and that it was okay to relish in an hour of freedom instead of missing Gabriel. I drew in deep breaths of calm and filled my lungs with my friends’ prescription peace. I took my time finishing that hot chocolate.
I went home. Gabriel had slept the entire time I was gone. Simon was watching a movie. Life could still go on without my ceaseless presence.
The next day my breasts were no longer rocks. Gabriel was a week old. (At least, that’s what they told me. I could have sworn a decade had passed). Every day was long but every month was fast. Baby smiles and laughs did eventually greet us. Nursing became easier and a lot more satisfying. I learned how to sneak in showers and bowls of cereal.
Today that newborn baby is almost eighteen months old. He is climbing on furniture and saying words and running around my house like a tornado. But I still remember the beginning as all women do. When you become a mother, in all the glory and all the carnage, you don’t forget. Identity shattered, identity forged. We all have a moment, whether in a bathtub or a Starbucks, a grocery store or a Moby wrap, when we realize we can’t go back to who we were. And how we knew that would happen but we utterly didn’t know at the same time. And it registers that we are woefully unprepared for this insane assignment and there was nothing we could have done differently to arrive at this moment ready. “Ready” does not exist.
I think this is the work of firstborns. They take us apart, break us into pieces, and put us back together again. They physically and emotionally eviscerate us. It hurts. It keeps hurting. I don’t think that ever stops. But hopefully these firstborns, these guinea pigs who make us parents — who we have no choice but to entrust with the total reconstruction of our lives — slowly, I think they make us more beautiful. More compassionate. More alive.