This morning Raffi got a bloody nose when he fell off the stepstool in his room that he uses to look out the window and yell at buses. He screamed in a way that no longer spikes my adrenaline because it’s almost the same way that he screams when he is denied a cookie or when offered the “wrong” fork. But I was still horrified when I saw the blood dribbling onto his Avengers t-shirt, so I did what I still always do when he needs immediate comforting: I pulled up my shirt. A few minutes later he popped his head up and pointed at the blood smeared around my areola. “Boof have an owie?” No, the boof does not have an owie, you do, I halfheartedly tried to explain, but he had already lost interest, rooting around for “anoda one.” I lay back and tried not to be irritated, to smell his head and be in the moment, surely one of the last times I’ll be able to soothe him in this way. It’s such a good trick, to be able to turn his mood around immediately by expending zero effort, except what my body does without my conscious volition. I should treasure it. One of the last times.
Then again, I’ve been telling myself it’s one of the last times for a long time now.
I never intended to be nursing an almost two year old. I wasn’t even sure that I would breastfeed at all; there are so many excellent reasons not to. Looking back on the first months of his life now with a mix of 20/20 hindsight and sleep-deprivation amnesia, it seems so clear to me that what I should have done was introduce formula and bottles as soon as possible, so that I could have left him for long stretches of time much sooner. If I’d done that, I think, it might have taken only months and not years to regain the mental equilibrium that allows me to go out into the world and not think of him for hours or even whole days at a time. By the time he was eating solids, I tell myself, I could have reclaimed my entire prepartum brain and body and self so that I wouldn’t feel the way I do now: essentially, that I was Rip Van Winkeled out of a year and a half of my life.
Instead, though, I made the decision (but was it a decision?) to keep my baby alive via food that my body made for him, that only I could provide. I was reading a lot of books and blogs at the time about how this was not just okay but was virtuous. Not heroic-sacrifice virtuous, though -- simply the only thing a baseline-okay mother would do. This was hard to hold in my mind simultaneously with another idea, one I’d been aware of in my prepartum life, that I should beware of anyone who valorizes physical incursions on women’s bodies, on my body.
I was “lucky.” (I was lucky.) My schedule was “flexible,” insofar as you can say that about a schedule that includes mandatory breaks to squeeze out your udders in a public bathroom stall. I had no office job with strict hours; I needed to work not for hand-to-mouth survival but rather to keep my hand in, keep my obligations to the projects I’d started in my previous life upheld, keep my identity un-obliterated. But because it was possible to do so in weird spurts, sprint-typing for a few hours before rushing back to feed, I felt like that’s what I had to do. It was only just possible. But isn’t that how we should live, trembling at the edge of what we’re capable of withstanding?
And in another sense, I really didn’t have much of a choice; my body seemed to have chosen for me. For the first seven or eight months of Raffi’s life, I had oversupply, squirting jets of milk across the room and soaking through kotex-style pads in the cups of my beige clip-cup bras. If Raffi didn’t wake to nurse at night my breasts would wake me up instead, demanding that I either pump or feed. When I tried to ignore these demands, I knew I was gambling. The first time I went into Manhattan for a meeting I tempted fate by tacking a grocery trip onto the errand and ended up with mastitis, a miserable 24-hour fever that left me unable to do anything but lie in bed shivering, nursing, and rubbing my burning-hot breasts with a vibrator (!) to try to clear the blockages in my ducts before the infection spread to the point where I’d need antibiotics. (By the way, this works. I put a sock on the vibrator so it wouldn’t seem so rude.)
These memories seem so distant because they actually did take place kind of a long time ago (also because everything that happened in pre-Nov 8 life seems like it happened a long time ago.) But somehow I am still nursing, though I’ve gotten rid of most of the beige bras and it’s been more than a year since my nipples could spray super-soaker-style on command. Nursing a toddler is so different from nursing a newborn it doesn’t seem like we should call it by the same name. There are no special pillows or “football holds” or concerns about “latch,” and there are definitely no pumps. There are, instead, conversations. “How about some blueberries? How about milk from a cup?” I counter-offer. “How about a boof?” says Raffi, who knows he is being funny. I’m wearing a loose shirt with a low neckline and his hand is already slipping under my collar, ready to liberate the boof. Nursing an infant is all about peace, feeling your hearts beating together, that solid little body calm and still except in its rhythmic, lulling pull at you. Nursing a toddler can be more like jiu jitsu, a matter of dodging thrashing limbs and parrying the inevitable scrabbling attempts to hold and tweak the nipple that’s not in use. I read somewhere that they try to do this because it “turns up the volume” on the milk in the other breast, which seems like a serious design flaw. One of many.
In spite of all of this, in spite of everything, though, when I think about how this odd bodily project really is – really has to be – coming to an end sometime soon and I want to lie down and cry. What will I do the first time he’s hurt and I can’t give him a boof? Will I really be able to allow myself to feel that my needs are more important than his in a moment when he’s hurting and nothing else will fix it?
Or maybe, more to the point, when will it seem like his needs and mine aren’t inextricably entwined, to the point where it doesn’t even feel like his are superseding mine because they might as well be mine? Maybe it will take weaning to make this division clear, and that’s why it’s so hard: this will sever us completely into two separate people, we who started out as one body.