Published on January 30th, 2019 | by Aren Aizura1
AREN AIZURA on CHESTFEEDING
Chestfeeding. Autocorrect doesn’t know this word and changes it to chested. Chestfeeding was what my daughter Kit and I did for six weeks. I could call it nursing, but chestfeeding disturbs people more.
In the first six weeks of Kit’s life I didn’t want to see anyone, really. Or yes I did, but only queers and people I knew would understand. Understand what? That I am male, that I am trans, and that I had also just given birth. That my partner is also trans, and that together we would be queer dads. That I was feeding my child with milk from my body, despite having the flat chest top surgery had given me eight years before. And that none of these things were a contradiction.
It was Thanksgiving 2014. I was still pregnant, just. We’d just arrived at my partner Emmett’s aunt and uncle’s house. We were in the kitchen. A member of his family was standing next to me; Emmett had ducked out for a moment. She said something about him. I forget exactly what now. It began with “she.” She something something.
Standing in that kitchen, I did not permit the rage flooding through my chest to pour out of my mouth. In fact, I don’t even remember feeling the rage. I only remember the hard constriction of my ribs holding it in. “You know that Emmett uses ‘he’, don’t you?” I said to her. As if she did not.
“Oh yes,” she said. I’m reconstructing here: I can’t remember the words, just the generic lines of the exchange, which felt old and wearing in their familiarity. “Oh yes,” she said. “But it’s only been a little while, it’s so hard to remember.”
“It’s been over ten years,” I said. Or did I say anything at all? Maybe I was so shocked that her memory of ten years is “just a little while” I didn’t speak.
For Emmett’s family member, I imagine that it really did feel like a tiny chunk of time. She had known Emmett since he was a child, after all. She has her own life; her younger relative’s transition must seem insignificant compared to her significant life events, or those of her husband, children, grandchildren. She might not be expected to note this change and act on it, even with the best intentions. Indeed, at times, cisgender people take trans and nonbinary people’s demand to be addressed using the right pronoun as narcissistic: from this perspective, we must be so self-involved that we don’t realize everyone else has a life and cannot pay attention. Well, no — from the trans person’s perspective, the pronoun forgetter is the narcissist. If you are unable to pay attention to such a radical change, you appear to be self-involved, at the very least. This impasse in accusations of narcissism itself reveals what personal events merit “attention” or “notice”: getting married, having children, graduating, all of these things merit attention and gifts from extended family. But pronouns are not marked, in general, and they do not necessarily merit such attention.
A week after Thanksgiving, Kit was born. Emmett’s family member visited us. The birth of a child was one life event she did understand, and her grandchildren were in California. A long way away. She is also a very kind person. She brought us chicken soup and she asked to hold Kit. Emmett said he had forgiven her by then; he processes family fuck-ups with equanimity. But I did not want her to hold Kit. In our house during the first months of Kit’s life I felt like a protective and predatory animal, maybe a bear or a wolf or a large dog. People smelt right or they didn’t: no gray area. Emmett’s family member did not smell right. Or rather, she smelled like she had gotten Emmett’s pronouns wrong, which was exactly true, and in my wild animal state made her an enemy. She visited on an afternoon when Kit was a week old. She came inside the living room, as far as the armchair nearest the front door, and sat down. I sat on the couch holding Kit. Emmett sent me significant glances. I handed over the baby. I gave her a couple of minutes. I watched them. Then I invented an excuse to take Kit back.
But I would not, could not, bring myself to chestfeed Kit while she was there.
On the other hand, during the first weeks, our queer family also visited. Kelley, Mo, Nastalie, Alyssa, others. Dinners and timeless hours on the living room couch. Tickling the baby. Talking. Drinking tea. This familial presence settled in protectively around me, around us, like a blanket. This was what allowed me to feel, which as it turns out was a pretty big part of having just given birth. I cried all the time. I spent at least half the days furious at Emmett for no reason. I was grumpy and radiantly ecstatic by turns. I couldn’t take my eyes or my fists off Kit, who still felt like an extension of me. But it was a pleasure to let the queers hold her and murmur about their special uncle names. Captain Alyssa. Uncle Kelley.
During these first days I pulled up my shirt in the heat and dim lighting of the different rooms we occupied, the sleepy bed or bedlike spaces, and offered Kit my nipples to suck on. I offered her my nipples, both sides, before we gave her a bottle. This was so she would receive the skin-to-skin contact, the touch and sucking first, which we thought might stimulate more milk production. There was definitely some milk inside my chest; probably not much. I had heard stories of trans men whose chests strained and swelled with milk, even after top surgery. My chest never swelled more than a little, and I never pumped, so we never discovered exactly how much. Our assessments of these physical capacities and amounts of bodily fluid were governed by qualifying adverbs: definitely, probably, maybe. Never. Meanwhile, Kit sucked. She sucked noisily.
It felt easiest to chestfeed when we were alone, although Emmett and I were together with Kit almost every waking hours. Chestfeeding felt a little like stealing: like a secret capacity no-one knew I had, and that might vanish if too many people knew. And there was the question of what it meant to be the gestational parent: did chestfeeding confer a more intense connection with Kit than anyone else had? I both wanted this, and did not want it. For his part, Emmett had said many times that he never wanted to chestfeed. Part of my interpretation of our understanding was that because chestfeeding emphasized my status as the gestational parent, this must necessarily belie our compact that queer parents would each perform equal amounts of the labor. (I have written about the problems with the 50/50 rule of queer parenting labor here.) So I mainly chestfed alone, or wanted to do it alone, or felt observed in different kinds of company for ill or better. Emmett tells me that in fact, I did chestfeed a lot with him present, but I recall being alone the most vividly. Chestfeeding was consistent with the private words I murmured to Kit when no-one else was around. It vibed with my awareness that I somehow knew her already, loved her to the depth of her tiny limbs, that she was for all her self-contained qualities a piece of me now moving around in the world, fondled indiscriminately by others. These propertarian sentiments were my secret.
When Kit was six weeks old, my mother flew to Minneapolis from Melbourne, Australia, where she lives. At six weeks Kit was crying for two hours every night around 7pm, something she only stopped doing when we put her in the carrier and stomped fake-angrily around the house. She was waking up every two hours at night. Some nights she would sleep for four or five hours at a time, but this happened rarely. Emmett and I were sleep-deprived, and we were fucked up. I wrote originally, we were feeling fucked up, but we were fucked up and it was no longer pretty. And then my mother arrived. She was so happy to see us she cried volubly and at length in the airport. I hugged her and I was glad she was there. We drove her home. Into the bedlike space.
Then, that first night: Mum was holding Kit in the dining-room. She handed Kit to me. “There you go, darling. Go to mummy,” she said.
This time the rage and containment were so immediate that I had to walk out of the room. I took Kit from her and stalked into the kitchen. Emmett was cooking. He had heard. We made eye contact in the way we always do in these moments. Silent telegraphing. The O of our mouths. OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG!!!!!!! I didn’t talk about it with her that night. I went right upstairs to bed, with Kit. The next morning I told my mother with constrained hysteria that I wanted to be called Kit’s dad, Dada, and that we were not using the word mother or mummy. I told her she had hurt my feelings. She already knew this, of course—both that I was Dada, and that my feelings were hurt. She apologized. She was jet-lagged. She was overcome. She had lost control of her tongue.
I stopped nursing Kit a few days after my mother called me mummy. We resolved this episode “easily”: we continued as if nothing had happened. But something broke inside me, and what broke was my resolve to persist in the epistemological contradiction of being male and nursing a child. I stopped chestfeeding Kit so often. When we did chestfeed, I felt anxious that my mother would walk in and see. So, I confined chestfeeding even more to the bedroom upstairs, where my mother did not come. Kit began to grizzle when she nursed; what little milk I had must have begun to dry up. She was hungry. Eventually I gave up offering her my nipples and stuck to the bottle. It was easier. I didn’t have to deal with the contradiction that my naked chest presented to the gender normy people among us, one of whom was staying in the house and whom we could not avoid.
(Aren chestfeeding Kit, photo compliments of the author)
I can see now that my mother called me “mummy” exactly because of those propertarian sentiments I harbored myself. She identified with me so strongly that she could not see me as anything but an extension of herself. Especially when I had just become a parent. And she was mummy, has always been mummy. Therefore I was too. Realizing that this makes me understand more that others’ misreadings of trans people—particularly family members—are not an indication of rejecting transness. And at the same time, accepting transness means letting others be different from ourselves, and that is a task we must attempt and probably fail, maybe especially as parents.
Now at nearly four years old, Kit engages Emmett and me in long movie role play games. She assigns us our roles. She always wants me to be the female maternal character. When we play The Sound of Music, I am invariably Maria. When we play The Wizard of Oz, I must be Glinda. Emmett is generally the villain: Captain Von Trapp or the Wicked Witch of the West. It’s true that he throws himself into character more and makes a better villain. For some time this year I liked to tell Kit a bedtime story in which she climbed into Glinda’s Magic Bubble, cat purr powered of course, to float up into the stars wrapped in blankets as soft as rabbit or kitten fur with a purple glowing light. Glinda—that is, me—would sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” somewhere over the rainbow. Dorothy—that is, Kit—went right to sleep. Glinda’s Magic Bubble had endless permutations. Sometimes it contained a bed, sometimes the floor opened into pod-like tufts that Dorothy could enfold herself in. Sometimes it was purple, sometimes pink. Sometimes we went to the Arctic, sometimes into space. Kit demanded I tell her the story every night for months. At some point I realized that I was giving her what I might call womb realness, the ultimate maternal metaphor. I also realized that I wanted to share these femme technologies of purple glowing lights and cat purr power with Kit because of the speculative power they confer on me. However “boring” Glinda might seem, she is strong and magical. She saves Dorothy countless time. It relates to the power of wearing make-up and nail polish, being a punk queer, the power of dancing in a club late at night. That power speaks to a part of me that has no relation to the genitals I was born with or the hormones I take. It just is.
And it is no contradiction that Kit also calls me Dada. Somewhere in the between of these things people call “contradictions” but are really just differences, different ways of knowing and seeing, that is where our family lives. In this week after the White House released a memo defining sex as the sex assigned at birth and based on one’s genitals, I have been remembering that this place of difference is much more powerful and generative than the empty fake gender binary they sell as “natural” and “real”. That is where our family lives. That is where we thrive.