Published on May 27th, 2019 | by Kira Garcia1
My son arrived via c-section after an astonishingly easy DIY queer conception and a much more complicated birth. He emerged victoriously, a large poop-covered stranger with very red hair, mad as hell and hungry. We named him Abe.
My teeth were still chattering from anesthesia when the nurse snuggled him against my breast for the first time. I had forgotten that we would need to do this, and my first thought was leave me alone. I’d just been through two days of cervical sweeps and agonizing labor and being fisted by an on-call obstetrician I’d never met before. All of that before they cut me open. I wanted to button myself into a flannel nightgown and remain untouched for a couple of months. No such luck.
Abe was enthusiastic—bordering on desperate—about nursing, but it still took him a few days to figure out how the whole thing worked. In the meantime, we fed him formula without hesitation, though it looked and smelled like hand lotion. In short order he was breastfeeding full-throttle, hoarding-for-the- apocalypse style. I never really understood the concept of “cluster feeding,” since it seemed like continuous feeding was our status quo. We nursed at three a.m. in the whisper of a streetlight, the last of the drunks going home from summer parties in Ubers on the street below; at ten a.m., while I listened to Brian Lehrer and slipped from caffeinated wakefulness back to exhaustion; in bank lobbies and coffee shops and airplanes. I would sigh, heavily, sinking into the couch, knowing that for the moment I was doing everything I could.
Parenting did not come easily for me; as time has gone on I’ve begun to suspect it never does. In those first months I felt like a crumbling bridge over shark-infested waters: a failing structure struggling to forestall tragedy. I didn’t sleep; I ate only opportunistically; my hair fell out and my weight dropped with alarming speed. Nursing was only thing I was sure I could do well, consistently. In those days, Abe and I were alone a lot, and when you’re alone with someone who can’t speak, you can start to feel a little insane. What did he want? Why was he so pissed? I tried to have empathy—after all, he was passionately opinionated, but totally unable to articulate himself. Nursing was, at least, a way to communicate. He’d latch on and gaze up at me with enviable contentment, slipping off only when his full stomach lulled him to sleep. I hadn’t known that someone else’s pleasure could be so satisfying.
Despite all this, I’ve never been a hardliner about breastfeeding (or anything else related to parenting for that matter). I feel fine about the fact that Abe knows what a Reese’s peanut butter cup is (his reward for letting me dress him as orphan Annie for Halloween), and I don’t regret letting him watch deeply weird YouTube kids’ videos about finger paint to buckle him into the car seat. Motherhood is fucking hard, and eating is pretty essential, so it seems ridiculous to give women shit for feeding their children however they need to. For me, breastfeeding has been what’s easiest, and as time went on, it became something more—a brief return to the quiet possession of pregnancy, before the chaos of motherhood begins. A blissful moment when the kid was again, wholly mine and mine alone.
Then Abe turned one. Daily his shiny peach-colored hair grew longer, looking more and more like a muppet wig, and daily he evolved a bit more from the portable, inscrutable creature he had been, into a small person with a big voice and very specific needs. For weeks, he nursed from one boob while gently holding the other, in a gesture I found charmingly possessive. But then the sweet cupping turned into bored smacking, poking, and pinching. He started to grab, he started to shriek. He couldn’t be consoled by a bottle or a loving cuddle from anyone else. Around this time, I came home to find my wife barely containing him as he flailed hysterically. She looked straight at me and said, YOU HAVE TO WEAN THIS BABY. I burst into tears.
I got it, though. The closed loop of our love and need was exhausting all of us. But how could I say no to his question? How could I sit and know that I was nursing him for the last time? It was the saddest thing I could imagine, knowing I would never see his blue eyes staring up from beside my left breast (the only one that still made milk), trusting me completely, and maybe remembering that he came from my body.
But as months passed, I discovered that nursing a nineteen-month-old was wildly different from those early days. If I wore a tank top, Abe would help himself with an entitled flourish, like a bad houseguest rummaging through the refrigerator. I hoped he’d lose interest, hoped he’d happily trade the boob for bananas and broccoli with a smile. But of course, weaning is much more than a menu substitution. I was beginning to realize that it was my job to tell him no, and that this would be the first of many letting-go’s. There would be preschool, and college; eventually, he’ll fall asleep in someone else’s arms. Birth, as it turns out, happens over and over again.
Abe walked for the first time in a picture-perfect toddle toward both adoring parents waiting with outstretched arms. Pride split his face in a three-toothed grin, utterly perfect, and a part of my brain I didn’t know existed lit up ecstatically. Within a few weeks he was waddling around the living room confidently, collecting books and toys to bring to us, asking nonsense questions, plopping down in our laps to read, pointing at the book with small, sticky fingers. His world was opening bit by bit, some days at lighting speed, some days more slowly. And still, he wanted to nurse. After a bath, when his hair smells like a fairy tale, I curled him into my lap, trying to remember the time before his legs dangled off. I marveled at the effortless way his body grows, and I hoped that for everything that’s taken away, something else is given.
Now a year later, with an almost-3-year-old, I look back at myself, teetering on the brink of that separation from nursing, with tenderness. I remember the day I knew we will never nurse after nap again, wound up in bed together, a bit sweaty. Abe was blissfully unaware, of course. My pictures from that day are blurry and terrible. I was hollow and sad. The next day, very early, I boarded a plane to a middle-aged cousin’s wedding. It was a strange weekend on the other side of the country, full of cringes as I dodged the embrace of relatives, trying to protect my tender tits. It was supposed to be a break, but as I now know for sure, there is no real break when you are apart from your small child. Even as you will your dumb brain to shut up, relax, drink the bad plane wine, watch the TV, this is the last time you’ll be alone for days, some small animal part of you growls WHERE IS MY BABY relentlessly. (Well, except for the brief moment at an estate sale when my sister and I went into hysterics over a box of 1990’s Playboy magazines).
I felt I’d come home to heal a heartbreak.
The weekend ended, I got back on the plane to New York. As I left the subway station and walked down Monroe Avenue to our house, my heart sped up and my stomach knotted. It felt for all the world like I was about to divorce someone, to end a love affair. I was headed home to tell Abe no.
In the kitchen, I tried not to scare him with my tears. He asked, na-na? as he always did, and I crouched down to hug him, sparkling with joy to be near him again, but also wrenched. No, we weren’t going to nurse any more. The milk was all gone.
And we didn’t. We were done. After a few tough days that tugged at me, Abe was surprisingly unbothered. At the time, mama’s will still seemed as inevitable to him as the weather. He hadn’t yet figured out how to really put up a fight.
He grew, gracefully and sometimes not-so; wandering around Ft. Greene park in a coral colored onesie and sandals on his second birthday in June. He has had haircuts, every time looking a little older, a little less like a wild stranger. He started talking in earnest one day last fall (motivated by a Halloween candy), and seems not to have stopped in the 6 months since. He has learned to whine, and recite the alphabet, and tell poop jokes. He cradles my face in his hands and says hiiii mama, in a way that means “I love you” but also “can I watch TV now?” He is sometimes quite sad about getting bigger, and sometimes quite sad about not being big enough. He still wants to touch my breasts, and still jokes about nursing—where did the milk go? Is it visiting grandma? Will it come back?—he still croons for me from across the house when my wife puts him to bed or gives him a bath. His crib smells gamey, like a chicken coop, when I get him after nap on a warm day. He is still dazed when he wakes up, thumb firmly in mouth, flopping softly into my arms, grateful to be carried for as long as I can still manage it. He is not a baby, but he is still mine.