Published on April 6th, 2021 | by Erica Hoffmeister0
Elegy for My Magical Milk-Producing Breasts
I am no longer a vessel for life. My biology is altering, chemical makeup shifting, balancing out. I feel like an acrobat swaying on a tight rope who has not performed in four-in-a-half-years—four-and-a-half-years of creating and sustaining life with this body. I’m waiting for the adrenaline to kick in, for the morphological changes of my brain to revert back to normal. For lost gray matter to float on my ocean’s currents back to me.
My breasts are painted with strained veins and engorged with uneven lumps. It takes time, I say to myself, the phrase becoming mantra, becoming truth for the first time, though I’ve heard it so often.
On day one of weaning, I am physically ravaged, a penitence I’ve brought on myself. My breasts immediately fill just two hours after her morning feed. Her last feed. There is no fanfare. When I realize this, I consider bringing her soft body to my breasts once more to give formal valediction, but refuse to break my own promise. This is the only way, I remind myself, recalling each previous failed attempt to wean her slowly in past months. I suffered from terrible mastitis with my eldest, with the reminder of a small empty pocket of skin behind the scar above my left nipple, where the nurse’s assistant took a scalpel to my breast, drained it of lime green puss. I know the signs of infection, check my temperature often. I google how to relieve my breasts from the pain: ibuprofen, cold packs, hand expression. My best friend tells me she’s surprised I am still producing this much milk after eighteen months. I tell her, so am I.
I wonder, for the umpteenth time, what is lacking in my maternal structure that makes me feel this physical aversion to the daily, hourly, skin-to-skin contact with my child. I wonder—more honestly—how all women don’t feel this way, at some point. At nearly every point.
By afternoon, I am sore and achy all over. She is still wailing from every corner of the room, haunting each step I take. I read article after article outlining advice for weaning mothers. Every word appears as a loaded gun; overcome with anxiety, I feel doomed to fail. Eventually, I find myself in our single bathroom, straddling the cracked porcelain tub. I watch hand-expressed breastmilk spray and circle across the muted beige into the drain, ounce after ounce after ounce as she screams in the distance. I water the milk down with tears.
We do not sleep that first night. She awakes several times an hour, begging for me to comfort her. It’s gone, it’s just gone, I try to tell her, even as I can feel my milk ducts responding to her panic, streams of her milk soaking through my t-shirt. I’m sorry, I whisper, forced and raspy, through each fit, as she stands and screams and stares me down and repeats no, no, no. It is a long night.
In the splinters of morning, I wake beside her in her bed, my legs strewn over the side of her tiny mattress, the quilt my mother-in-law sewed draped across us. She immediately wakes and howls.
This was coming to me, I read from my internal almanac.
On day four, she falls asleep in my lap with a chocolate mochi ball in her hands, ruining my favorite rainbow-striped onesie that had been passed down from her older sister. I carry her upstairs, transfer her to my bed out of habit, and gently wipe her clean as she naps. The chocolate remains stubbornly streaked across her full cheeks, between her tiny fingers. I don’t mind.
That night, I release weeping that had pooled in my chest bones, in the fine lines in my forehead, tears I had been holding back since the day she was born.
I was a better mother to Scout, I say to my husband as we decompress our individual days on our front porch, a newly formed pandemic ritual. He scoffs, always seeing the beauty in our two daughters’ distinct personalities. I tell him what I know: our older daughter is a person with a consistently full cup. She was village-raised, and it shows. As she wades through crowds of people, her step spry, elbows high at her waist, no one can resist her pull; no one who crosses her path departs without an overwhelming sense of joy. In short, she makes you feel like the person you want to be. Our younger daughter, in contrast, shows you the person you really are: the truth.
How I felt it to be true for so long, that I made it true: I am not the mother I thought I was.
On day five, my breasts are no longer tender, though the left is still firm and misshapen. I no longer have to hand-express to relieve engorgement, except during my morning showers. My body feels soft and plump, like a plum I neglected to eat refusing to rot. I am still tired, but not weighed down from that spiritually bottomless pit of exhaustion. My ravenous appetite has slowed. I am less animal. I am, ironically enough, domesticated.
That night, she falls asleep on her own easily with two random objects in her hands: a tiny board book and a tube of Aquaphor. A pincer, a full cupping—she still needs something to hold. She sleeps through the night for the very first time in her life and I feel as if I do, too.
The next morning, she wakes for her once-normal 6am feed. Instead of a banshee’s wail, it’s a giggle. She walks toward me carrying a stuffed Elmo and her training cup of oat milk. I reject the word training; I embrace anything that will help her. I lean over the bed and scoop her up with both hands, kissing her bare tummy. Good morning, sweetheart. She nuzzles my neck and settles in beside me quietly, moving my arm over her body for comfort.
We are, post-eighteen months of skin-to-skin contact, finally bonded.
On day seven, she relapses with aggressive need. She is once again, literally attached to my hip. My spine curves sideways to hold my balance as her legs drape down, her weight pulling me towards the earth. I remind myself that I have traversed down a mountain in this way. Still, I’m irritated, taken aback by the sudden wash of familiar breastfeeding aversion. I thought we had moved past this; I thought I felt ‘better.’ She doesn’t need this, I say to my husband, to her, to myself in a desperate attempt to convince us all it is true. I do not give in. My body translates the pain in my straining arms to success. She faces a moment of truth: it’s actually gone.
I hear the platitudes: you’re going to miss these days. Despite years of correcting assumptions about my never-baby-fever, I begin wondering if the adage is, in fact, accurate. I’ve lit myself on fire with feeling guilty for my inability to revel in the moment. I just want it to end. I find myself offering advice to a pregnant friend and tell her what I know: every parent will shine at different points of development. I tell her not loving the newborn phase doesn’t make her less of a mother. I tell her the definition of ‘maternal’ is varied, that the commonality in each is simply love. How easy it is to say these things and not believe them in yourself, I correct myself aloud.
All in all, it will take eleven days. During those days, I will fantasize about weekend writer’s retreats and happy hours with friends—about socializing with people in general. I will question everything. I will rage at the sound of her cries, cry at the sound of her laughs. We will cuddle, a lot, and I will revel in her sweetness. I will feel chosen—this becomes our love language. Our completed family will witness her growth into her own—as she learned how to walk during isolation, socialize in a pandemic, as she confused the womb with the outside world. Without our unbroken touch, her personality will begin to break its own waves: silly, solitary, loving, analytical, formidable. Glimpses of self, visible through the parting mist.
The waves will eventually settle, our dual moments of becoming separate, simultaneous. And, though I did not savor or celebrate the last time I nourished my baby with my magical, milk-producing breasts, I write this goodbye letter, instead, and feel true joy.