Published on February 13th, 2015 | by Mary Volmer


A Short History of My Breasts by MARY VOLMER

They’re called tits, titties, boobs, breasts, hooters, hahas, bosoms, the focal of point of male fantasy, of fashion (high and low) admired, but, for all the wrong reasons.   Call me envious of the well-endowed. Okay, I am a little. But for most of my youth I embraced a kind of athletic androgyny: strong, active, my breasts little more than perky mosquito bites stranded between ribs. Nothing to look twice at. So imagine my surprise, when two years ago, I became pregnant and my breasts grew to assert themselves.

Everything grew, of course. Grew and overgrew, out of my control, or, the illusion thereof. But my breasts were the first and most obvious sign of the changes to come. I wish I could say I enjoyed their new girth, but I was too sick the first trimester to enjoy anything, too high on hormones in the second to notice, and too fixated on the baby bump in the third to give the girls much thought. (That’s what I call them now, girls. Hard-working, anonymous, girls.)


After giving birth, my breasts, larger than ever, expressed loyalty only for the needy human clamped on my nipple. What a shock to discover how supremely unconcerned my breasts were with my needs (much less the needs of my hubby, poor guy. Now that there was finally something to hold on to, they weren’t his to hold.) If I failed to eat enough, or take in enough calcium, my breasts would happily strip my body of these resources to feed my baby. This is not to say baby and breast always got along well together.

You’ll hear this a lot if you’re soon to be a mom. Breast feeding is the most natural thing in the world. Yeah? Well so is giving birth. And that hurts like hell. Natural doesn’t mean painless or easy. Or that it will be free of the kind of gratuitous judgments that seem to accompany all the workings of the female body. My first encounter with this kind of intrusive, if well-intended, judgment occurred a day after giving birth.

There I was, torn up inside and out, leaking colostrum, screaming infant on my chest, when in walks THE LACTATION EXPERT. Walks is an understatement. This woman barreled into my room, helmet of gray hair smooth over the long creases of her scowl, snatched my baby from my arms and declared. “This child is hungry!”

“Well no shit, you officious bitch,” I thought, then recovered myself enough to nod with sufficient meekness in the hopes she would deign to share her expertise with me, the already failed mother. Maybe, I thought, maybe my tiny little breasts aren’t big enough to feed a hungry kiddo? But no, after a few weeks the girls proved quite productive.

Atomische / Tom Giebel (flickr/creative commons)

For a while, to be honest, I felt reduced to pair of boobs. For the first six months, even after I went back to work, normal measures of time became largely superfluous. There was no more nighttime/daytime. There was only feeding time and my breasts were its measure just as much as the baby’s belly. I shared many an intimate moment, or ten, or twenty, locked in an office or bathroom stall with Mr. Breast Pump.

I’m not complaining. I can’t complain. It was my choice to breast feed–wasn’t it? THE LACTATION EXPERT–armed with articles, IQ stats, immunity and growth charts–didn’t seem to think so. Most every study I read supported her directives, unless of course you count studies done in the mid-fifties recommending formula. Even a friend of mine, usually refreshingly scornful of expert advice, seized with indignation when I confessed (it felt like a confession) that I might supplement—supplement mind you—with formula. “Well,” she said. “I wouldn’t.”

If you can breastfeed, then you should. That was the message I received. And if I can and don’t, then what? Shame on me?

Of course I wanted to do what was best for my child; even as the latent rebel within me bristled at the moral overtone of all the advice, I did the best I could to take it. For the most part I did want to breastfeed. I enjoyed the growing weight of my son’s body, the satisfied smack of his lips, the gradual release and relief. I treasured the moments of quiet stillness that alone, I never allowed myself. Hell, I liked filling a B cup.

Joe Dyer / flickr creative commons

Joe Dyer / flickr creative commons

But Lord it would have been nice to take a day, a half day, four hours off. There is no division of labor where gestation or lactation are concerned, at least among hetero couples. My husband is a great father and my best friend, but breastfeeding is one of the functions his body cannot perform. There have always been two pairs of trousers in our family. There is only one pair of breasts.

The thing is, on some level, I understood and accepted the symbiotic relationship of a mother to her unborn baby. Nothing prepared me for the physical dependence (he on me, and me on him) that breastfeeding imposed on that first year. Nothing prepared me for how difficult it would be, when time to wean, to let go of that dependence. To let go of the deep wordless satisfaction I felt even at my most weary and incoherent moments.

Now, sitting here, writing this, the girls dormant and diminished within their A cups, it’s not cracked nipples or clogged ducts, or that infernal pump that I remember, but my baby, his body, the searching warmth of his breath on my chest.


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About the Author

Mary Volmer is the author of two novels: Crown of Dust (Soho Press, 2010) and Reliance, Illinois (Soho Press, 2016). Her essays, reviews, and short stories have appeared in various publications, including MUTHA Magazine, the Farallon Review, Women’s Basketball Magazine, Fiction Writers Review, Historical Novel Society Review, The New Orleans Review, Brevity, and Ploughshares. She has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook and was the spring 2015 Distinguished Visiting Writer in Residence at Saint Mary’s College (CA) where she now teaches.


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