Justin Cascio invites men to consider the miracle of breasts.
You wake up to the sensation of a mouth suctioned to your nipple. It’s a familiar sensation, and opening one eye, you see your infant son at your breast, his body wrapped in yours, his jaw and throat working in occasional spasms although he appears to be entirely asleep. You fall asleep together like this, sometimes, especially at night when you wake, anticipating his cry before it breaks from his throat. Last night, without remembering or thinking, you lifted him in the darkness and brought him into the bed with you, between yourself and your sleeping husband. One hand unhooked the nursing bra cover as the other guided your son’s tiny head to the revealed nipple. Only in retrospect do you realize that you have achieved black belt status as a bra-opener. No hook will ever befuddle you; it will be like typing, or driving standard, forever after.
At first, nursing was simply novel. You didn’t know if you’d know how, but like sex and childbirth, you find out that you do know, after all. You are learning tricks no book taught you. You didn’t used to sleep in a bra, for instance, but breastfeeding makes your breasts leak at any sensation—the sheets rubbing your sore nipples even trick them into releasing droplets. You woke your first few mornings at home, wrapped in milky sheets. Now you wear a nursing bra with round absorbent pads in the cups, as if you were still insecure about the size of your breasts. As if. They’re two cup sizes larger than before you were pregnant.
You can’t twist far enough to see the alarm clock without waking the baby, but from the quality of the light entering the room, you know it is time to get up. Risking infant protest, you slide one finger down your breast and into your son’s mouth to break the seal. You turn and look at the clock. It’s nearly six. While your back is turned, you hear the click as your husband silently slips from bed and into the adjoining bathroom.
As you slip back down into the covers, you remember long ago, before you had a baby, when you had morning sickness. Months ago, in your first trimester, you flew over your husband in your haste to the toilet, to hurl up any vestige of last night’s meal. You would heave until you were tired, until you brought up thick green fluid with your forehead braced against the seat. Someone finally told you to eat crackers in bed, so you’d have something to throw up, and that helped. Every day, you did that before work. You had room in your day for your baby and your job, then.
A different kind of mindless, animal love than the one that brought you to this bed now rules you. You are meat and milk to a helpless infant too young to be a real person to you, yet you can’t stay away from him. He hardly even opens his eyes, but when he does, his gaze lock on yours and you are riveted. You’ve never wanted to take care of anyone like this, not even when you were first falling in love and would only stop having sex long enough to make sandwiches and dreamy plans for the future.
“Sorry,” your husband says when he comes out of the bathroom and sees you are awake. “I thought you were still nursing.”
You remember marrying this guy, but it seems like a long time ago. Now you wake beside him and are merely grateful for his tender concern. All of your thoughts revolve around the baby who sleeps between you. The same hormones that got you both into this mess, continue to hold you captive. You’ve gone back to work, too, but you feel flabby and tired; your heart’s not in it.
The baby has woken again and is hungry. Lying on your side, you give him the nipple closest to his face. Both breasts ache, but only slightly. The top breast is leaking and because of your angle, the milk isn’t absorbed by the nursing pad but instead drips down into your cleavage in a tickling stream. You press the pad closer with your free hand.
Before the baby was born, you were a multitasker: you ate lunch while driving, talked on the phone while ironing a shirt. In the weeks after childbirth, for half an hour every two hours, you have sat or lay and held him close, and watched your son’s jaw and fingers work at your breast as he nurses. You have nothing better to do than observe. You meditate on his face, on the drawing sensations, how your nipple gets thicker and longer as he draws on it; you can tell that it is nearly at the back of his throat, and have a sense of how much milk comes with each pull. Once, out of curiosity, you and your husband both taste it: thin and sweet, you decide, like sugary skim milk. Not bad, and in its way better than you thought it would be. Even your infant’s bowel movements are soft and mild, inoffensive in odor.
When his efforts begin to fade at one breast, you switch him to the other. Eventually, he tires altogether and you lay him down to sleep. Your breasts are softer, relieved; they appear flattened against your chest, deflated. Without your noticing, while you go about showering, brushing your teeth, making coffee, your breasts will fill. In the first days of your son’s life, you could nurse him at will, but now that you’ve returned to work, you visit what you sarcastically refer to as the lactation lounge. It is the middle of three toilet stalls in the women’s restroom, where you have taped up a picture of your baby’s face, to look at while you apply the breast pump and will your body to pretend, so it will let down your milk into plastic bottle liners that you give to the day care. You can never quite manage to pump anything more than a few tablespoons, and it makes you feel like a failure: at being a good mother, at being a good worker. Later today, your breasts will be hard and it will feel like the skin is cracking from the force, that the milk is bruising every corpuscle in your breasts. When you arrive to pick up your baby, your first thought will be of nursing him. You will hope that he was not recently fed. The formula that you are forced to buy and give to the child care with your tablespoons of breast milk, change his scent. The top of his head smells different. It seems to make him less yours. Even the contents of his diapers become more foul.
Hunched on a toilet behind a metal door with your son’s picture taped to it, listening to the wet wheeze as you work the pump with one hand, you believe that equality between the sexes is impossible, while we are all held to the standards of a narrative ignorant of our warmblooded natures. At best, there is equity out of recognition that all things are not equal. For equality, there would have to be no hormones, no pregnancy, no pain at making way for another to pass through us; or it would have to be the same for both, the mother and the father. We are not that way. It is like this, instead.
You cry. The milk flows.
—Photo Flickr/Raphael Goetter