It was six weeks ago, the week of February 22nd, when the girls hung it up for good.
The week I stopped breastfeeding my second and last baby and the old floppers officially retired from Boobietown.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment or even the day, but that was the week. Somewhere in the scattered sucks and swigs, between Monday and Sunday, she let go of the taste of me and phased me out for good. We got there gradually, so I never felt engorged, and she never felt deprived. It just happened. That was the week. The week we weaned. Wean Week. I was a weaner. I MAKE JOKES WHEN I’M SAD.
People don’t usually think about breastfeeding until they have children. (Or unless they have some sick milky tit fetish.) I was 29 years old, sitting in the office of a surgeon on LeMarchant Road, about to talk titty for the first time.
My mother had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer at age 55, not seven months after her retirement party. She had her breast removed and was undergoing chemotherapy. We had grieved the news and bought the wig and felt all the feelings and done all the things. And now I was doing something I needed to do – whatever I could to make sure this didn’t happen to me, or if it did, to catch it early. My mom’s mother had had breast cancer too. So did several of her cousins. So did my dad’s sister and half-niece. Basically breast cancer was gyrating through my DNA. Scary shit. But they turned me away at radiology at St. Clare’s – too young for a mammogram, they said, even though my family doctor had sent me. I remember leaving the hospital feeling confused but relieved. That dreaded squeeze of my chesticles in a wafflemaker would wait another day… or decade.
(FYI I eventually went through genetic counselling. All things considered, their final recommendation was mammograms starting at age 40, ten years earlier than normal. I was low to medium risk, not high. Great – I’d be feeling myself up for the next ten years. Andrew generously vowed to help me.)
He would be vowing to do way more than that in a just a few months. My wedding dress was simple: ivory, lace, formfitting but stretchy – comfortable for dancing, so I could get down with my bad self at the Legion. It also had a deep V in the back, so I couldn’t wear a bra. I had these rubbery pads that stuck onto my breasts to give me some lift, and keep my nipples from stealing the thunder from my face. These are the things I was concerned with as a new bride with a semi-charmed life, before Mom called me on that terrible Tuesday with the news and I cried in my office and went home early with Cancer in the passenger seat. After that call, a lot of things mattered way less, and a lot of other things mattered way more.
The surgeon’s only advice: “Have at least one baby and breastfeed from both breasts.” If those weren’t her exact words, they’re pretty close. It’s hard to focus on people’s words when you’ve got Death staring at you from a faux leather chair across the room, flipping through Time magazine. But I recorded it in my memory. A simple set of instructions with no guarantee, but it was something: “Have at least one baby and breastfeed from both breasts.” The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation said so too: “…evidence suggests that [breastfeeding] can reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. The biggest benefits are from longer periods of breastfeeding, for a year or more with one child or over several births.” How ironic that staying alive is so entwined with keeping someone else alive. It’s like life creates more life or something. Life is so damn weird.
And it was weird to even think about. I never fancied myself the motherly type, and here I was talking about using my dirty pillows to feed a tiny human. Breastfeeding. Feeding…with my breasts. GAH. Couldn’t we call them boobs at least? Hooters? Double lattes? “Breasts” was so… mature, so sophisticated, so anatomical. I couldn’t even sing along to Pearl Jam’s Jeremy without cringing when “he bit the recess lady’s breast.”
I got pregnant on our wedding night in a suite at the Marriott on Duckworth Street. Or possibly 48 hours earlier, in the bathroom at home. I know, I know. That’s how I remember it so clearly. It was one or the other, but the wedding night knock-up is accurate enough and doesn’t have a toilet in it, so that’s the story I tell.
We didn’t try to get pregnant. But we didn’t prevent it either, for the first time. (Do yourself a favour and never ask me to give a speech on how the withdrawal technique is an ineffective method of birth control.) And ya know, it really wasn’t because I was eager to have a baby to breastfeed and ward off the big C, as the good doctor advised. It was because my mother – the grandmother of my possible maybe kids – already had it.
We scheduled her chemo treatments around the wedding day so she wouldn’t be vomiting into a bucket. We styled her wig in our hands. I was no bridezilla, I didn’t make much fuss, but this – THIS was not how my wedding day was supposed to be. And yet here we were. My brother had married in his early twenties and had two half-grown boys already. I had waited. Now part of me wished I hadn’t. What if my mother never got to meet my children? What if she never got to make them quilts or bake them muffins? I was feeling the weight of my own mortality and all of our time running out.
Max was born into quiet chaos in the spring of 2009. The crocuses were just poking their heads through the thawing ground, but beautiful things couldn’t fix this. In a cruel twist of fate, it was my dad fighting for his life now. Less than six months after Mom’s mastectomy, Dad was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. I found out I was pregnant the same day he had a grapefruit-size tumour removed from his bowel. A week before Max was due, Dad went into surgery to have a piece of his diseased liver removed – a chance to prolong his life. When they opened him up, they discovered tiny spots of cancer in his abdomen, and closed him up again. I got the news on the way to the hospital from my obstetrician’s office. I was big and round and sad. I was a big, round, sad pumpkin waddling through the Health Sciences Centre, having a baby and losing a dad.
Max arrived a couple weeks later, just enough time for Dad’s incision and our hearts to heal. He came to the hospital and held his new grandson in his arms.
The physical pain of Max’s birth distracted from the heartache that crouched in the corner of every room. I had torn pretty badly, and the pain continued at the breast. Max fed ravenously. It hurt – every time. My toes curled. I bit my lip. I dreaded feeding time, which was all the time. And if my husband came near these gerber servers, oh hell no. I felt raw – up top and down below. I stuck it out for ten months, and finally threw in the towel (and the udder cover) a couple weeks after Dad died. I just didn’t have the strength to fight the pain anymore – not the kind of pain that was optional. I could give myself a break now. It was time.
My blog was soon born and I published an article about breastfeeding: Breast is Best. It’s also the Worst. It hit the Huffington Post and went viral. It was the truth about breastfeeding. My truth, but one shared by many other women. Breastfeeding was not what they told us it would be. It’s magical, they said. It’s wonderful, they said. Liar, liar, maternity pants on fire. Some said my story discouraged new and future mothers from giving their babies the best start in life. I should have kept my story to myself, I guess, or sugar-coated it for the good of all future humankind. Sorry, that’s not how I roll. I discovered that there were so many women out there who were feeling just like me, but afraid to say so. They felt guilty about being unsuccessful or unhappy breastfeeders, because according to the books and commercials, we were supposed to be smiling from ear to ear and nip to nip. Finally the truth was setting us all free. And I don’t mean just releasing us all from the shackles of breastfeeding, although that’s what some moms do and everyone’s happier for it. I mean keeping us all going, persevering in spite of the shitty bits, because we know the struggle is real and it’s not in our heads and we are in this together. Who cares that I had hardcore La Leche Leaguers tsk-tsk-ing me for my story. I was happy to take one for the teats.
The following year, I published the story in my book, MotherFumbler (Breakwater Books, 2013). It became the story I read at public appearances. I read it at my book launch and watched the crowd crack up, including my mother. Boobs, fun bags, dairy pillows, sweater meat, meat puppets, Super Big Gulps: I said it all, lady balls out. It was funny, unfiltered, and true. These breasts that once gave me such grief were now giving everyone a chuckle. Multi-purpose, motherfuckers.
Max grew like a dandelion on the lawn. He sprouted into a toddler, then a little boy, right before my eyes. My pictures of him from month to month as he sat in the same rocking chair holding the same stuffed elephant… It’s like someone swooped down and replaced one baby with another. A drunk stork maybe. OR ALIENS.
My breasts on which he once feasted changed too. The perky torpedoes from my wedding day morphed into bulbous zeppelins and then into deflated flesh sacks, like Ziploc bags a quarter-full of gravy. Fried fucking eggs. BEE STINGS. But I didn’t care. I joked about it a lot. I wrote about it in my book. It freaked me out how a tiny human could cause such destruction. But I didn’t care, not really. My lady garden was a war zone. I had watched my mother lose her breast and almost her life. I had watched my father die before my eyes. I was well past perky tits.
Five years passed. I wrote about parenthood on my blog, in the local arts and culture newspaper, on the Huffington Post. I wrote about my indecision around having another baby and had a few man-children and Bible-thumpers tell me I should have my uterus removed. FUN.
My breasts enjoyed the freedom five. They even forgot they were food and felt sexual again. I’m a logical person, so why on earth would I do all this yucky stuff over? Seriously, who in their damn mind would willingly subject themselves to that kind of pain A SECOND TIME? It’s like walking into a creepy ass cave knowing full well there’s a bear inside who’s going to majorly fuck you up.
My husband didn’t concur. Probably because by the time his father was his age, he had seven children. (Yes, SEVEN, as in dwarves, deadly sins, and nation army.) And probably because Max didn’t come from his genitals. Un-fuckin-fortunately. He communicated his desire for a second kid very sweetly and maturely by saying things like, “If we don’t do this by the time I’m 35, I’m getting a vasectomy.” Which really made me feel appreciated and willing to sacrifice my body a second time to produce another noble heir.
I waited it out until the stakes were too high on my 36-year-old eggs, and Max could tie his shoes. And, without too much discussion or debate, we pulled the goalie.
A couple weeks later, I was visiting my friend who had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer at the ripe old age of 35. I told her my period was late, which rarely happens. She went and fetched something from her bathroom. Before her diagnosis, the yet undiscovered cancer was giving her prego-like symptoms so she bought a pregnancy test from the drugstore. There were two pee sticks in the pack. She handed me the other one. The irony of the moment was not lost on either of us.
I took it home with a full bladder. It was something I had to do at home, in my own bathroom, with my own silly dog sniffing at the door. So if the result was positive, I could react however I needed to – throw myself onto the bed, or down a well, whatever. The tell-tale double lines appeared almost immediately, like it didn’t even need to think about it, that’s how pregnant I was. I thought about telling Andrew the news in some clever way but I wasn’t even sure how I felt or how he’d feel so I told him immediately with a blank face and a monotone voice: “Robot husband, your robot wife is having a robot baby, bleep boop bleep.” We both kind of smirked at our fertile bastard status and embraced awkwardly for a minute on the edge of the bed. Here we go again, I guess. I stuck the pee stick in my underwear drawer to revisit it later. Maybe my socks would coax the truth out and I’d return to a negative result. Socks can be persuasive like that. Nope – still pregnant. Shit got real, real fast. Within days, my boobs were tender as boils. And nine months later, the congo bongos were in full milk-producing action.
Rae was born two days before Christmas, 2014. Her big brother, now nearly six years old, burst into the birthing suite at 8:30pm with his pajama shirt sticking up from under his sweater, the rest of the family pouring in behind him. Everyone talks about the benefits of having your kids close together, and I get that. But then I look at this picture of Max proudly holding his sister and whoa. That face.
Even before I knew how the breastfeeding would go this time, I told myself I would write a second article. Breast is Best. It’s also the Worst: THE SEQUEL. My story, my truth, the second time around. Even if it meant admitting I was wrong.
I WAS WRONG.
I won’t say it was magical. I will never say that. I didn’t give birth to a unicorn with a rainbow pouring out of her butthole. But this time, it was completely and utterly/udderly different. I was a professional. I had a PhD in suckling humans. Rae was a little jaundiced when we took her home, so I fed her often and propped her up in the window in nothing but a diaper, like baking a peach pie in the sun. After the initial three weeks with my tender melons covered in cabbage leaves to combat the engorgement, it was smooth sucking all the way. No pain. No discomfort. No hesitation. I whipped ‘em out anywhere, all the time. My nipples felt nothing but generous, convenient, and useful. I fattened up a living, breathing person while watching Netflix, pausing to admire her eyelashes and her chubby hand resting on my collarbone. I fed her at the swimming pool while Max did cannonballs. I sat on a picnic blanket in Bannerman Park after bootcamp and refuelled the human before going to the grocery store. I topped up my squishy Ewok in the shade of a tree at Disney World, then watched her brother become a Jedi. It was glorious. Rae was a champ. She packed on the pounds – in the 95th percentile for height and weight from day one. I stopped going to the breastfeeding clinics to get her weighed because I felt ridiculous. The proof was in the puddin’: Rae could have eaten the other children. I even started plying the ol’ doinkers up from my bra, instead of down – even less fussing around with snaps and fabric. I was a breastfeeding ninja. A well-oiled milk machine.
Maybe it’s because the setting was so different this time. No father fighting cancer in the background. No Death lurking in the shadows going “tick, tock, Mommy” pointing to the clock on the wall and laughing.
Or maybe round one killed my nipples and they had lost all sensation.
Or maybe she was just a different baby with a better latch, simple as that.
Whatever. This is my follow-up. My sequel to my most popular post to date, after six years of blogging. That was my truth at that time. With that baby. With that me. It is not my truth today. With this baby. With this me.
I’m not sorry for writing it. The truth can never be wrong. But I do apologize if it deterred anyone from giving it a shot. Breastfeeding is not magical for a whole lot of mothers, so maybe we should all stop saying it is. But admittedly, with the right conditions, it can be pretty sweet. I see that now. I encourage you to try it. Stick it out for the first few weeks, if you can. The first three weeks are the worst. It usually gets better after that, I swear to the cantaloupe gods.
And then, before you know it, it’s over. Rae has forgotten about it already. The other morning we were lying in bed and my robe fell open. Before February 22nd, she would have seen my nipple and pounced, mouth open, like an aardvark on a mound of ants. This time she laughed and flicked it with her finger. It wasn’t food anymore. It was just a funny looking button. I kept her alive with little more than my body for a year and she has forgotten it in a flick, quite literally. We still have our moments. As soon as I get home and pick her up, she sticks her thumb in her mouth and jams her hand down my top. It’s comfort, I guess. Warmth. This is our thing now. But one day, this too will end. Before I know it, I’ll be buying her a bra of her own. Life is so damn weird.
But it was my first baby, who’ll be seven years old in a couple weeks holy crap how did that happen, who made me lament Wean Week the most. We had a tough time that first year, Max and I. But we made it through together, and we’re here and we’re strong. The week after I left Boobietown, I was lying with him at bedtime and I told him Rae would be going to visit Nanny for a couple nights, which was okay now that I wasn’t breastfeeding her anymore. He looked at me with eyes wide and glossy. “So… I can’t have a try now?” He was dead serious. Max had always wanted to see what my milk tasted like, fascinated by my nursing Rae and the fact that he fed there too, for the better part of his first year on earth. I had always meant to give him a swally before it was too late, somehow, but it never seemed like the right moment. I had forgotten, and now it was impossible. It was the end of an era. Boobietown was a ghost town. SAD FACE.
But no, I’m not getting an amulet made from my breastmilk. Or a tattoo of my tit on my tit. But I can’t say I didn’t think about it.
What I did get from all this is a greater appreciation for my own body, my own breasts. Not how they look in a bra – I’m okay with my itty bitty titties. Not how they feel in my hands – like half-filled water balloons. But how they’ve served me well. For Max, for Rae, for my health (I hope), I’ve done all that I can do. In fact, these puppies have done us all such a solid, I should respect them enough to stop laughing at them when I step out of the shower and see myself in the mirror. Besides, these sweet little pancakes will slap onto the mammogram tit-squisher pretty easily in a couple years, so that’s another plus right there.