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The Secret Life of Breasts

A Maryland mother recently being asked to stop nursing at a Starbucks—and the local and national demonstrations by nursing mothers that ensued—reminded me of the three-year education nursing gave me and my son.

“Do you have any, um, cabbage?”
“Spinach salad?” Room Service answered in a foreign accent.
“No. Cab-bage,” I ennuciated.
 “You like Caesar salad!” the kitchen declared optimistically.

I was staying at the Convention Center hotel in Cleveland , ordering cabbage before 8 a.m. while my roommate slept in the other bed. After spending my first night ever away from my two-year-old son, I had breasts like the tail lights of a fifties Olds. Instead of attending the morning session on Putting the FUN Back in Fundraising, I traversed downtown Cleveland, through long slants of bright sunlight and a tricky knife of wind off the lake, to shop for groceries.

I knew about the astringent property of cabbage, though I didn’t understand how it worked, because a few days after I gave birth my milk transformed my once slight swells into twin bulkheads. The midwife prescribed a hot shower, cold beer and cabbage.

When I got back to my room, I removed two large cupped leaves, scored them with my key chain pocket knife, and inserted the cool leaves inside my jogging bra. Then I headed downstairs to the conference, smelling slightly of coleslaw.

Before I was a mother, I never knew my breasts had a secret inner life. But when Cope was laid upon my body, he knew. He began his instinctual rooting and crawling up my belly toward the place that would be his second home. We were pros from the start. My son was often not good at sleeping, was famous for his explosive and ill-timed poos, and despised his crib. I also was often not a good sleeper, was horrible at taking care of myself, and was sometimes convinced motherhood had ruined my life. But we were both damned good at nursing. When everything else failed, I lifted my shirt and Cope latched on.

As Cope grew, nursing was about more than good nutrition or antibodies. When he was three-months-old, I returned to a part-time version of my job fundraising for a university museum. His childcare was right across the street from my office and during my mid-morning break I would walk over to nurse him. It was like having dinner with an old friend. We checked in, exchanged glances, reassured each other, then amicably parted.

My breasts became a tool for getting us through the most difficult times. When he was seven-months-old, Cope and I traveled to Long Island for a friend’s wedding. Nursing was the way to soften the edges of a world that involved two airplanes, one taxi, one bus, a car ride and a strange house filled with strange people. Not to mention a suddenly single mom who was on her last nerve. Exhausted, Cope wailed and arched back and turned red. Escaping to the porch, we settled onto a chaise lounge in a corner dark with vines. I sang and rocked back and forth, but it was the nursing, sucking on my body, that calmed us both. The next day, when his first attempts at crawling resulted in hitting his head over and over, nursing stopped the tears. When I sat down before a plate of food at the reception, nursing made it possible for me to eat. When naptime came, we nursed and then I laid him in the shade on his African-print blanket; in his wedding attire, a lavender button-down Oxford-cloth romper, he looked like a university professor after a particularly drunken spree.

Being a nursing mother was sexy. I remember walking across campus to my car, having worked late at a fundraising event. I was wearing black boots with heels, a tight black skirt and a black shirt with a plunging neckline. My breasts were full of milk. I felt like I was meeting a lover, enjoying the secret fullness I knew I would soon share. I felt ripe with anticipation and need. I felt incredibly beautiful.

By the time Cope was 18-months-old, I'd returned to working full-time. I went in to work early, often in the dark, and blasted out of there by 4 p.m. I was a maniac driving 40 mph on a crowded university street to cut the mile drive time. When I arrived, Cope would be playing outside on the tiny playground with his new baby friends. The moment he saw me he broke out in emotion, laughing and crying at the same time. I swept him up and we did what we always did when we’d been apart. We sat down on one of the benches lining the fellowship hall that doubled as a cafeteria, and in the dark quietness, we nursed. I examined his fat legs, wiped dirt from his round cheeks with my thumb, reclaimed his growing body, while he stared with adoration from the corner of his eyes, ears wiggling with the sucking. Our world got small and simple again.

At Cope’s second birthday party, I started my period for the first time since I’d been pregnant. It was two years to the hour from when he was born. As I stood under the backyard ash tree and watched Cope and his friends run and laugh, parents lounging on quilts and in the hammock, I remembered walking the empty backyard during the beginning of labor, leaning on the tree during contractions. My midwife had explained that my period was delayed because of nursing and specifically because Cope did not sleep through the night. My breasts were sending me a message. It was almost time for my body’s intimate involvement in caring for our child to end.

I thought I would cry the last time. I thought I would need to light a red candle, take a lavender bath. But three years was enough. Walking beside the lake one morning, I noticed the sky, clear blue but for some swirly clouds, like milk before you stir it in the coffee. The webby clouds were telling me there’s plenty of milk in the world. I felt light and free, my body finally completely my own. Just as I gave Cope space inside me to grow until he was born, then took it back, we were done with nursing. Now while we cuddled we would read books or talk about our days. The secret life of my breasts was secret again, even from me.
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Robin Bradford, an award-winning short story writer and essayist, has published in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, and many other places. You can find her in two new anthologies -- Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood and Three-Ring-Circus: How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work and Family. Bradford works as a communications and development director for a nonprofit affordable housing provider in Austin. She lives with her husband and son, three cats and a dog in a tiny fifties house. Being the mother—of a child over the age of three!—is the best thing that ever happened to her. Visit her site at www.robinbradford.net

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