They Shoot Wet Nurses, Don’t They?

March 10, 2009

Her name was Laura, and I nursed her baby.

We had met, initially, at breakfast and immediately hit it off. We sat down with our coffees and immediately got swept up in a conversation that ran the gamut from the advantages of Twitter over Facebook to the challenges of leaving one’s baby for a night. Which is precisely what I had done: I had left my baby to attend a symposium on parenting. And it was, as I told Laura over coffee, in some ways profoundly liberating, and in others completely terrifying. Also, my boobs hurt. Badly. I had forgotten my breast pump and an hour of hand-expressing in the shower that morning hadn’t helped much. I didn’t mention that part, though. I just said, I miss my baby.

She said, I know. Her own baby – a dark-haired sprite, just one year old – bounced happily on her knee. I would find it hard to leave her.

Yeah.

I liked her. I offered to help her sort out her Twitter/Facebook conundrum, and introduce her to some New York area bloggers. She invited me to a parenting event in Albany later in the month. We chatted throughout the day. The chirps and coos of her baby reminded me of my own chirping, cooing baby, who had accompanied me in the previous month to two conferences, who I was unaccustomed to being without, especially in this environment. My heart hurt, and my breasts ached. They ached. I kept my arms pressed against my chest for most of the morning.

At lunch I fled to my room and tried, unsuccessfully, to hand-express. I returned to the symposium, and sat down near Laura, and another woman that I had met that day. We were supposed to have a conversation about our parenting successes, or something like that. I said, you’ll have to count me out. I’m in a lot of pain and don’t know what to do. I huddled on the chair, squeezing the rock-hard contours of my chest as tightly as I could without screaming. I explained about the missing breast-pump, the terrible ache of my engorged breasts, the hours remaining before I would see my son. The other woman asked, is there a store nearby? I shook my head – the concierge had told me that there were no pharmacies in the immediate area. Laura cocked her head thoughtfully, and looked at her daughter, who was beginning to fuss. Would you consider, maybe… I know it sounds sorta weird, but… I have no problem with it, and she’s hungry… She looked at me, and waited.

Really?

Really.

I paused. My head spun, a little. Would I do this, really? Would it be weird? And then I thought, no. There’s nothing weird here. Boobs are boobs. Breastmilk is breastmilk, in all of its liquid gold glory. I bond with my son when we nurse, but it is not because he is latched to my breast. It is because I have him in my arms, and because I love him. Our intimacy derives from that love, and that love would be just as forceful if I fed him with a bottle. So would it be weird if someone else fed him from a bottle? No, of course not. These are only acts of nurture, whether they involve the bottle or the breast. And this is what the breast is made for.

I nodded, and reassured Laura that as a nursing mom I did not take any substances or medications that might compromise my milk.

And so. I took Laura’s daughter in my arms and she smiled at me and I lifted my shirt and she happily bent her head and drank her fill.

(Was it weird? No. It was different. Describing the thoughts and emotions that accompany nursing another woman’s child requires more space than I have here. It was intimate, but not inappropriately so – no more inappropriately intimate than someone holding your baby and cooing in his ear, whispering sweet baby nothings. If anything, it brought me to a deeper, more visceral understanding of my body as a miracle of biology, as a work of nature that is built to do certain things, one of those thing being – in my case; this is not necessarily true for every woman, and no woman is lesser for not being able to do it – nursing babies. My breasts are not sacred or magical objects, they are not quivers full of milk-arrows that can and must only be directed to blood-offspring. They provide milk. They nourish. They are both utterly mundane and terrifically awe-inspiring for that fact.)

I was grateful – so, so grateful – for Laura and her child; their generosity and open-mindedness and open-heartedness saved me a great deal of pain. At the end of the day, a mother was released from some considerable discomfort, and a child was nourished. Wonderful, no?

Well, as it happens: no. Not for everybody. Someone was watching, and someone did not like what they saw. Someone was watching and decided that what I had done was deviant. Irresponsible. Disgusting. Eww. So she wrote a post describing, in entirely misleading terms (we were total strangers! we had no discussion about it! a lady just blithely and irresponsibly passed her baby to a total stranger without a word! and that stranger – me, if you’re keeping track – might have been diseased!) (she has since admitted to me that her representation of what happened was misleading), what she saw and explaining why she thought it was wrong. And it was wrong, from her point of view. Unsanitary. Dangerous. Wrong. Her commenters went even further: why, I might have AIDS! Be homeless! A drug user! Sexually loose! In fact, was what I’d done really any different from wandering into a bar and asking some strange man to grope my titties? Really? Also: AIDS! Or some other horrible virus. That, and my boobs – this helpfully noted by the author – were probably unsanitary, to boot. Also, I’d probably been drinking.

I can’t even begin to describe how hurtful it was to read these things. This was me they were talking about. And Laura, who was as lovely a woman as I had ever met. Laura and I had just met, sure, but I think that we both hoped that we were becoming friends. And we share a belief – a healthy, woman-affirming, baby-adoring belief – that we mothers are all in this together, that we’re all served and enriched when we trust each other and help each other. She had a hungry baby; I had excruciatingly painful breasts that needed to be released of their milk. We came together with our needs. You’re welcome to say that you couldn’t see yourself doing this; you are welcome, even, to cringe and shudder a bit in distaste. Whatever. We all have our issues. Just don’t flaunt your disgust. And certainly don’t use it to publicly shame mothers who make choices that you might not make. What I do with my boobs – what any mother does to ensure that her baby gets fed – is none of your business. And your public expression of disgust and alarm hurts. It hurts me, it hurts all of us. It reinforces the idea that breasts and breastfeeding hover on the very razor’s edge of shamefulness, that these things on our chests are somehow, in some way, dirty and icky and bad, unless we operate them under the very strictest rules of propriety (only if they’re covered up! only if it’s your own baby! only if it doesn’t make us uncomfortable! only if WE SAY IT’S OKAY!)

Memo to everybody: these? Are not your boobies. They are mine. And my babies? Also mine. I will nurture and nourish them as I see fit, and I will champion any other mother to do the same. Your disgust, your judgment threatens to undermine us, weaken us, take away some of our power as mothers who demand to make their own way and their own rules. Which, fuck that.

This is MY motherhood. These are MY boobs.

Hands off.

Memo to everybody: in case you missed what I said above – “You’re welcome to say that you couldn’t see yourself doing this; you are welcome, even, to cringe and shudder a bit in distaste” – I’ll say it again (it seems that I need to): you are welcome to disagree with I did, and/or with what Laura did. You are welcome to say that you would not do this. You are welcome to voice a contrary opinion. I encourage it. I’m fascinated by so many elements of this discussion (not least, something that one commenter brought up – trust and community. Under what circumstances do we choose to trust or not trust each other, to take each others’ words, or not do? Laura trusted me when I said that I was healthy and not taking anything that might compromise my milk. Perhaps this had everything to do with my appearance, or with the fact that I was obviously a nursing mother, or perhaps just with the fact that she had decided that I was simply worth trusting. I was moved by this. We need more of this kind of generosity of spirit in daily life) and I enjoy hearing different opinions. What I don’t like: inappropriately expressed judgment or shaming. That’s the whole point of the latter part if this post: shaming hurts everybody. If you’re here to express an opinion, respectfully – great. I’ll support and defend that. But if you’re here to call names or point fingers or say anything that you wouldn’t say to someone you loved, then maybe just turn back now.

Let’s be kind.

Which means, too – and forgive me if it seems hoity for me to take this on – that everybody is very welcome to NOT direct opprobrium at the blogger mentioned here. This has no doubt been hard on her, and although I remain hurt and (yes, am juvenile) angry, I do not want her to be put through any more of a ringer than she already has. Please. Both she and I deserve some peace around this.

Comments on this post are now closed. I’m happy to read other posts on the subject – yes, even they disagree with milksharing – so if you write about it, please do let me know.

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    { 502 comments }

    e-mommie A.K.A Iliana Zúñiga March 12, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    I think you and Laura are just awesome women

    Sara March 12, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    I may be a bit blase about the possibility of viral infection… But isn’t there a standard regimen of blood tests that mom gets while pregnant including the HIV test, syphillis, and a bunch of other tests for the things that pass through mom’s milk?

    One mom mentioned Epstein Barr as a reason not to allow another mom to breastfeed her baby. Epstein Barr does not pass through breast milk, nor does the herpes virus. A baby is more likely to be exposed to Epstein Barr by being held than by being breastfed. What DOES pass through breastmilk is EB antibodies.

    The screening tests mom has to get in order to donate milk are simply: HTLV, HIV, Syphillis, and Hepatitis.

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