The day Jessica drew blood, I decided it was time to quit breastfeeding. She had tried a few tentative nibbles before, but now her lower teeth were through, and this was the first time it had really hurt. I had visions of an amputated nipple, and whisked it out of her mouth.
After all, I told Liam, she was eight months old now. Eight months was a good run for any kid at the breast. I’d done better than most of my friends. Liz had quit at six months, Ellen had thrown in the towel at two-and-a-half months, and Bonnie had never started at all. Of course, none of us could match Helena, who was still breast feeding her 18-month-old, but she was Italian and she said it was expected of her.
But I felt guilty, as I pressed a plastic teat to Jessica’s resisting lips. She spat it out. Milk didn’t come out of those things. I cradled her in my arms the same way, so that her downy head lolled against my breast, and stroked her cheek as I had when I was breast feeding, but she still refused. Liam looked up from his music, watching me thoughtfully.
“It’s not warm enough,” he said.
“Who made you the expert?” I sniffed.
“Trust me.” He took the bottle out of my hands, glancing down at my breasts. “It must get pretty hot in there.” He came back a moment later with the bottle. “Try that.”
“It’s too hot.” I said, but the traitorous little bitch fastened on to it. I settled back and let her suckle. Liam looked smug.
The baby was my idea. I admit it. He wasn’t keen. He thought things were perfect as they were, but I wanted a commitment. Having Jessica was as committed as I could get. After all, I had been the one who had resisted the relationship in the first place.
Compared to some age gaps, eight years isn’t much, but the fact remained that, at 27, Liam was still the right side of 30 — at 35, I was the wrong side.
When I first saw him, he was playing with a band at a friend’s wedding. I had no idea he was younger than me. When we were maneuvering ourselves into bed, age wasn’t an issue. As far as he is concerned, it still isn’t. He can play my body like a 12-string guitar but I was haunted by the youth of the musician.
“Can’t you hear what people will be saying?” I pleaded with him. “There goes Jo with her boy toy.”
He laughed. “Who’ll call me that? I’ll bust ’em in the mouth.”
“That’s what worries me.”
His face went serious very suddenly and he sat down on the bed.
“Look,” he said, “no one is ever gonna call me that. I’m too big. And you’re too beautiful.”
The next day he sent me a GI Joe doll and a bunch of roses. The card said, “come play house with me.”
His house overlooks the ocean. When I moved in the only furniture was a bed, a piano, a sound system with enough controls to fly a space shuttle and a recording studio where most men have a garage.
I claimed the loft for my computer. I create business software. I don’t know what made me think about having a baby. Maybe it was the feeling that what we have is too good to waste on just us. Or that Liam was too good to waste. There should be a part of him in the next generation.
God, how I worked at being the perfect pregnant lady! I exercised and followed a strictly healthy diet. I took my iron and calcium, wore stretch pants and Liam’s shirts, and I looked good, even in the last trimester. Liam said very little, even about his shirts. He’s tall and curly haired, like a Greek God, and I was consumed with fear that he would leave me for some stomachless sylph. I had invested so much in this pregnancy, I had to be perfect, and the baby had to be perfect. My doctor was highly amused by it all.
“Older mothers do try harder,” she commented more than once.
Liam surprised me by opting to attend the birth. The theater gown wouldn’t fit over his huge shoulders so it hung there like a drooping sail. But I was so grateful that he stayed. To be at my most vulnerable among strangers, even competent strangers, terrified me. The pain terrified me. I hadn’t expected it to be so bad. The sister at the pre-natal clinic had assured us that any pain we experienced would be our own fault, because that would mean we weren’t doing our exercises right. So as well as pain, I had guilt. I was letting her down.
But Liam held my hand and said crazy things.
“Wow, look at that? Isn’t nature wonderful? Did we do that?? When I cried out, he stuck his hand between my teeth. “Here, bite on this.” I almost did.
Jessica wailed into the world at last, but it wasn’t over. There was the afterbirth, almost as big as she was, and afterpains, and the struggle and frustration of getting her settled on the breast. Discomfort finally gave way to pleasure. When she fastened her greedy little jaws around my nipple it was almost an erotic feeling. Before Jessica, I had cradled Liam’s big, curly head against my breasts. He never touched them while I was breast feeding Jessica. He complained they leaked all over him. But I think it was the confused images of her hunger and his that turned him off. He was a big boy now, he didn’t need to share her milk bottles.
Jessica settled quickly into being bottle fed, and now Liam was able to feed her too, cradling this tiny doll-like being in his arms. My breasts were so tender I couldn’t even bear her miniature hands to touch them. My friend Liz said, “Liam looks sweet, cuddling the baby. I can’t get Graham to touch Vicky at all. Younger men have fewer inhibitions, don’t they? They are more sensitive.”
Liam said that was the stupidest thing he had ever heard. He doesn’t think in categories, he is not “a younger man,” I am not “an older woman,” and the baby is just Jessica, an unfolding mystery.
I felt no relief watching him nurse her. Instead, I felt irrational anger. She’s mine! That’s my job! I thought of her small head nestling against me, her greedy little mouth taking the nourishment only I had been able to provide. I missed the exclusivity of breast feeding. I missed Jessica. I had been having a love affair with my baby and it was over. She could survive without me.
My breasts hurt, and I hurt, and my head ached. I left Liam to care for Jessica and suffered grandly for a while, waiting for the milk to dry up, and my breasts to shrink back to their normal size.
“Nice little handfuls,” Liam had called them, but now they were irrevocably changed. The nipples were larger and browner. My whole body was modified. It would never be the same again. But it was mine again. I withdrew into it.
It was strange to have no demands to meet. I was like a vessel that had been emptied. There was no pain, no emotion, only a curious lightness and freedom. I had gone to the limits of a woman’s subordination, and I was released again.
The tenderness and swelling went away first, but the milk that had been so slow in coming through, took longer to dry up. One night I glanced at my body in the mirror and I knew that the milk had gone. My body had finally given in and relinquished Jessica. The despair and relief were so immense and so final that I wept.
“She’s asleep,” Liam said. He stood in the bedroom doorway, watching me. His eyes were wary, as if he wasn’t sure who I was anymore. “You know, having her wasn’t a bad idea. Maybe we could do it again sometime.”
“Some time,” I agreed. “But not just yet.”