by Kenna Lee-Ribas
“I’m so jealous.”
“God, that’s so convenient.”
“You’re so lucky.”
“I wish I had another pair of tits in the house for when mine are exhausted.”
Our breastfeeding-on-demand, child-led-weaning, sling-toting, attachment-parenting mom’s group almost seems to levitate at the thought of my partner and I both breastfeeding both of our sons. And I have to admit that, in the beginning (that is, before the babies were actually born), we also had those romantic pictures in our heads, pictures of a two-mom, four-breast family, all cuddled up close and love-y. And the convenience! We’d be able to split up in any configuration without having to pump or resort to the dreaded bottle.
The plan, as most plans do before actual flesh-and-blood children become involved, seemed quite simple. I would get pregnant first, and as I’m the hippie/midwife/earth-mother type, for whom the breastfeeding relationship is some sort of holy grail, I’d breastfeed the first baby by myself until my partner Watta, who despite being extremely maternal is also slightly more pragmatic, had the second baby. Then would ensue a free-for-all, since we both planned extended breastfeeding and I would of course still be lactating. Ah, well, the best laid plans…
Turns out, years and many heartbreaks later, that Watta had the first living baby. She breastfed, I offered the empty breast whenever it seemed useful (almost never). I got pregnant three months after our son Río was born. As my breasts and belly swelled, Río did decide for a day or two that my colostrum had an interesting flavor, before deciding that actually, it/I wasn’t so great after all. For Río’s first year, my partner fed him and I sat out, if you don’t count the day that she had to go somewhere and I hung a hilariously awkward contraption from my neck with tubes taped down to my nipples so he could try to suck her pumped milk from my breasts. (He wasn’t interested, preferring to wail until her return.)
Two weeks after Río’s first birthday, I gave birth to Tero, our second son, and soon after that my partner went back to work so I could stay home with him. It was entirely natural for me to feed Río from my other breast as his little brother nursed, as long as my partner was gone. But we immediately discovered that despite the convenience, there were complications. If she came home and saw Río at my breast, or if I came out of the shower to find Tero at hers, there was a palpable tension in the room. It felt like… um, jealousy.
We both judged ourselves for these feelings. After all, we were committed to each other, to being a family, to sharing the responsibilities and joys of parenting. We are both mothers of both boys, we told ourselves and each other. We wanted them to feel that we are equally their parents. Yet, when faced with the reality of even my beloved wife breastfeeding my biological child, I had a visceral reaction. Some animal part of me wanted to run over and snatch him from her arms. I bit down to stifle a growl that erupted from my chest: “That’s MY job.”
Perhaps biology is destiny after all, at least for the first few months or years. As our boys have grown older, their relationships with their “bio” and “non-bio” moms continue to evolve, but we have enacted a breastfeeding strategy which seems practical for us all: no breastfeeding of the non-bio child when the bio mom is home. It plays out something like this, “Remember, Mama’s milk is made special for you because you grew in her belly, so go ask her.” Unless, of course, Mama is just at the very last step of trying to get dinner on the table, or in the shower, or trying to get her homework done at midnight. Rare exceptions for convenience, at the discretion of the biological mother.
Maybe we should have worked through our feelings some other way so that we wouldn’t be reinforcing the primacy of the biological relationships; maybe we’re just bowing to reality. When we’re both around, we automatically pair up into two sub-family units, each mom with her birth child. The boys campaign loudly for this configuration, their preference for the bio-mom lap and the milk “made just for you” clear. Sometimes we, the parents, insist on mixing it up in those rare moments when neither of us is actively nursing, but with the boys still so small, it usually feels forced and never lasts long. This is not how we pictured our family, two sets of two, biology trumping intention.
We optimistically anticipate a shifting of alliances as they outgrow breastfeeding and discover other ways of relating to their two different mothers, as life experience augments biology in their understanding of family. But for now, we submit to what seems to be pure biology: the boys’ innate preferences and our own jealous urges. Two biologically-determined pairs, together yet separate.
The unexpected separation which we feel when together makes each of us look forward to our time alone with both boys, even though their competing needs tend to drown out any sense of self. We discovered a useful if somehow degrading breastfeeding position we refer to as “mama-dog,” lying down flat while the puppy-children root around oblivious to any maternal presence past the nipple. Nursing two kids can be exhausting, and painful at times, but it also feels like a valuable physical connection is being formed, one which continues to grow as they do. So we each greedily partake of the part-time intimacy of breastfeeding both of our sons, despite the acrobatics they perform while latched. It’s just a pleasure we indulge, separately.
Kenna Lee-Ribas is one of two mothers of now three rambunctious kids, as well as a licensed midwife and a hospice nurse. She lives with her family in Sebastopol, California.