Dr. Anding sliced through my abdominal muscles and pried my son into the bright, baleful world. Maybe 20 minutes later a nurse said, “Look, see this?”
She pulled Graham’s mouth open and lifted his tongue to show me. “He’s tongue-tied,” she said, “so you might have some pain breast-feeding. And you’ll have to decide whether to have it snipped.”
The epidural was just beginning to wear off enough for me to feel my lower legs tingle. From the waist up, I still exhibited the aftershock of a violent quaking. My hands trembled. I wasn’t really able to process information.
The nurse shoved Graham into my arms, and then she shoved my left breast into his mouth. I don’t know what I expected of breast-feeding, something gentler I suppose, something more like the blue-haloed posture of the Virgin Mary with the holy babe in her lap, but the nurse treated my breast like a BLT and my son like a worn trucker at a rare roadside oasis. He latched on for dear life. No pain, only a fervent—and oddly tender—sucking.
What was this woman talking about? Tongue-tied? There didn’t seem to be any problem here.
Then we tried my right breast.
Tongue-tied is the layman’s term for ankyloglossia, a congenital condition wherein the frenulum—the membrane that connects the underside of the tongue to the floor of the mouth—attaches at the tongue’s tip. Ankyloglossia causes eating problems in infants, and later in life can make speech difficult, particularly the pronunciation of the letters l, r, t, d, and n. Those are important letters; they reside in words like futile, diurnal, nestled. The strong “tie” prohibited Graham’s ability to stick his tongue out past his gums. Because babies begin to suck in utero, he was a remedial sucker, even after we subjected him to a frenectomy on day two of his little life. Snip, snip. What other babies have mastered by the time their mothers birth them, he still had to learn. And like anything newly freed, his tongue moved at whim, a wild, ecstatic thing.
The nurse was right: breast-feeding hurt like hell. We’re talking weeks of scabbed nipples and milk blisters (a thing no one needs to know exists, ever). A lactation consultant, Gina, came to the house.
“You’ll need to buy bacitracin, nipple shields, gel pads, and a pacifier to do physical therapy with Graham’s tongue,” Gina said.
“Physical therapy?” I asked.
“You’ll play tug-of-war with him. Give him the pacifier then slowly pull it out of his mouth. Make him work to pull it back. ”
My son was a week old and he already had a workout routine. It all struck me too Little League, too “no pain, no gain.” Gina’s bubblegum didn’t hide her dank smoky breath as she leaned into me to watch Graham’s lips close around my nipple. I imagined the furtive puffs she took in her red Geo Prizm before she knocked on our door, all smiles, baby scale and breast pump in hand.
“He’s got the left side down, little stinker,” she said.
Another symptom of ankyloglossia is a heart-shaped tongue. Graham’s tongue has a slight indentation at its tip so that each time it reached for me, wobbling like a fawn, it was as if I were receiving a crudely-drawn valentine. It was as if he were saying, “If you love me check yes or no,” and I wanted to check yes, yes, yes. I wanted to nourish him body-to-body, skin-to-skin. We had good moments that kept my hope afloat, and I wanted all our hard work redeemed. I knew what it was like to reach—for the right response to a simple greeting, for the perfect turn of phrase, for the unlikely pink line on the pregnancy test.
Before I was diagnosed with infertility, I was a writer. Or, before a doctor uttered the words polycystic ovaries, fibroid tumor, endometriosis, low egg reserve, I actually wrote. After the diagnosis, when we embarked on a two-year pilgrimage of hormone injections, loans, and heartache, I couldn’t manage a full sentence. I couldn’t really manage brushing my teeth.
We use the expression tongue-tied to mean shy or speechless. As in when the fertility specialist said tumor, I found myself tongue-tied. We’re all occasionally at a loss for words, especially when it comes to love and desire, but the writer’s base condition is tongue-tied: we spend our lives wrestling precise words from stubborn minds or endeavoring to articulate the unspeakable. I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t write a single word, except maybe help.
Then came Graham, against all odds, and I assumed the words would follow him. They didn’t. Mother and son, both dumbstruck.
I got this crazy notion that maybe babies in utero inherit their mothers’ emotional state. And if what I’d mostly felt over the past two years was barren and insatiable, well, then the little one and I had a serious problem. I thought of the Talmud: the deeper the sorrow, the less tongue it hath.
There were feedings so difficult Graham’s whole body turned a violent red-blue and pain scorched through my breast veins. On the worst nights, I’d punch the pillow next to his head to keep from screaming at him. His sea-blue eyes startled each time, but his gums continued to grasp at me. The next morning, I would push against the rocking chair and stare out the window at giant tree limbs to calm my nerves.
“Try, sugar,” I’d say. “You can do it.”
He always tried. So hard. We always found a way to satisfy his hunger, even on the worst, bloodiest days. Somehow he got fatter and fatter, but the pain grew teeth and escalated each feeding.
I almost gave up. My husband sometimes wanted me to give up, sick as he was of secondhand trauma. “You don’t have to do this,” he’d remind me as he rubbed my trapezius muscles, which stung from hunching over to give Graham a better angle. “Our mothers didn’t. The breast-feeding movement people are like Nazis.”
Then one day, about five weeks into his life and for no discernible reason, Graham latched on and it didn’t hurt. His lips splayed against my skin and I could hear the gulp, gulp of milk moving down his throat into his belly, his breath enter and leave his nostrils, and the sweet sigh he made after every suck.
When I was 26 years old—a baby of sorts—I lived as a single woman in Washington, D.C. where I joined a local writing group. I remember the cool autumn day I finished my first short story. On the walk to workshop, I paused at an intersection to take a final drag of my cigarette and wait for the light. I was reserved, an introvert, but I had sweated and stayed up nights to compose 3,000 words in a document on my computer that I had just sent out to seven strangers. One of those strangers would say later, “If you don’t become a writer, it’ll be because you closed yourself off.” The light changed several times before I crossed the street, and I watched swallows soar into the untamed blue, their wings wind-tossed, flapping madly.
There is a deep relationship between nourishment and creation. We think of the tongue-tied as unable to express themselves, but my son’s condition taught me that we can also be unable to ingest, to take in. I always thought of my infertility as a production problem, like a severe form of writer’s block, but perhaps I also had a reception problem. I stared down at the blank page instead, upward toward the source.
Today as I pull down my nursing bra and guide Graham’s head toward my chest, the crepe myrtles in our yard have started to drop their leaves, and the sun rests in a clear December sky. My husband has let Max, our dog, off his leash—he bounds across the yard and pants happily, his speckled tongue dangling. The half-moon scar across my abdomen is a paler and paler pink, and my computer screen emits a bright, white light from the corner of the room. I think of that young woman who stood, fledgling heart aflutter, at the corner of Mt. Pleasant and Park Road, the moment the light turned green and she turned right, that day writing found her waiting for it like an open mouth.