It’s seven a.m. on a weekday morning in our little rented duplex apartment in Florence, Massachusetts. The door to my office, the second bedroom that isn’t her bedroom―that perhaps, someday, will be her bedroom―opens. All one and a half feet of her staggers in.
So goes the first sentence I write one morning, with early spring sunlight streaming in the window, when Lucie, going on sixteen months old, rises from our “family bed” and comes looking for me to nurse. I have been tiptoeing to the desk early to write a few lines of poetry or to work on a book about becoming pregnant at 40. My copious journal notes from that time lie all around me. But here, in front of me, is this child, and the fascinating fact of our nursing relationship. What does it stir in me, in the immediacy of its joys and challenges? What will it mean for us in the long run? Seeker that I am, I am convinced that nursing is not only a critical part of the foundation I’m giving my daughter for life, but also a critical opportunity for my growth as a woman, for my spiritual growth as a person. Every day seems to lend itself to the contemplation of nursing, the many ways in which it is both a physical and a spiritual practice.
I was born and raised on Long Island, New York. A child in the 1950s, I was the first of my mother’s six children―none of us breastfed. At that time, Long Island was in the forefront of the move toward suburban living and the culture of convenience, which meant, for infants, bottles and formula. My mother was swept up in the wholesale movement away from breastfeeding, but for some reason, I always knew I would breastfeed my child. Something in my nature called me to it.
Before becoming a mother, I was practicing to be writer. I had a Bachelor’s in English and French. I was living in New York City, freelancing and taking workshops in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry―and supporting myself with a variety of part-time jobs. Later, during graduate school in the Midwest, where I completed a Master’s in literature and creative writing, I published my first chapbook of poetry. It was only after relocating to Western Massachusetts that I became a mother―later in life, with my habits already firmly established―and that I finally realized the early premonition that I would one day nurse my child. It wasn’t long before I knew that I was in the throes of my most powerful material. Every detail, every event in my everyday life as a nursing mother seemed a prompt for reflection on my relationship to Lucie and to larger mysterious forces with which nursing put me so strongly in touch. It was a spiritual practice, this bringing my daughter to the breast again and again, this striving to find the necessary equanimity to accept the selfless nature of the work. In my writing, I was moved to describe not only the powerful physical intimacy of nursing, but also my inner changes and awakenings.
My thoughts begin to coalesce in brief essays:
I take a newly purchased sling from the closet, still in its consignment store shopping bag, and wrap my daughter in it, against my body. We set out for a walk, my mind whirling with the newness of this experience of the sling, the cultural differences between my current practice and my Long Island upbringing striking home with force and meaning.
One morning, my husband and daughter are still asleep, and I sneak off to swim at the YMCA. In contemplating the spring equinox morning and my immersion in the pool, I have insight into the immersive world that nursing is for my daughter, a connection to otherworldliness.
We are treated to an overnight stay at a local inn across the street from the Emily Dickinson homestead. During a sleepless night, I find myself in a meditation on Dickinson’s poem “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” and how tonight it seems to illuminate the universal nature of Mother and Child.
I can hardly keep up with the barrage of material―impressions and connections arising from every aspect of this practice! I let it suffice to jot down notes whenever possible. Scraps of writing―thoughts, dialogue―begin to pile up, as I try to keep track of every moment that seems relevant―and they all do.
In a blur of mothering and writing, my daughter turns two. I am still nursing, but I realize that I am becoming agitated about whether I should continue. La Leche League meetings provide comfort and a place to ask my most intimate questions, where I can observe a roomful of nursing toddlers like mine. A trip to the mall heightens my anxiety about nursing in public. I wrestle emotionally with whether to move my daughter to her own bed, whether to try the current practice of letting her cry herself to sleep. I meditate on my choices. I look for guidance from friends. I acknowledge the joy of these still-precious moments of nursing. I notice that something in me becomes increasingly grounded in the joys, and also rises up to overcome the difficulties, to put them in perspective, to find in myself new powers of acceptance and transcendence. I continue to write about how it all moves me, how I search for answers outside myself, how I find answers within.
Along the way, something shifts in my process of noticing and recording my experience. I begin to see all the facets of my daily experience coming into relationship to one another―a larger whole emerging. There was so much questioning, even in the early days: How do I get my baby to sleep―especially somewhere other than on my belly? How do I get enough rest myself? Why is there so much awkwardness and pain in getting her latched on, so much suffering through the first days before my milk comes in, so much confusion in figuring out the right “hold,” the right amount of time to persist in a feeding, how often to put her to the breast? Why do I have no touchstone to help me evaluate the advice of my pediatrician on feeding schedules and habit formation, advice which feels more like reprimands and marching orders? I realize that, for me, it’s more than the territory all new mothers inhabit; I was someone who had had no experience at all of nursing before I did nurse. That was my starting place, the modeling of my upbringing and the modeling of the culture I have come to feel part of creating a crisis of conflict. That reality governs the way my spiritual insights knock up against years of practical indoctrination. It becomes clear that I am not simply stitching together my various reflections, but that there is a narrative arc to my story as well.
Lucie turns three; though torn, I enroll her in preschool. She nurses before she goes, and when she comes home. A few months later, we move into a new, older home. I stash my dinosaur of a computer tower under a long sofa table and plunk the bulky monitor and keyboard on top. Three mornings a week, I drop Lucie off at preschool and pull up a dining room chair. I consult the dozens of snippets of paper that have accumulated over a couple of years. I begin “storyboarding,” thinking about sequence and order. And I realize that, having started this project when my daughter was past infancy, I have not taken those daily, almost minute-by-minute notes during the earlier, so-important time in our nursing lives. How can I go back and reconstruct the beginning? Where do I start? There was her birth, of course, and those first moments of holding her in my arms―those first trials getting her latched on. In some kind of visionary panorama, visits with lactation consultants and with my pediatrician begin to present themselves to me like acts in a play, the small, unfolding dramas of our earliest nursing days. What was important in all that? Nursing manuals are everywhere, but I’m not trying to reproduce what they can expertly provide. I’m trying to open a window into my soul, to show how it feels to know that this activity of nursing my daughter is also an activity of becoming more aware of myself, of the thresholds of my tolerance and of my willingness to give, of my awakening to a rightfulness that transcends my formative cultural experience.
All through this nursing time, my mother has been a soul companion. Nursing as an opportunity passed her by, but she gets what it is for me. One night in our new home, where a brand-new king-size futon assures that we will continue to share the family bed, my mother is visiting to help with the moving in. Looking for a place to store the extra sheets, we find ourselves making up the twin bed in the small second bedroom. Almost instantly Lucie climbs in, and that’s where she spends the night. Who could have predicted a moment of such independence? My world goes a little off-kilter. What does this development mean for our nursing, our bedtime routine? What does it mean for this work I’m engaged in?
As current events like these unfold, I constantly come to new perceptions. Each day, each night, is full of mystery, drama and excitement, so much to notice and record. My daughter is a facile talker; I scramble to get down her exact words. I’m conscious that my daily activity―recapturing the past and documenting the present―is also the activity of pursuing the denouement. In the present, we are moving toward weaning, though I have no idea when we will get there, as I’ve decided to let her wean naturally, in her own way. I’ve decided to commit to this kind of weaning both as an experiment―how will it happen?―and as a fitting end to this spiritual drama. What will it take of me to be with it until the last moment?
And then, remarkably, inevitably, one day it’s over. I have recorded the last time she has asked to nurse. It is one month before her fourth birthday. Moved, slightly bereft, and glad for a real reason to linger in that world, I continue to type away, to watch my scribbled notes, outlines, and drafts, turn into pages of manuscript.
I am still writing when she moves into kindergarten and her school attendance increases from three mornings a week to five. As the book takes clearer shape, I start to wonder if what I have to say will compel a reader. I imagine a first-time nursing mother, like me, who could use a companion along the way. Can I play a role in supporting someone who may be earnest but also conflicted, like me? Have I made myself vulnerable enough? Will she like me? How will she judge my choices? Will the spiritual emerge through the physical for her?
When Lucie turned six, I enrolled her in first grade at the Waldorf school where she had spent her preschool and kindergarten years. My manuscript was largely complete―the whole arc of my experience as a nursing mother and its spiritual rewards. I answered an ad for a part-time French teacher in the new Waldorf high school that, coincidentally, was opening in the fall. Years passed rapidly, and that part-time position turned into full-time English teaching. I couldn’t have guessed, when I embarked on it, how high-school teaching would change my writing life. At the end of long days of student contact, grading, and administration, I was depleted. It was more than months before I confronted the fact that I had abandoned my manuscript. I could not find the energy or ambition to write, or to do anything with what I had already written.
Guiltily, I thought about it from time to time. In one period, I worked up a proposal letter and sent it to―literally―three places. Nice letters came back, but no takers. The focus, it seemed, was too narrow for their mainstream audiences. Fine. I was trying to get traction in my writing again, during the summers, entertaining my relationship to Lucie as an elementary-school child, as an adolescent―examining my issues as a person moving into later stages of life.
A dozen years later, Baby at My Breast—Reflections of a Nursing Mother lies in a cyber file, still unpublished. Suddenly, Lucie is speaking from the dais under the big white tent at her high school graduation. I sit among the high school faculty―proud teacher, proud mama. In a year I will be eligible for a sabbatical from full-time teaching at the high school. This beautiful, talented, articulate young woman moving into the world―how has she come to be who she is? Certainly her education has played a role, and, I’d like to think, our parenting, including the start I gave her as an infant, at my breast. In my heart, a fervor grows to return to that book I let slip into a “drawer” so long ago.
When parents of a former student announce the start-up of Small Batch Books, an editorial and book-making service, I am intrigued―excited. I love their work. Before long, I have made a decision. I have a publisher! Now what? There’s nothing to do but reenter those waters I treaded with so much emotion and devotion all those years ago.
A dozen years after that heady time of nursing both daughter and book, I sign a contract, take the manuscript in hand, and prepare the book to go to press. I panic. The world has come such a distance since I wrote that story. To me, new mothers now seem so young! So hip! How can they possibly have the same preoccupations I had then? Is this even the book I would write today? Should I go back and do a complete rewrite, based on my perspective now? I try to imagine that—and can’t. What I wrote then was based in the moment of that experience. It has its own truth.
After the book was published, I visited a La Leche meeting, one of the monthly meetings still going on after all this time. The leader passed around questions on slips of paper, and the mothers, about a dozen of them with babies in various stages of infancy and toddlerhood, talked about their experiences: nursing in public, their babies not sleeping through the night, their confusion about feeding “schedules.” Uncanny, how the preoccupations really had not changed. Though I, on the other side of it these many years, felt changed. I felt secure in my knowledge that their instincts were their best guide, and that nursing would offer them something for their spirit, as well as for the bodies of their children.
My daughter doesn’t remember anything about her nursing days; the book preserves the story for her. It’s a story about the two of us, in a time of intimate and challenging physical relationship, but it’s also a story about who I am. The product of a period of intense discipline and engagement in my writing, the book informs everything I continue to do. Writing it was about finding a higher self through nursing, but also about realizing in writing an experience of my truth. I still feel the truth the manuscript had for me then and I feel the universal in it now. It helps me remember how important nursing was to us then; it makes me hopeful for what nursing may be to my daughter some day.