The invisible mother

If everyone is staring at my boobs, why do I feel that I'm disappearing?

Published July 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Recently I went to an art opening. I nabbed the sofa before I even scanned the snack tray. I was exhausted and my baby had been fussing for about an hour; we had been doing errands all afternoon and I hadn't found a place for us to nurse. I settled into the deep sofa and stayed there for most of the reception, nursing Franny and snacking on carrots my sister fetched me. I felt as animated as the soft furniture that swallowed me, but Franny and I were parked near the door and caught a lot of attention from entering eyes.

People began their survey of the gallery with me -- a live action Mary Cassatt. There was plenty of competition for visual information from my friend's paintings and drawings. Still, it was more than interest in art that made the strangers race past me like I was a bum with a can in my hands. The only people who didn't avert their gaze and make their feet follow them were a bunch of kids, drawn to someone close to their size.

A girl who looked 5 years old asked if the baby was nursing from me. I said yes, and Franny pulled his head away, distracted. The girl was stroking Franny's head by now and she put her finger near his mouth and we joked about him nursing from her finger.

"Is it embarrassing for you to pull up your shirt so he can have a drink?" she asked, pulling up her shirt and touching her nipple.

"No," I said.

"Not even a little bit embarrassing?" she pressed.

"Well, I guess at first it was, but I've been doing this for nine months now, so it isn't so strange."

I was floored. It took nine months and a 5-year-old to say what's been on my mind. Of course it is embarrassing to breast-feed, especially as my baby gets older and people expect him to be less of a baby, though he is still completely dependent on me and my husband. He has two stubby teeth in the bottom of his mouth and he just began to crawl, but his overalls and T-shirts resemble our adult clothes and I can feel people expecting his behavior to resemble ours, too.

The average person in my path would be more comfortable if Franny were eating from a plate than from me. I noticed my aunt and uncle giving each other the eye when I fed Franny at their dinner table. I don't blame anyone for their discomfort. Until I entered this relationship with my child, I felt awkward seeing a bare breast in public, too.

Breast-feeding, like all parenting styles, has had its days in the sun and shade. In 1910, a sadistic-looking anti-embarrassment device was patented to allow women to be discreet about nursing. Early in my mothering, I felt a yen for a similar kind of tool. I wanted distance between me and my newborn, who was nursing constantly. Franny is a big boy who quickly perfected the art of simultaneous sleeping and eating. Several times a day and night he would latch on and stay for at least an hour, usually two. When I experimented with a breast pump, it felt strange to put a machine to my body, but it was also a relief. I had never had someone next to me and needing me so often. I am not a modest person but I was tired of constantly revealing my breasts. For a second I considered pumping all of my milk and feeding it to Franny in bottles. I felt ashamed of such selfishness, but it made me realize just how peculiar I found my new circumstances.

The first time I left the house and had to face feeding my baby in public, I was determined not to be embarrassed but I felt completely conspicuous. It was excruciating. At my job, which I refuse to leave, I have learned to ignore reactions I can't control. But that little girl's question made me realize how undiscussed the issue of breast-feeding is.

Breast-feeding is the most overwhelming job I've ever had, and I am no slouch in the work department. I've always leapt to the top of my class or the top of my job, eager to be proficient. As a mother, the rewards aren't so obvious. I don't get paychecks or report cards, and I can count the number of times I've been told I'm doing a good job on two fingers of one hand. As a nursing mother, I have an ever-growing baby to prove that I'm constantly working, but Franny's growth isn't inherently satisfying. Maybe my problems in valuing motherhood are my very own, but I'll argue with anyone until dawn about how strange it is to nurse, even though it is one of the most natural things in the world. The same is said of sex, and how many people can report a fulfilling first experience in the sack?

Just as no one could have described sex to me before I had it -- or could have talked me out of the curiosity that led to my average but unique experience of it -- I never could have envisioned what it was like to be a parent, no matter how many kids I babysat or books I read. Nor did I know what I meant when I said I was committed to breast-feeding. I didn't consider the stigma or even the simple practicalities of the experience, but I was religiously devoted to the idea for the baby's health.

Throughout my life I've had eczema that ranges from irksome to aching. At one point my skin was so bad that I did not want to pass on my genes and risk making someone else suffer as much or more than I did. When I heard that breast-feeding would help build a baby's immune system and possibly keep kids from developing eczema and other allergies, I decided to obey my ovaries and have a child. I was not going to bottle-feed my baby, unless the bottle was filled with milk I made.

My mother didn't breast-feed my sisters or me. We were born in the '60s before nursing hit one of its cyclical vogues. "Those titties aren't good for anything," the nurse told my mother when my older sister Pegeen was born.

"Yes, Eve," the doctor agreed, "you might as well take the shot."

The shot was a drug to inhibit lactation. He offered it to my mother because she had inverted nipples. This condition makes breast-feeding difficult but not impossible, as later proved by La Leche League. Formed in 1956, when only an estimated 20 percent of mothers in America nursed, La Leche League was regularly storming maternity wards by 1974, when my brother was born. A member of the army helped my mother nurse Nate. My mother was thrilled to be able to breast-feed. She wishes she could have done it for all of us, she tells me, especially my little sister, who was very colicky as an infant, allergic to every formula she was fed.

La Leche League wanted my mother to join their nurse-ins. The local leader would call and tell her where a group of women would be meeting to breast-feed in public, which didn't interest my mother at all. She wasn't ready to be La Leche League's poster case. To my mother, the personal is personal.

My mother breast-fed my little brother for 10 months, until he punched her in the breast one morning, announcing an end to the arrangement.

Nate is seven years younger than me and I remember a lot about his childhood. I recall changing his diapers and playing with him, but of all the things I remember about Nate, his nursing is not one of them. I erased the memory of my mother feeding my brother.

It's not her discretion about breast-feeding that's responsible for my burying the image. Inside our house, doors were more often open than closed. My mother could not hide from us anywhere. A vivid cut from the movie of my life shows me nagging my mother in the bathroom. After dinner she would optimistically shut the bathroom door for a few moments to herself, but most nights my questions couldn't wait. I was not alone in my pestering. My sisters and I, and my brother when he got old enough, sat on the edge of the tub, talking and asking. My mother was available to us, a highly exploitable resource.

I think I forgot to take a mental picture of my brother nursing for many reasons. When Nate was born I was beginning to learn that I was a girl. I had the hint that I would be growing soon and wearing bras and generally hiding evidence of the sexual maturation I was approaching. From the time I began to bloom until I got pregnant, I was never at home in my body because I am me and I am sensitive to the ways women are seen. I cursed my body for its intended use until I made use of it, and then I understood, in a very animal way, the blessing of my curse.

Once my baby was born, he wanted to sleep, not eat. I had a wonderful postpartum nurse who kept us both awake and got Franny to suckle. I was awed by my nurse's ability to be straightforward about a clumsy and charged situation. Each night a new woman approached my breast with simplicity and advice, as if showing me how to use a new kitchen appliance. They handled my feeding units like the machines they'd just become when my baby exited my body.

Ever since that moment of transition I've been grappling with the terms of change. Having a part of one's body go from sexual to merely functional is a stunning process. If my ovaries were revered as much as my mammaries, perhaps I would have been prepared for the shift in duties for my breasts. Before I had my baby, I was comfortable with my breasts as sexual parts. I didn't mind touching them or having them touched, fondly, during sex. As soon as I was a mother and no longer a mother-to-be, I had to adjust dramatically. There was a purpose other than pleasure to my boobs, which, incidentally, prior to feeding usage, I swore would always be referred to as breasts. I thought other forms of address were disrespectful. Little did I know how common my breasts would become, demanding a variety of names for the very sake of variety.

Feeding units was the term that got me through the first few months. The wording was euphemistic and allowed me to be glib and indirect while I grew accustomed to baring myself every hour, often for hours at a time, in front of friends, roommates, in-laws and parents.

"Nursing is so ..." I began one day, trying to tell my mother how I felt. I dangled, at a loss to describe how insecure I felt about my new post as refrigerator, snack bar and cupboard for this child newly mine.

"... fulsome and fulfilling," she elaborated, smiling and gesturing to embrace the whole world, the past she left 24 years ago when my brother punched her breast.

I don't think she saw the look of horror on my face. Although I couldn't explain myself, I felt misunderstood as she spilled a warmth and enthusiasm which I am finally coming to know after nine months at the helm of the good ship Mommy-pop.

Another time, when I was talking to an acquaintance about breast-feeding, I complained about the amount of time it took.

"I know," she said. "Before I had my boy I read books on breast-feeding and they said I wouldn't have time to pick my nose."

"That was hard to believe, wasn't it?" I agreed, laughing, wishing I knew her better so I could tell her that nose-picking was about the only activity I had maintained as a nursing mother, because I could do it single-handedly.

I really wanted to tell her about the black hole that swallowed me every time the baby latched on. What is this new brand of existentialism? I wanted to know, but I didn't know her well enough to chat about my core. I still don't know if that gaping hole is common to the experience of motherhood. When I'm with other mothers the talk immediately turns to practicalities -- Is your baby napping? How do you get her to fall asleep? What do you do for teething? Are you starting solids yet? -- that I never get to the philosophical quizzes that eat up my time alone.

The books I read on breast-feeding don't help me. They discuss the advantages of different pumps, discourage pacifiers and bottles because of fears of nipple confusion, and tell me that it is OK to breast-feed my baby wherever and whenever I want.

The experts do not address something that, as far as I know, is peculiar to me: the feeling that I am disappearing.

I can hear readers decrying me as anti-woman, begging me to seek counseling for my issues around mothering. But the point is that we live in a society that does not inherently value motherhood and I, as a member of my society, am having a hard time finding ease in my new role. I am very aware of how invisible I am supposed to be, and I don't know how far I should take the message. Am I to keep my breasts out of sight because it reminds people of the sexual, animal nature of our beginnings? Or am I to accept my disappearance as part of the package of being a mother, of sacrificing my needs so that the race continues?

The legal debates over breast-feeding in public don't surprise me at all. The issue is charged for both mothers and voyeurs, so it's no wonder I feel alienated from the condition of nursing. I live in a world that doesn't know what to do with bodies, especially the bodies of women. As people, we manipulate words and ideas with our minds, and the objects most of us handle -- unless we're nurses, veterinarians, masseurs or day-care providers -- are not animate.

Perhaps I am ambitious to want to feel comfortable with my body, in a country that would have me live in my mind.

By Amy Halloran

Amy Halloran is a freelance writer. She lives in Seattle.

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