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The Milky Way

When my friend’s son was one year old, she and her husband threw a big party in their back-yard to celebrate the baby’s weaning. It was June in Northern California. People arrived in sundresses and sandals, on bikes and roller-blades, and drank lemonade in the dappled shadows of the late afternoon. There was a lot of wine and beer, and champagne too. And delicious food – someone brought a red-pepper dish, in honor of the mother who had abstained from red peppers throughout her pregnancy and lactation, for the baby’s sake. Another friend brought an anatomically correct mammary gland cake, icing and all. On a tree in the yard, my friend and her husband had hung laminated sheets of paper, cut in circles, which fluttered and twirled in the early summer breeze. On one side of each twisting orb was a question; on the reverse side an answer. “Approximately how many GALLONS of milk did our family farm produce?” quivered one side. “58” twisted its response, slowly turning against the bright blue sky.

This was no ordinary weaning party. My friend was wearing a tight t-shirt that read “Exclusive Pumper.” Her son was unable to breast-feed at birth, and, despite “How many lactation consultants did we see (bonus: what were their names?)” “4 – Nancy, Nancy, Joanna, and Nancy,” he was never able to nurse. My friend and her husband made the commitment to feed him his own mother’s milk, and so, “on average, how many pump and bottle pieces did they wash each day?” “100.” My friend told me that once, when she was pumping on an airplane, and her husband was bottle-feeding her breast-milk to the baby, a woman leaned over and said: “Wouldn’t it be simpler for you to just feed him directly?” It took all of my friend’s will-power, and then-some, not to knock her out with the pump and gag her with a hands-free bra.

I could identify, slightly, with this friend. I had pumped exclusively for two weeks and was then able to nurse my baby. My eldest daughter was born six weeks early. My water broke in the middle of the night, seven weeks before my due date; I rolled over and went back to sleep, and then immediately awoke, my eyes wide with awareness. I was put on bed-rest in the hospital for a week and then induced. The baby was whisked away to the NICU, and though, thank God, she was healthy, after I’d rested the nurse brought me a pump instead of my baby. I pumped four or five drops, which my husband extracted from the bottle with a syringe and raced to the NICU. A week later, when we were home and the baby was still in the hospital, I would pump bottle after bottle, and my husband, the milk-man, would wrap them in a towel to keep them warm, and drive them to the hospital, in time for the evening feeding. I pumped exclusively for two weeks, filling the freezer with bottles (“How long can breast milk be stored in a freezer?” “3-4 months”) which we later left out for the baby-sitter when we went out, tentatively, rarely, to the movies.

On the New Yorker’s blog, Jell Lepore, answering questions about pumping, writes: “I found pumping miserable (Dear God, how did it come to this? is the question pumping always made me ask).” What drives us to such irrational madness? Yes – there are rational, and terrible, answers. A child who cannot nurse, a work schedule that does not allow us to be with our babies, sickness, other reasons. Many women decide, willingly, joyfully, or unwillingly, heart-wrenchingly, not to nurse their babies. But what could bring a woman who has a dreadful Pavlovian reaction to the sound of a breast-pump to “cluster pump” (“What is a cluster pump?” “For a period of several hours, you pump until your milk runs out, take a break for 10-15 minutes, and pump again. In a four hour “cluster pump,” you pump between 10 and 12 times. For the first two months of her son’s life, my friend did a 4-hour cluster pump every afternoon”), a wild gleam in her eyes?

When we become mothers we become bewildered. A child, a breathing human being, comes out of our bodies. We, like Naomi returning from Moab, are left – empty husks of corn in the fields of Bethlehem. We eat fenugreek. (“What is fenugreek?” “Fenugreek is an herb that can be taken as a dietary supplement to increase milk production. It smells – and makes you smell – like imitation maple syrup”). We know that our fullness is beyond us, and we leak. Motherhood is the gathering of this endless flow of love, sheave by sheave, with a syringe, with the hope that the baby will taste one wild drop.

–Maya Bernstein