I’d always fancied myself fiercely independent: I took pride in believing that I was strong enough to make it on my own. I had no tolerance for clingy friends and cringed at stories about desperate women who, when broken up with, didn’t go quietly. And while I didn’t have many boyfriends in my dating years, of the ones I did have, it was always I who did the breaking up.
So by the time I got married, I figured I’d gotten through the rejection-prone years unscathed. I never thought my worst heartbreak would come from my own 9½-month-old, or that I’d turn into my own worst nightmare in response.
Before we get to all that, though, let me say for the record that I never planned on nursing Thelma for more than three or four months. I have brittle bones and my doctor had warned me that long-term nursing could weaken them even more. But when four months came, Thelma was such a champion nurser that it seemed too soon to stop. Maybe it’s because I’d had such a hard time getting and staying pregnant, but there was something about being able to nurse that made me feel, for the first time, normal; here I was, successfully doing this thing you’re supposed to do. So I continued nursing and pumping, using an electric breast pump.
Which brings me to another, possibly relevant point: In my normal, non-nursing life, I would not by any stretch be called “big-breasted.” I would be called “small-breasted.” And it was fun having big boobs, maybe because I knew they were temporary. It was as if I had rented them along with the breast pump, and when it was over they would go back to the store and I would go back to my A-cup life. I know I can’t claim that what followed is entirely because my big boobs put me in an altered state—the C-cup defense would be on par with the Twinkie defense—but I do believe they were partially to blame.
Be that as it may, the more I nursed and pumped, the more milk I made, so much so that my freezer overflowed with frozen breast milk. Pumping was both my prison and my liberation; it was monotonous and physically hellish, but it allowed me to leave Thelma for longer and longer periods of time. So even as I complained bitterly about it, I’d become something of a pump-aholic: I pumped in public restrooms and at my dermatologist’s office. Hell, I pumped in front of my own father (again invoking the “These aren’t really my boobs” rationale). With my secret pumping equipment slung over my shoulder, I could fly from meeting to meeting, then magically transform behind closed doors into Super-Lactating Woman.
To anyone who commented on my frequent pumping sessions, I joked, “I can stop at any time! I’m just building up a good supply.” But, in truth, whether I was working, eating, or socializing, I was always doing mad calculations in my head: Could I squeeze in a pump now and still nurse her in half an hour? Hmmm … I bet I could! Before the chaotic insanity that is motherhood, I’d been a devout control freak; now, nursing and pumping became the one area of my life I could still control. The irony, of course, is that they quickly started controlling me.
I was in denial, though. Even as I was producing more and more milk, I kept telling myself I was about to stop nursing, “any day now.” Thelma was already taking bottles of my breast milk while I worked, so I figured she was halfway there. People warned me that weaning can be difficult for the baby, and that I should do it gradually, with lots of extra love and kisses. I shrugged this off. I’m a big believer in tough love, and since it had worked with Thelma in the sleep department, I figured the same would apply here. At every pediatrician’s appointment, I soberly announced my plan to wean her—for real this time, I would insist: cold turkey. But after every visit, I’d decide to go just one more month, and then another.
And then, well, we all know the story about the girl who’s about to break up with the guy when he dumps her first, right? That’s pretty much the stunt Thelma pulled with me. At first, I was too dense to realize what was going on. One night when I sat down to nurse her, she just turned away. I tried pushing my breast in her face, but she was clearly uninterested. So I chalked it up to the strange but not totally inconceivable possibility that she might not be hungry and I put her to sleep without thinking anything of it. Until it happened again the next night, and the next.
She was cutting me off cold turkey, just as I had planned to do with her, just as I’d done before with other people in my life, usually claiming it was “best for all parties.” I started frantically searching my memory for clues. Things were fine last Thursday, when I nursed her at the park—right? And that day when my parents were over, she nursed like a champ! And the next night, and the next, it was all cool. So what had happened? My mind was reeling.
But with Thelma, I played dumb. Before each feeding, my heart would pound, as if I was about to run into a guy I’d heard was planning on dumping me. I’d get into my nursing chair and nonchalantly pull out my boob and stick it in her face. But again and again, she would calmly turn her head away. It was almost like she was saying, “You’re embarrassing yourself. Just put that thing away, get your clothes on, and when I look back, we’ll pretend this whole thing never happened.”
Meanwhile, inside, I was shouting, “Please, baby, please! We still got it, I know we do!!” I had become that girl who’s willing to have sex just one more time with a guy she knows isn’t into her anymore. For the first time, I finally understood what it was like for emotion to overtake reason. And, yes, I had become the person I most reviled: desperate, clingy, and dependent, with my rented boobs hanging out and my milk spritzing everywhere.
It had been almost a week since Thelma last nursed, and I knew I was toast, but still I continued pumping like a maniac. Pumping, this thing I’d hated so much, was now the thing I clung to. Only now my pumping sessions felt sad, even masturbatory. Me alone, squeezing out milk for someone who didn’t want it anymore.
Finally, one night when I’d all but given up, I figured, Oh, what the hell, I’ll offer her the boob one more time, I can’t sink any lower. And, oh my God, she took it. Just like the old days! I tried to act natural, but inside I was freaking out: I’d begged and prayed for her to give me one more time and now I’d gotten my wish. We still got it, Baby! We’re back.
Something was different, though; she wasn’t nursing the way she used to. She wasn’t into it. She was going through the motions. It was a pity suck. I realized, just then, that for all my talk about valuing independence, I should be celebrating her display of autonomy, not mourning it. When she was done with her charitable deed, I snapped my bra back into place and offered her a bottle, which she happily sucked down.
That was the last time I nursed Thelma. I appreciated her parting gift, but I knew we were through. I did continue pumping for a few weeks, but less and less every day, until finally my breasts—and maybe also my brain—returned to their original size. As I put away the last of my pumping equipment, it was like I was retiring my super-hero costume. I had to acknowledge that I was a real person, with vulnerabilities like everyone else. I’d suffered my first real heartbreak, and I have a feeling that with Thelma, it won’t be my last.