Have you seen the photos that models, movie stars, and musicians have been posting of themselves all this week in honor of World Breastfeeding Week 2014? (Who even knew there was such a thing)?! With glamorous insouciance and in the hazy glow of soft focus lighting, these modern day Madonnas gaze lovingly at the infants nursing at their perfect, discreetly draped breasts. Here’s my own contribution to the mammary glam-fest: a repost from last summer.
Thirteen years ago the unthinkable happened. The experience was so deeply painful that I never breathed a word of it to anyone. I desperately tried to banish it from my memory. For many years, whenever the slightest tendril of remembrance began to lick at the corners of my brain, I would violently stamp it out with a shudder. Last week, I was finally able to bring myself to confide the terrible truth to my sister.
The truth is…these people:
…have seen me naked.
You have to understand that I’m an extremely modest person. Honestly, the thought of walking around in a burqa is not at all unpleasant to me. At the gym, I like to get changed in the bathroom stalls. I’ve become extremely adept at doing an entire wardrobe change with a towel wrapped around me the entire time. One of my worst memories of high school (and there were some seriously lousy times during those four years) was being forced to parade naked in front of my P.E. teacher who waited with a clipboard by the showers to check us off as we filed past. (It was agonizing then, but it’s only now that I realize the full extent to which that whole situation was seriously messed up). Hell, I don’t even let myself look at myself naked. Which is all to say that my in-laws seeing me naked was truly, truly, traumatic.
Having a baby is painful. For people like me, for whom nudity is torture, having a baby is…well, torture. It’s not the contractions. Sure, contractions can make women writhe and shriek and and even vomit from the pain. But to me, that pain was negligible to the pain of having my privates suddenly, ruthlessly public. And I mean: bright-hot-lights-shining-on-those-parts public. I tried, unsuccessfully, to make my husband stay by my head during the whole protracted and ghastly process. He defied me. Even though I was laboring for almost an entire day pushing out his gigantic child, who broke my tailbone on the way out, he defied me. If that weren’t enough, whole platoons of doctors, nurses, and medical school students traipsed by me all day long, occasionally sticking fingers in me as casually as they would rummage around in the fridge for a snack.
Even after the baby was born, the torture continued. The lactation consultant came into my hospital room as I was fumbling around trying to shield myself from full view while also trying to figure out how to get my baby to latch on. She nonchalantly walked over, pulled open my robe, and grabbed at my breast, manipulating it as if it were a joystick. WHAT?!
Before I had my first baby, I thought nursing was something that happened effortlessly. I honestly assumed that the baby could basically just sidle up to the bar and order himself a pint with no fuss, no muss. Kind of like this cheeky little fellow:
How very wrong I was. Who knew that nursing a baby would hurt like a mother and bring tears to my eyes, until I “toughened up.” Who knew that I would walk around for months with the front of my shirt soaking wet, despite wads of nursing pads stuffed into my bra, because the crazy “let-down” reflex would betray me over and over again? Who knew that the same bastard reflex would make me start squirting like a fire hydrant whenever I tried to take a relaxing hot bath? People: there is simply no way to relax when something as freakish as that is happening to you.
I was completely undone by the project of feeding my child. Whenever it was time to nurse, I would take him up to our bedroom and shut the door all the way. The first few weeks were complicated by the fact that my son had a very bad, lingering case of jaundice that made him extremely sleepy. The treatment was to wrap him in a “biliblanket,” a glowing phototherapy wrap plugged into a machine that would make the whole room stifling hot. I was given strict orders to do whatever it took to wake him up to nurse as much as possible. It took all my powers of concentration. Picture me clumsily, sweatily trying to maneuver him into position with the biliblanket wrapped around him, while also trying to wake him up with a cold wet washcloth on his face.
Now picture me naked. (No, never mind! Don’t do that)! You know how some people have to strip naked to do a number 2? I had to strip naked to nurse. There. I said it.
I was a sweaty, hormonal, bumbling mess. And it was really hot. Our bedroom was cramped. The glider would only fit at the foot of the bed. It was set up so that it was facing the door. There I would sit, desperately trying to get the baby to nurse. After all I had been through, I thought I had reached the nadir. I thought it couldn’t possibly get worse. I was wrong.
Back then I had a sweet, needy little dog, who never wanted to leave my side. He was unaccustomed to being left to his own devices. He was unaccustomed to closed doors. As soon as he realized I had gone upstairs, he would come silently bounding up the carpeted stairs on his soft little paws and then BOOM! he’d open the door by pouncing on it with his two front legs with all his might.
The first time it happened, (because, yes, it happened more than once), I was sitting in the glider topless. My striated, busted out belly and my weirdly lumpy, leaky mammary glands were exposed to all the world. O.K., I’m exaggerating a tiny bit. I was only exposed to my father-in-law, the consummate decorous English gentleman, who happened to be standing right there.
What could we do? We both pretended that it wasn’t happening. Our eyes became unfocussed and glazed over. I could tell he was trying so very hard to unsee what he had just seen as he slowly backed away. We never spoke of it. Ever.
It happened one more time when both my mother and father-in-law happened to be standing right there when my dog burst through the door. In case you’re thinking, “Big deal? Why’s she making such a big deal about it?,” shall I remind you?
Take a good look. These people, my very proper English in-laws, who have afternoon tea served on Wedgwood china and who play croquet on their perfect, perfect lawn, have seen. me. naked.
So how to move on after such a thing occurs? In my universe, and in the prim buttoned-down universe in which my in-laws reside, you keep on pretending that nothing ever happened. You stash it away somewhere deep in the perfectly manicured shrubbery, and you never, ever speak of it.
…Until one day your sister says something that dredges up the memory, and you feel ready to tell her about one of the most traumatic events of your life. And now that you’ve allowed yourself to utter the words, well then you might as well tell your husband. He pauses as he absorbs the full weight of your words. A few long seconds pass as he considers this news, turns it over in his mind, and then he shrugs and says, “Well, at least you were wearing underwear.” (Inside your head, you’re thinking “Yeah, saggy, ratty maternity panties.” But you keep this thought to yourself). And now that you can no longer pretend that it never happened, you might as well reenact the scene for both your sisters at a posh restaurant in New York City. You and your sisters cackle like a coven of crazed witches, almost spitting out the San Pellegrino that you had been sipping. And then? What the hell? Why not write about it for anyone with internet connection to read? Because the jig is up. Now I can only hope and pray that my in-laws never discover this blog. Because then, then: the jig really is up.