Tonight my breast wept tears of milk into the warm bathwater. V. weaned herself two weeks ago – just stopped taking the breast. The last time I nursed her was on a park bench with fallen leaves littering the ground around us. She was sleepy, and the sky was cool and gray. My parents and husband waited nearby for us to finish, looking at the little metal labels naming the shrubs and trees.
I was glad she stopped on her own, glad I didn’t have to force the issue. My mother crushed hot peppers and dabbed them on her nipples to wean my little sister, who says she can still taste the bitter flavor of betrayal on her tongue.
I didn’t really know I was sad, too, until tonight.
When I got my period on Monday, my breasts started to feel tender and sore. It felt like first trimester sensitivity. I warded off my toddler’s elbows and knees as best I could, each bump more painful than the last. Finally this afternoon I did some serious prodding and poking and felt a familiar hard lump near the left nipple – plugged ducts! What?! So, resignedly, I dusted off the Medela pump and waited until she fell asleep.
But first, first I need a glass of wine, and a warm lavender bath. I ran on caffeine all day today and I need to unwind. I get out the hand towel, the cream-colored candle that says “Peace” on one side, the New Yorker my husband picked up for me at Barnes & Noble. I pour lavender bath salts into the the steaming water and ease myself in. He comes in and sits on the toilet for a minute – “so you need some me time?” – then goes out to watch football on his laptop. “I just need to relax,” I say.
I turn over on one side so that my left breast is completely submerged. Again I start to probe and prod, and then to squeeze and massage. It hurts. I can clearly feel the “string of beads” the websites describe, hard and painful to the touch. But it’s a good hurt. Geez, they’re everywhere. My intention is to loosen everything up as much as possible before I go to pump. The mental image of the plastic mechanical contrivance, with its mindless pulsating hum, comes into my mind, and I think how much more pleasant this is, watching the steam rise in the light of the candle. I soon realize that I’m staring at the word “Peace,” and, to my faint surprise, that is what I feel. Peace.
I squeeze again, and, to even more surprise, see a white cloud of milk burst into the clear water. This can only be good, right? So I keep squeezing. I think, absurdly, of James Herriot’s books about hardened Yorkshire Dales farmers doing just this with their cows – stripping the milk from the udders to keep them healthy. But, I reason, this is something only I can do for myself. Nobody else is going to do it for me. So I squeeze again. And, even more absurdly, the moment begins to feel holy. It’s perfectly quiet, and I am alone. My mind and spirit become quiet, and there is only the release of the pain and pressure of stagnant milk in my breasts. It feels like my breast is crying tears of milk into the warm water. I didn’t feel sad about weaning – but I guess apparently my body did. And this is the sadness working its way out to where it won’t hurt anymore.
(And I didn’t even have to use the pump, after all.)