Apr/May 2021  •   Spotlight


by Molly Bashaw

Artwork by Art AI Gallery

Artwork by Art AI Gallery

The instructor of the postpartum recovery class tells us to imagine picking up a pearl with our vaginal lips. "Pull it all the way up inside you and tuck it into a fold of the pelvic lining," she says. With my eyes closed, I imagine 12 pearls, one inside each of the mothers in this room. I imagine the milk being made inside these mothers, all the milk no one ever sees. Towards the end of the class, we lie on our backs, passing exercise balls to one another with our feet. I feel like a giant bug.

Breastfeeding has not been what I had always imagined it to be: my body giving itself to the baby's body. More, it has felt as if the baby were pulling a knotted rope through my nipples. And in these moments the baby has seemed not to be the tiny human she is, but a shriveled old fisherman. Some days I imagine she is carving her face onto my body; others, that I am playing her like a bagpipe, squeezing her under my arm. I always thought breastfeeding would be graceful and gentle, like a Mary Cassatt painting, but most of the time it hurts. I get blocked ducts and mastitis. I get lumps and blisters. My nipples bleed. And yet, something in me is resilient. I listen with earbuds to Willie Nelson and Sinead O'Connor singing "Don't Give Up." My husband arranges it for saxophone and piano and makes us a recording.

On the miniature stage of my chest, our baby swallows. And although this sound has become a kind of drama that does not lose excitement, I've also begun entertaining myself by composing sentences on my phone while feeding her. I write in the light of the music-stand lamp clamped to the edge of the bed, My baby, a farmer loosening stones from a wall, moves them through her mouth to a new meadow. Looking out the window at the partial real moon in the sky, I write with my right thumb, my entries limited to what I can press into the phone while she drinks.

The doctor who treated me wrote "mastitis in right Mamma" on the diagnosis. Mamma. Mammal. Mama. Even the etymology seems to be there to remind me that many species have done this before me. I feel lonely breastfeeding until I conduct an online search and learn there are approximately 5,500 species of living mammals out there also breastfeeding—from tiny bats and shrews to the blue whale, weighing in at 180 metric tons. And then I discover this fun consolation: It turns out you can typically tell how many young are in a given species' litter by counting their nipples and dividing by two, with the exception of the naked mole rat, which has ten nipples and up to 33 babies in a single litter, guaranteeing a constantly nursing mother.

I have borrowed an electric pump from the pharmacy in order to avoid a repeat case of infection. Sometimes my baby falls asleep and my breasts swell uncomfortably with milk. If I pump 700 milliliters a day for 30 days, that's 21 liters a month, 63 liters in three months. If I stop breastfeeding even after three months, I convince myself, I will still have fed my baby a lot of milk, more than the amount of water I would drink in a week, more liquid than is in my whole body. I won't have come close to the hooded seal's record, pumping out 22 liters of buttery milk per day and thus successfully weaning its young after only four days, but hey.

Twelve o'clock and four o'clock: these are the night shifts. I tiptoe into the kitchen, turn on the lights and assemble the parts to the pump: a plastic funnel, a rubber diaphragm, a plastic bottle. I've come to know all these pieces intimately because I handle them six times daily. I even convince myself I will miss them when I finally wean my daughter. I will miss this little plastic funnel. Back in the bedroom, lights out, I walk four steps to the right, then two and a half to the left, and then I attach the bottles to the machine, the funnels to my breasts. I press start, and the grinding noise of the pump begins. I sit there, completely in the dark, wondering if my daughter will someday remember this sound, if it is the sound of her dreams. Is it like living next to a factory or a water treatment plant? Does it cause her subconscious discomfort? I wonder vaguely if I am experiencing some kind of post-partum depression or PTSD from my C-section in a foreign country, or from still not being able to easily breastfeed after four months.

From my window I can see into other people's windows. I can see them undressing and settling in for the night or putting a casserole in an oven. I can see them setting a table. When I feed Clara at my breast, I look only at her ears and her cheeks, her belly as she breathes, her hair. When I use the pump, I watch the fog traveling into the city on the river in the sunrise. I watch the crows landing on the rooftops and warming themselves near the chimneys, smashing walnuts onto the streets. I watch the city waking up and going to sleep. They say breast is best, that human milk is perfectly designed for brain development, physical growth, immunity and metabolism, and that watching my baby will help my hormones pour good things into her milk. But will the pumped milk somehow carry these rose sunsets and fall leaves and the woman undressing in her window? Can I feed all this to my baby? At Christmastime I expect to see a bell or an angel, perhaps a sheep, in each of the windows where a light goes on. The city has become an advent calendar.

Afternoons with the baby in the carriage, the smell of the brewery overpowers all other smells, overpowers the fall leaves and cold wet pavement and the river dragging barges into Würzburg. I wonder if it is a coincidence it has rained every day since we came home from the hospital. It rains sheets. It rains against the windows. It rains, as my husband always says, "like cats and dogs." I often hear myself saying this, too, now. It has become part of our speech. I've also started repeating, back to him only, "I'm proud about you." Or "I love you from the button of my heart." He still says there's a song called "Polka Dots and Moon Beans." The breastfed milk flows in an immeasurable amount from my breast into her body, a body made of an immeasurable amount of me and an immeasurable amount of my husband, an immeasurable amount German and an immeasurable amount American. Our languages have begun to seem fluid, and I wonder if it will be okay if we continue to mix German and English in the way we've been doing, sometimes even within a sentence or a word. If I only speak English with our daughter, will she be confused when she goes to kindergarten?

My T-shirt is often already wet in the night when I wake up for a feeding. It is wet and smells of blood, which is to say, of iron. The milk glistens in the jersey cloth, warm and sticky and part of me, yet somehow frightening and unexpected, unwanted, leading directly into my opened body, as though someone has shot me. The coin-sized spots on the floor where my milk has dripped do not wash away even when I scrub the wood.

Pumping at the four-o'clock shift, as kitschy and impossible as this seems, I see a shooting star. I thought they only shot in August. It looks like falling milk, and the frost on the rooftops makes the whole world seem milk-glazed. Even the spider who drops from the ceiling and lands briefly on my baby's cheek one night seems to be made of liquid, dripping from upstairs, perhaps from the neighbor's broken washing machine.

I lower my breasts into water in the bathtub. Then I lie with them above water like islands, little cold volcanoes. I think of the cows and the goats on all the farms where I've ever lived, all those udders and pumps, the drops adding up to buckets. I imagine those blue whales, breastfeeding their baby whales 150 gallons of milk per day, transmitting it to them underwater from nipples hidden within blubber; or the mice mothers, lying down to feed baby mice in nests lined with wool and feathers; the orangutans nursing their young for seven years; the lions nursing any young in their entire pride; the opossum young latching onto their mothers' nipples and not letting go for two whole months. Don't give up! sing the whales. Don't give up! sing the bats, the polar bears, and porcupines. Mammals everywhere are cheering me on.

The soft spots on my baby's head are supposed to be hardening. I read online that they're called fontanelle. It is a word I like to say out loud. How will I know when this is finished? I rest my fingers on the spot. I seek it out like a magic pond. I write, The unfinishedness of everything seems contained there and pulls me towards it, on my phone.