It wasn’t until Jacqui Morton feared the worst that she began to appreciate what her breasts are capable of and what they represent to her.
I’ve never been too concerned about my breasts. Not good with the self exams. Truth is, before any of this baby stuff, my breasts were baggage. Big. Annoying. Never pretty. Not perky. They require underwire. I’ve dreamed of a breast reduction, at least on the one side that has always been a cup size bigger than the other.
And let’s face it, they played a role in my feeling bad about myself as a young woman. My freshman year of college, I attended an all-female school. During the week, I was studying to be a physical therapist and on the weekends, I went to clubs or frat parties at nearby schools. I drank cheap beer out of red or blue plastic cups. My boobs were with me, conversation starters. I eventually transferred because I knew I wasn’t going to become a physical therapist and because I knew I needed a more normal way of interacting with men.
It wasn’t until later that I developed a true appreciation for my breasts, when my husband and I were trying to conceive a baby. After I learned to tell when I was ovulating and stressed about having sex regularly for 36 hours, I studied my body for symptoms of pregnancy. I stood in front of the mirror, thinking the veins in my chest looked bluer, that my areolas were spotted, that my breasts looked bigger. I looked online for other symptoms I might be missing.
I was thrilled to conceive our first son but when he was born three weeks early, I learned that a baby develops the ability to suck at the end of its gestation.
Even though he was just a few weeks early, breastfeeding was a challenge from day one. No one said it would be so difficult. For the first few months, it was hell. I pumped every two hours, woke him to nurse, worried about weight gain and visited lactation consultants. I cried. My nipples cracked and bled. Though he was supportive, I cursed my husband each time I tried to nurse. Many people told me it was OK to give up, but my mother nursed me and I wanted to nurse my child. Eventually, it happened.
My therapist tells me that it’s normal that I feel so emotional about my second son—more attached, particularly after the loss of a baby.
I’m grateful for the experience that I have had breastfeeding this baby and I’m not quite ready to give it up. But it too has not been without challenges. A few months ago, he developed thrush, which generally indicates a yeast infection shared between mother and baby. We were given gentian violet by the pediatrician and I painted my nipples blue for seven nights. His thrush cleared up but a few weeks later I noticed a deep ache, mainly in my left breast. Then, I felt the clogged ducts and saw the white milk blister on my nipple. I was told to use warm compresses, massage it, drink lots of water, and rest.
Work and life with two small children doesn’t leave much time for self-care, but it was when the sore on my left breast looked infected that I went to the doctor. When she examined me, she used both of her hands in that Vanna White sort of way and said, “Classic mastitis. There is no doubt this is quite infected.” She told me it should clear up with antibiotics but when it wasn’t better in a few days, she sent me for an ultrasound to make sure it was “nothing.”
I had to wait a week for the appointment and because of past experiences, the word “ultrasound” is scary. I’ve become accustomed to being a person once on the unlucky side of the percentages, and am now someone who understands our healthcare system is best suited for someone who has only dealt with “normal.”
And because I was a human in pain, I went online searching for what could be found by this ultrasound. I found a link that told me mastitis can sometimes mimic an aggressive form of breast cancer. Silly, I know. Days earlier, Angelina Jolie had written about how she had a preventative double mastectomy. Of course, this was on my mind. I thought about how my breasts looked like my mother’s and how they were feeding my child. All of a sudden, I’d gone from a mother in pain to a person who thought she had cancer.
The morning of the ultrasound, I inhaled and exhaled deeply before leaving my house, on the way, and after I entered the building. I walked through the maze of rope they have in places where you stand in line. I first gave the woman at the registration desk the wrong insurance card. She said “welcome” twice. First, when she recognized it was my first time there and again after she told me to take the elevator to the ground level, go right, and look for the glass window under the sign that said “Radiology.” She welcomed me in a way that made me grind my teeth.
I waited under the sign. A woman came to the window and told me to take a seat. As I waited, I heard her readying to leave, talking about a farmer’s market, asking if it was noon. I wondered if anyone else knew I was there, next to the People magazines. I wished I asked my mother to come. I was scared and tired and I wanted to put my head on her chest.
Finally, a woman named Helen brought me to an exam room. I wondered if she had children. I saw the familiar machine and bed with shiny white paper. I’d been telling myself not to worry but I wanted the appointment over. Helen took some pictures, showed me a blood vessel and said there appeared to be a small cyst.
She got the radiologist. He had a beard and didn’t ask about the ache. He glanced at my breast. “What are we looking at today? This here?” I’d been told to keep my arms above my head but I moved my left hand first to show him what was bleeding and full of pus a week before, now healing but still hard. “It’s definitely a little better.” In validation, I offered, “There’s a spot like that forming on the other breast.”
He told Helen the cyst was small, barely subcutaneous. To me he said, “All I see are dilated ducts. You’re lactating. No abscess. Keep an eye on it and finish the antibiotics.” He didn’t ask if I had questions. As he left, he said, “Most women find this only fully clears up when they stop breastfeeding. That could be your solution.” He laughed a little and I felt the way I remembered feeling when the guys I met in college talked to my boobs. It was Helen who told me to take care of myself.
I felt lucky, but I also felt apologetic for being there. Driving home, I cried. I thought about the systems that allow men to make women feel small. And I thought about the women who are removing these parts of their bodies that are so much like their mother’s. Women I love. I thought of mothers who are without their mothers because of this disease that makes driving to an appointment full of white knuckled dread.
I’ve been nursing my son for almost 11 months; not yet the year that’s recommended and it feels weird in public already. This isn’t a story about all of that. It’s not a story about breastfeeding versus formula. It’s about how if I had a daughter, I wouldn’t want her to be made to feel small—whether by some boy in college, a radiologist with a beard, or a society that doesn’t support women’s choices regarding their bodies.
And I guess this is a story about how when I nurse my sweet baby boy, in some ways, I think I’m feeding a piece of the baby I lost, and that’s not something I’m willing to give up just yet.
Jacqui Morton holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles and a BA in English from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her poetry has appeared in such journals as Recovering the Self: A Journal of Hope and Healing, The Provo Orem Word and The Mom Egg. She is the author of a chapbook of poems, Turning Cozy Dark (Finishing Line Press, July, 2013) and is working on a collection of poems and essays. She works as a freelance writer and researcher in Massachusetts.