Why you should care
Because motherly love comes in all shapes and sizes.
Wendy Spero is the author of the essay collection Microthrills: True Stories From a Life of Small Highs. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Esquire.
I walked out of my bedroom at 5:30 a.m. to find Kathleen, a family friend staying with me in Los Angeles for a few days, sweetly holding Penelope, my 3-month-old, who’d been sleeping in a crib next to the guest bed.
Then, in my bleary-eyed state, I noticed Penelope was actually half-under Kathleen’s bra. And nipple-to-mouth action was happening.
Suddenly it was as if I’d seen something I shouldn’t have — like walking in on a friend making out with my husband. Only it was my child sucking on my friend’s 58-year-old, non-milk-producing boob.
“She seemed fussy,” Kathleen said, nonchalantly. “I wanted to soothe her. You don’t mind, do you?”
I desperately wanted to become a non-neurotic mother who no longer dog-paddled against the flow of life.
For weeks I’d been so overwhelmed and confused that I found myself sobbing over a choice between “ocean waves” or “rain on a roof” as white noise options for Penelope’s room. I desperately wanted to become a non-neurotic mother who no longer dog-paddled against the flow of life. Kathleen was a mother I’d always admired, one who glided through parenthood embodying the combo of laid-back and grounded. She had three wildly well-adjusted kids in college and had once matter-of-factly brought one of them to the ER because she sensed something was off and saved him from meningitis before he’d even gotten a fever. Plus, her quick wit, loose ponytail and ability to look good in heavily pleated jeans way before they somehow became fashionable again helped her walk an impressively thin line between hippie and hipster. When she’d entered my front door the prior evening with a pile of homemade swaddle blankets, I’d felt like a cool, maternal Buddha had come to impart wisdom and serenity into my brain. She would show me the way.
So as I calibrated this new image of Kathleen attempting to nurse, I did not want to question her notoriously flowy, mentally stable instincts — or care that another woman’s nipple was serving as my daughter’s pacifier.
“You don’t mind, right?” she repeated.
“No! Of course not,” I said reflexively.
I was, however, ignoring a tiny voice inside, whispering, “Doesn’t feel right.” It was similar to the one I had ignored at camp when pressured by a cooler bunkmate to Nair off my arm hair. “It’s all good,” I firmly told myself now. “Kathleen knows her stuff.”
For the rest of the day, I thought, “Humans are meant to live in villages where women breast-feed one another’s offspring. Pacifying also probably counts. Skin is healthier than silicone. At least it’s definitely BPA-free.”
That night in bed, in the most casual voice I could muster, I said to my husband, “Did you notice Kathleen trying to breast-feed this morning?”
“Yeah. That’s cool, right?”
I figured since he seemed on board, I was being uptight.
“Super cool,” I replied. “An opportunity for us to rest, actually. Plus, the more exposure to different nipples, the better. It will probably build resilience.”
The next day, I arrived home and was overjoyed to find my dishwasher emptied and a quinoa salad waiting for me on the counter. I went to thank Kathleen and found her half-naked with Penelope “breast-feeding” in my bed.
“I miss this,” she said, wistfully. “This takes me back.”
I nearly regurgitated a saltine. “Really?” I thought. “Did Penelope’s fussiness require actual disrobing of your borderline-hip blouse?” Then, “Don’t be uptight!” I slowly turned around, silently repeating a mantra: “Go. With. Zen. Flowiness.” Ten minutes later, Kathleen waltzed out of my room and became unequivocally heroic as she assembled the baby swing in my living room and helped me decipher a particularly unclear chapter about nap schedules in one of my sleep books.
When she left that night, she said she was grateful to have “quasi-breast-fed” Penelope. “It was really sweet,” she added, kissing my daughter on the head. “I stayed with another friend who had a baby, but she was uptight, so I didn’t push it. She’s pretty … you know. Anyway, you are great.”
“No problem at all,” I said, proud that I was the non-uptight friend.
A few days later, my friends Emily and Ryan came over. My husband mentioned that one of our guests had soothed Penelope by letting her suck on her breasts. Emily asked, “Um, why haven’t you called the police?”
“That is totally insane,” Ryan added. “That might be one of the most insane things I’ve ever heard.”
As we recounted more of Kathleen’s stay, my husband and I started laughing like a stoned couple discovering they’d been featured on a well-executed Candid Camera episode.
“It was weird all along, but I thought you thought it wasn’t, so I felt uptight thinking it was!” I hollered, barely able to compose myself. “It’s totally weird!”
“It’s totally weird,” admitted my husband. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to be uptight either.”
Emily yelled, “You are not being uptight to think it’s weird that someone else tried to breast-feed your baby!”
We nodded. “Right.” I felt a wave of relief that allowed me to fully exhale since raising an offspring, resting in the absurdity that Kathleen, with the help of her lack of boundaries, may have indeed showed me the way.
Later that night, as Penelope breast-fed, I imagined her thinking, “These nipples really are far superior. Not only because they provide necessary sustenance but also because they belong to my mother. As they should.”