On a Saturday morning not long ago I set off on a mission to return our breast pump. It was a rental, and the place that rented it had called to ask for it back. My wife still breastfed the boy but somehow the pump was no longer needed.
I love this boy so much but I confess there are two moments when I feel impatient with him: one is when he falls down and the first words on his lips are, “Mommy?” Not so much a request, but a question, as though he wanted suddenly to inquire about this sudden pain and needed to talk to the person most likely to make it go away. The other is when he says, “boobie?” Again a question. And most of the time, or even all of the time, it’s endearing. But part of me wants to tell him to toughen up.
But we project so freely onto babies. Just as a mother will speak of the reassurance breast feeding gives their child when it seems they are themselves are at least equally reassured, the person I may want to toughen up is me.
I got tough when I heard the monthly fee for the unused breast pump. Also, that they could use it for someone else who needed it. So that Saturday I drove around in broad circles through a dangerous neighborhood called Metarie. Everything a strip mall, and they elected David Duke, a Nazi, to be their representative in the Louisiana State Legislature. Just once, a couple of decades ago, but still. I enjoy not forgiving Metarie for this.
Now and then, as I drove around, I called the breast pump place to ask for directions.
After a couple of conversations with a supremely nice lady it became apparent that I was talking to someone at the wrong breast pump rental facility in Metarie. How did this happen?
I think I was beclouded by the errand. There are some tasks that, for whatever reason, send you into a confused state, almost a trance, where you peruse a museum whose exhibits all remind you of yourself but are nevertheless unfamiliar. The breast pump, mixing memory and desire, was one of these errands, and it wasn’t even April at the time.
Breast feeding is a remarkable topic in our culture, for men in particular, and father’s even more in particular, partly because it is a kind of no fly zone and at the same time a matter of vital psychic importance to both the present and the past. It’s the gesture in which the paradox of all of the Freudian conflicts comes most into plain view: Sex begetts a baby. Who then begets no sex–however brief this interlude may be, it doesn’t seem brief at the time–which, if the baby is a boy, almost makes the whole thing funny.
Breast feeding is the vehicle which the culture, with a bully’s innate understanding of vulnerability, uses to berate and harass mothers who are trying to do their best with their baby, which often means, these days, breast feeding them for a long time.
Speaking of Time: For their cover story on the current state of maternity, they put a woman looking quite sexy on their cover, her shirt pulled down, a bit rudely, to avail herself to the suckling of a child. It was a boy, of course. The only thing that rivals an over attached mother in spectacle is an over attached son. His size put him in range of joining a Pee-Wee football league. They may as well have used as a cover line that famous Conradian phrase from Heart of Darkness: “The Horror.” Or maybe the title of the film that appropriated that line and put it in Marlon Brando’s mouth, “Apocalypse Now.”
A furor ensued. The paradox of breast feeding is that such a tender, intimate act is somehow surrounded by a feeling of whirlwind.
The wonderful calm a father observes in his breast feeding child is matched only by the wonderful calm he observes in his wife doing the breast feeding. It would all be purely wonderful if he were not excluded from the whole thing and, like someone trying one locked door after another, waiting for one to open, finds himself not so much recalling but imagining his own experience of doing the same thing. Suddenly his own mother is in the picture and he is a baby himself. This is displeasing, almost revolting, and so one retreats to the literal and shuffles out of the room with gentle steps like a nurse wishing to not wake a dozing patient while himself feeling like a patient for letting such confused thoughts flicker across his consciousness.
At last, pulled over by the side of the road, the folly of my errand became clear–my friend from the wrong breast pump place ascertained that I am talking to the wrong breast pump place. She told me where the right place is, and that it is closed for the day.
Which is how it came to be that we still have the breast pump. It sits by the front door. In New Orleans you are always encouraged to have an evacuation plan – they never tell you exactly what to plan, but want you to have one – and as things now stand I can be sure that if we have to leave in a hurry we will at least have a breast pump.
The other day the boy, dextrous and full of words, his brain fortified no doubt by all that breast milk, undid the latch on the pump’s shoulder strap and then fastened it onto a nearby hook. So it is a leashed breast pump, like some vibrant pet that would otherwise run away, or just bite someone. This is an amusing image, a breast pump on a leash, though it also seems like the expression of a wish for the breast pump and everything it signifies not to go away. He’s a precocious kid. He can talk–in fits and starts, and with a bit of an accent (he’s from the land of baby) but he can make sentences and everything. I think my wife and I are both worried about what happens when he is weaned. She thinks about it in terms of how he will feel. I’m wondering what he he will say.