“I want us to nurse each other’s babies,” Anastasia said.
“Okay,” I said, immediately.
“They’ll be milk-siblings,” she said excitedly.
“Yeah,” I said. “Wow.”
What I didn’t do was yell, “OMIGOD! THAT IS SO BIZARRE THAT YOU WANT TO DO THAT!” But that was my first internal reaction. Second internal reaction: how am I going to get out of this when I already said okay?
The issue for me seemed clear. It was one of health. You can’t let other babies drink your milk. Skuli certainly couldn’t drink her milk. I practiced how I would explain that to her. Anastasia, my milk is specially formulated with antibodies perfectly designed just for Skuli . . . But then the whole history of wet nurses popped into my head – obviously babies can and do drink other mothers’ milk.
On the web, both the Centers for Disease Control and La Leche League discourage “cross-nursing” – both citing the possibility that either mother might have serious communicable diseases. (Many diseases, including HIV, hepatitis and syphilis, can be transmitted by human breast milk.) But neither of us have any of those diseases. So I called my father, who is a doctor and not a hippie, to see if there were any medical reasons not to let a healthy friend nurse your baby. “None that I can think of,” he said matter-of-factly.
Oh. At that point, I had to face facts about my own relationship to health-consciousness: I didn’t alter my diet or quit drinking based on being a nursing mom, and I was no poster-child for hale living, existing as I do on coffee, seltzer and candied cashews. According to La Leche League, I shouldn’t even be giving my own child my tainted milk, let alone another woman’s.
So, maybe the problem was more an issue of being normal, decent parents. What if we did cross-nurse and people found out? What if our children found out?! I felt deep shame at the thought of telling anyone we had done it. Surely we would be identified as gross and perverted, the parenting equivalent of wife-swappers. Anastasia was sort of the Angelina Jolie type in my friend group, so she could possibly pull this off, but I was more Gwyneth – superficially serene, but essentially uptight. Why did Anastasia want to do this? She asked and I was so flabbergasted, I agreed. After all, she had vacuumed my apartment.
I worried about the milk-siblings offer for a few days, and then called a mutual friend, also a parent, named Amy. Amy is very logical. She’d know what to do in this situation. “My instinct is that Anastasia sees nursing each other’s babies as a way for you two to bond,” she told me. “You’re very close and this is an expression of that intimacy.” Amy’s take was so different than the hysterical rant in my head, I at once felt more relaxed. “If you don’t want to do it, I think you can just acknowledge how beautiful it is that you are so close,” continued Amy. “And you don’t have to let her nurse Skuli to demonstrate that.” Just hearing Amy frame it as bonding took the pressure off of me and with that, some of the judgmental thoughts I’d been having about Anastasia. If anything, I thought, it’s more of a limitation on my part – I should just own up to that. We are close. I can tell her that I’m just not comfortable with our kids being milk siblings.
Soon after our conversation, Anastasia had her son. Her delivery didn’t go at all as she’d planned. After three days of stalling labor, she had an emergency C-section and was utterly flattened by the experience. Her boyfriend, who had practiced for months to coach her through natural childbirth, didn’t know what to do to help his shivering, shell-shocked partner. She lay there on her side after having her stomach and uterus stitched back up, but when her doula brought her son in and rolled him onto her breast, he latched on and began sucking hard. Just like that, she started to heal from the difficulty of the past three days. Anastasia’s luck with nursing held. She could squirt milk into Lionel’s mouth from several inches away, like a fountain. She could nurse standing up, talking on the phone and while making homemade ravioli. (Meanwhile, I had to “get into position” – propping up a pillow and cupping my breast as if screwing together a pipe – for several weeks before nursing was even remotely casual.)
“Maybe I’ll nurse him right now,” I said, feeling sort of vulnerable in the offering. A few months after Lionel was born, I returned from a particularly draining two weeks on book tour with Skuli. I had lurched past the point of looking slim again after pregnancy and was scarecrow-thin, with staticky hair and a zitty complexion that bespoke red-eye flights and Starbucks dining. I sunk into an armchair at her apartment, watching gratefully as she effortlessly entertained Skuli. She listened sympathetically as I told her boring tales of the book tour. Then, just as she was bringing me fresh coffee and making Skuli laugh, I was overcome by how fortunate I was that we were friends and could share this parenting experience. Lionel began crying from his room. “Hey,” I said suddenly, when she returned with him, “we never did that nursing thing you mentioned back before Lionel was born.”
“I know,” she said.
“Maybe I’ll nurse him right now,” I said, feeling sort of vulnerable in the offering, as if I was actually the weird Angelina friend. “If that sounds okay to you.”
“Well, I just read Lionel’s horoscope and it said he was going to get nourishment from exotic sources this week,” Anastasia said. “So that would make his horoscope true.”
I took him and rearranged my shirt and bra to expose my breast. Skuli sat on the floor, not seeming to think anything weird was going on. I put Lionel on my chest and he began sucking. The familiar tug made the milk rush in; his sucking strength and style were different than Skuli’s, his little face so incredibly sweet. It felt really . . . normal. Anastasia fed Skuli, too, and because he was older and had teeth, she got her first bite.
A few months later, over drinks and a bit tipsy in that way that makes me confess everything, I revealed to another friend, Gillian, that Skuli and Lionel were milk-siblings. “You’re kidding,” she said.
“No,” I said. “It’s true.”
“I’m so jealous,” she said. “I was too afraid to bring that up to any of my friends.”