Ainsley Morse



When you have a baby at a hospital, they send you someone called the Lactation Consultant. In my case it was a stringy deeply tan woman in her 50s named Betsy, incidentally the name of my mother, at the time also in her 50s. Betsy the Lactation Consultant had the demeanor of a high-school PE teacher, which was especially apparent when she was coaching me in the “football hold,” a position for breastfeeding that never made sense to me and which I failed consistently to master. Betsy was merciless. “Do you want your baby to survive?” she would ask, and I would nod meekly and try to sling red squalling Ruth under my armpit, into tackling position.

I still can’t believe how unintuitive breastfeeding is, for mother and baby alike. How have humans survived this long? According to both Betsys, in the proverbial village, the older women would coach the new mothers and their babies. Is this how gorillas make it work even now? How far down the food chain do you have to go to get to animals that can just lactate without consultation? Ruth and I figured it out eventually but for a while in the beginning neither of us could tell when it was working. She was capable of sucking happily at the nipple for hours without actually drinking any milk, stimulating the milk-making glands, etc., or, even more terrifyingly, of coaxing out small, inadequate amounts of milk, but not getting the heavy-duty high-nutrient stuff that only comes out partway through a proper feed. Even much later, after we’d been released by Betsy and her minions and Ruth’s growing bulk attested to some kind of nutrition happening, there would be days when she would lie there screaming at my mute, useless nipples, and I would be sure that she was reproaching them for only doling out little dribbles of preliminary liquid or whatever.

People throw colossal amounts of effort and money into this allegedly biological process. A friend recently had a baby and had clearly encountered an even more aggressive Betsy at the hospital. When I came over she was “setting up” for breastfeeding. She had silicon breast-covers that made the shape of the nipple more appetizing and she tickled the baby’s palate for a while before proffering the sheathed nipple. Foreplay! I had never thought of that. She also had a breathtaking pumping setup involving a tight black strapless bra with nipple holes, into which she inserted the faintly blue-green-tinged plastic tubes of the pump, which was powered by a small humming lump of plastic that sat on the coffee table. Even slumped over from newborn-induced sleeplessness she looked magnificent, like an alien queen-dominatrix sucking in possibly sinister power from a kryptonite power supply.

Later of course you turn into a real cow: all it takes is a predatory glance from the child and the milk starts obediently oozing out from treacherously ready nipples, regardless of any plans you might have had for other activities. Still later, if you let it get that far, the child can come over, push you toward the chair and climb atop you, tear open your shirt and have at it with expert, knowing lips and palate. Consent? Your body is a guarantor of the survival of the next generation. If you aren’t careful to eat and drink extra, your body dwindles, drying out and thinning — all its liquid and nutrients readdressed toward milk production. One woman I know had broken completely with any sense of agency: “Breastfeeding is the best diet in the world! I eat ice cream every day!”

I am endlessly grateful that Ruth quit before she could come up with a cute nonsense word for breastfeeding. Now she likes to climb into my lap and rummage around for a nipple. When I swat her away, she protests: “I’m touching it!” and then, with a knowing smile, “Milk?” before answering her own question: “Nooo!”

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