ENJOY THE CUDDLES

 As I rock and nurse Hazel for her first nap of the day, I feel a surge of elation about our breastfeeding journey so far. We had lots of trouble at the beginning: lip and tongue ties, inverted nipples, a man handling nurse with bad advice about my supposedly non-existent colostrum. So on days when it all seems to be going right I enjoy and acknowledge those feelings of triumph. But the whole truth, is that breastfeeding my daughter has been both a joy and a pain. Just as certainly in one moment I may feel like a Disney princess with little blue birds tweeting sweetly around my head as I sit in some meadow, nursing away, Hazel bites my nipple--HARD--in the next, and I remember that this shit is not for the faint of heart.

 My goal is to nurse her for a year. We are only 3 months away from that goal.  I know it will be one of those things I look back on and cry because I miss it.  I will miss those moments when I can hear her breathing against my breast.  When a sweaty heat forms in the crook of my arm where her head rests because we've been rocking for awhile, but I don't mind.  I will miss her little hand stroking the skin on my stomach. This is something I've dreamed about doing since I was 12 years old watching my aunt nurse my baby cousin.

And yet there are times when I don't want to be touched. Where I want to be gone for several hours without having to hook my boobs up to a machine that squeezes milk out of them, in order to keep the fountain of "liquid gold" flowing. When night time finally comes my husband sits next to me on the bed and I know we only have another 30 minutes or less together before she wakes.  Thirty minutes before I have to go into the dark cave of her room and nurse her into her next sleep cycle.  Breast milk is the glue that binds each cycle to the next.  She hasn't learned yet to connect them on her own. 

I tell him about our afternoon, spent with a friend of mine who has a 13 month old boy.  We visited Garfield Conservatory for the first time.  Hazel loved crawling all over the floor--made of recycled something (tires, shoe soles?)-- in the children's garden. When they got hungry, we nursed them right there in the crawling infants only section.  I love the accessibility of breastfeeding. I have no real fear anymore of nursing in public, uncovered.  It genuinely surprises me that people get so annoyed or offended by it. But in the early days, I was self conscious and would often try to nurse with a cover. Hazel hated it.  She would fuss to the point of hysteria--in her and in me!  Several heart palpitations later I'd end up in the bathroom of wherever we were.  I once nursed Hazel on the floor in a bathroom stall at Gino's East amidst the stale smell of mildew, poop, and urine.  It was the last time.  

After our 3 hour stint with her in the crib--when we're close to tucking in for the night--we bring her into our bed.  She nurses a few times throughout the night, but mostly she just wants to be near me.  It's not always easy--so much interrupted sleep.  I try to forget about all the people I know who have followed the cry-it-out method for sleep training.  We have chosen not to do it and that choice suits us.  But like I said before:  this shit is not for the faint of heart.  And sometimes my heart feels like it might be.  I try to follow the advice of women in the online breastfeeding and sleep support groups I am part of: "This time doesn't last forever," they say. "Enjoy the cuddles."  

Her monkey night light is staring at me from the floor in our room. From where I'm sitting, on the couch in the living room, I can just make out her tiny shape on our mattress.  I am writing and falling asleep as I watch my words appear on the screen.  I catch myself doing that throughout the day: eyes drooping closed and then darting open again.  But I won't always be this tired.  She won't always be a tiny shape on a mattress, looking for me when she awakens and realizes my warm body is no longer next to hers.  

 

BROWN BABIES

Me around  1 year old with my mom and dad.

Me around  1 year old with my mom and dad.

"When you gonna start having some brown babies, girl?" the old woman asked my friend, a black woman married to a white man. It was the first time I'd heard that expression used in reference to biracial children. The old woman was the wife of black civil rights leader John Perkins. We met her while on a church bus trip that retraced the route taken by the Freedom Riders.  They were encouraging words--to me as a biracial person who'd experienced disdain towards all things interracial from both camps--and to my friend, who once confided that she initially resisted her husband's flirtations, believing it demonstrated a loyalty expected by the black community.

I always thought I'd have a brown baby. I prepared emotionally for Hazel's birth as if she would be.  I considered  the racism she might face one day, fretted over the ignorant, intrusive questions she would be asked, like "What are you?" or "Are you adopted?" I thought, "As a fellow mixed race person, I have endured such inquiries so I will know how to coach her through if it happens to her."  I searched for children's books with biracial protagonists and dolls with brown faces; both had been scarce when I was a kid. I would teach her about Black history. She would know about those who came before her and feel proud. I'd been isolated from a lot of that knowledge growing up, which often left me feeling like an outsider. I wanted Hazel to "see herself" in the world around her.

I of course was projecting many of my own experiences onto the poor kid before she even got here.  When she finally did arrive, it was 3:45 on a Tuesday morning.  My girl, coaxed by expertly maneuvered forceps and one last push from mom, came out honey colored, not brown like me.  She was beautiful and alert and mesmerizing but she looked nothing like me. Everyone who saw her commented on how she favored her father, a rosy complected Englishman.  

And for some reason, I was a tiny bit unsettled by this. In truth, tucked deep down in the small left over little girl part of me I wanted her to be a brown baby. I craved one of my own kind, within my family--someone to walk the middle road with me, a companion in that racial space so many in the world want to rigidly define. I felt insecure and I wanted to parent what I already knew.  But you parent a child, not experiences.

The next several days after leaving the hospital left no room for contemplating the complexities of racial identity. We were just trying to keep the small, honey colored human now living with us alive!  When a month had passed Hazel and I went to the zoo in Lincoln Park. I strolled along with her sleeping in my Boba wrap. Thinking back now, I don't remember driving there, getting her out of the car seat, or even situating her in the wrap. I can only see myself coming down an incline on the nature path that winds along the smaller petting zoo with its array of farm animals. Some man asked me how old she was. "Four weeks old," I said shyly, wondering silently, "Does he think she's too young for me to have her outside already? Well I had to get out. I just had to! " An unnecessary defense against an imaginary attack. I was paranoid, exhausted, and freaked out. I was a mother, having trouble believing she was a mother.  

And those first few steps back towards the world outside 1439 W. 18th Street in Pilsen--into an environment I'd been in so many times before--were surreal and dream like because of the little peanut snoozing on my chest. Who was this person that had suddenly made the zoo feel like the Twilight Zone? I know now that the answer to that question will have to wait; she has only just started becoming. But every day there are hints, small things:  like that she has a  preference for bananas over mangoes, or how she lights up when I sing show tunes, Adele's hit song "Hello," or the Sesame Street song for her, or the way she studies new people intently before sometimes treating them to a smile. These are sweet revelations and I value them.  But what of our shared racial and cultural identity?  I can't help wondering how deeply she will internalize it.  To what extent will it shape her?  The fact that my skin color is so different from Hazel's is a potential source of insecurity for me.  Will it be for her too?

This fear unfortunately has deep roots. Years ago, after meeting my parents for the first time, a black actress I did a show with asked me if I was adopted. Granted, my mom and biological father had split when I was only two and my mom remarried a white man who adopted me. So, the woman was looking at a biracial person with two white parents.  However, I'd always looked a lot like my mom, so I was devastated when she didn't match me up with her. Then there was the time an older white lady, introduced to me at a family function, could not get past my brown skin in a "sea" of family members much lighter than me. "You just don't look like anyone else here," she kept saying.  

Recently, history seemed to be repeating itself. While visiting the Sod Room, an indoor play facility in the city, a woman asked me if Hazel was mine. She thought I might be the nanny. And there it was: our identities appeared to be ambiguous for a moment. I watched Hazel reach for a wooden block and shove it happily in her mouth. Her drool glistened in the sun.  She was friggin adorable.  The woman's question hung over me like some tacky pinata that I wanted to smack the shit out of.  And that familiar feeling of displacement started to naw at my insides.  But in the end, all I saw was my girl--my girl, and so I answered the question, and what do ya know? Life went on. And somehow, the comment didn't sting as did those in the previously mentioned incidents. I'm not sure why it was different this time.  Maybe its one of the benefits of being an older mom:  I am learning to care a little less every day about what people think. Maybe its because I'm so sleep deprived most of the time I have trouble remembering things people say to me from one moment to the next.  Or maybe its because the entire experience of bringing Hazel forth and caring for her has been so visceral, so physically and emotionally consuming, I have been imprinted for life and no insensitive inquiry about identity or race can alter that.  And really, I guess It is the same with me and my family of origin--or at least it ought to be.  The truth is, I am theirs and they are mine. The reality of the connection does not cease to be just because someone else does not see it. It's very simple. But even simple things can sometimes take a whole lifetime to sink in.  Or at least until you have a child. 

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