Note to My Boobs – You Had One Job (and You Did It Well)

When I gave birth in 2002 and 2004, attachment parenting, in which parents were expected to be, well, attached, to their babies nearly all the time (on-demand nursing, baby wearing, co-sleeping) was the style du jour.

Not my thing. Except for the nursing, which, for me, was less about a style of parenting and more about practicality. It was smart, efficient, expedient, and cost-effective. It was also supremely satisfying for both me and my boys, who thrived and spent their first year of life almost shockingly hearty and healthy.

My boobs, which had heretofore mostly sat around in my 34Bs, had a job to do, and they acquitted themselves well. I beat all projections on productivity. I ate food and I could feel the handful of mixed nuts or turkey sandwich or cookie I’d just swallowed hit my stomach and be put to work propelling my body to make more milk.

My body was a factory, and it was a wonder to behold. Nothing was wasted. I never spilled a drop of the milk I pumped, and with a few exceptions, my boys hardly ever spit up.

My boobs did that. Gold star(s), girls.

But in April, I was diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma, and made the decision to have a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. My chosen surgical treatment, double mastectomy, means that the ducts and globules of fat and vessels and whatever internal genius of breasts that did that job will be … gone.

Every fourth or fifth time I imagine the surgery itself, which is to say, multiple times per day, I start to wonder about that actual flesh and where it ends up. Let me tell you, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Meanwhile, as I wait, two distinct memories bookend my breastfeeding journey, signaling the very start and the end.

The first is the day my milk came in, when my older son was just under a week old. He’d been fine before then, sleepy and satisfied with colostrum, but on that day, his demand and my supply were a poor match, and he was very angry about it. An anxious call to a lactation consultant and a tearfully given bottle of formula later, he slept. So did I. When we both awoke, affixed to my chest were, suddenly, two gigantic, unripe melons, filled with milk and hard as stone. I held my infant to my chest, and the mere touch of his face to my boob set off a shower of milk like an arc of water from an opened fire hydrant on a city street. I watched my boy startle, pull back, and blink dementedly a few times, his long lashes coated with whitish droplets. And then I saw it all dawn on him: This was it! He dove (literally) back in and went to work. My own private industrial revolution had begun.

The other memory was from 2005, the day my second son nursed for what I thought was the last time. By then, we were nursing only at night, for comfort (mostly mine). That night, my baby, who I knew was my last, pulled himself off my nipple, plopped his heavy, hot head on the top of my breast, and sighed, his (even longer than his brother’s) lashes drooping. Somehow I knew he was done. We were done. I decamped to my own bedroom and wept, while a houseful of guests (it was that child’s 1st birthday party) were still downstairs.

Recently, when my husband and I told my boys, who are now 17 and 19, that I had breast cancer, we led with the positive. I’m going to be just fine, but here’s what you need to know.

You could say I weaned them into the news.

Me, I’m still processing, and wondering how to say goodbye to my boobs. There’ll be no gold watch for their years of service, but there will be, there is, gratitude. All the thanks in the world, ladies. Lock up and turn off the lights on your way out.

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