“one, two, three—latch.”
I glanced around the room, quickly taking in the semicircle of five somewhat traumatized-looking women sitting cross-legged on a carpet that smelled of breast milk and lavender. Had their babies latched? It was hard to tell without raising questions as to my prenatal sexuality. If I even mentioned the word “partner” or even worse “no partner” (as was my case), my days at the Pump Station, the holy Mecca for the politically correct, socially conscious, newly nursing moms, would be over.
I looked down at Halla. She was fast asleep, curled under my heavy breast as though still in my womb, totally unaware that she was supposed to be performing on cue. There was nothing in my thirty-eight years that had prepared me for the beauty of a sleeping child in the arms of its mother. It was the face of joy and peace, as though the baby was wrapped in a shroud of faith and its soul was dancing with the angels.
Unfortunately for the church, it was the kind of faith that could not be taught, bought, or guilted into.
“Okay, Saffron—did I get your name right?” The teacher, an ex–Leche League representative who probably pumped milk for her teenagers’ lunch boxes, cocked her head to the side as she peered at my sleeping child. “You need to wake her up.” Both hands on ample hips. “Now.”
“But look at her.” I glanced at Halla, a name that a tribeswoman from northeast Sierra Leone had given her when she came up to me, patted my cramping belly, and announced that I was not sick with too much African beer, but with child. She pointed to my stomach and said “Halla” over and over again while she giggled. The irony was not lost on her that she, a woman who could neither add nor subtract, knew about my pregnancy before I did. The name meant unexpected gift. It described my baby perfectly.
The Leche woman stomped over to where I sat quietly mesmerized by my child and squatted next to me. She was earthy, but fortunately still feminine enough. In other words, she was a kinder, gentler version of the in-your-face-breast-feeding dictator of the eighties; the short hair was a little longer, the chin hairs were tweezed, there was even an attempt at wispy bangs and light mascara; the Birkenstocks were trendy now and the soy latte, Starbucks.
“Drag your nipple across her face.” She peered down at my breast. “Stop when you get to her mouth and then tease her with it.”
I hoped she would go away. I could feel the heat rush to my cheeks as embarrassment pumped through my entire body. I had never liked being the center of attention, I preferred to be behind the camera, taking notes and telling other people’s stories. Gretchen—I wasn’t entirely sure that was her name, but she looked like a Gretchen—stood behind me impatiently.
“I’ll be back.” She gave me a nurselike pat of encouragement that was totally utilitarian and devoid of personal feeling. It was the same pat that the ob/gyn nurse had given me throughout my labor and recovery. Because I was doing it alone, she probably rubbed and patted my shoulders far more than she would have patted a woman whose husband was present, but I knew as I pushed and labored that she would forget me as soon as she took off her uniform, found her car keys, and made it to her poorly operating car in the farthest reaches of underground parking reserved for employees.
“That’s it.” Gretchen walked in a circle behind the nursing mothers, bending down every so often to make certain that their child was indeed “on” properly. “Remember, get the whole areola in his mouth, not just the nipple; that’s the only way you’re going to keep your nipples from cracking and bleeding.”
Nearly all the babies had successfully latched on, their mouths suctioned tightly around the entire circumference of the breast, sucking away as their mothers looked on in raw amazement.
“Excellent.” Gretchen stopped in the center of the circle, nodding at everyone. “I don’t see an areola in the room and that’s saying something.” She squeezed out a laugh, most likely the same one she emitted each and every time she delivered the line, and everyone but me managed a responsive laugh. The almost unnatural enlargement of our nipples accompanied by the dark spreading miasma that was the areola—and who even knew what that was before childbirth—was old news by now.
I went back to gazing at my daughter and felt a soft tapping on my shoulder. “You need to wake her up.”
“But she’s so happy,” I said. “Can’t I wait a few more minutes?”
“She needs to eat.” Gretchen took Halla’s two-week-old head in her palm and moved her toward my swollen breast. “Take your breast and tickle her mouth with it.”
I looked up from our little powwow and was relieved to see that the other women in the room were not tuning in. They did not care to see my breast, nor were they interested in my humiliation at having to grab it like a sausage. In the ten years that I had covered Africa, Asia, and the Middle East for London’s Sunday Times
and the Economist
, I had seen my fair share of women breast-feeding their children. Did someone have to teach them how to get their babies to latch on, or did it just come naturally to everyone who lived outside of West L.A.?
Then without so much as moving an arm or a leg Halla opened her pink mouth expectantly. A large part of me wished that she had not done exactly as Gretchen had predicted, at the very moment of prediction.
“Now hold your nipple with your left hand and her head with your right, tilt her head back and when you see her mouth open as wide as it can, push your nipple into her mouth and clamp her head onto your breast.”
And then before my very eyes my areola—or that black thing that had suddenly appeared around my nipple like a stain—disappeared into her mouth.
“Like that.” Gretchen folded her arms across her chest like a Serbian training officer and moved on to the next soldier.
Yes. For the first time since being birthed, Halla had latched on properly. There was no pain, no frustrated cries, just free-flowing milk for her and physical and emotional relief for me. As I sat on the floor, partially undressed, surrounded by strangers also partially undressed, I finally felt like I was a part of something since leaving the ravaged city of Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, an African country no one cared about except for greedy diamond traffickers and a few selfless—or selfish, depending on how you looked at it—war correspondents.
I had been there with my pen and paper when the city was overrun in the late nineties with rebels, when the “liberating” army hacked away civilian limbs with the mindless ease of a butcher chopping meat for his counter display. I was among the few who remained when Reuters and the Associated Press pulled their people out, when it became blatantly unsafe for anything that had blood in its veins. I had remained because the man, the surgeon, who had made me fall in love with Africa had remained; I stayed because I had fallen so deeply in love with both the man and place that I could no longer define myself without doing so in their context.
But I was stupid. Neither Africa nor the doctor had ever really claimed me as one of their own. Once the revolutionary fighters started swinging their painfully dull machetes in the streets of Freetown, previously open doors were shut, warm beds and hidden safe houses were suddenly occupied, and the eyes of the West were unwanted. People were no longer acting like people. There was no vocabulary left to describe the evil I saw on a daily basis. Nothing could express the horror—not words, not sound, not even the camera could capture the totality of it.
But it was not the butchery of the people that made me leave Africa; it was the discovery of dozens of handmade tape cassettes in the good doctor’s bedroom, like the ones people in new love make for each other. They were addressed to Oscar with curly pink cursive writing and it was this handwriting that made me board a series of planes out of Africa. It was almost the end of 1999 and the war had literally destroyed the entire country. And although I didn’t know it yet, I was pregnant.
As I followed Gretchen’s commands and switched Halla from one breast to the other, I looked up and accidentally caught the eye of the woman sitting directly in front of me. Her blue eyes did not flinch when we connected, nor did they drop quickly to my wrist to evaluate my watch or my ring finger to ascertain marital status and husband’s bank account. Her face was wide open, her eyes deep and warm as though she had enough room to take me in. In them I could see Good Housekeeping recipes, Tupperware parties, and prized secrets to successful stain removal.
I yearned to be absorbed.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Making It Up As I Go Along by Maria T. Lennon. Copyright © 2005 by Maria T. Lennon. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.