Sunday, January 27, 2008

Chapter 17 ~ Milk Ducts

Photo by Brendon Stuart
They say that mother’s milk is the most nourishing and healthy substance on the planet. When I heard that I had breast cancer, in addition to the fear of death and mutilation, I felt insulted that it had manifested in my milk ducts; it seemed an aspersion on my femininity, on my gender, on my suitability for motherhood.

I remember when my breasts first filled with milk. I was 30 years old and pregnant with Rose. The experience was fantastic, as if from a fairy tale. My breasts swelled to twice their size, perhaps three times, firm and full and enormous. For the first time in my life I had bigger breasts than my big-titted friend Louise. When she came to visit me from England where she had moved to marry a Brit, I made Lawrence take a picture of us lying together on the bed, breasts pointing to the ceiling. He crouched on the floor to get the best angle. Only our breasts filled the frame: four mountaintops, two clad in a black shell, two in a blue and white granny nightgown Lawrence’s mother had given me for Christmas. When the pictures came back, there was no disputing the evidence. The blue and white mountains were taller—or at least just as tall. My rounded belly came in a close second.

All my life, I’ve been aware that I am a woman, of course. But before I breastfed my babies, I was never able to see that it much mattered, could discern no essential difference between male and female.

Wait a minute, that’s not true…

As a child—most likely because I grew up in a household of five daughters and no sons, and so was spared the specter of preferential treatment for boys—I thought that women were superior to men. Not only that, I thought that fact was universally understood. I mean, what could be more obvious? Women embodied the creative principle and men the destructive. Women made babies and men made war. Women were imbued with the spirit of God and men with Satan. Given the task of designating the better gender, which would you choose?

Not only did women seem spiritually and morally superior, they were superior physically, too. It’s true that men were bigger and stronger, but women were infinitely more beautiful. The female form was glorified in popular culture, and in the United States of America, there wasn’t any other kind. The only man’s body I’d seen represented as beautiful was the statue of Rodan’s The Thinker on The Dobie Gillis Show.

Besides, men weren’t always bigger and stronger. There were plenty of wimpy boys walking about, and I was something of a macho little girl. My mother, for awhile, dreamed of turning one of her daughters into an Olympian swimmer. There was a time period when Jean and I got up hours before school so Mom could drive us to Modesto for swim practice, since a coach in that neighboring town had a competitive team. To be honest, it was mostly Jean who had the potential. But I did well enough. I loved the red warm-up suit I got to wear over my swimsuit—pants and a matching zipper jacket with the team name embroidered on the chest—and the hot, freshly-fried glazed donuts we always bought on the way home which were so light they practically evaporated in my mouth. Those were the things I missed when Mother gave up her dream of creating a champion. Not the cold water. Not the aching muscles. Not the vaguely frightening and possibly sadistic coach. Still, I’d learned enough in that year or two to feel at home in my body, to believe in my strength. Throughout school, I was always one of the top performers in P.E. class. I kicked butt in almost every competitive game. I held the record for the 50-yard dash in seventh grade. In my free time, of which there was an abundance, I read Wonder Woman comics, and found validation for my feminist views in Diana’s society of warriors, which I childishly pronounced the Amaze-ons.

When womanhood came upon me around age 12, I was confused by the sudden difference in the way I was treated—the blatantly sexual content of most of my interactions with males. But while one part of me resented the reduction of my full personality to one limited dimension, another felt proud that I was sexually attractive and enjoyed exercising power in this new realm.

I went through the requisite molestation around 12. I’ve read somewhere that close to two-thirds of all women are sexually molested at some time in their lives—an incredible number, but one that seems validated by the stories I’ve heard.

In my case, it was a one-time thing, so perhaps I was “lucky.” I was at my friend Margaret’s house with her friend Kelly who lived across the street. Kelly told me to go over to her house, her older brother had a surprise for me. When I went, I expected some flirtatious game. Perhaps a kiss. He was there, along with a friend of his. The lights were turned out. They were hiding. I called out to him. Then he and his friend jumped out of a room, wrestled me to the ground, and, after failing to pull my pants off, put a finger up my vagina through my clothing. I kicked and hit, fighting hard, but couldn’t get away. When they finally released me, I felt both betrayed and humiliated, but I said nothing to Margaret or Kelly when I walked back across the street. I was too ashamed.

My best friend Marcy was being molested repeatedly by her stepfather at that time, as was her younger sister. A man I went to high school with emailed me recently about an event he had experienced around the same time.

“In the summer of '71 I witnessed two rather unsavory gang rapes by some of the cream of Lincoln High School jockdom,” he recalled. “They used to pick up some dumb unattractive okie girls from around Franklin High, get them soused, and have at them one after another. If they protested, they threatened them. This was considered acceptable, and some guys lost their virginity this way. You would have known all of them. I declined both times, but I didn't call the cops because I saw the travesty as an unacceptable but unpreventable misfortune of life,” Herbert wrote.

Another high school friend, Tito, had a similar experience. Herbert forwarded his email to me. “I was around one night, maybe with you (Herbert), when, in the early 70s, off of Pershing Avenue, some jocks had a girl locked in a room taking turns with her. I was appalled at the time, but did I do anything? Nah. It was like watching Walter and his friend at the reservoir when I was ten, systematically gutting and slashing what had to be at least a hundred pollywogs on the trip for no reason. I was appalled then, too, but I couldn't do anything. It was "nature." Of course, we would do something now, but when a young man is with his peers, society's rules are secondary to fitting in with the crowd. Lord of the Flies looms over us.”

I’d like to believe that we have moved forward since the ‘70s, but a story a student told me last year puts the lie to that. She was a freshman when she told me, and a lesbian. She was creative and intelligent, an attractive girl who dressed in old baggy clothes and felt herself an outcast. I liked her very much. Two years before, when she was just 12 years old, she got drunk for the first time at a party with some “friends.” Then, she was raped by all the boys there. She had the courage afterwards to go to the police, who treated her poorly. She took the boys to court, at great emotional cost to herself. Although they were found guilty, they were given some ridiculous token sentence, like six weeks of community service.

When considering the differences between men and women, and my own relationship with my husband, I like to believe that the genders complement each other, that it is possible to have a loving, healing relationship that makes each party better for participating in it. But it’s pretty hard for the genders to have healthy emotional connections when the men continue raping the women.

When my 20-year-old daughter Rose came back from a semester in Costa Rica and told us she’d developed a girlfriend on the trip—had discovered that she was bisexual—I fully understood, perhaps even felt pleased. Months later, during a car ride, we talked a little about sexual politics. I was worried that, given her sexual proclivities, she might never have children, depriving me of a grandchild. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I definitely want to be pregnant at some time in my life. But I doubt that I’ll end up with a man in the long run, because I am uncomfortable with the role society affords to men—the role of power. And even if I reject it consciously, it affects me unconsciously.”

My piano teacher Lauren, a bisexual, was never molested, but witnessed a strange sexual and almost violent dynamic between her father and her sister that had lasting repercussions on her life, she said. She went out to lunch with me recently and described an aspect of her relationship with her girlfriend Yesenia (who was molested repeatedly by her uncle between the ages of 5 and 10) that made me somewhat envious. “We aren’t really stuck in our gender roles,” she reported. “We each feel free to sometimes express our feminine energy, and sometimes our masculine energy. That is very different from the relationship I had with my husband, when I felt backed into a corner because I was always expected to play the feminine role.”

Lauren also described a fantasy book she had read by Ursula Le Guin in which a human male visits a planet on which no one has a gender. The inhabitants are all unisex, until they go into heat. At that time, they become either a male or female, depending on the energy put out by their sexual partner. If their partner has a little more female energy, they metamorphose into a male. If he has a little more male energy, they become a female. When the earthling arrives, he is the talk of the planet. Inhabitants are amazed because he’s always in heat. Also, because he always sends out masculine energy, every alien he meets becomes a sexy female.

I doubt many would deny that human beings have both masculine and feminine energy. Carl Jung thought of the conscious mind as masculine and the unconscious mind as feminine. He said human beings don’t achieve psychic maturity until they blend their masculine and feminine together, and let their conscious and unconscious minds work in consort.

Despite all the gender differences I noted while growing up, I continued blithely in my misconception that the world felt women to be superior to men. It wasn’t until I was 18 years old and a freshman at UC Santa Barbara that I realized the culture at large held the opposite opinion—that women were trivialized in the country’s institutions of power and prestige. That realization formed the focal point of my LSD-fueled nervous breakdown which compelled me to move back home to live with my parents the year my mother died.

After the night of her death, when I was punishing myself for something that I couldn’t recall, I used my femininity against myself, as a means of degradation. I slept with men who didn’t respect me. I didn’t admit to myself that this behavior was self destructive. I called it liberated, in the fashion of the times. We had just undergone a sexual revolution. It was a woman’s right to sleep with many men. And sometimes, my sexual escapades really were fun. But other times—when I was lying beneath a Terry or a Kenmore or a Carl, presenting myself as a sacrifice to someone who, if I had my eyes open, would repulse me—it felt like a hostile act, a flinging back, a refraction of the degradation and disrespect that society heaped upon me.

Eventually, I stopped punishing myself. I met Lawrence when I was 25, the year my father died, and I began turning a corner immediately after the abortion which he helped me through. We were married when I was 28; I got pregnant when I was 29; and my breasts filled with milk a few months before I gave birth at 30.

I loved being pregnant. That was the first time in my life that I felt distinctly a woman. As my body became ungainly, I became vulnerable and dependent, but I didn’t mind, because I trusted Lawrence. I didn’t get morning sickness. I was infused with optimism. Strangers on the street were kind to me. I ate whatever I wanted and didn’t worry about my weight. I gained 50 pounds. When I felt the baby move inside me, I knew I was a magical being.

Birth was hard and scary, but only briefly. Rose was born two-and-a-half hours after we got to Kaiser hospital in San Francisco. Lawrence sat at my head and held my hand, murmuring encouragements. Claire stood at my side and protected me from the invasive procedures commonly promoted by hospital staff. The doctor stood between my legs and coaxed out my baby, handing her up to me the moment she was born. As I saw her face floating toward me over my belly, something occurred on a basic, biological level. It felt as if she had rearranged my cell structure. It seemed her face was imprinted on my brain, as in the stories you hear about baby ducks, who take the first living thing they see after they are born as their mother, and follow it around until they are grown.

When I put Rose to my breast, and she found nurture there, it seemed I was being transported to heaven.

Breastfeeding was the closest I’ve ever come to a transcendental experience—the closest I’ve come to God. With a baby at my breast, all was right with the world. There was never a question, as there so often is at other times, about whether I ought to be doing something else. All the neurotic need for progress, productivity, and maximizing my time on the planet fell away, leaving only the baby and my big, life-giving breasts.

Babies, as you probably know, smell exquisite. They are softer and smoother than fur. Held against your breast, they are warm and pliable. Their big heads, which they often stroke rhythmically with their tiny hands while breastfeeding, are irresistibly attractive. The whole experience is indescribably satisfying in a completely physical, almost sexual, way. Rose breastfed for about six months, until I got pregnant with Eddy and my milk dried up. Eddy breastfed for about six months, too, until he decided he preferred a bottle, which allowed more freedom of movement and probably delivered more copious amounts of milk. Henry breastfed for a glorious two years, which may be the reason I’ve always felt grateful to him and inclined to wait on him hand and foot. All in all, my breasts were a magnificent cornucopia of abundance for more than three years. Even Lawrence breastfed. With all that euphoria floating around the bedroom, how could he resist?

After each child gave up breastfeeding, and my breasts shrunk back to a more normal size, I felt both regret and loss. Still, I was proud that I had proven my femininity, had fulfilled my biological destiny as a nursing mother of babes. The milk that had flowed through my breasts was sweet and rich and full of protective power--had made all three of my babies grow well and strong.

They say that mother’s milk is the most nourishing and healthy substance on the planet.

They also say that my milk ducts are infested with cancer—so much cancer that they will have to cut off one whole breast.

Does that mean that I’m no longer a magical, life-giving woman? Has the female spirit of creation deserted me? Has the male spirit of destruction taken up residence? When I no longer have a left breast, after the surgery, will I be less of a woman—more of a man?

Read the next chapter HERE, or buy a paperback copy of the whole novel HERE.

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