I am four months a mother, a fact proclaimed by my son’s age. We will be forever tethered to each other by time, two hands on a clock. I don’t think much about this until after birth.
I am four months a mother and have returned to work and need to pump every few hours. This is not only to have milk the babysitter can bottle-feed to Oliver, not only to relieve pain in my chest or avoid clogged ducts and infection. I need to pump because without a baby constantly at my breast, my supply will dry up and I won’t be able to feed my son at all. My blind body accepts that the robotic suction is a hungry baby’s mouth.
I am four months a mother when I call my mother for help. I work as a college application essay specialist in the suburban county where I grew up, an hour away from where I live with my husband and son. It is the community in which my father teaches, though he now lives with a new partner in Manhattan. It is the community in which my divorced, single mother still resides.
I have called my mother because I can’t figure out how to be a professional while breastfeeding. Where to pump? I tell her I had an academic job interview in New Jersey two weeks before and didn’t feel comfortable asking my would-be boss if there was a place to relieve full breasts and so wound up in the bathroom of a pizzeria by the train station. Pumping sessions take at least twenty minutes and I tell her how the customers knocked and then banged on the door, and that I emerged into a cluster of disapproving eye-rolls and head wags. Last week, I say, I pumped in my parked car, but it turns out that disrobing in daylight and affixing plastic shields and tubes to your breasts while your nipples are visibly tugged and squeezed unnerves passersby.
I have four clients on Tuesday afternoon, I say, and each session is an hour long, and my body will need relief. I have nowhere to go.
I am four months a mother and my tutorial work-spaces are dining tables lit by chandeliers and kitchen tables strewn with bills. All of my bosses are mothers. They are the ones who hire me, the ones who pay me, the ones who worry over the phone about their children’s futures.
My roster of students includes a teenager whose father died in a terrorist attack. He doesn’t remember much—he was little—but is regularly told how much he looks and sounds and acts like his father. I gnaw the fleshy inside of my cheek as he describes what it feels like to wear his father’s face. How agonizing it must be for his mother, I think, to watch her son grow into her late husband. Or maybe, I think, how beautiful. I am four months a mother and want to hug the woman in the other room, widowed in the most heinous and violent way, sole parent to a child who will depend on her for everything, and I feel the pressure in my chest—all grief and fluid and fear—when I tell her, insufficiently, that I am sorry.
I ask Mom, “Can I come by after my second tutoring? To pump?”
She is quiet, says, “To my house?”
Her house was once our house. It is the house in which I grew up, from the age of two until I left for college. I am four months a mother and still unused to the pronoun: my. I suck on it like an ice cube. It anesthetizes my tongue.
The second-floor bedroom with the fuzzy blue carpet bears all my marks. Faint dots on the walls from sticky tack that held up posters of my paramours: Bon Jovi and Eddie Vedder. A wooden desk in whose drawer I scratched my initials. The twin bed I hid beneath when home alone, petrified of any ghostly noise I discerned. Beside it is the radio to which I pressed my ear long after I should’ve been asleep to hear Love Lines on Z100, so eager to find out what men wanted. That’s the mattress on which I applied what I learned.
In the closet: stiff Archie comics and letters from sleepaway camp and ballet slippers that belonged to a beloved friend who died in fifth grade and the mustard-colored safe I received for Hanukkah and into which I stuffed Zima and clove cigarettes. Also: a swirly painting of a fetus in utero I made for Mom one Mother’s Day in junior high and snatched back in high school when I found it in the attic. I had wanted her to hang it up. I was always so full of wanting.
“Yes,” I tell my mother. “I want to come to your house.” She has kept my room more or less intact. With four other bedrooms, she doesn’t need the space.
“I have an appointment,” she says, “I won’t be here.” The implication: if she’s not there, I can’t be either.
“It’s not personal,” she says when I protest, which I do repeatedly.
She had the locks changed after Dad moved out seven years prior and won’t give keys to anyone—not her children or the neighbors or the cleaning lady. Nor will she order anything off the internet or leave her dog tied up outside a store or record her own voice on the answering machine. Fear is an omnivore.
Her decision is not personal, but I feel it in my person. In the seize of my stomach. In the curl of my toes. In the gash that appears when I tear my thumb with my teeth.
I say, “Don’t you trust me?”
“Yes,” she says, “but this is what makes me comfortable.” Her words are another locked door. There’s no way through, no explanation beyond. Five years earlier, during a difficult stretch in our relationship, one of her friends had taken me aside: can your mother do anything to show that she trusts you, besides giving you a house key?
I’d answered too readily: no.
I am four months a mother and my mother is four months a grandmother and she visits us often in Brooklyn. She will become the grandma who laughs the loudest, who attends birthday parties and piano recitals, whose pocketbook produces gag gifts, as it did in my youth—whoopee cushions and Groucho Marx glasses and gummy eyeballs. She is the woman who made me into an artist, the one who will encourage my children’s creativity, too. Still, she didn’t breastfeed, and can’t appreciate why I’m so committed. What’s the big deal about formula? she asks often. Plenty of mothers use formula and their kids are fine.
I am four months a mother and it is winter in New York and everything is a shade of shadow: the sky, the trees, the street. At a long, narrow dining table, I work with a student on an essay about adventuring while a dog sleeps at my feet. This sixteen-year-old hiked Mount Rainier to watch the sunrise, scuba dived in Belize, chased fresh powder on the steepest slopes. I like to take risks, he tells me, to feel adrenaline in my veins. How undaunted he seems. How intrepid. As we say goodbye, I wonder if this makes his mother nervous.
I set out toward my childhood home, and am quickly unsettled by how lonesome it seems. The mammoth maple I used to climb, centerpiece of our front yard, contracted a disease and croaked. The grass is patchy and frosted. A shingle has slipped off the roof. I zip into the driveway, the same driveway my grandpa, my mother’s father, would glide into in his Cadillac on Sundays, unannounced. If my father answered and we kids weren’t home, my grandpa would leave without saying hello to my mother. I’d hear about this afterward. Sometimes I’d find her crying. My whole childhood I watched her crave her parents’ attention and affection. I never saw them kiss her, never heard them say I love you. How does one learn to give if one has not received?
After a few days of pleading—“Let me think about it,” she said on Sunday; “I’m figuring out how this would work,” she said on Monday—my mother has agreed to leave a key, so long as I return it to its hiding place before I go. I shut off the car and decide this is a meaningful gesture. Maybe, since I’m four months a mother and she’s four months a grandmother, it signifies a shift. Maybe she will get increasingly comfortable loaning out the key and eventually offer me one to keep.
I will be wrong about this. She won’t leave the key again. In fact on a future visit, when Oliver is three and I have a new infant, we will arrive earlier than planned and Mom won’t be home yet and Oliver will have to poop and he will do so in the woods beside the house—her house. Mom, when she finally arrives, will try to downplay it, will say “It’s like camp!” but what will pass over her face for just a second, a cloud eclipsing the sun, will be regret. Mom cannot help this web of distrust, never meant for it to ensnare us all.
Today, though, when I am four months a mother, I have access for the first and last time. I follow her instructions: step behind a bush near the side door, locate the green watering can and the slate tile beneath it and the plastic bag beneath that, inside of which is the key. Bingo! I rub the metal between my fingers. It is thicker than any others I’ve seen. Heavier, too. More difficult to duplicate.
My breasts hurt. I slide the key into lock and the teeth bite and I push open the door into one of the most familiar physical spaces I know, all blonde wood and whimsical tchotchkes, and also the most familiar sound: a beeping alarm. Blood glugs in my gut. This wasn’t supposed to happen. At the keypad, I punch in the numbers I remember from childhood but they don’t register—of course they don’t register, because my mother has not only changed the locks, she has changed the code. I try her birthday, try all ones, something easy because Mom has a fragile memory, try numbers in a row and numbers in a square and the buttons squish under my sweaty fingers and the system now assumes that I’m an unwelcome visitor, a thief, a criminal, and all at once the volume swells and a siren wails and a mechanized voice explodes through the wall: You have violated a protected area! The police were called! Leave immediately!
I fumble for my phone, call my mother, plug the other ear. No answer.
A lactating body is sensitive to sound. It assumes loud noise is a wailing, hungry baby, and responds in kind: my breasts bulge and harden and cramp.
It is 3:15. I have to be at the next student’s house at 3:45. The only way my milk will let down is if I’m relaxed. I am not relaxed. Prickles of panic climb my arms. I cannot take a deep breath. Amid the earsplitting distress signal and robotic commands—Leave! Immediately!—I withdraw the plastic funnels and valves and membranes and tubes from my bag and pull off my shirt and swap my nursing bra for a strapless bra designed to hold these parts in place. I fasten two small eight-ounce bottles, one to each side.
The phone on the wall rings, nearly inaudible inside the tumult. An officer. He needs to ensure I’m a resident and not an intruder. He asks for the secret password. I do not have the secret password. So many ways to be walled out.
“I’m the daughter,” I shout. I say, “childhood home.” I say, “misunderstanding.” My breasts deliver one fat drop apiece. I cannot bear to watch.
The officer will be dispatching someone to the property, he says. Protocol.
Six minutes until the police arrive. I know this from childhood. I sit at the kitchen table, in the same chair I occupied for our family meals. The table at which my father tutored after school and on weekends, all yellow legal pads and chewed Bic pen caps, a space as insignificant to his students as my students’ kitchens are to me.
Taped to the wall to my right: a vertical poster that reads EAT EAT EAT until the bottom prong of the final E disappears as if into a mouth and EAT becomes FAT. A sign that sapped pleasure out of every childhood bite and once caused an overweight friend to burst into tears. A mantra that befit my mother’s restrictive diet and my grandmother’s, too, that evoked the one time I ever recall Grandma coming over for lunch—how she removed from her purse a single hard-boiled egg, which she placed in the center of her plate. “This is all I need,” she said. Later, in adulthood, I will think: even their lips were locked.
One ounce per bottle. Oliver eats six ounces per meal. I need more time. More air. More mercy. I pull up baby pictures on my phone, all huge eyes and cheeks and toothless gums. EAT EAT LIVE.
The alarm’s an electric current. Violated! It vibrates the hairs on my arms, swings the papier-mâché parrot hanging from the ceiling, threatens to dislodge the Post-its affixed to my mother’s fridge. Protected! See my family assembled around the counter there? It’s Friday night, Shabbat, and we’ve lit a ceramic candelabra on whose base is a miniature Adam and Eve and a demonic red snake. My mother is baking honeyed apples and the air is sweet and warm, and we’re taking turns expressing gratitude, saying nice things we did that week—I told Nicki I liked her dress, I say—and my father puts his hands on my mother’s bowed head—Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe—and my siblings and I poke our faces into the tent their bodies make. Home.
One siren overwhelms the other. A cruiser has pulled up alongside my car in the driveway, and red and blue lights swirl around the kitchen. I shut off the pump and disassemble the parts and quickly pull on my shirt.
Two white, male officers are framed in the doorway, a sight that would have made me panic as a teenager, would’ve induced guilt even if I’d done nothing wrong. How many times I’d tumbled through this door drunk or high or in the aftermath of making out, convinced my parents would smell me, would know.
“Sorry,” I shout. “No emergency.” I feel heat in my bra. “I’m the homeowner’s daughter,” I say. My left breast, the more prolific one, has sprung a leak. A dark blossom unfurls on my shirt. I cross my arms. One of the men asks how to spell my name, writes it down. My mom was supposed to leave the house unarmed, I say. I don’t say she was supposed to do this because she wasn’t comfortable giving me the code. I don’t say, It’s not personal.
My phone vibrates. “Oh, shit,” Mom says when she hears what’s happening. “Shit, shit.” I hand her to a cop.
I will pack up my stuff in haste—already late for the next appointment—and won’t properly affix the bottle caps. On the drive home that night, I will simmer and fizz and yearn. When I arrive in Brooklyn, the base of my bag will be sticky and damp, the bottles empty.
Courtney Zoffness’s essay collection is forthcoming from McSweeney’s Books in early 2021. She won the 2018 Sunday Times Short Story Award and an Emerging Writers Fellowship from the Center for Fiction, and her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies. She directs the creative writing program at Drew University.