Below is an extract from Things That Helped, Jessica Friedmann, Scribe Publications 2017. Jessica is delivering a special workshop ‘Writing Life, Writing Self’, on Sun 8 Oct, 2-5pm, Canberra, presented by the Feminist Writers Festival. More info is here.
The wind on the hill is bitterly cold, with nothing between us and Hobart’s icy seas. I huddle a little closer to my Paulina for warmth. ‘Us’ is her and me, and a gathered crowd of hundreds, waiting to see a hot air balloon inflate—the Skywhale, the strange and compelling art balloon that has been bobbing around the country for weeks.
I’ve seen glimpses of the whale in press releases and on Twitter, where it spawns hashtags like tadpoles. In still images it is beautiful, somewhere between the ornate and the grotesque, bearing the hallmarks of designer Patricia Piccinini’s sculptural practice. In person, it is an empty sack of industrial-strength nylon filling slowly with fire.
Breast upon delicate breast begins to undulate with heat. Children tear around gleefully, screeching, “It’s weird!” and “It’s got boobs!” The figure emerges: a large, turtle-pated body, mottled in peachy pinks and greys, and ten enormous, drooping breasts.
Inflated, they are lovely—cupolas of hot air, rippling and then firming, their nipples grazing the lawn. Men in polar fleece dart forward past the barrier to take trompe-l’oeil photos of themselves ‘holding’ the nipples. Wish you were here, their gestures say.
I have come to Hobart for the Dark MOFO festival, a festival celebrating the appetites of a gambling multimillionaire who has designed a contemporary art museum that will one day slide into the sea. I have come in a work capacity, but I have also come to stop breastfeeding.
I have been ready for months, but as soon as I try to disentangle myself from the baby, he goes on strike: solids, yes, but no liquids from any vessel other than me. I feed him before I go to work at the part-time job at a non-profit I found after four months of desperate searching, and I come home at 6.30pm precisely, for his evening feed. At 10pm he wakes, and I feed him again.
This is the first time I’ve been far from his stubborn, searching mouth. Mike is at home with a stash of bottles, some pre-filled with frozen breast milk and other topped up with formula. He has lent me his Army-issue green parka, soft and light like a sleeping bag. Walking along Hobart’s quaint streets in my puffy coat and tight black jeans I think I must look like a cocktail olive, but I don’t care.
I have only myself to look after. It is bliss.
What startles me in how little I have anticipated this: the lack of autonomy that comes with a tiny child. Somehow when I was pregnant I managed to elide the breastfeeding into a narrative of separation: I would give birth, and we would be, with a small tinge of regret, no longer two synchronous rhythms in one shared body, but distinct: mother and child.
But there are hours: hours and hours of linking, because of course we aren’t yet separate at all. In the hospital I vomit from the Tramadol coursing through my IV, turning my head as Mike hastily takes the baby away, then reattaches him to the breast, the baby drawing sticky colostrum from my own body into his.
Owen is so tiny that I can feel the fluid travelling through his body. Pressed up against my skin, his little possum body convulses with happiness. He shits almost immediately after I feed him, mostly to be handed to Mike, who is full of love, while I sponge up any overflow that has sopped into my bra.
The day my milk comes in, home from hospital, Mike stands behind me and pulls me into an embrace. I yelp: he jumps.
“Where can I hold you?” he asks anxiously.
The options are limited: my abdomen is still tender from layers of stitching after the birth, large staples forming a Joker mouth along the caesarian scar. My breasts feel like concrete. Mike touches one tentatively, then whistles. He cannot believe how hard and large they are.
For the first few weeks the baby and I are out of sync, with neither of us knowing how to anticipate the needs of the other. I have borrowed a breast pump from a friend with a toddler, a beautiful little girl who looks enormous next to Owen, but am wary of wasting my still-chancy supply when Owen won’t yet take a bottle. Inevitably, the minute I begin to pump, he wakes and begins to cry.
After a few months, things settle. The cluster-feeds die down into a steady rhythm, slowing the pace down, giving us both room to breathe, and me time to marvel at this strange miracle of body knowledge. How can two such disparate entities get it so right? Now that he is feeding three-hourly, my body and his have become so attuned that my milk lets down one minute before he wakes from a nap, ravenous. I wonder what subconscious signals I am picking up, whether it is a trick of the mind or whether our bodies still are linked, so that mine receives advance warning through some etheric chain.
Two weeks after Owen’s birth Paulina swoops in in her old cream Skyline and takes me out for a coffee. We stay a little longer than I expect—it’s a busy café—and race home to a screaming child. On the drive home, my breasts begin to ache.
I am hobbling, still, from the surgery. I hobble as fast as I could to the front gate, excusing my anxiety to Paulina.
“It’s just that I have to be home to feed him.”
“Just like a cow!”
She stops short.
“I’m so sorry.”
Image: Creative Commons
Born in 1987, Jessica Friedmann is a Canberra-based writer and editor. Her essays and other non-fiction have appeared widely, both in Australia and internationally. Things That Helped is her first published collection.