Marni Asplund-Campbell, editor
What Nobody Told Me
[p.153]They told me everything else: that some days I would hold my baby and cry all afternoon, that for no reason I would get up in the night to listen to her breathe, that I would not mind the stink of my own baby’s diapers. Who were they to know what I would do or feel? It bothered me that in their photocopied Christmas letters they all seemed to be raising the same child: our little two-year-old sure keeps us running. What happened to the intimate individuality of the parent-child bond? No, what really bothered me was that they were right. I can sit and watch her breathing all night long.
What nobody told me is that having a baby is like having a lover. I don’t have any other words for this. But here are the facts: when I’m not with my baby, she’s all I think about. I think about the last time we made eye contact and what it meant. Does she really like me? Does she think about me too? Is she squeezing my hand out of true affection or just as a passive reflex? And if there were one thing I could ask my little sweetheart, it would be that one annoying question reserved for lovers: So, what are you thinking?
I really mean this. It took so long for her to smile at me, or to give any indication that she knew who I was. All I wanted was for her to notice me and for two months she looked right through me.
These feelings—the obsession, the broken-hearted longing—I have known only in the context of romance. When she was four weeks old, my husband and I were given tickets to a concert I really wanted to see. It was the first time I’d left her and I needed to get out. I was half dead from the exhaustion of my constant fear that I would break her. But the whole time out, I thought of nothing but her pretty eyes, and looking back, the only thing I remember about the concert is the p.a. system playing “Wichita Lineman” when it was time to go get her. The last [p.154] time a person distracted me that way I was fifteen and had a bad crush on Bruce Goodman. I never had a chance with Bruce Goodman, but I had a whole notebook full of “Mrs. Jan Goodman” written in every loopy style of cursive my hand could invent.
I know I’m not the first person to consider my relationship with my tiny baby to be romantic. My husband too picked her up one day and said, “You just want to have her hands on you, and your hands on her.” And every baby book in print warns us to be prepared for the jealousy of dealing with our spouse’s attachment to her. What to Expect When You’re Expecting puts it in terms of the mother’s jealousy of baby and father: “As harmless—even as heartwarming—as a budding romance between father and infant may seem to an outsider, it can be genuinely threatening to a woman who’s not used to sharing her husband’s affection, particularly if she’s enjoyed his solicitous attention during nine months of pregnancy.” Maybe. But I think we’re more jealous of her attention than of each other’s. He envies the comfort I can give her through breast feeding. What irks me is that she won’t breast feed at all—or even look at me—when he’s in the room. She pulls away from my nipple and strains about to stare at him.
On the other hand, whether or not we are used to describing our relationships with our babies in terms of romance, we are all very used to the way romantic relationships are described in the language of babies: “Baby, I need your lovin’.” After all, cupid is an infant.
All of this is sweet. Our romance, though, is physical. It’s more than just my neurotic emotional attachment. The urge to kiss her never stops. I love to feel her skin against mine, to hold her little naked body from head to toe against me. I love to take a bath with her and slide handfuls of water down her back. Most afternoons I let her roll around naked on the floor while I sit back and admire her little bum.
And she’s physical with me, too. When I kiss her, she tries to stick her tongue in my mouth. When I hold her up to my face, she wants to suck on my nose. The other day when we were breast feeding she slid her hand under my shirt and pressed it warm against the curve of my ribs. It felt big and warm on my skin, like the hand of her father. She rubbed it up and down. And sometimes when she breast feeds, she stops and looks around and just licks at my nipple. Then after a while she sucks again. My husband jokes that when she is thirteen and mad [p.155]at us he will tell her about this—the joke of course being that the licking of nipples seems so sexual that you don’t even have to say how embarrassing it will be for her.
That’s when the word “erotic” first came to mind. When I realized there was something between us that I was not entirely comfortable with. The first week I had her, I looked down at my tiny baby nursing at my breast—me hoping to look as much as possible like a soft-focus television commercial: innocent mother in white nightgown and hair ribboned back smiling down at innocent nursing baby also in white nightgown, spring breeze rippling the white gauze curtains near the bassinet—and I couldn’t help but feel strange about it. She is sucking on my breast. And we both are liking it. Is this okay?
Our society sends us messages that it is not okay. I heard of a woman who breast fed for three years because she liked it, and then was reported to Child Protective Services the minute she said so. Our images of motherhood are ironically some of the most unsexual images in our culture (and virginity the most sexual). But when we say we enjoy breast feeding, we acknowledge the deep sensuality of this skin-to-skin contact. And in our culture sensuality is usually equated with sexuality. And sex is so terribly nasty. So sex in the context of breast feeding is especially perverse. The State of Utah just passed a law stating that breast feeding in public is not lewd behavior. Apparently a (female) store security guard had ripped the blanket off a nursing woman’s shoulder and said, “I know what you’re doing under there!” What I had hoped would be a wonderful experience was also tinged with scandal.
But isn’t there such a thing as sexuality in absence of a desire to have sex? A sexuality that does not desire an illicit relationship on the floor of the back office? It seems to me that there is an intimate contact we have with our families that is good and healthy, innocent in its intimacy. There is a way we touch one another that is not nasty, and is still physically pleasurable.
I think it was more than pleasure, though, that made me feel strange about breast feeding. The other day my best friend told me about how, when she patted the naked bottom of her four-year-old daughter getting out of the tub, her daughter said, “Mom! You’re not supposed to touch people’s private parts!” When my friend told this story at the [p.156]poker table, we all laughed and said that there was a childhood abuse story just waiting to be remembered in psychotherapy. Because when she said the words out loud—which accurately describe the action the words “touch people’s private parts” placed the caress of a mother in the same dangerous territory as the touch of a trenchcoated stranger. Just this morning I wrote in my journal that my baby had been chewing on my nose. Writing “chew” seemed to be the necessary restraint to make that action a safe one. But she wasn’t chewing, she was sucking. The way she sucks on my nipple. It’s just that “suck” can sound like such a nasty word.
That’s what’s really happening here: language. Sometimes I think it must have been the sound of the words used to talk about it—nipples, breasts, sucking—that kept so many women in the 1950s from breast feeding. Because even appropriate behavior can sound bad when spoken aloud. We are verbal animals, though, and our actions exist in language. And the language we use to describe our bodies has been eroticized. So, while there may be a continuum of sexual behavior from safe and appropriate to dangerous and perverse—it is all talked about using the same language of the dangerous and perverse.
I sat there that first week nursing my baby, growing angry with my culture for having eroticized my breasts. The real problem, though, is not that body parts are eroticized, it’s that the language is. So as innocent as your little baby may be when licking your nipples, the moment you put lick and nipple into the same sentence, you get sex, nasty and dangerous. But if you have a baby you have to use the words: lick, suck, nipple, tongue, boob, bum, and tup.
“Tup” was the word in my mother’s family. Every family has them: the words we invent to disguise the sexuality of bodies. It means vagina. In our house it was used mostly in the context of little girls and bath time, as in “Did you get your tup clean?” I grew up thinking that this was just another family word—part of the wonderful private vocabulary of my mother’s family—and that nobody unrelated to me had ever spoken it.
It was when we first took our girl to see my mother’s family in St. George that my husband first heard it. I had honestly forgotten about it for a while. So when I was changing her diaper in the front room and my aunt said, “Ohhh, little tuppy tup,” he thought she was being vul-[p.157]gar. When we got home, he showed me where he knew the word. In the first scene of Othello, Iago tells Brabantio that Othello is having sex with his daughter with the lines, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.” And the dictionary agreed. A tup is a ram (noun), but also a verb: “to copulate with.” Had the whole world except my sister and me known this was a sexual slur?
My southern Utah farmer ancestors who said tup a hundred years ago may or may not have known what they were talking about. But for a city girl like me, the language that I had come to see as invented to protect me from my own sexuality was in truth an unwitting mockery of it.
I think now that, although we can pretend, there is no escaping the sexuality of the language that we use to describe our bodies. The fact that we would invent words to hide the names of those body parts is already an indication that we are covering something dirty. And I’m not certain I would want to escape this phenomenon. That is, if sometimes innocent actions sound nasty because of the way they appear in our eroticized language of bodies, then a less eroticized language might permit perverse actions to be described as innocent. There are reasons we police our language.
The reason nobody told me that having a baby is erotic, I imagine, is that to say the words aloud is to come too close to a perverse relationship we don’t want to have with our children. And the truth is, that now that my baby is five months old, breast feeding is not so novel and I am less often trying to translate all her actions into language in my head. So I am less concerned with how our body parts rub against each other in sentences. But I can’t deny that what I love about having a baby is the comforting physical intimacy that is similar to, but different from, the intimacy I have with my husband. And that the difference is difficult to express.