Mammalia means one who suckles – to feed a baby from a breast or teat. Londa Schiebinger writes that when mammalia was chosen, there were two other terms in contention – aura caviga, meaning hollow-eared, and pilosa, meaning hairy. But nursing one’s baby was politicized, in the time of Linnaeus, for noble women who would give their babies to wetnurses. So, to push women to fulfill their nature as sucklers to their own babies, mammalia was chosen. So you will never be a mammal as I was for just a little while.
For two years I nursed you. What would I say about it? What do I remember about it. I remember the first time. I remember the last time. I remember the finish, which came after the last time. I remember your anger, when you were two, when you would wake in the night and want the breast and if I didn’t give it, you would hit me. Is that right? No. You would kick me in the way a two year old kicks. Your body was so small, a fraction of me, still curled in the curl of my body, my knees bent, my arm over you, shielding you from I don’t know what.
If this is a tiny event where do I start? At the beginning? At the end? Somewhere in the middle? What specific moments do I remember, or are they mostly a blur of non-specific, habitual rituals of surrendering my nipples to your need, your want, milk-drunk and languid in a way you will never be again in life.
We get to do this only once for a short time. How many of us remember the languid relaxation into hypnotic sensuous overload, the milk coming so fast; we must breathe quickly as the mouth fills and in between swallows.
I don’t remember it. I was separated from the warm milk-rich body of my mother at birth. I was separated from my sister at birth, my first love, my first antagonist. In our fight for space in the womb I lost and came out twisted and upside down.
My son had no such challenge. The entire ocean of my womb was his and he punched and kicked himself around the translucent, red-stained space of shushing and rushing blood and beats, reluctant to leave. I cried every day after the ninth month came and the time went on and we edged toward the tenth month and he chose not to leave his womb-dark space every day. And every day I thought I would be the woman who would never bear her baby. There are many women who never bore their babies. And they were borne away. I would not even have had the chance to bear you had I not been born when I was.
I was twisted and so I was bound to a bar to straighten me. I wonder, when I think about it now, what imprint that bar made on my pysche. Surely there is a mark. What is the mark? How would I find it? How would I discern its origin? Does my fascination with nineteenth century factory equipment originate in this fetishized binding, this second domination after my sister’s control over our shared space?
I wouldn’t let them take you. I kept you with me in the days after the birth, after the c-section when they took you from an aperture in my body, the mark of which I carry until now. Every day when I get out of bed and see my naked body in the mirror the mark is there. Every day I see the vestige of that day when you were rescued from the strangulation of your strange, small cavity.
At three, still remembering it, you turned yourself upside down in the chair and tucked yourself into a ball and said – when I was inside your belly I was like this. And sometimes I would make noises like this – and you squirmed and squeaked – and I had a necklace that went down my back.
You were born holding up your head, listening. When you first nursed it felt delicious, erotic, and then it hurt. You had to suck so hard to launch the milk my nipples blistered and you cried and were hungry. Nora offered her finger for you to suck and you did and were calm and I slept but you were hungry. You bucked, angry, and I was confused. And my breasts grew full and hard and you couldn’t suck such taut nipples, so distended and recalcitrant. I called the midwife and she came and watched you try and then buck and cry and writhe and she made her observation. It was simple.
My mother was afraid and stayed away. She offered no counsel. I had no aunts who could show me. I had no grandmothers who could show me. I had no friends who could show me. No cousins. No one could show me how to do something that is supposed to be so natural. So the midwife showed me how to squeeze his cheeks and open his mouth wide, to shove my nipple in his mouth so that he had the whole areola. And he sucked and the milk’s urgent exit left him breathless.