Crunched into my middle school auditorium, surrounded by two hundred other sweaty fifth graders, I learned about “Good Touch, Bad Touch.” We watched a reel which pointed out potential predators—sniveling bus drivers, horny uncles, candy-toting neighbors—but I don’t remember any sweet-cheeked newborns crossing the screen.
A few years later, at fourteen, I had no problem identifying which type of touch the three men that stopped me at the beach were using. It wasn’t until I was thirty and first breastfed my baby that knowing where to draw that line became confusing.
Under the morphine lull in the hospital, breastfeeding seemed to be everything the nurses promised it would be; namely, bonding. His hopelessly adorable body fit perfectly to mine. We seemed to drift in our own private sea, his mouth our little anchor. It wasn’t until I was at home, alone, that once in a while, the little innocent sucking would take on the echo of raping.
If I pause for a second to scale through my social media, the bonding/breastfeeding link presents itself more prominently than ever. Whether it’s an ad, the news, a feminist thinktank or a typical mommy-baby blog, image after image of mothers draped like modern day versions of Venus across their rocking chairs, pressing their sleepy-eyed newborns serenely to their chests, clog my feed. I cannot stress how important these images are—we have been fighting for centuries to take part in this ethereal and healthy exchange without shame—but sometimes I feel like we are skimming the cream off the top without acknowledging all that lurks beneath.
I haven’t seen any images of mothers clutching their nipples in distress, or ripping their children from their chests when a flashback of forced fondling becomes indistinguishable from their child’s suckling. But I think we should. I think we have to stop seeing breastfeeding as belonging to some good/bad binary—the potential positives (and negatives) of breastfeeding are determined individually.
I have been breastfeeding my son for nineteen months now, and while I can’t stop the inevitable association between past and present experiences, I have found ways to cope.
I make the bottle when I can’t bear the sensory memory. I have learned when to say enough, which isn’t easy when, as mothers, we want to be dispensaries of endless love. Still, I want breastfeeding to foster intimacy between my son and I, not early memories of me grimacing at his touch.
I look into my son’s eyes. I concentrate on him concentrating on me. Establishing this foundation of intimacy makes it easy to focus on him and not old memories.
I sing to distract myself. I belt out Billy Joel, Mariah, Whitney, anything to keep my brain trained on soothing him, instead of on abusing me.
I can’t say these suggestions are medically backed or arrived at by consensus, and that’s why I think we need to change the conversation around breastfeeding. We need to talk about how it affects us individually. We need to feel comfortable sharing our bodies with our children, and understand that that sharing can express itself in many ways that certainly do not have to come in the form of breastfeeding. We need to acknowledge that our identities as survivors of sexual abuse and our identities as mothers are not separate beings. And perhaps we need to see another mama breastfeeding to remember she is her own private portion of bravery.
ALEXA DORAN is a mother, a lyrical gangster, and a PhD student at FSU. She has recently been featured or is forthcoming in CALYX, The Pinch, Gertrude Press, The James Franco Review, Juked, and Posit literary magazines. One of her poems about Dada artist Emmy Hennings recently won first place in the Sidney Lanier Poetry competition.