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Germ Bag

The Milky Way

By Suz Redfearn | Posted 6/20/2001

I am sitting in a hospital auditorium listening to a two-and-an-half-hour lecture on suckling.

No, I'm not with child. I haven't given in to an intense case of mom-envy. And I didn't come merely for the juice and cheese. I am here to accompany my pal D'Arcy, who's expecting her first child next month. Her husband is tied up tonight, and D'Arcy requires someone by her side--not so much because she might need help of a birth-related nature, but because she may need assistance in making fun of the instructor, the class, and the topic.

I'm all over that. Plus, I think attending Breast-Feeding 101 would be akin to sneaking a peek at the lesson plan for a very cool class looming up ahead a few grades. My man Marty and I don't plan to swim upstream and spawn for about two years, but propelling myself forward in time for one night promises to be, um, titillating.

Our host for the evening is the redheaded Renee, who tells us she has a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old at home. But what interests me most is the stuffed 6-month-old lying facedown on the ground behind Renee. I can hardly wait to see how she uses the poor, flaccid little guy.

The first declarative sentence out of Renee's mouth contains some really good news: "It's not true that one must prepare one's nipples for breast-feeding by scratching them up with loofahs and toothbrushes." Oh, thank goddess, I think. I've been worried about this, having heard it on the street left and right. I bet D'Arcy has too.

Next thing I know, a slide show begins, and in front of us is a monstrous drawing of a breast. It's a cross-section. Suddenly I feel like I'm back in seventh-grade sex ed. Renee speaks of "grapelike clusters" in the breast that fill up with milk. In the drawing, said clusters are an unsavory purple color; they look like angry Pop Rocks. I congratulate myself for being mature enough to not giggle upon exposure to boob pictures. "Jeez," I tell D'Arcy, "I'm glad they're working with drawings and not real photos."

Alas, I speak too soon. The next slide is of a huge, fleshy woman, one of her big white knockers swelling to fill the foreground. The woman is unconscious, and there is a small child affixed to her teat. This, Renee says, illustrates how relaxing breast-feeding can be. Yikes.

Renee then regales us with fun facts. For example, babies are programmed to start seeking out food exactly 60 minutes after they are born. Experiments have been done in which slimy infants were laid face down on their mother's bellies; at precisely the one-hour mark, they all slithered their way up to the spigots and clamped on. Nature is so weird.

Weird but accommodating. Next Renee informs us that what the spigots produce evolves as the little being's nutritional needs change, which seems awfully nice of the body to do. For the first few days of the whippersnapper's life, the milk is yellowish, and jammed to the hilt with nutrients. Renee clicks on a gargantuan picture of a breast with some dribbling out. I look at D'Arcy. She looks at me. We are alarmed in unison.

After the yellow stuff has come and gone, Renee says, the body switches to producing "blue-ish skim milk." Very outer space, I think. Very Earth: Final Conflict. Following that, the output resembles whole milk with a layer of cream on top--that is, if you squirt it into a glass and let it sit on the dining-room table instead of squirting it into baby's mouth. This is what the makers of these slides chose to do with their milk. I see the cream. I feel a little nauseated.

Finally, Renee picks up the stuffed baby to explain how to position an infant for nursing. She flops Junior to and fro, and seems to have no reservations about placing him at her bosom to dramatize the act of suckling. She shows us the Football Hold, in which the baby is cradled at the mother's side as if mom and neonate are headed swiftly to the 50-yard line, and the Australian Hold, wherein the mom lies down and holds the baby in the crook of her arm. This one must involve long, cylindrical boobs, I say to myself. But mostly what I'm thinking is that watching Renee act all this out on Junior is highly suggestive of a scene in a mental ward.

When it comes to actual boob interaction, Renee draws the line at using her own set, and D'Arcy and I agree this is best. Instead of lifting her shirt, Renee produces a nifty plastic breast from her bag of goodies. Straightaway, she shoves it into Junior's pie hole--but not before she drags the boob aggressively back and forth across poor Junior's expressionless face.

"Don't do this," she warns. "Nobody is going to open their mouth for that."

Golly. I don't believe it would occur to me to do that to a baby. But then again, I've never been in that position, so what do I know?

Next up is the topic of finicky babies. Renee is clearly the assertive sort in this arena. She recommends that moms having trouble simply foist their mammaries at the tot any time it opens its mouth. "If he's going for a yawn, take advantage of it," she says. Talk about the youth of today feeling disempowered.

Renee flashes us an extreme close-up of a baby nursing. She goes limp with satisfaction. "Ahh, yes. Here we've achieved latch-on," she sighs. And I'm back to thinking about sci-fi shows again. Renee mixes things up by showing us a shot from the mom's point of view. The baby looks like it's passed out face down on a cantaloupe and cut off from all oxygen. But Renee informs us that babies can't suffocate from breast-feeding because their noses are flat, allowing them to do a sort of side-breathing when they're siphoning from the teat. Again with the sci-fi.

At this moment, it strikes me that all the pictures we've seen are of huge boobs. Big, wide, hanging sacks. What's the message here? Do you have to be really Rubensesque and sloppy to properly feed your baby? Man, I hope not.

The figure in the next slide resembles my mom, a Sophia Loren-looking creature in a robe appearing fulfilled because her baby has achieved latch-on. Renee tells us that after a feeding session, the nipple will look elongated and flat. Visions of this and my mom start overlapping, and it's all I can do to keep myself from bolting from the room.

Another sudden realization: Renee's been referring to all hypothetical babies as "he." This starts to bother me. Is she communicating that she wants all girl babies done away with? Is there some King-Herod-in-Reverse thing happening here?

Just as I start to get angry about this violent sexism, I'm distracted by Renee's discussion of how to annoy a baby into wakefulness. Since milk meals are so important in the early weeks, parents are encouraged to wake their little bundles of larvae if they are asleep at the dinner hour. But since human hatchlings tend to sleep like rocks, moms and dads must resort to some interesting measures. One, Renee says, is flicking--as in the kind of flicking you did to your brother growing up, only not as brutal. If that doesn't work, she adds, strip the baby down to its diaper--the thinking being that the cool air will rouse it.

If all that fails, Renee recommends "little baby sit-ups." That's right, just put a hand behind the baby's back, then lift and lower, lift and lower--like folding the baby in two. For added oomph, do that to an infant that's been stripped, she says. Hopefully the authorities won't be looking in the window at that time.

Thankfully, Renee announces that it's time for a break. D'Arcy and I shuffle off to the bathroom. On her way to class, D'Arcy tells me, she had a most noteworthy pregnancy experience. She was stuck in traffic on a bridge. She rolled down her window. So did the guy next to her. He struck up a conversation, asked her when she was due. "That's my birthday!" he'd exclaimed when she told him. They smiled. They looked at the traffic light, then back at each other. Then he said, "Do you have a husband?" She said yes. "Well, never mind then," he responded, and pulled ahead.

"There are some real weirdos out there," an anonymous and unseen preggo calls out from the next stall. "But I bet that felt good!"

Back in class, we are treated to a big photo of a woman with a pack of frozen peas resting on her udderlike cans. Renee says this helps relieve painful swelling. Next we're shown a shot of a woman with frozen cabbage leaves lying across her rack. This helps too. But what I want to know is, what sort of freak figured that out?

Renee doesn't explain. Instead it's on the next subject: poop. That is, examining poop to make sure the right milk is being produced. I won't go into that. I'll just say that it involves the words "black," "green," "yellow," "loose" and "seedy."

That led us straight into the topic of alcohol. According to Renee, moms can avoid getting baby sauced by properly timing their swilling. Down a highball and suckle little Allison or Matthew right away, for within two hours the milk will reek of Jack and Coke. Of course, nursing moms are encouraged to keep the imbibing to a minimum. And when you have a drink, Renee recommends making sure it's of premium quality, and "not a Budweiser."

Next on the agenda: breast pumps. Renee empties a bag of what look like shiny plastic beach toys. They are actually apparati for vigorously extracting milk from the sack when you must hand it to a babysitter and head to the office, or out for a snootful. Careful you don't get tennis elbow, Renee warns, because apparently the pumping action you must do is rather intense. Thank god she doesn't demonstrate.

These contraptions are pricey, although Renee notes that moms on a budget can rent them. (Eeewww.) The top of the line is the $200 Pump in Style Executive. It comes in a briefcase and is perfect for the lactating gal on the go (These are so in demand, incidentally, Renee's was stolen out of her car). Renee suggests freezing the milk in ice-cube trays, as babies prefer small portions. And I'm sure the cubes are a great addition to the occasional glass of Kahlua.

Pretty soon I am well into breast-feeding-informatino overload, and I space out. I look around and study the demographics in the crowd. Most attendees are young couples, some looking optimistic, some tired. I see two interracial pairs. The guy in front of us is flanked by no less than two swollen women. I sincerely hope one is his sister. Some of the host bodies have suits on, having just ambled over from work. Others, perhaps women of leisure, are dressed casually. Most are configured in couples, though a few women sit alone.

Then it hits me: D'Arcy and I are the only two females who are together. We must look like the class' token lesbian couple! I completely stop listening to Renee and start wondering if people are contemplating why I chose not to carry our child, and how we got D'Arcy knocked up. What will the baby call me, they must be pondering. "Papa"? "Secondary Mama"? "Hey you"?

By then, the class is nearing its end and Renee is wrapping up. For the denouement, she flashes some sappy pencil drawings of calm and nurturing mothers with attached weanlings. Dads are in there too, appearing pleased beyond belief. All heads are cocked meaningfully to the side. The captions say things like "Special Moments" and "Sweet Memories." That gets me to worrying--when one becomes a mom, must one turn all schmaltzy? Will I completely lose my edge and walk around cooing and crying, wearing taupe flats and quoting Kahlil Gibran? Will D'Arcy? Please, no. I look over at her. She's large with child, but, thank the deities, she still mocks things gooey and sentimental. I hope to goddess she can keep it up.

D'Arcy and I shuffle out. As people glance at us, I figure they're wondering which one of us will teach the baby to play ball, to snake drains, to replace manifolds. For kicks, I try to project a message: It's me. I am the proud dad, and I will do these things. Hell, I might even coach Little League.

I feel radiant as we leave. I guess fatherhood agrees with me. I wonder how Marty will feel about that.

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