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My Nipples, Myself

Maternal martyrdom is programmed in at the cellular level.

January 23, 2020

Olivia Campbell
areola borealis
MIke Kline

was drying off after a shower when I noticed the skin on my nipples beginning to peel off. It was a few months after my 3-year-old finally weaned.

Because I was pregnant again, I wanted to scream at my nipples: “No, stop! You’ll need that hard-won, toughened outer layer again in a few months!” but apparently each baby gets a newly softened set to obliterate. Upon indoctrination into the nursing life, nipples crack and bleed like pencil erasers mangled by the mouth of an absent-minded thinker.

Once those initial scabs peel off, the nipples emerge hardened, primed to withstand the coming months or years of (ab)use. I can’t even be angry about it. Watching a newborn latch on to your nipple is like watching a yogi achieve a state of Zen: agitated flailing melts to calm stillness; eyes widen in pure amazement. Now, the nipple-hardening process is reversing. Beneath the brownish skin slowly sloughing off are the tender nipples of normalcy.

The nipples of old me attempting to return. But I’ve spent six of the past eight years nursing two babies — my nipples now permanently suckled into a shape of a pacifier — so I’m not sure what’s normal anymore. Just which nipples are the caterpillar and which are the butterfly in this metaphor.

What my nipples don’t know is that nothing can ever truly return to its pre-motherhood state.

GET YOUR BODY BACK the glossy women’s mags demand from the grocery check-out aisle with frightening fervor.

As if your body is something you lost.

As if feeling like your old self again was as simple as sending a self-addressed stamped envelope back in time, to the you of nine months ago. As if motherhood didn’t shift my entire world permanently off its axis. As if my body cutting the same silhouette it once did is all it will take to re-inhabit my pre-maternal being; numbers lining up in the right order on the scale will mean it will be like I was never pregnant.

Such nostalgia can’t be embodied.

Pregnancy is not just the uterus inflating and deflating, its parting gifts are not mere stretch marks and a floppy midsection. Watching my body balloon with an unplanned pregnancy in my final year of college proved difficult on many levels. Instead of dealing with my conflicting feelings about this development, I threw myself into fulfilling my degree requirements before my due date. I squished my belly behind those little desks attached to chairs and actively avoided child-rearing books.

When my son arrived two days before graduation, I was woefully unprepared and filled with pent-up resentment. Unsurprisingly, I developed postpartum depression.

Mothering a colicky baby who needed to be held and nursed nearly constantly meant I was still very much sharing my body. I used to joke that I may as well get the nursing pillow surgically attached to my waist. It wasn’t really funny.

It felt like the only thing that changed between pregnancy and birth was that now, we were attached via mammary glands instead of instead of an umbilical cord.

I never expected to feel like my body still wasn’t my own again even after the pregnancy was done.

There were times in the early days of new motherhood when I wished my son would just stop nursing, and also stop crying — be soothed by literally anything else — just for a few hours.

It also felt like my depression left me so angry, disinterested, and lethargic that milk was all I had to give — the one thing I could do right. And extended breastfeeding only prolonged this sense. It meant I continued to share my body for years.

Before my first pregnancy, both my nipples had been pierced, but very soon into my first pregnancy, I noticed my nipple rings had become permanently inflamed and infected because of the hormones, even though I’d had them for a few years.

And I loved them. Guys loved them. Two tiny metal door-knockers transmuting pain to pleasure and power, to attraction and desire. I sought worth in my sexual desirability, reveled in male attention.

Breastfeeding changed all that. It ushered forth a new kind of nipple purpose; a new kind of pain. This pain brought insecurity, latching angst. This purpose made me feel powerless and tethered, overwhelmed and leaky. When I’d gotten them pierced, I asked the piercer if they would interfere with breastfeeding in the future. She assured me it wouldn’t, telling me she also had nipple piercings and breastfed her own baby without issue.

But when I started breastfeeding, I noticed a tiny bit of milk occasionally leaked out of one of the piercing holes. The piercing hadn’t blocked any ducts from releasing milk, but it was clearly somehow connected. Now, gooey congealed milk occasionally oozed out of the hole.

Oddly fitting that my body’s attempt to reconcile old me with mom me results in something so disgusting; my mind can’t reconcile the two.

Until recently, scientists remained baffled by how the body disposed of milk-producing cells once breastfeeding ceased. Now, we know milk-making cells are cannibalized by other cells. To return to its former self, your body eats itself.

To be a mother is to always be willing to give of yourself; an expectation that is felt most profoundly in the body. Pregnancy hormones radically alter your brain, reducing gray matter in the cortical midline and in certain sections of the prefrontal and temporal cortex. The affected regions almost perfectly mirror those associated with the development of Theory of Mind, which is the ability to understand and interpret the emotions of others. It’s not temporary.

Research shows even two years postpartum, only the left hippocampal cluster shows signs of recovering. All this is to say that nature’s way of ensuring the survival of the species is to alter your brain to make you care more about others. Maternal martyrdom is programmed in at the cellular level. During pregnancy, any bodily energy put toward the fetus is energy not spent on self-maintenance.

And yet, despite these well-documented changes in our very physiology, we’re expected to immediately erase any whiff of maternity on our bodies the moment our baby bursts into the world.

Society needs visual proof that you are just you again, that things are back to “normal.” Your pregnancy was never about you, it was always about the baby.

To have any evidence of pregnancy lingering is a reminder that it was about you, too; that the experience rendered you altered. Long after giving birth, and even after every milk-producing cell has been cannibalized and every bit of toughened skin peels from my nipples, remnants of motherhood will remain.

My children have inserted themselves into my being, you see. This is not me waxing sentimental: it’s a biological reality. During pregnancy, fetal cells circulate in the mother’s blood, mingling amongst her organs and tissue. There, they learn to grow into whatever type of tissue they find themselves embedded in. While any fetal cells left in the bloodstream are flushed from the body after birth, those morphed cells camouflage themselves to escape removal. It’s called microchimerism and it means there’s no ab routine on the planet capable of erasing maternity from my body.

I sentimentally imagine pieces of my sons enmeshed in my lungs, brain, heart. I lovingly wallow in what that represents. And given their affinity for bathroom humor, they’d likely enjoy believing their cells have become part of my digestive system.

Once my third child is born, breastfed, and weaned, my thrice-perturbed nipples will eventually reemerge from their scabby cocoon for a final time. My children were my chrysalis. Through them I was transformed, body and mind. Maybe one day I’ll get the hang of these wings.

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