f you’ve seen the movie Tully, you probably remember the scene near the end that takes place in a nightclub bathroom. Charlize Theron’s character, Marlo, begins to develop painful breasts, engorged with milk, after having been away from her baby for too long. In the bathroom, Tully helps Marlo release the pressure by “milking” her.
This happened to me with my sister shortly after she gave birth to her first baby.
It’s winter 2015. Beth and I run out to Target while her husband stays home with their two-month-old baby, Rose.
We’re browsing the baby aisle when Beth begins grabbing her breasts and cringing, complaining that she’s in pain from too much milk. My sister has never been one to hide her bodily functions from the world.
Growing up, my parents were constantly asking her to not blow her nose at the table, and to close the door when she was using the toilet.
We go to the bathroom and she pulls me in with her. She takes off her shirt and nursing bra, exposing her belly, the skin loose from the recent pregnancy. Her breasts are engorged, nipples dark and large. She begins massaging and squeezing them, wincing in pain.
“Don’t you have your pump?” I am stating the obvious but know my sister isn’t always one to think of the obvious.
“No! I forgot it,” she moans. “Maybe I can get the milk out by squeezing them.”
I frown, sure this can’t be possible, that it’s necessary to have the baby’s mouth creating a suction for milk to come out, but she proceeds to pinch her nipples. Nothing happens. She feels around inside the swollen flesh, concentrating and cringing. She mutters, “There’s supposed to be… like a hard part you feel…”
Then she turns to me. “Will you try?”
I’m leaning against the paper towel dispenser, twiddling my thumbs anxiously, simultaneously empathizing with her pain and wondering how I always seem to end up in some dire-need situation with my sister.
What does it feel like to have breasts filled with milk? Having not experienced pregnancy and motherhood myself, my own body not having gone through the bizarre and fascinating changes of creating and supporting a new life, this is the closest I can come to satisfying this curiosity. On the other hand, I’m prudishly aware of the fact my sister is asking me to pinch her nipples, so it takes me a moment to answer.
“What do I do?” I finally ask.
“There’s supposed to be a hard part, like a tube, under the nipple… you pinch that,” she tells me, clearly having Googled this at some other point over the past few months. And so I begin feeling around my sister’s nipples.
This isn’t the first time I’ve touched Beth’s breasts. The last time, however, it was during adolescence, her flat, child chest beginning to fill out with fat tissue and glands.
“Feel them!” 12 or 13-year-old Beth exclaimed one morning, thrusting her torso towards me in our shared bedroom, her skinny body displaying her entire rib cage. At this point in her life, her breasts are just barely beginning to show. “I think they grew overnight!” she exclaimed excitedly.
Hesitatingly, I reached out and touched them with the tips of my fingers, amazed and envious of the tiny deposits of fatty tissue filling in her grown-up — or more accurately, growing up — boobs. My own 10 or 11-year-old versions were still mere mosquito bites.
“Yeah, I think you’re right,” I conceded, trying to keep the feeling of envy from betraying itself in my voice.
Another time, when I was even younger, maybe six or seven, we were taking a bath together, when suddenly Beth implored me to “try and get some milk from them.”
I sucked on her then-tiny nipples and indeed, “I think I got some!” I reported, noticing a little liquid in my mouth — water, from the bath, of course. But imagination and the desire for such a superpower can turn water to milk.
This time though, it isn’t water that sprays from my sister’s nipple, across the sink, and onto the bathroom mirror — it’s full-on human milk, and I’m the one who makes it happen.
I pull my hand back in surprise as she exclaims, “You did it!” My sister has this way of making me feel that I do, in fact, have superpowers.
We look at each other, pleased and amazed. “Do more!” she urges, and so I proceed to milk my sister.
What alarms me the most is the strength of the spray, but maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. Though I’ve never milked a cow or any other mammal for that matter, I’ve seen plenty of movies and shows depicting it. Each time, you hear the high-pitched stssss… of a thin spray of liquid hitting the bottom of a metal pail at high speed. I guess I just thought that was for effect, but milk does indeed propel from nipples as if from a hose you place a finger over.
This time, we aim down and I squeeze my sister’s nipples towards the sink, watching the precious liquid — a liquid that bodybuilders will pay a pretty penny for — go down the drain until she feels some relief. My sister’s body will produce more milk — for that baby, as well as the other two she’ll have in the coming years.
In the case of Tully (spoiler alert), the intimacy between Marlo and Tully is a fantastical expression of suffering mental health — Tully is (arguably) alone in her suffering, Marlo just a figment of her imagination. In the case with my sister though, she wasn’t alone, and that closeness between us was very real.
Besides helping her relieve her breast pain in that moment, I’ve witnessed and guided Beth through the birth of her second baby, holding her hand, stroking her hair, feeding her ice chips and talking her through breathing exercises for 32 hours. I was the first person besides the doctor to see Sean’s dark-haired, squished head emerge through her birth canal.
My own body hasn’t experienced this. Mostly, not having children is my choice, but there’s still some sadness around missing out on such a profound experience as creating life. Because of my relationship with my sister though, I have been able to experience this magic vicariously through her.
This deeply-intimate dynamic between sisters isn’t something you often see in the light of day — but this is just one of many times my sister and I have been able to turn to each other for support in navigating the complex issues of the body.