We live in a town of about 700 people. Everyone knows everyone else, and most townspeople are at least distantly related. Case in point: Paolo swears that had we not stopped at first cousins, and instead invited his second cousins as well, our wedding guest list would have doubled from 200 to 400. Most of the population is elderly, and there are far more funerals than there are births each year.
So, a new baby in town is not just a big event, but the big event. And the first question from every woman's mouth is, "Do you have milk?"
My first rule of response is to abandon any idea that my breast functions are in any way personal or my own business alone. The second rule is to decide how much to reveal: that my daughter wasn't attaching well enough at my breast in her first week or so of life, so to my infinite heartbreak, we had to supplement with powdered formula? My mother-in-law has already shared that info with several women. She has also told them that the reason our baby couldn't attach well was because my nipples were too big (not that her mouth was too small). I wanted to tell everyone that my nipples were just the right size, that they were lovely, in fact, and that Naomi was just a little too small and weak to get a good draw on the teat. But the hard truth was that she was taking less and less breast milk and was nearly 100% dependent on formula, and everyone was concerned.
After this news hit the circuit, the "got milk?" questions were asked with even more emphatic concern. At stage right, I heard the Greek chorus sing, "Poor thing, her nipples were too big so her milk dried up. The gods have abandoned her." The question, usually before I had a chance to respond, was generally followed by a personal account of the questioner's own breastfeeding experience: an inverted nipple, cracked and sore nipples, too small nipples, too large nipples, a missing nipple (!), nipples that gushed milk, babies who did fine on 100% powdered formula, and babies who thrived on a mixture of water, breadcrumbs and olive oil (seriously). Or there's the story of my husband's late grandmother, who was a paid wet nurse to countless babies in Allerona. Where was Nonna Gina when I needed her?
Then came the advice for how to make more milk: Drink two liters of beer a day. Drink red wine. Drink grappa. (At least my baby would be drunk enough to sleep through.) Eat red meat. Eat fennel, anise and fenugreek. Eat frascarelli, a soup of chicken broth and small pasta. Eat pasta made with eggs. Eat pasta made with just flour and water. Pretty much eat all types of pasta.
After my week in the hospital with Naomi, that my breasts are the subject of much discussion in Allerona is more of an amusement than a shock. One could say I'm used to the exposure. After all, I had more pairs of hands on my breasts in that week than I've had in my entire adult life (and trust me, that's not a few pairs of hands), squeezing and pumping and twisting in an effort to get her to attach. What seemed like 40 different nurses, Paolo, my mother-in-law, our cousin, all took a turn at squeezing and shoving my nipple into her wailing little mouth. My nieces insisted on kissing Naomi's head or stroking her cheek in the rare moments she was latched on. And I'm pretty sure that every one of Paolo's uncles and male friends got a good look at my naked tits.
The good news is that Naomi has taken a liking to breast milk and nursing. It was a struggle, and I shed more than a few tears on my screaming baby when she didn't want to attach to my breast. But now, we've found our accord. She's latching on to me and increasingly rejecting formula. We've tipped the scales so that she's getting a majority of breast milk, and I anxiously await the day I throw out the last canister of formula we ever have to buy.
So today at the market, when I was asked if I had milk, my eyes didn't cloud over, I didn't stumble over my answer, and I didn't offer a qualified response as to how I have some milk but maybe not enough milk but maybe it's getting better, and before I endured another "poor thing doesn't have milk" sympathetic gaze, I just answered with a simple "yes."
Of course I still heard the stories of cracked nipples and voracious babies and gushing breasts, but that's all okay. After all, I've got milk.
Postscript: About ten minutes after posting this, I took our dog for a walk and ran into our kind, elderly neighbor. She asked me...wait for it...if I was giving Naomi my own milk. When I answered, "Si," she threw her hands up to her own fallen breasts, praised Dio, and told me how content she was with this news, as nursing your baby is "la cosa piu bella in il mondo" (the most beautiful thing in the world). On that, I'd have to agree.