Two minutes after she was born, my daughter knew I had her food in my hospital gown. As she nursed, my levels of oxytocin soared and my brain found no fault in the red, hungry person who wore a version of my face. I called this love.
Before my daughter made a mother of me, everything I knew about oxytocin was theoretical. In a breastfeeding class, we held plastic dolls to our nipples, awkwardly maneuvering them around the real babies in our bumps. We learned about the hormonal connection between love and letdown—that the body’s deceit is necessary for survival. A smile or whimper would bring milk so fast that we’d think our breasts had brains. The oxytocin would convince us that our nursing was love and the baby’s eating was also love.
What they didn’t tell me in how-to-be-a-mammal class was how to distinguish love from bodily sacrifice. I wasn’t prepared for the day my daughter turned away from my waning milk supply as if I was trying to pour castor oil down her throat. I’d developed an addiction to baby love—a relative disinterest in anything that does not immediately serve the loved. Someone had found me more than sufficient. She’d found me necessary, and I was filled with fragile confidence, milk and a hormonal compulsion to soothe and serve.
My breasts told my heart to break.
It took months to realize the blessing in her rejection. She’d given me permission to take my breasts back, drink red wine, spend a night or two without her, wear bras without trap doors, and eat tuna fish and broccoli (not together). I also realized that I’d taken better care of my breasts that year than I ever had before. I abandoned underwire, bought bras that felt good, and only wore shirts or dresses in which my breasts were easily accessible. It’s been two years since my breastfeeding days ended and I still follow those wardrobe rules.
Apparently, something else has followed me since those nursing days: my milk. It’s not enough milk to suggest the malignant brain tumor with which I Google-diagnosed myself hours after a boo noticed my gift that keeps on giving. “It was just a little bit,” she’d laughed as I searched my symptoms. By the time she said “It’s not a problem,” my growing tumor muted all sound.
It turns out that it’s normal for breastfeeding moms to lactate insignificant amounts of milk even years after they’ve weaned their children. It’s the breasts’ form of PTSD-- their response to any stimulation that triggers the horrors of those months when hunger didn’t give a damn about a tender areola. For months, our brains welcomed that danger because floods of hormones romanticized sacrifice.
A dangerous thing happened when I started dating women. Multiple orgasms flooded my brain with oxytocin: the chemical version of rose-tinted glasses. Thus distorted, robots looked like romantics and cold bois looked like life partners. The other dangerous thing about dating women is that they don’t fall asleep post-peak. In the moments between our climbing, we trace maps into each others’ skin and I ask questions. The corners of her mouth, the groove beneath her bottom lip: what is your story? Right shoulder, collarbone, left shoulder: who do you carry? Tricep, bicep, elbow crease: who carries you? Behind every question is, “What do you need?” High on oxytocin, I believe I have it to give. By the time I follow the trail to the place where connection scars us all, we are hungry for each other again and I am silly enough to think I am giving and receiving more than flesh.
Healing from the sexual dysfunction of premature infatuation is a process that demands awareness. The days are long; the nights full of longing. It takes months to realize the blessing in rejection—the freedom to love the one who will love you back.
There is one woman whose acceptance I still crave. I want her to see beauty in the mirrors of my eyes. I will choose her, again and again, until she is immune to disregard. When she is anxious, I will remind her to breathe. When she is drained, I will give her silence and the music of my beating heart. When she is hungry, she will drink of my milk. When she grows to trust me, she will learn the ecstasy of romance when the other lover is the self.
Asha French is a writer and mother living in Atlanta