the let-down 

jamilah malika abu-bakare

“the let-down,” was published in Active Cultures’ Digest, Issue 12, June 2022  (edited by Safia Siad).

Image: jamilah malika abu-bakare, Z and I, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

jamilah malika abu-bakare (b. 1982, Benin City, Nigeria) received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago 2019. abu-bakare's works contemplate refusal, repetition, dedication, and intimacy through sound art, video essay, text off-page and/or installation. whatever the form, she centers Black women with care and puts on listening before looking. by doing so, both artist and audience move towards their collective freedom.

“quick, like a snake bite.” the nurse positioned my baby’s newborn head and latched her tiny, pink mouth to my nipple, bigger and blacker than i’d ever known it.

a snake bite? the metaphor conjured all the wrong imagery, fangs, and venom. my baby’s face almost unbearably soft. her hair matted and sticky from inside my insides. sensation at my chest was...unclear. a team of surgeons had just hauled my eleven-day-late baby from a slit below my belly. i was numb from my midsection all the way down.

They prattled on, “belly to belly, baby’s to yours. remember, bring baby to boob not boob to baby.” their nodding face a blur, backlit by overhead tube lights. when i think back now, i imagine when as we are wheeled out, in comes another pair fresh out of labour or surgery, and when they go, another set appears and on and on the lactation specialist’s script runs day and night.

because we aren’t taught to feed our babies prior to this moment, this moment when the stakes feel interplanetary levels high. game time and you have not done a single drill. playoffs and you have not even stretched. injuries ensue. ducts block. nipples chap, crack and bleed. the remedy? nurse more - breast milk heals. confounding.

i’d watched all the videos recommended by the midwives and yet, presented with a whole human who was expected to feed off me and me alone, me just out of an emergency c-section, me, who for all the almost 42 weeks of time to prepare for this moment, was not now even sure my baby was “getting anything.”

is baby feeding? is baby feeding enough? that damned enoughness again. i never got engorged the way you see in movies—i did not leak through a shirt, nothing got “rock hard” like i heard “the other mothers” talk about. to this day i worry in those first few days i failed: i did not nurse baby enough, i changed diapers when i should have fed her, i missed her rooting cues but how was i to know what rooting looked like? well, i should have followed more suitable accounts on instagram (instead of watching friends stories at brunch or in the club), i should have pumped more (instead of sleeping), i should have studied baby (instead of endless “essential” reading). i-should-haves hound me.

i dreamed of a see-through body and a see-through baby with little black dashes on me and her to measure. i watched for her tiny, tight fists to relax. i waited for burps with a fervor unmatched. i counted every pee. poop—proof.

when my midwife explained my baby wasn’t quite gaining enough, all my doubts leapt and hollered. we left the office with formula to supplement through a small plastic syringe to nurse her with only after baby first fed from me. i needed baby to grow fat and round. if not through me, anyhow.

a few months later, after i’d figured out how to work my pump, after baby’s weight was up, after i’d fling out my boob anywhere anytime, after i forced my forearm into a breastfeeding pillow, a friend asked, “how’s nursing going?”

i sighed and shrugged, “...i mean, it’s free?”

the thought of paying for formula, of running out, of running to the store while baby howled or whimpered even sent my fatigue into fatigue but technically breastmilk is not “free.” aside from the pump, the bras, the bottles, and the 40 hours a week, there’s the actual production of milk. as a result of the misconception baby “eats what you eat,” i made the mistake of googling “what to eat” and “breastfeeding” and as a result did not eat oranges and nectarines (too acidic). but it’s not quite so; my milk is not composed of what i consume. it’s made from my blood and fat. when baby starts to suck, a hormone kicks in and (painfully long) moments later the milk “comes down.” otherwise known as the let-down reflex. i did not always recognize the feeling - it’s how i imagine you might feel blood pumping in your veins, as if there are webs to my areolas through which the milk streams, surges, pools, pushes to baby pulling, a fleshy magnet.

while there are as many nursing experiences as there are birth stories, those i-loved-being-pregnant, chestfeeding-is-magical types get all the air-time i swear. my baby is almost a year, and we are still breastfeeding. baby likes to put the sole of her foot on my neck, inspect my armpit hairs, caress my face, orpractice her nursing asana: utthita hasta padangusthasana. some days it’s lovely and i kiss her milkstink mouth after she unlatches and we giggle—other days she bites and i hook my finger between my breast and her toothy grip to unlatch her and count to ten.

she is walking and clapping and laughing and babbling. she has eight whole ass teeth. i have to clip her nails every few days they grow at a pace i envy. all that is me. sure, we started solids months ago in that we present her with food, three meals, two snacks, day in day out but she makes offerings of most of it. with each toss of carefully prepared, mostly organic vegetables, i say “ase” the bulk of her nutrition is still on me, from me, through me.

i learned by doing. there was no practice, no preparation, just a morphine-high, hazy exchange with some kind soul i wish i could thank now. to anyone floundering with a newborn: bring baby to boob, not boob to baby, belly to belly, put your nipple to their nose, their mouth will open and quick, like a snake bite, latch. and if for whatever reason, it’s all tears and wailing, you and baby, imagine going to your first piano lesson and attempting the blues. maybe try again later, maybe don’t. maybe try a pump or formula.* if you feel a how, trust, there’s a million next things you can feel bad for, this one, ‘llow.

*this piece was written prior to the inexcusable formula shortage, a failure of no care-giver, the blame is all the state’s to bear. here is no phrase that suffices, nor condemnation of capitalism that attends to those in despair. i am so very sorry.

Active Cultures is a cultural organization that explores the convergence of food and art in contemporary life.