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Days of Milk and Glory

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

In the summer of 1972, I wore only prints. This was not a fashion choice. I had a two-year-old and a newborn at home, and I started teaching summer school two weeks after the birth. Sometimes the milk would arrive unbidden while I was explaining the pluperfect subjunctive, causing me to lose my train of thought as I worried that my daughter’s lunch had leaked through my top. Hence the prints, which camouflaged the stains.

Those were heroic days. That fall, I had a job as a sabbatical replacement at a historically black college. By then the baby could go three hours between feedings, so by scheduling my classes between nine and twelve, I could make things work. At noon my husband would come to pick me up with the two girls in our red VW bus. I would hop in, open my blouse, and feed the baby on the way home. When we got there, he would put the baby down for her nap while I fed the toddler. You may remember what toddlers are like at mealtimes. They view them as an opportunity for conversation and experiments with the law of gravity. Meanwhile, I was starving.

I have never known hunger like the hunger that would seize me in those days. While my older daughter smeared Gerber’s all over herself I would peer at the contents of the little jar with the intentness of a lioness stalking a gazelle. It took every once of self control not to grab it and scarf down the contents myself. And no wonder I was ravenous—studies show that nursing an infant demands the same caloric intake as playing a professional sport.

And in many ways those years felt to my husband and me like we were seriously involved in a sport, one that involved unremitting concentration, a lot of running, and some daredevil feats. On his way to class in the morning, he would take the kids to daycare on his bicycle. I would watch him speed off, dodging traffic, the two-year-old in her baby seat and the infant in a backpack, and hope that my little family would survive the ride. Nobody on that bike wore helmets, which were unheard of at the time, and all that was keeping the toddler in her seat were a narrow little plastic belt and her own developing good sense.

I don’t know if psychologists have studied the effects of incessant interruptions on the human mind, but after a weekend at home keeping everyone safe, fed, clean, and entertained, my Monday morning teaching felt like a respite. I remember how delicious and restorative it felt to stand before the class and be able to string a couple of thoughts together. Then at noon the red VW bus would appear with my hungry family inside, and the professional sport part of life would resume.

There was little time or money for socializing, but when we did get together with other graduate students, we would put the children to sleep in their portacribs in a darkened bedroom. And in the living room we would drink Cuba libres and, men and women together, engage in intense discussions about best practices in toilet training.

It was years before I had time to properly dry myself after a shower, or read for pleasure. But periodically, when I was nursing the baby in the rocking chair that I had covered in a cheerful yellow fabric now spotted with spit-ups, the toddler balancing on my knee as I read her a story, I would realize how miraculous these moments were. And I would long for my sweet and glorious life to slow down a bit so that I could savor the treasures that it was thrusting at me.

Soon, however, someone’s diaper had to be changed, or it was time to leave for class, and my mind would be flung back into its breathless, heroic mode. But not everything about those days is gone. Sometimes as I fall asleep at night, recalling the fog of motherhood that engulfed me at the time, I can smell the whiff of sour milk on the burp cloth on my shoulder, and feel the limp weight of a sated baby against my heart.

 

6 Responses

  1. Oh Lali!!!!
    Spectacular essay! Brings back so many memories…..I can smell the spit up and the scent of their little heads and necks! Thank you!
    Susan

  2. So familiar! But the details have gone, and by the time the oldest was around 5 and the then baby (middle son) a toddler, I had been felled by ME/CFS – and nothing has ever been the same again.

    A third child, homeschooling with my tiny allotment of daily energy, dealing with needs I had nowhere near the amount of energy to deal with…

    We survived, somehow, but I didn’t get much time to savor. And the illness is still with me, 34 years later, so I still have lacunae in the memories.

    They told us we women could do it all. They didn’t mention we had to be superhuman to do so.

      1. I keep telling everyone homeschooling them was a LOT easier than it would have been to deal with schools. All three were reading by three, and computer using not long after, and I didn’t have to get up in the middle of winter, dress all three, and walk all of us to the bust stop three blocks away. That energy went into reading to them, doing science experiments in the kitchen sink, learning math by cooking, science fair projects, etc.

        When I had a bit of energy we went to the library, at off hours for the children’s section, and gorged.

        We managed – mostly because we had no deadlines.

        The exhaustion – well, you understand.

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