Kelly’s milk had turned to dust. When she pressed Jason’s mouth to her breast during his three-am feed, all she heard was coughing. Then sputtering like a worn-down exhaust pipe so much like the one from her first car. Soon her bare toes were covered in sand. She dreamed she was on a beach, far away from the horrors of exclusive breastfeeding and mastitis that would not relent, but Jason’s wail rudely returned her his blue painted bedroom. She turned on his elephant night-light and gasped.
His mouth was brown, the color of suede. His tongue pressed to the top of his toothless mouth as his cry turned inconsolable. He looked as if he’d eaten a vacuum cleaner bag, though that was locked away in the closet along with the other hazardous items for newborns. She searched his crib, the diaper changing area, and inside his swaddle for the source. She only came away with small bits of grit and dirt. When Kelly sneezed moments later, her breasts leaked.
No, she realized. Her breasts didn’t leak like they had been anytime she thought of her baby or husband or watched a sappy commercial. Her breasts weren’t producing anything at all but a faint itchiness that soon took over her entire body. She was shaking, wracking her body with her long nails which bent like cue cards now that she was eight weeks postpartum, when her husband came inside.
“What’s wrong?” He picked up Jason and held him close, only to track around more grit and dirt. “Oh, God.”
“I think…” Kelly opened her robe, displaying her breasts that were lumpy, worse than the six clogged ducts she had at once during week one. Her left breast seemed to tremble. Sand and dust and dirt littered her nursing bra. She closed her robe with another shudder, followed by a wave of sudden and sharp pain.
“I think…” she repeated, “we’re gonna need to go to the hospital.”
“Well, isn’t this strange…” The doctor held up the results from Kelly’s chest x-ray and ultrasound in front of the light source in his room. “Very interesting, indeed.”
Kelly wanted to quip something smartass in response, but she was exhausted. She and Mark had waited three hours for Jason’s tests to turn up nothing, only a stern lecture about cleanliness in the home, and then it was her turn to keep waiting. Three hours turned into six and now, after forty minutes of waiting alone in the doctor’s room, she was pretty sure it was the next day. Tuesday. Mommy and Me classes were in the afternoon.
“Can you give me some meds and then let me go?” Kelly asked. “I’m pretty sure it’s mastitis, which I’ve had before, and so I can take the meds, and then–“
“Oh, it’s not mastitis.”
When the doctor’s gaze fell on her breasts with a crooked brow, Kelly folded her arms in front of her chest. They were tender, still lumpy, and her stomach flipped knowing that she’d need to feed her son soon. She was lashed with the same sensation of pain as before, and trembled visibly in front of the doctor.
To her surprise, he stood by her side and placed a hand on her back. He waited with her until the spasm of pain ended, then let out a haughty sigh. “Just as I thought.”
“What is it?”
“A rare condition. Your milk has turned to dust.”
Kelly tilted her head. That was a dream of the beach. That was ludicrous. So she laughed, and laughed, her breasts shaking like beach balls as she did.
But he repeated: “Your milk has turned to dust. It’s drying up. Are you breastfeeding exclusively?”
“Yes. In fact, I need to see–“
“Your son can wait. For you. Because you need to feed him.”
Kelly opened her mouth to argue yet again that she was exclusively breastfeeding him, but she stopped. She’d come in with pain and this doctor now looked at her like a seven year old who’d lied about breaking something. How was this her fault? She was literally doing everything every last book, pamphlet, and website told her to do. “Well, is there still something you can give me for the pain? Maybe some antibiotics, too?” she asked bitterly. “So, you know, I can keep feeding him?”
“That’s not quite how it works.”
“How does it work, then, doctor?”
“I can’t give you antibiotics like with mastitis. That’s a bacterial infection and can be treated as such to relieve the problem. This is almost parasitic, like a secondary pregnancy infection.”
“What?” Kelly scanned her very-tired memory for something about this on mommy blogs or even in pamphlets at her OBGYN. So many damn messages about SIDS came to her, but nothing about… “What is this called?”
“Mother’s Mite.” He held up the ultrasound that a tech had taken of her breast. A spider-like pattern emerged from the nipple and extended back into the breast tissue. It was like the many drawings she’d seen on Etsy with the milk ducts illuminated as if they were constellations. What was the big deal with this ultrasound? It was only as she leaned closer that she noticed the secondary shadow over the center of her nipple the size of a small tack.
“Oh,” she gasped. “That is…”
“A mite, though it’s technically a small organism that is also feeding off your milk.”
“Oh. No wonder Jason’s been hungry! No wonder…” She ran her hands through her hair, relieved in a way she never had been before. No wonder she didn’t always like feeding Jason. No wonder she didn’t always feel like his mother, like she hadn’t bonded with him. No wonder nursing hurt so much and she hated it so profoundly. She had a goddamn bug living inside of her!
Maybe, with it out, she could actually be a good mother.
“So you must keep breastfeeding in order to remove the mite,” the doctor explained. “It will keep drinking the milk, drying you up, and not allowing Jason to get any.”
“So I starve it out?”
“Not quite. You’ll produce more milk to feed your son.”
Kelly leaned closer on the edge of the very uncomfortable chair. “I don’t hear anything about the mite dying.”
“You’re right. It’s going to stay there. It eventually leaves when you stop breastfeeding.”
“So I could stop now,” she said. “And it would leave?”
“You should feed your son now. There’s more than enough inside of you to do it. Even with a mite in the way. It’s no obstacle for a mother.”
“But it hurts,” Kelly said. “It’s weird and he may get a mouthful of dust like tonight. Why should I risk that–“
“There is no risk. He was sent home with another prescription, remember?” The doctor leaned closer, as if checking her pupils for dilation. “Do you not remember that?”
“I do. Yeah. I just… want to stop.”
“You shouldn’t,” the doctor said. He went to his computer screen, turned it on, and filled out her form. Even as Kelly added another pitiful, “but it hurts” he did not respond.
Kelly had not slept for about thirty-six hours–more than when she first gave birth in the middle of the night–when the dust happened again. She stared down at Jason in his crib with a heaviness in her chest that was only partly guilt. Jason was unbothered by the dust, barely reacting as his mouth and tongue were covered once again. The prescription–which had been with her husband all along–helped ease him of his symptoms, that was true.
But Kelly’s breasts ached. Her skin literally crawled. And she was so sick of feeling the dust drop out from her breasts, out of her bra, and down onto her feet again. She was so sick of drowning in her own exhaustion and feeding this parasite that wouldn’t let her sleep.
The same pain as before seized Kelly’s chest. She gritted her teeth, and like the doctor suggested in a pamphlet he gave her as he shoved her out the door, tried to nurse through the worst of it.
Jason was not hungry. He looked away, shutting his mouth full of dust. He slept.
So Kelly took matters into her own hand.
After expressing dust upon dust, faint milk started to trickle. She’d been leaning over the garbage pail in her son’s room, dumping what was unusable in the trap door for diapers, but now she stopped. Milk flowed like a hose in the left one.
Then a tiny, almost imperceptible head popped out.
Kelly dropped her breast in surprise and the mite went back inside her breast.
She picked up her breast again and squeezed it. The mite popped out halfway. She kept squeezing and squeezing, the skin around her chest turning bright red and her hands tingling with carpal tunnel, but the mite remained stuck. She thought of the ultrasound image and how this tiny tack had attached itself to her ducts, like a damn blocks off a river. With a sudden bolt of courage, she grasped the mite from her breast. She pulled.
The pain was excruciating. So much like giving birth, like that ring of fire as Jason’s head breeched her body. She gritted her teeth. She gripped the rocking chair arm. She pulled and pulled and pulled. Tears fell down her cheeks.
But once it was out, like with Jason, her body eased and relaxed.
Dust flowed. Then milk again.
She threw the mite in the trap door of the garbage. She listened to its skittering legs until they, too, stopped.
Then she did the same to the other breast.
By the time Kelly went to bed, both mites were now at the bottom of the diaper’s stinking garbage. All the dust had been cleaned up and thrown out, along with her son’s prescription. Formula, stacks and cans and tins of all sorts of bottles and nipples lined the counter.
I’m going to bed, she wrote her husband to place on his nightstand. Please let me sleep. Feed our boy whatever he wants. Thank you.
Kelly was about to crawl under the sheets when she remembered the sensation of sand against her toes. That, she decided, she’d actually miss, and so she added: PS: Our next vacation should be at the beach. I think Jason would like it, too.
Eve Morton lives in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada with her partner and two sons. She spends the days running after those boys and the nights brainstorming her next creative project. At some point, she writes things down, usually while drinking copious amounts of coffee. Find updates at authormorton.wordpress.com.
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