I am somewhere close to 12,000 feet, in the pitch black, feeling the rhythmic drumming of a torrential downpour on my little tent. In search of a warm place, damp cold air snuck in through the zipper and settled into my bones for the night. I am trapped inside a triangular cloud, surrounded by nylon and superimposed on a Himalayan hillside. The air is frigid and heavy. It took three days to get here from Missoula—through San Francisco; Narita, Japan; Bangkok, Thailand; Calcutta, India; and finally into Paro, Bhutan. During that journey, I only had to relieve my breasts on a couple of occasions. After all, my 18-month-old daughter was only nursing a few minutes each day for comfort. I did not foresee any complications in completely abstaining from nursing over the course of my three week stay in Bhutan. In fact, I was confident that my absence would bring a clean end to the natural weaning process.
In retrospect, I am not so certain that this was the right approach. As a matter of fact, I would probably not advise anyone to try this method. With my first born, I concluded breast feeding amidst the comforts of a breast pump, a large jetted tub and my family. Overall, that experience was not uncomfortable. In stark contrast, I am now enshrouded in an early monsoon rain on the terraced edge of a timberline, literally half a globe away from my home and family. This sobering reality forces a pathetic self-admission that this is not the place of comfort that I am suddenly seeking.
I root around near my head to find the flashlight. I switch it on and my saturated little space fills with an unsatisfying, eerie, bluish light. I fumble with the layers covering my torso in order to locate the one offending, hot breast. Like many women, I needed only one breast toward the end of my nursing cycle. For me, it was the tried and true left breast that provided my daughters with their last swallows of rich milk, while I held them close with my dominant right arm. When I angle the flashlight just right, I can see an angry red stripe starting at my nipple and snaking out onto the firm, hot mound toward my armpit. It is also now evident that the damned emotion, Lonely, has hunkered down in the dark corner across my tent. He is wearing a sinister grin and promising to make good on earlier threats.
I waste no time launching into an internal dialog with myself. This conversation often ensues when I am feeling scared and questioning my choices. This is just fabulous. Now what the hell am I going to do? Don't panic, weigh your options, be logical. During 20 years of travel, I have put myself in many interesting predicaments. I once survived an ambush by 20-plus poaching dogs on the western slope of Mt. Kenya by shouting “you are all bad dogs” in pre-school Swahili. Another time, I danced for my life, over fast moving boulders, in a nasty rockslide in the Beartooth Mountains.
Though it is difficult to articulate what fuels my passion for these kinds of adventures, I have always been careful to honor it. At this moment, however, the shenanigans of my past seem to pale in comparison to acute mastitis in Jigme Dorji National Park, Bhutan. The obvious difference is that I am now a mother of two little girls. During previous travel follies, my psyche always reached for humor as the natural antidote for fear and discomfort. Tonight, that well-used tincture seems just out of reach. I am now becoming intensely aware of a second infection beginning to spread: panic.
In an attempt to think logically, I start taking an inventory of available resources. I could ask my kind Bhutanese guide if he would join me in my tent for a sympathetic suckling. I dismiss this idea as quickly since it simply doesn’t fit into the viable category, though it does provide a moment of comedic relief. I could also make the less offensive request to summon a nearby woman with a hungry baby. At 2:30 a.m. local time, with monsoon conditions outside, I reason that such a request really needs to wait until morning.
I check my breast with my finger tips; it is very hard, hot and becoming quite painful. I push on it gently from one side and the whole mass moves as a solid piece. I try to calculate how much time I have before the fever and infection spread. I wonder if Cipro knocks out this kind of thing—it certainly helped me battle typhoid and other parasites that have settled in my guts during travel. I click off the light. I have all of the information I need, at least for now. I am on the edge.
I continue the self-interrogation. Why didn’t I go to my family’s place in Palm Beach? Why must I always seek out the remote, the inaccessible? The answer came squeezing in through he seams of my tent with a blast of rain-soaked wind—Because, this is fun. Alright then, I tell me, myself and I, as long as we are all in agreement. With no dissenters, I slowly move out of panic and into acceptance. Lonely finally acquiesces to inch over and make room for the whole of me. At last, my little tent begins to feel cozy.
I am here, in Bhutan for the next three weeks, while my husband watches our two daughters. We came up with this plan almost two years ago. At that point, I was a new mother to a one year old and I had just found out that I was pregnant again. I was very honest with myself about what I needed. If I was going to go through it all over again—the pregnancy, birth and subsequent months of nursing, peppered with depression and isolation—I would need a light at the end of the tunnel. There are many women who love pregnancy, birth and the many months of nursing and hormonal changes that follow; I do not fall into that category. I do not judge the women who handle those stages with grace—those lovely, glowing mommies-to-be happily present during every moment of their pregnancy process—I actually envy them.
I am not someone who excelled at being pregnant. I counted my calories to limit my weight gain to the obligatory 25 pounds per pregnancy. I spent much too much time standing on our toilet, assessing my backside’s changing shape in the bathroom mirror. When the time finally came for our babies to be born, they were reluctant to exit. In both cases, I was overdue and labor was induced. I vomited violently for hours from the pitocin. During my last pregnancy, the epidural was too strong, sending my body into shock. As the room twisted and blackened, I tried desperately to focus on my baby’s heart monitor next to the bed. Blessedly, both of my daughters were born exceptionally healthy and happy.
I can honestly say that I treasured the nursing process. I loved the intimate and sacred bond created between mother and child, so basic and vital. I loved feeling that little mouth latch onto my nipple and suck intensely to take in all the milk that I could give. I loved the precious profile of a baby in my lap, propped up just so.
My frustration with nursing came only with the birth of my second daughter. While nursing her, I felt exceptionally ill-equipped to tend my two-year old daughter. I tried to keep her happy with reading and singing, but the satisfaction was always short lived. “STOP NURSING!” she would inevitably cry out from behind trembling tears. I simply do not have enough to give to you both right now, I would acknowledge sadly in my own heart. Then, she would try to crawl into my lap just before her sister finished nursing, often derailing a blissful and much needed nap. Pretty soon I had two crying babies. I am sure that other mothers would have handled this better than I. These moments left me feeling completely incompetent. Mama needs a vacation, I would say to myself. Mama needs a few weeks with nobody camped inside my body or hanging off the outside. I knew, for the sake of my own sanity, that I needed a significant break with no one touching me, crying to me, pulling me or feeding from me.
With that goal in mind, I did the best I could. When I felt downhearted, my husband would gently remind me, “Don’t forget honey, you are going to the Himalayas for three weeks by yourself.” I can honestly say that my husband understands the woman that he married. As I shared the details of my up-and-coming journey with friends, they would always ask, “Who is watching the kids?” “My husband is,” I would reply. Again and again the same responses came back to me, “Are you kidding?! Do you trust him with the children that long? My husband would NEVER do that!” I did not understand those responses then, nor do I now. Over the course of four years, I had been pregnant for 18 months and nursing babies for 26 months. During that time my husband had been on multiple hunting and fishing trips without me. Shouldn’t I have some time for myself? Hunting and fishing brought him peace and happiness. Travel did that for me. From my perspective, it did not seem the least bit odd when my husband suggested that I contact my dear childhood friend to accompany me on this journey. I called her the next day, she agreed, and we booked the trip.
Yet, here I am, 18 months later and a billion miles away from my family. I can’t help but smile when I think that I would “give my left breast” to be back with them right now. I lean forward and blindly feel around the inside of my backpack for a tee shirt to express into. I call for calm inside of my body and conjure up the faces of my family, one by one. I pull forward memories of their sounds, smells and touches. I quietly pray to God that my milk flows and does not stay trapped inside.
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