Monday, October 26, 2009

Mammaries and Machismo

So, tonight marks my late-night viewing of the final episode of six seasons' worth of David Chase's The Sopranos. For the last couple of months, I've been diligently plodding my way through the series in the dark, wee hours of morning, either with my son attached to my breast or once he is placed in his crib, as some kind of antidote to the insomnia of new parenthood I've been experiencing.

It's been a surreal trip, let me tell you. And don't think for one second I haven't tried to analyze the possible reasons for such blatant dichotomy as the act of nursing him to the background soundtrack of such heavy content. In the months prior to The Sopranos, honestly almost from the moment I was left to my own devices as a new, single mum in my farmhouse out here, I climbed a burning ladder through four seasons of Denis Leary's Rescue Me. And I think I finally get the gist of why, suddenly, I felt the need to digest these two macho-focused series, for the most part, while my babe simultaneously digests the milk from my breasts.

They are not that dissimilar in content: strong yet dysfunctional, Catholic, philandering, central male characters trying to hold their families together any way they can. Both shows exhibit, yes, a good dose of violent content, of sexual content. But here's what I've come up with as one possible reason for choosing to view these two particular series while grappling and juggling with new mummyhood and specifically, single mummyhood: it's the father. Not just the father my son is missing as a child of an anonymous donor, but I have to admit I think, subconsciously, it's a mixture of the presence and influence of my own father in my life combined with the lack of any kind of father in his.

I was raised Irish Catholic. And not just any ordinary Irish Catholicism. My parents were both born in Ireland and emigrated to Canada in the 1950s. This meant that my Catholic family life was slightly different from the Catholic family life my classmates were experiencing. My parents raised our family like it was 1950s Dublin, only it happened to be 1970s Canada. Coming from a country whose population was 98% Catholic, they had a difficult time adjusting to the fact that not all their offspring's friends (and later, their boyfriends/girlfriends and, much later, their husbands/wives) did not follow this faith. For a good part of my childhood, I believed all my Canadian Catholic peers knelt to pray the rosary together of a Friday night. I didn't realize my family was a tad unique in that way. In my early 20s, I broke free of following this faith, wielding my own machete through what I felt was its repressive, outdated and patriarchal forest. I've carved my own path since and am more than happy to remain spiritual without being religious in any way.

But I can relate to Tommy Gavin so very easily. In fact, I developed a terrible crush, not just on Tommy himself, but on Denis Leary for creating the character and the whole damn series. For embodying Tommy so wholly and succintly. I admit I'm still kinda kooky about him. Weird. (Or not.) And, no surprise, I fell completely head over heels for both Tony Soprano and James Gandolfini in the same vein. For David Chase, a little, too. As a trained actor and, also, as a wanna-be-published writer, I appreciate both the fine-tuned composition of each series and the incredible performances which make that wickedly woven writing come alive on screen. Just my weakness for both these characters (and the men who portray them) seems a little perplexing. As a feminist, I'm not sure why I'd be attracted to men so volatile and dominant. I guess Dr. Jennifer Melfi (portrayed to perfection by Lorraine Bracco) would talk to me about an electra complex, maybe. Double weird. But I think it's more the vulnerability they exhibit amidst all the machismo. Their own confusions and ponderings. The self-doubt amidst all the swearing and sweat and sex. I'm sorry, but it's a turn-on.

Last weekend, ironically (or not), as I was rocking my son to sleep in a local pub after a friend's concert performance, I was asked out on a date by a firefighting captain, though I remain unready to go near that kind of er...flame right now (Denis Leary fantasies notwithstanding). As lonely as I've been, it was strange. I thought I'd jump at the chance for a date. Especially being asked out while holding my baby in my arms. That man had balls to even approach me and give me his number. Just I realized very quickly, I don't wish to focus on anyone other than the ONE man in my life right now: my wee, little laddie. As much as I do intend to date again, I realized I just ain't ready right now. It's way too early to split focus. My sweet son is growing and changing daily, each and every SECOND, and I feel like this precious time is passing me by far too quickly already! I peek in on him as I write this and even as he sleeps on his side, his little legs are in running position. "O madonn," as Tony would put it. Literally, I call out to that other Mystic Mama. Madonna mine! Slow my son down. Even in his sleep!

I guess I can kind of see the attraction I've been having: both Tony Soprano and Tommy Gavin come from deep-rooted, Catholic backgrounds that carry their own heavy dosage of guilt, sin, and inner moral struggles. I can definitely relate to these characters. The term familiar itself: root familiaris, meaning of a household. Family. I get it. Boy, do I get it. I get their internal moral struggles. I get their guilt, their desire to do better. To do the right thing in the face of personal weaknesses and failures. I get how much family means to each of these guys. And the lengths they will go to in order to protect those very families. To try to somehow remain their 'glue', in a way.

These guys are not without their own myriad hypocrisies. Yet despite their many hangups and the errors of their ways, they each endeavour to become a better man, a better person within the chaotic content of their lives and the dangers of their daily work, what consumes them in various ways.

What the hell has any of this got to do with breastfeeding, you may ask. Hell if I know. Believe me, I am aware that all the current literature says breastfeeding is a beautiful way to bond with one's offspring. And it definitely is this. Once it finally works. I think 99% of the women I personally know had difficulty with it from the start. Not the desire to try it. But the mechanics of it. I know many women, myself included, for whom it didn't come so easy. Trials towards achieving it included finger feeding with a tube, syringe feeding via tubes, tubes taped to the nipple, endless breastpumping: weeks on end of the backbreaking, frustrating, neck-crippling, hormone-heightening, emotional rollercoaster ride of this singularly beautiful motherly act.

And I know I was supposed to focus only on my son during all of that. But I was struggling. Nothing about it was smooth. When I switched to "boob only" after finally leaving the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, my son began to lose weight. My supply had been exemplary in the hospital. But it had been the pump stimulating that supply and my little boy's even littler mouth just wasn't sucking efficiently on its own to keep that supply up. Eventually I was prescribed dom peridone and advised to, literally, "drink a Guinness a day". Twist my rubber fucking arm at that point (pardon my French - I've a sailormouth at times - another thing I have to watch around my son. I'm quickly trying to master the words fudge and sugar). I don't even drink beer, but the entire process drove me to drink. Every woman I spoke with about my titty trials and tribulations told me it had taken them somewhere between five and eight weeks before everything just seemed to "click" into place and the "natural" aspect of breastfeeding manifests. Who can blame any woman for giving up or giving in to easier roads? I wouldn't blame a soul.

The truth is, a good chunk of my struggles with nursing had me solely focused on my son. It was toward the end of the day when I would feel the need for a bit of distraction from my own emotional and physical distraction over All Things Boob.

It's ironic because I don't like television all that much. I don't believe it holds any real benefit and I don't own a television. Okay, I own one. But it's on the top shelf in the garage. I stopped watching it two months before finally leaving my common-law marriage: three years ago next month. I just never hooked it up again once my ex moved out. It's not the first time in my life I've gone without the boob tube (pardon the pun): I did it all through university. All um. Seven years. Ahem. It's a life choice. Recently, when I was staying with my parents during the painting upheaval to my home, I would flip through channels and realize I'm not really missing much. That the bulk of what is being offered out there remains crap, in my humble opinion. But renting a well-written and superbly acted series, witnessing it via my laptop in the dark of night, without the annoyance of commercial advertising or the delay of the gratification of "what happens next" has felt, admittedly, pretty awesome. At its most basic level, it was pure escapism on my part. Distraction from my own struggles by witnessing the struggles of these other characters, other families.

Not long ago, I was having a discussion about television with one of my brothers. He enlightened me as to why television can be so addictive for people. It's movement. Plain and simple. Thousands of years ago, when our species was evolving, if we looked across a vast plain as hunters and gatherers, our eyes would be caught by any movement. It was inherent to our survival that we would then focus on this movement and follow it. It could be our next meal. It could be what wanted to make a meal out of us. We didn't take our eyes off of it. This is one damn, OLD inherent survival-of-the-fittest condition. We are drawn to what moves. It's ancient within us. And television totally exploits this innate, entirely natural inherent mode within us. Wow. The bastards. I blame Louis Le Prince. But then, I also applaud his ingenuity, really. He sure did catch on to something.

Last May I heard a CBC report on how much damage television can do to a brain still under development. I think it was possibly an episode of Ideas on Radio 1. I recall it announcing that an infant's brain is not yet developed enough to properly process what it may be witnessing on a television screen. And the damage can mean that as "little" as 10 minutes of television a day to a child under one year old has been proven to have horrendous ramifications much later in that child's development and can result in ADHD and the like in or around age six or seven years.

Consequently I've been careful, of course, considering the content of each series and what I believe myself to be the harm too much television can do for young eyes and young minds, to only watch each episode that I've rented with headphones plugged in and my son's sweet, innocent face turned towards my bosom away from the screen. He sees nothing. He hears nothing. He knows nothing. He's Seargent Schulz 'ovah heah', as Tony might put it.

But back to the boobs: watching both of these series has been an obvious self-indulgence during a time I am giving, giving, giving on a 24-7 basis. Don't get me wrong. This is quite as it should be. (I'm not complaining, believe me, after all those years of infertility and wanting, wanting, wanting and not being given, not being given, not being given and the taking, taking, taking of three other pregnancies.) The giving and sacrificing of self is, what I truly believe anyhow, to be the honest role of a good, devoted parent.

There is a part of me that wonders whether my choice in visual content during mammary meals is one simple way to absorb all that is good about these two fathers, Tony and Tommy, into my own bloodstream somehow. That amidst all the chaos of their own family lives and their own many, varied human weaknesses, mishaps and mistakes, the qualities that are actually admirable in these characters are somehow being absorbed by me and ingested, along with my breastmilk, into my son. Maybe I'm trying, as the single mum I am, to inherit some good, strong machismo. Um. The healthy kind. So that I can try to carry qualities of both parental figures in one body for now and help steer my son toward being a good man later.

I make a silent prayer that my son will feel elation in his life. Not necessarily drug-induced obviously, but I do want him to experience the freedom, euphoria and revelation Tony undergoes after a night on peyote, shouting to the sunrise, "I get it. I get it." His voice echoing over the desert of a Nevada landscape. Looking at my son sleeping quietly in his crib, I can definitely now see the purpose of my own life quite clearly. I finally "get it" myself. And I want him to be as driven by determination, belief and faith (though not necessarily Catholic, I'll admit) as Tommy is when he refuses to accept that little girl is given up for dead by the EMS officers, by his firefighting peers, by even her own mother and he relentlessly resuscitates her back to life, lighting a forbidden cigarette as reward.

Both these series made me weep openly. They hit me to the core. They were sometimes passionate and poignant and touched many a nerve. Not to mention their own close associations with and references to 9/11, the stark tragedy of which arouses enough of its own fervour for any North American, especially those of us unused to the kind of suffering and war to which other parts of the planet are daily exposed. I'm not sure at which point the opening credits of The Sopranos removed the image of the two towers in the sideview mirror of Tony's car, though I noticed it had been cut. Perhaps out of respect to those for whom that image was painful. The importance of 9/11 to Rescue Me should be obvious - even to the extent that its final episode was purportedly planned to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the event itself in 2011 as a further commemoration to the lives of the firefighters lost in that tragedy, as well as all the other lives taken.

Maybe I want to inject my son with these better qualities in Tony Soprano and Tommy Gavin: to become a man who understands the importance of family. Who cares deeply about that. To be a man unafraid to question himself, to seek help, to try to learn self-control, discipline. To go against the grain sometimes. To not interpret backing down or away as weakness. To pick your battles. To learn compromise. Respect of others. To harness guilt so that it is only the healthy kind - an emotion that guides one's moral centre to do better in life and make the right choices - but to balance that with not allowing it to consume towards self-destruction. To understand that Life ain't easy and to deal with its hardships in the best way humanly possible. To be a hero when it's called for. And to never be afraid, as a man, to break down and weep, when Life calls for it, whether out of Joy or Sorrow. And achieve all this against some pretty, damn, fine soundtrack.

On that note, here's one for the road. The journey continues...

Music: C'mon C'mon, Von Bondies

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