Snuggling with my 7-year-old daughter after reading her a bedtime story, she asks, “Mama, what does your breast look like?”
Suddenly I remember: I thought I saw her watching me on the beach when, back turned, I changed out of my wet suit. “Are you asking because you saw me without my shirt today?”
“You can look if you want.”
She lifts the top of my shirt enough to peer at what’s beneath it.
She wants to know how they made my new breast.
I hesitate long enough to gather my response. This is why, when neither of my children asked questions before my surgery, I didn’t share any details about what was going to happen–because how do I explain a mastectomy to a 7 and 9 year old without it sounding terrifying? Of course I don’t want to say anything about cutting off a breast. Scooping out the insides doesn’t sound much better, but I can’t think of how else to answer Sophie’s question. “Well,” I manage. “They took out the stuff inside my skin and then put something else in there to make it look like a breast.”
“Oh, I get it. This one without a nipple is up and a little hard,” she explains, gently patting my new, left breast, “and this one is mushy and down.”
I smile at her language and her matter-of-factness. Smile because she’s described my breasts perfectly and without a trace of self-consciousness, the way only a child would do; and because she seems so okay about it all, no big deal. Relief. I’ve been anxious about this moment–about my kids seeing me post-surgery.
But I am also flooded by the old guilt and doubt that plagued me all those months during chemo when I was struggling to decide about reconstruction. Have I failed my daughter by deciding in the end to go through with it? Taught her that a woman isn’t a woman without breasts? I remind myself of all the other ways I’ve failed her, then–by wearing make-up and studying myself in mirrors and buying clothes I don’t need–and somehow that comforts me; rather than feeling badly about the make-up and mirrors, I remember that the fate of the whole world and of women’s rights and of my daughter’s self-confidence and of my son’s respect for women and girls does not rest on whether or not I chose to reconstruct my breast.
Still, I tell Sophie that I had to decide whether or not I wanted a new breast and that for a long time I thought no, but then I changed my mind. I want her to know it wasn’t a given, getting a new breast. “Lots of women choose not to,” I explain.
“What do they look like?” she wants to know. Such good questions.
“Their chests are flat, maybe even a little concave, which means it goes in like a dent where the breasts used to be.”
She’s on to the next question: “How come you changed your mind?”
I’m thinking about the fate of the whole world again, and I want to choose my words honestly but carefully. “Well, I thought I might feel more comfortable with two breasts, and after everything I went through, I wanted to feel comfortable in the end.” The truth is, I’m not comfortable now, with two very different breasts, but I don’t tell here that. I do, however, tell her that at some point, after I’m all healed from radiation, I might make them look more even. Do I tell her because I’m preparing her, while the opportunity has presented itself, for more upcoming changes with my body; or because I’m embarrassed by my body, even with my 7-year-old daughter, and want to assure her that I won’t always look like this?
Again she wants to know how–how will they make my breasts look more even?
“They’ll put something small inside this breast,” I say, resting my hand on the healthy one.
I try to answer each of Sophie’s questions with enough detail to satisfy her curiosity but not too much detail for her 7-year-old self to digest. I am grateful for the conversation–grateful that she feels comfortable enough to ask these questions; grateful that she seems utterly okay with the answers and with my new body; grateful for the quiet openness between my daughter and me.