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Whenever I used to think of fresh milk, I imagined rows and rows of chilled cartons of cows' milk, neatly arranged according to their fat content or their added proteins and vitamins, and sometimes colored with chocolate, or strawberry, or caramel. When I was young, fresh milk was delivered in glass bottles to the front gate. Later it came from the corner store, or the cold food aisle of the supermarket. It listed nutritional contents on the label and the percentage these represented of the recommended daily allowance. It had a use-by date. And it had to be kept cold.
Once I began to breastfeed my children, my idea of fresh milk suddenly changed. Fresh milk is warm, and watery pale. Its packaging walks and talks, and runs, and makes love. It is absent of labeling. It has no fixed quantity, or set loading of nutrients, but ebbs and flows according to the needs of its consumers. It is flavored with garlic, or vanilla, or carrots, and sometimes all these things. It is not confined to fridges and stores, but is everywhere women are.
Western culture tends to think of women's milk only in relation to the babies they might choose to feed. We think of lactating women as immediately postpartum, still wrapped in the aura of childbirth and laden with the trappings of infancy: bassinets, strollers, blankets, diaper bags, the thousand-and-one bits and pieces that we buy when our babies arrive. It's as if we hire our new milky breasts along with all this stuff, and sign a rental contract specifying that they must be packed away and forgotten after weaning, sometime within the baby's first year. These hired lactating breasts are connected to the hospital bed, to nursing bras and nursing pads, and special diets, and sleepless nights, and hollow-eyed jealous husbands. They are medically scrutinized, gently massaged, and intensely discussed during the time they are used. Then, when the flow is stanched, they are primly returned to their lacy cage, to be admired again according to purely aesthetic considerations.
The more I researched this book, the clearer it became that breastmilk is not only a feature of maternity wards and parental bedrooms, or even those well-lit corners of shopping centers and car parks from which breastfeeding mothers have frequently been ejected. The places and conditions in which women and children and men experience breastfeeding are far more varied and surprising than this. But the details of how we fit breastfeeding into our lives, or decide that it doesn't fit, are not well known. And the meaning of breastfeeding as opposed to its nutritional content is rarely discussed outside mothers' groups and pediatricians' waiting rooms.
Of the people I spoke to, most had succeeded in fitting breastfeeding into their lives, and often in surprising ways. Early on in my research, I came across a press clipping from March 1997, about a South African mother, Kristen Grobler, who had breastfed her poodle puppy while also breastfeeding her baby. I knew about tandem-feeding, in which twins are fed simultaneously, and sometimes older and younger siblings. I'd also read about women in Papua New Guinea nursing their piglets, as these are domestic animals in that country; and women in many countries in previous centuries, including Canadian Indians and white American women, who nursed puppies, either to nourish their pets, toughen their nipples, or keep up their supply. The mythic Romulus and Remus were nursed by a wolf; and it has recently emerged that a South American orphan who was "adopted" by a pack of dogs also drank their milk. But the Johannesburg mother landed this kind of breastfeeding squarely in our contemporary suburban landscape.
Some of these events might be dismissed, in the normal course of life, as unnervingly weird. But it is curious to me why our mythology about women as producers of food from their own bodies is so incomplete. In the last twenty years we have begun to accept the full reality of women's bodies giving birth to their offspring as a cataclysmic, yet natural event neither an illness nor a disability. Yet we still balk at the idea of these same bodies making something that all of us can drink.
The stories we do have, scattered through history, novels, and film, veer between reverential accounts drawing on the Christian myth of the selfless and virginal Madonna and Child, and smutty pop culture jokes and asides. We either have to go way back to the Renaissance, to Caravaggio's Seven Acts of Mercy and Peter Paul Rubens's Venus, Mars and Cupid, or way forward, to Liz Hurley's jugs of cream in Austin Powers or Jim Carrey's assault on a nursing mother in Me, Myself, & Irene. Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo are two exceptions among twentieth-century painters, who had an interest in the subject. Picasso has been quoted by the art critic Betty Churcher as saying, "Those breasts are most beautiful that give the most milk." There are scattered literary references, stories and poems by women about nursing, such as Elissa Schappell's "Here Is Comfort, Take It" in her short story collection Use Me, and the poems of Sharon Olds. But these are relatively obscure, and there is very little, even in feminist nonfiction, that gazes steadily on the fully lived experience of all the people involved.
Within this fully lived realm, I learned of the vastness and diversity of people's experience with breastmilk. I heard from women who had never had children, nor even been pregnant, who produced milk during sex. Another woman, who longed to become pregnant, told me that her breasts felt heavier after she'd been cuddling her friend's baby. A grandmother who'd weaned her own children thirty years earlier said she spontaneously produced milk for her grandson, and so helped her daughter to feed him. Perfectly ordinary men confessed how they longed to drink milk from a woman's breasts, both as a sexual turn-on and as a means to deepen a friendship. Mothers who'd ceased feeding their babies told me they'd decided to keep up their supply for their husbands. Others noticed that if they squeezed their breasts, many years after weaning, droplets of milk still emerged.
I heard from mothers who topped up their family's breakfast bowls with milk from their breasts, or added it to their coffee, or the mashed potatoes. A woman whose baby died continued to pump her milk and donate it to a milk bank. A thirteen-year-old Melbourne girl was given two cups of breastmilk a day, donated by other women, to survive her allergies. A New Yorker, who wasn't breastfed as a child, told me of his curiosity about the flavor of breastmilk and offered to make it into ice cream for me if I could find a donor. A father told me how he'd comforted his daughter by letting her latch onto his breast when the mother was away. An Englishman emailed to say he'd produced milk for his baby in the 1970s and helped his wife breastfeed. I spoke to the New York-based artist Patrick Bucklew, who was once offended by a stripper in a Provincetown club squirting milk at him, but went on to produce prosthetic breasts that squirted coconut milk ten feet and incorporate them into his own performances.
Perhaps the most surprising story from a man came from a Sydney taxi driver who told his passenger a lactation consultant that as a child in Bosnia he had been hired out by his dad, in exchange for cigarettes, to relieve nursing mothers of their engorgement by sucking their breasts. He told the lactation consultant with some pride, "Some days I sucked tit before school, and some days after school. The ladies thought I was cute so they gave me cakes and sweets after I finished. Some days I was so full of milk and cakes I had a bellyache."
I heard from large-breasted women who had discovered they could breastfeed themselves, and one of them added this to her repertoire when masturbating. After one interview I conducted for this book, I experienced the feeling of letdown, as though my milk were coming in, even though I'd not breastfed for over a year.
I could only conclude that there is much more breastmilk in our lives, in our bodies, and in our culutral imaginary, than we realize. Through my research, it has gradually made itself known to me, almost as if it is a great lost resource of contemporary life.
In addition to listening to stories, I also sent out questionnaires, and received over two hundred replies, mostly from women but approximately 10 percent from men. Replies came from Australia, America, New Zealand, Canada, Britain, South Africa, and France. I used the questionnaires to find more stories and to get a broad, qualitative picture of the attitudes to breastfeeding in our culture. Naturally, I received many more answers from breastfeeding enthusiasts than any other kind. But within that group there exists not only an incredible breadth of wisdom and expertise on the subject, but also a startling variety of views on what is right, or wrong, or difficult, or joyful about breastfeeding today. As any expectant mom who's read up on the subject knows, there are almost as many methods for breastfeeding as there are babies, and breasts to put them on.
Fresh Milk is a selection of the stories I encountered. It is a galaxy of voices, a narrative Milky Way. Some of the stories grew out of answers to the questionnaire, others are edited from interviews, and several are based on email exchanges. Some of the monologues are based on transcripts without any significant alteration, while others are based on combined voices, and have been fictionalized. Three of the stories were written by other women Gayle Brandeis, Belinda Luscombe, and Alison Bartlett and adapted for this collection. Many of the names in the stories have been changed to protect the privacy of contributors and their children.
All the stories are based on the experiences, memories, and research of people who have been touched by breastfeeding, or its absence. Together they extend the boundaries of what we consider normal when it comes to human parenting. They reveal a glimpse of what lactation means to us, and how it might fit more amply into our lives. Fresh Milk is an oral history in the fullest sense of the word, abundant and overflowing. Enjoy!
Copyright © 2003 by Fiona Giles