Essays

Well Fed: Breastfeeding in Literature

By posted at 12:00 pm on June 23, 2016 4

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I’ve been breastfeeding my second child for more than seven months. She eats solids now — preferring pizza crust to all else — but those foods are consumed primarily for flavor and fun, and the development of fine motor skills, not nutrition. Until she’s got teeth, my child is kept alive with breast milk, and so she and I spend a lot of time together on the glider in the living room, a glass of water within my reach, a burp cloth on my shoulder, her perfect chubby body resting on The Boppy, which, to the uninitiated, is a nursing pillow that looks like a neck-rest for a giant.

(That word, Boppy! It’s so silly as to be demeaning. At least it’s not as bad as its competitor, My Breast Friend. Like I’m just over here, stringing beads onto a necklace or something, gabbing to no one. But nursing is kind of like that: mindless action punctuated by occasional admiration at your own handiwork.)

covercoverFor the first months of my daughter’s life, when I was nursing a lot more often and for longer sessions, I depended on TV and books to keep me sane. (Now I worry the TV will rot her brain, and she often grabs what I’m reading; she straight-up ripped a page of Modern Lovers by Emma Straub!) I’m saddened by this turn of events because a couple of times the culture I was consuming reflected my own experience and it felt magical, like an old friend lighting up your cell phone a moment or two after they were in your thoughts. For instance, I was nursing while reading this description of Mrs. Micawber in David Copperfield: “a thin and faded lady, not at all young, who was sitting in the parlour…with a baby at her breast.” I remember thinking: Well, that’s me all right. I feel about as threadbare as an old pajama shirt. Copperfield goes on to say:

This baby was one of the twins; and I may remark here that I hardly ever, in all my experience of the family, saw both twins detached from Mrs. Micawber at the same time. One of them was always taking refreshment.

“Taking refreshment” —  my daughter, who is honestly quite elegant for her age, loved that line! The next few times we see Mrs. Micawber, she is indeed a human buffet. It’s funny, I’ll give Dickens that. It’s also from the point of view of a young bachelor, far from a mother’s perspective as just about anyone.

It was with great delight, then, to watch season two of the very bawdy and funny television series Catastrophe. In the third episode, Sharon and Rob go to Paris to try to reconnect after having their second child. In the hotel room Sharon reports that her “tits ballooned with milk” after seeing a French baby in the lobby downstairs. I love that she calls her breasts “tits” here — they remain sexualized, and Sharon hasn’t traded her racy vocab for stodgy parenthood. When she realizes she’s forgotten her breast pump at home, I felt as anxious as she did.  For the breastfeeding mother, engorgement is uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and the specter of Mastitis, an infection caused by blocked ducts, can make even the calmest mom panic. (At this year’s AWP my boobs grew so rock hard with unexpressed milk that, in the interest of education, I let a few female writers feel me up.) In this episode of Catastrophe, Robs tries, and fails, to explain to the Parisian pharmacists that his wife needs a breast pump; they think he wants to purchase breast milk itself. Hilarity ensues. Sharon tries to help her husband, but she took German in school, not French, and she’s freaking out about Mastitis. She asks them in a panic, “Do you know what’s gonna come out next time I breastfeed? Not milk.” Here she combines German and English, with a French accent: “Blood und puss!” I laughed and laughed, and I also felt grateful that writers are making such honest and tonally sharp art about an occasionally harrowing, not to mention isolating, female experience.

cover This got me thinking about other meaningful depictions of breastfeeding in fiction. The mother — pun intended — of all nursing scenes is, of course, in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. In the final scene, Rose of Sharon breastfeeds a starving man, echoing the Ancient Roman story about a woman who nurses her imprisoned father, sentenced to death-by-starvation. If the memory of my junior year AP English class serves me well, this last scene further proves the Joads’ selflessness: the man Rose of Sharon feeds isn’t a friend or family member, but a mere stranger. The scene provides a moment of tenderness and connection after so much despair. These two characters are helping each other; the man needs sustenance, and Rose of Sharon, who has lost her baby, needs to connect to and nurture another human being. Or her body does.

cover In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the maternal needs of female slaves are denied, again and again, as their children are treated as commodities. Sethe’s own mother had to work in the fields and was unable to mother Sethe, and Sethe remembers being fed by the wet nurse only after the white babies had been sated, remarking, “There was no nursing milk to call my own. I know what it is to be without the milk that belongs to you; to have to fight and holler for it, and to have so little left.” She thus places much importance on nursing her own children. One of the central precipitating traumas of the book is Sethe’s assault by white teenage boys who drink her milk. (Read this and this for more on Morrison’s novel and this part in particular.) Under slavery, Sethe’s body, no part of it, not even her milk, belongs to her. Or to her child. To deny a mother this right — it’s painful to even imagine. That Sethe chooses to kill her children can be understood as an act of maternal kindness, a kindness that’s been deranged by the horrors of slavery.

cover My Education by Susan Choi, like The Grapes of Wrath and Beloved, also includes a scene of a breastfeeding adult. This time, it’s a sex scene between a young graduate student named Regina, and Martha, who is married to Regina’s professor. Martha also teaches at the university, but she’s on maternity leave. The reader is led to believe that Regina will begin an affair with Martha’s husband, but when the two women meet the attraction is immediate, their romance inevitable. In the scene in question, Martha’s breasts are heavy with milk and when Regina puts her mouth to one of her nipples and sucks, Martha experiences a spasm of relief. It’s sexy, for sure. But not only. It’s also a nod to the age difference between the two lovers (more than a decade), with the younger Regina playing the infant, dependent on this life-giving figure to sustain her. Martha, who is ambivalent about the affair from the get-go, experiences the shock of the Let Down. As any nursing mother knows, pent-up milk doesn’t flow without consequence. At first, it stings a little — as the baby drinks and drinks, carefree now that her needs are met.

coverOne of the fiercest books about motherhood to come out in recent years is After Birth by Elisa Albert, and it’s got plenty of depictions of nursing — babies nursing, that is. Ari gave birth a year ago and she’s still traumatized by her unplanned C-section. Her identity has been turned upside down by motherhood.

“I get it: I’m over. I no longer exist. This is why there’s that ancient stipulation about the childless being ineligible for the study of religious mysticism. This is why there’s all that talk about kid having as express train to enlightenment. You can meditate, you can medicate, you can take peyote in the desert at sunrise, you can self-immolate, or you can have a baby and disappear.”

When Mina, former rock star and poet, moves to town nine-months pregnant, Ari feels hopeful. A friend! Mina had a home birth, but she’s having trouble nursing. She tells Ari, “I had no ideas my nipples could hurt this much! And I used to enjoy light S&M! When he latches I can feel it in my eyeballs!” Even though both my children nursed well from the get-go, there was definitely a learning curve, and Mina’s complaints are funny because they’re so familiar. This was the first time I’d seen the experience recognized in fiction and it felt like a victory. In the scene, Ari tries to give her new mother-friend pointers, and after cooking her a bowl of pasta, Ari nurses Mina’s baby for her. It’s not played for shock. Ari says: “He’s not choosy; he’s goddamn hungry.” The scene is perfectly cast as mundane (Mina, like any tired mother, inhales pasta as Ari feeds her baby) and beautiful. Like nursing itself.

He pulls off for a second, the abundance of surprise, and right away he’s searching for me again, mouth ajar, panting. Open wide. Gulp, gulp. Relaxes into me, eyes closed. The whole room goes all melty. Problem solved. All peaceful and blossomy, like after a good first kiss. Unfold. Bask. I remember this. I can do this. Nothing for her to do but watch.

This is a moment of purpose and peace for Albert’s narrator. For a parent of a baby, there is perhaps no sentence more powerful than “problem solved.”

cover It seems as though I keep coming upon depictions of breastfeeding in fiction. Anna Solomon’s beautiful and expansive (forthcoming) Prohibition-era novel Leaving Lucy Pear opens with an unwed mother, Bea, abandoning her baby beneath a pear tree. Before Bea does so, though, she unbuttons her dress and feeds her child for the last time. “She gasped as the mouth clamped onto her nipple,” Solomon writes, “but the pain was a distraction, too, welcome in its own way.” Bea dislodges the child from her body before the baby is finished eating, and I found that difficult to read, considering the circumstances. Later, the baby, Lucy, is nursed by her adoptive mother. As Emma feeds the child, it feels to her as though Lucy is opening “a new bloody tunnel through her heart.” The connection between these two mothers, Bea and Emma, is profound and particular. And, yet, from their separate vantage points, they cannot even fathom it.

cover And here’s another example: Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran. By the time it’s published next January, my tenure as a nursing mother might already be over. Sekaran’s novel is about a woman named Solimar who’s come to America from Mexico illegally. She gets caught and is sent to a detention center. She has no idea where she is, or how long she will have to stay there. Her young son has been taken from her. She waits in a cell by herself, and as her breasts get more and more engorged, she grows more upset and scared. And hungry. She does not know when she will eat, or how her child will eat. As in the other scenes I’ve described, the physical experience of nursing isn’t denied. Everything emotional about it is also corporeal. But here it isn’t comic, or sensual, or suspenseful. It’s despairing. Her son’s absence is felt in the body. Without any other choice, Soli bends over and nurses herself. Unlike in The Grapes of Wrath, she is alone. For an undocumented mother, there is no help.

When I read that scene, my own daughter was, in Dickens’s words, “taking refreshment.” I had to put the book down, and hold her closer.

Writers who are also mothers are depicting what it’s like to care for a child, and that body of literature gets richer with every season. There are so many elements to parenting that I want to see more of on the page, but nursing, at this specific juncture in my life, seems particularly dramatic. Or maybe, at 3 a.m., alone with my child in the dark living room, I want to believe that’s true.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.





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4 Responses to “Well Fed: Breastfeeding in Literature”

  1. Ellen
    at 4:55 pm on June 23, 2016

    Problem solved! (Or, more likely, just beginning.) A couple more: Maupassant (anticipating the act of kindness in Steinbeck) in “Idylle.” and Toni Morrison, before “Beloved,” keeping it going (not quite to the point of “The Last Emperor”) in “Song of Solomon.”

  2. Evelyn Walsh
    at 12:04 am on June 24, 2016

    The Priss Hartshorn chapter in THE GROUP is all about breastfeeding and postpartum power dynamics– particularly as they relate to the realities of an individual’s experience that doesn’t line up with accepted norms. Like the rest of the book this chapter is astonishingly true and funny yet close to the bone– gorgeous prose, too. There’s even a hilarious line to the effect that Priss doubts whether a baby’s well being should be entrusted to a Republican– going to have to look that up.

  3. Lisa
    at 5:33 pm on June 24, 2016

    You missed book 3 in the Outlander series. 🙃

  4. Evelyn Walsh
    at 10:07 pm on June 24, 2016

    re: Ellen comment– Song of Solomon– Milkman, right? Look out women, here he comes. Have to read that again!

    The cruelty of that moment in Beloved — isn’t that also the book where the mother saves up the last bit of lard for the baby– all so true.

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