Thinking Maternity Through Milky Breasts

I gave birth to my daughter Molly when I was thirty-nine years old. Five miscarriages over an eighteen-year period had preceded her. As such, her existence in-utero was always precarious for me and to defend myself I could only tentatively relish in the exuberance of pregnancy. But she arrived, all 9 lb 8 oz of her, curled up in a chunky ball, her full head of hair diffusing the anger of birth in her little red face. The anxiety of whether she would or would not survive the apparent inhospitality of my womb may have been somewhat assuaged on her arrival in the outside world, but for me the precariousness of her existence continued.

Her highly medicalised emergency C-section delivery was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. Alive and yet lying on the slab, numb to all physicality except for the waves of nausea, emotions existing only as thoughts and not feelings, hearing other people’s descriptions of her before I laid eyes on her myself, the last person in a room of eighteen people to see her. Absolute disconnection. “Where’s my baby?!” raging through my mind, and yet no words were able to come out. And then, finally, wiped clean of blood and all visible trace of my interiority, she was carried over to me. This wrinkly little angry crusty bundle.

I didn’t know whether to throw up or cry. Instead I held her, smelt her and kissed her little face. I could have inhaled her in one breath. That sweet beautiful smell of amniotic fluid, like soft wet hay. And so from that traumatic day began a journey of unparalleled intimacy and significance, one which was held in constant tension with a feeling of absolute disconnection through trauma, precariousness and overwhelming anxieties of separation and loss. This intensity felt like a secret I had to carry myself, an unbearable weight.

I had to undertake a lot of work to make links across the loops of disconnection, to try to make sense of things, psychically as well as in the micro- and macro-social context of what it means to mother. It was impossible for me to capture, express, and therefore communicate the intensity of maternity. So much remained incommunicable: too slippery, elusive, contradictory, affective, visceral, too excessive. Yet it was precisely within this site of excess where the profundity lay for me, it was within this elusive arena that I needed to make my meaning. In the end, the space (physical, bodily, temporal and psychic) where much of this work took place was in the context of breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding offered me a unique arena of blurred spatial and temporal dimensions, an obscuration of the limits of being both mother and daughter, a deeply sensual realm of absolute intersubjectivity, mutuality and intimate reciprocity that I had never experienced before. That is not to say that breastfeeding was not without its problems for me, and its profundity should not be confused with a romantic sentimentality, nor should the assumption be that I am claiming mothering can only be made sense of through the experience of breastfeeding. For several weeks after my daughter’s birth I felt inadequate, judged, trapped and alone due to my lack of this supposedly intuitive, natural, maternal skill.

My resilience to continue was not in response to the all-pervasive cultural discourses of ‘breast is best’ but another drive within me, one might say a psychic necessity, which at the time I couldn’t adequately grasp or articulate but which has become more clear as my relationship with my daughter has developed. Breastfeeding became the embodied temporal and spatial arena for the playing out and negotiating of psychosocial tensions and realities.

How breastfeeding became meaningful for me was a complex interrelation of internal and external factors, of psychic and social life. Yet the meaning assigned to breastfeeding through the dominant cultural discourses and its representations seems to occlude all of this. Instead breastfeeding is yet another opportunity for mothers to demonstrate self-sacrifice, to remain as objects in service to their child’s needs, as breastfeeding becomes an essential component of “good mothering”. Breastfeeding has become replete in symbolic capital. But of course the value is not in breastfeeding per se but particular types of breastfeeding practices, located in particular types of parenting contexts, taking place in certain types of places and involving certain types of bodies.

The cultural images of breastfeeding and the discourses that support these images do not represent my experience of breastfeeding and it is for this reason that it has become imperative for me to inquire into the meanings given to breastfeeding by mothers themselves. I look to mothers’ own visual depictions of breastfeeding in order to draw attention to that which escapes meaning in the mainstream cultural accounts: such as the sensuality, sexuality and eroticism of this fluid exchange; experiences of pain, maternal hatred and nursing aversion; the potentiality to think about an ethical, radical relationship to the other; and importantly the possibility for a centralised maternal subjectivity.

Meanings that are of both social and psychical significance.  Meanings that exceed, unsettle and challenge the cultural fantasies of the maternal body and the colonising normativity of the cultural discourses on breastfeeding. Meanings that may or may not intersect with my own, but meanings that come from the lived experience of breastfeeding with all its excessive sites for interpretation. The emergence of a new cultural archive of breastfeeding imagery that the digital age affords us, is therefore, something in which I place great value as a cultural catalyst for the expression and articulation of a very particular maternal experience.

Sharon Tugwell is a second year PhD student in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck College. Her research aims to explore the psychosocial significance of the contemporary phenomenon of breastfeeding selfies.

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