Stumbling Into Breastfeeding

Is spit-up amazing? Is engorgement like an erection? Author Anne Enright’s unique view of becoming a breastfeeding mama.
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Updated March 2, 2017
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Image: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

_Every mom has a different perspective on breastfeeding, and we had to share this essay, a chapter from _ Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood , by Anne Enright. What do you think of Enright’s musings on breastfeeding? Tell us in the comments!

by Anne Enright

The milk surprises me. It does not disgust me as much as I thought it would, unless it is not fresh. It is disturbing that a piece of you should go off so quickly. I don’t think Freud ever discussed lactation, but the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bodily products here is very fine. Women leak so much. Perhaps this is why we clean — which is to say that a man who cleans is always ‘anal’, a woman who cleans is just a woman.

There certainly is a lot of it, and it gets everywhere, and the laundry is a fright. But what fun! to be granted a new bodily function so late in life. As if you woke up one morning and could play the piano. From day to day the child is heavier in your arms, she plumps up from wrist to ankle, she has dimples where her knuckles were, she has fat on her toes. I thought we might trade weight, pound for pound, but she is gaining more than I am losing. I am faced with bizarre and difficult calculations — the weight of the groceries in a bag versus the weight of her nappies in a bag. Or my weight, plus a pint of water, minus four ounces of milk, versus her weight, plus four ounces, divided by yesterday. When I was at school, a big-chested friend put her breasts on the scales and figured that they weighed 2 pounds each. I don’t know how she did it, but I still think that she was wrong. Heavier. Much heavier.

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It is quite pleasant when a part of your body makes sense, after many years. A man can fancy your backside, but you still get to sit on it; breasts, on the other hand, were always just there. Even so, the anxiety of pregnancy is the anxiety of puberty all over again. I am thirty-seven. I don’t want my body to start ‘doing’ things, like some kind of axolotl. I do not believe people when they say these things will be wonderful, that they are ‘meant’. I am suspicious of the gleam in women’s eyes, that pack of believers, and listen instead to the voice of a friend who breastfed her children until they were twenty-eight and a half, and who now says, ‘They’re like ticks.’

So I feed the child because I should, and resign myself to staying home. I never liked being around nursing women — there was always too much love, too much need in the room. I also suspected it to be sexually gratifying. For whom? Oh, for everyone: for the mother, the child, the father, the father-in-law. Everyone’s voice that little bit nervy, as though it weren’t happening: everyone taking pleasure in a perv-lite middle-class sort of way. Ick. ‘The only women who breast-feed are doctors’ wives and tinkers,’ a friend’s mother was told forty years ago, by the nurse who delivered her. I thought I sensed a similar distaste in the midwives, a couple of months ago, who were obliged by hospital and government policy to prod the child and pinch my nipple, though perhaps — let’s face it, sisters — not quite that hard. It is probably easier for men, who like breasts in general, but I have always found them mildly disgusting, at least up close. They also often make me jealous. Even the word ‘breast’ is difficult. Funny how many people say they find public breastfeeding a bit ‘in your face’. Oh, the rage.

So, let us call it ‘nursing’ and let us be discreet — it is still the best way I know to clear a room. My breast is not the problem (left, or right, whichever is at issue), the ‘problem’ is the noise. Sometimes the child drinks as simply as from a cup, other times she snorts and gulps, half-drowns, sputters and gasps; then she squawks a bit, and starts all over again. This may be an iconised activity made sacred by some and disgusting by others, but it is first and foremost a meal. It is only occasionally serene. It also takes a long time. I do smile at her and coo a bit, but I also read a lot (she will hate books), talk, or type (this, for example). Afterwards she throws up. People stare at the whiteness of it, as I did at first. Look. Milk.

‘It was the whiteness of the whale that above all appalled me.’ The nineteenth century took their breasts very seriously, or so I suspect — I can’t really get into a library to check. I am thinking of those references I found particularly exciting or unsettling as a child. The heroes of King Solomon’s Mines, for example, as they toil up Sheba’s left Breast (a mountain) suffering from a torturing thirst. The chapter is called ‘Water Water!’ and comes from a time when you were allowed to be so obvious it hurt. ‘Heavens, how we did drink!’ These extinct volcanoes are ‘inexpressibly solemn and overpowering’ and difficult to describe. They are wreathed about with ‘strange mists and clouds [that] gathered and increased around them, till presently we could only trace their pure and gigantic outline swelling ghostlike through the fleecy envelope’. In a desperate drama of hunger and satiation our heroes climb through lava and snow up to the hillock of the enormous, freezing nipple. There they find a cave, occupied by a dead man (what?! what?!), and in this cave one of their party also dies: Ventvogel, a ‘hottentot’ whose ‘snub-nose’ had, when he was alive, the ability to sniff out water (we don’t want to know).

So far, so infantile. I watch the child’s drama at the breast, and (when I am not reading, typing, or talking) cheer her along. She wakes with a shout in the middle of the night, and I wonder at her dreams; there is a dead man in a cave, perhaps, somewhere about my person. Oh, dear. When did it all get so serious? I turn to Swift for the comedy, as opposed to tragedy, of scale, but Gulliver perched on a Brobdingnagian nipple turns out, on rereading, to be part of a great disgustfest about giant women pissing. None of this seems _true _to me. I have no use for the child’s disgust, as she has no use for mine. I am besotted by a being who is, at this stage, just a set of emotions arranged around a gut. Who is just a shitter, who is just a soul.

Are all mothers Manicheans? This is just one of the hundreds of questions that have never been asked about motherhood. What I am interested in is not the drama of being a child, but this new drama of being a mother (yes, there are cannibals in my dreams, yes) about which so little has been written. Can mothers not hold a pen? Or is it just the fact that we are all children, when we write?

I go to Books Upstairs in Dublin, to find a poem by Eavan Boland. The child in the stroller is ghetto fabulous in a white babygro complete with hoodie. I am inordinately, sadly proud of the fact that she is clean. We negotiate the steps, we knock over some books. The child does a spectacular crap in the silence of the shop, in front of the section marked ‘Philosophy’. I say, ‘Oh, look at all the books. Oh, _look _at all the books,’ because I believe in talking to her, and I don’t know what else to say.

The poem is called ‘Night Feed’ and is beautifully measured and very satisfying: ‘A silt of milk. / The last suck. / And now your eyes are open, / Birth coloured and offended.’

But the poet chooses a bottle not a breast, placing the poem in the bland modernity of the suburbs. I grew up in those suburbs. I know what we were running away from. Because the unpalatable fact is that the Ireland of my childhood had the closest thing to a cow cult outside of India. When I was eleven, I won a Kodak Instamatic camera in the Milk Competition, a major annual event, when every school child in the country had to write an essay called ‘The Story of Milk’. I can still remember the arrival of the Charolais cattle, which marked the beginning of Ireland’s love affair with Europe. The most exciting thing about economic union, for my farming relatives, was not the promise of government grants but this big-eyed, nougat-coloured breed of bull whose semen could be used in beef or dairy herds — as good, if you will pardon the phrase, for meat as for milk. It was a romantic animal, as hopeful as the moon shot. There were cuff-links made in the shape of the Charolais and men wore them to Mass and to the mart. And the romance lingers on. A couple of years ago, a media personality of my acquaintance bought four of them, to match her curtains.

The country was awash with milk. Kitchens and bedrooms were hung with pictures of the Madonna and child. After the arrival of infant formula in the fifties, breast-feeding became more of a chosen, middle-class activity, but it was still common in the countryside, and was everywhere practised as a fairly optimistic form of contraception. Still, though general all over Ireland, breast-feeding was absolutely hidden. The closest the culture came to an image of actual nursing was in the icon of the Sacred Heart, endlessly offering his male breast, open and glowing, and crowned with thorns.

Actually, you know, breast-feeding hurts. Certainly, at first, it really fucking hurts. On the third night of my daughter’s life I was left with a human being the size of a cat and nothing to sustain her with but this stub. Madwomen (apparently) think that their babies are possessed. And they are. They look at you, possessed by their own astonishing selves. You say, Where did that come from? You say, Where did YOU come from? This baby is pure need — a need you never knew you had. And all you have to offer is a mute part of your body which, you are told, will somehow start ‘expressing’, as though it might start singing ‘Summertime’. You feed your child, it seems, on hope alone. There is nothing to see. You do not believe the milk exists until she throws it back up, and when she does, you want to cry. What is not quite yours as it leaves you, is definitely yours as it comes back.

So there we were in the hospital dark; me and my white Dracula, her chin running with milk and her eyes black. What I remember is how fully human her gaze was, even though it was so new. She seemed to say that this was a serious business, that we were in it together. Tiny babies have such emotional complexity. I am amazed that ‘bravery’ is one of the feelings she has already experienced, that she should be born so intrepid and easily affronted, that she should be born so much herself.

She is also, at this early stage, almost gender free. This is useful. The statistics on how much less girl babies are breastfed, as opposed to boys, are shocking. There are probably a number of reasons for this, but one of them surely is the degree to which our society has sexualized the breast. All in all, sex has ruined breastfeeding. It is a moral business these days — a slightly dirty, slightly wonderful, always unsettling, duty. It has no comic aspects. No one has told the child this: she seems to find it, finally, quite amusing — as indeed do I.

We turn to Sterne to find glee, envy, all those ravening eighteenth-century emotions, transmuted by language into delight. Shandy quotes Ambrose Paraeus on the stunting effect of the nursing breast on a child’s nose, particularly those ‘organs of nutrition’ that have ‘firmness and elastic repulsion’. These were 'the undoing of the child, inasmuch as his nose was so snubb’d, so rebuff’d, so rebated, and so refrigerated thereby, as never to arrive ad mensuram suam legitimam’. What was needed was a soft, flaccid breast so that, ‘by sinking into it . . . as into so much butter, the nose was comforted, nourish’d, plump’d up, refresh’d, refocillated, and set a growing for ever’.

This was still when ‘breast’ was a common, easy word. Men placed their hands on their breasts, had pistols pointed at them, and were in general so set to a-swelling and a-glowing as to put the girls to shame. There is a distinction between ‘breast’ and ‘breasts’, of course, but it is still charming to think that this seat of honesty and sentiment is the singular of a plural that provoked desire. As if, in modern terms, we got horny watching someone’s eyes fill with tears. As, indeed, sometimes, we do.

No. The milk surprises me, above all, because it hurts as it is let down, and this foolish pain hits me at quite the wrong times. The reflex is designed to work at the sight, sound, or thought of your baby — which is spooky enough — but the brain doesn’t seem to know what a baby is, exactly, and so tries to make you feed anything helpless, or wonderful, or small. So I have let down milk for Russian submariners and German tourists dying on Concorde. Loneliness and technology get me every time, get my milk every time. Desire, also, stabs me not in the heart but on either side of the heart — but I had expected this. What I had not expected was that there should be some things that do not move me, that move my milk. Or that, sometimes, I only realise that I am moved when I feel the pain. I find myself lapsed into a memory I cannot catch, I find myself trying to figure out what it is in the room that is sad or lovely — was it that combination of words, or the look on his face? — what it is that has such a call on my unconscious attention, or my pituitary, or my alveolar cells.

There is a part of me, I have realized, that wants to nurse the stranger on the bus. Or perhaps it wants to nurse the bus itself, or the tree I see through the window of the bus, or the child I once was, paying my fare on the way home from school. This occasional incontinence is terrifying. It makes me want to shout — I am not sure what. Either, Take it! or, Stop! If the world would stop needing then my body would come back to me. My body would come home.

I could ask (in a disingenuous fashion) if this is what it is like to be bothered by erections. Is this what it is like to be bothered by tears? Whatever — I think we can safely say that when we are moved, it is some liquid that starts moving: blood, or milk, or salt water. I did not have a very tearful pregnancy, mostly because we don’t have a television. Pregnant women cry at ads for toilet tissue: some say it is the hormones, but I think we have undertaken such a great work of imagining, we are prone to wobble on the high wire. Of course, the telly has always been a provoker of second-hand tears as well as second-hand desire. Stories, no matter how fake, produce a real biological response in us, and we are used to this. But the questions my nursing body raises are more testing to me. Do we need stories in order to produce emotion, or is an emotion already a story? What is the connection, in other words, between narrative and my alveolar cells?

I suspect, as I search the room for the hunger by the fireplace, or the hunger in her cry, that I have found a place before stories start. Or the precise place where stories start. How else can I explain the shift from language that has happened in my brain? This is why mothers do not write, because motherhood happens in the body, as much as the mind. I thought childbirth was a sort of journey that you could send dispatches home from, but of course it is not — it _is _home. Everywhere else now, is ‘abroad’.

A child came out of me. I cannot understand this, or try to explain it. Except to say that my past life has become foreign to me. Except to say that I am prey, for the rest of my life, to every small thing.


— Reprinted from Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood, by Anne Enright. Copyright © 2004 by Anne Enright. First American edition 2011. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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