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Brenda Clews
Mother & Child, 1989
Mother of Milk

By Brenda Clews

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Breastfeeding my two children until they weaned themselves, a total of five years, I went from filling my time with constant doing, a consumption— of time, activities, ideas— to being able to be with the vast silence of the interior stillness. In this learning of a deeper rhythm that seemingly encompassed the discordant ambiguities, difficulties, discontinuities, traumas, and irreconcilable aspects, as well as the joys and unities, of my life my spiritual understandings and practices underwent a profound metamorphosis.

Topoi of the breast: soft, round, like landscape, like hills and valleys, not hard, stony, but tender, warm, place of giving, of comfort, of fullness, of milk. Mother-of-milk. Large and wet, delicious. Baby loves Mama’s warm and sweet milk, rich droplets on tiny tongue, this first golden food, gurgling down into the warm area somewhere near the heart where it hurts when empty and where the rich milk flows, filling until sleepy, satiated. The smell of milk everywhere, on my clothes, on my baby’s clothes. Like an untamed perfume that follows me through the years, that buttermilk smell still blossoms in the air sometimes. I’m not sure what causes the sudden connection— an old loose t-shirt, my still comfortable black nursing bra amongst my lingerie— but then my body recalls ‘let down,’ the milk filling the buds in the breasts, waiting for the tiny mouth to latch on, the bright eyes, little hands curling on the breast, or holding onto Mommy’s finger, her welcoming hand. At such moments I almost expect to find my top soaking with breast milk in the remembering: the body has a way of never forgetting its experiences.

Breastfeeding was not easy at first, which, with both my babies, was painful, with cracked nipples when the colostrum receded for the milk to come in, and each time engorged, which only hot bathtubs soothed when I put my swollen breasts in, swaying them in the steamy water, but easy after. The crying, and the offer of the nipple, and the sucking, then the flow of milk, warmth, nourishment flowing from my body without my willing it, struggling to achieve it, simple comfort from my body, from the maternal body. Me but not-me. Something I did, breastfeed on demand, but beyond me, not of my ego. Something I gave, but didn’t consciously create, that flowed through me, the one to the other, my body feeding my baby’s body, without effort, simple act of latching on, the comfort of milk, these waves flowing in my body, soothing my heart too.

I learnt to live this simplicity. Women all over the world breastfeed for up to four years. I would breastfeed on demand, whenever the baby needed. I didn’t know the dissension this decision would create with my mother, my mother-in-law, and my husband, who actually brought home a box of formula once. They all thought me indulgent and excessive (even though I was breastfed for 8 months, it was via a strict schedule).

Yet here was another way of knowing, the cradle of another rhythm. I was 35 when my first child was born. I had spent the previous ten to fifteen years reading three to seven books a week. Naive mother that I was, I thought I could continue my voracious habit while the little nipper sucked happily away. At first, after the engorgement passed, and the nipples healed, he would lose his grip often enough for me to give up my book and help him through. Then the love dance took over. The touching of hands, fingers, singing to him, caressing his tiny curve of body, his letting go of the milky nipple to gaze into my eyes and croon a baby song, just being in that flow, often silent in the richness of it, became the norm as the books were abandoned, and increasingly suffering from sleep deprivation as he woke up regularly all night, every night, I was too tired to follow even the pattern of a paragraph.

Sometimes I did mind this abrupt change in my habits. Often I felt intellectually starved. I missed university life, was distraught about not finishing a thesis. When he began crawling he explored everything, including my books and their rip-able pages. We could not go into my book-lined study, which sat as an unused room in the house. He was in his second year before I could consider reading, which was now on the subject of babies and toddlers. And then, at 38, my daughter was born, and so the process began all over again. There is enough of a belief in Zen Buddhism in me for me to embrace the idea that every experience, no matter how humble, contains a way to learn spiritually, has its own message of enlightenment.

breastfeeding was both a forgetting and a remembering

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