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Mother of Milk by Brenda Clews

page two

What I found with breastfeeding was both a forgetting and a remembering. Had I lived in my head, even if passionately so, and now was being taken into my heart by my children? My babies were teachers of another kind of time: not linear, the ‘to do’ list that stretches to infinity, but the time of the infinite, where space opens to an oceanic vastness. Of all the years spent breastfeeding I never wrote the flow of thoughts during those times; instead, it was like the dream you didn’t record in the morning, murmuring of something indefinable yet almost articulated, but gone. Only once, perhaps a year after my daughter weaned herself, trying to put words to the wordless, to remember where I was in those endless sessions of breastfeeding, I wrote: “milk flowing– your tiny body, baby smells beautiful–soft, warm, love–flows–milk flows– love into your body–i am so tired, my body heavy under the sheets–milk flows–drink darling–grow strong on my love–the nite light, soft, warm, your glow...” “It means I love you all the time” says Kyra at three years old, when I read it to her from my journal, and whose words I wrote next to the entry.

Writing on the map of milk ducts, rivulets of milk, pouring not down the mountain but to its tip, sensitive, erectile tissue of the nipple, dark red, the multiple streams of white milk flowing through my breast.

Metamorphosis from blood to milk... the woman-becoming food... starlight pouring into the baby’s body...

What was I learning? Endless hours sitting while my babies contentedly suckled. Hours in which I could think, theorize experience, gather ideas together. Pretty soon I tired of considering all the books I had read, thought all the thoughts I had to think on everything in my life experience up to then. Boredom sometimes set in. Endless hours, rocking, holding my bundles of love, humming, singing lullabies, switching breasts, maybe 40 or 45 minutes, or more, would pass before my baby was finally sated. And then an hour or two later, we begin again. Sitting, rocking, my thoughts emptying, rocking on that ocean, itself a strength beyond endurance, something my baby and I could each trust to offer comfort, nourishment, peace through the colicky nights, the exhaustion of continually broken sleep, something which carried us through, was always there, like an inherent divinity in all the moments, a vital force of life.

When my first child was about a year and a half, I put a one-day ad in the paper for a nanny, and received about 200 phone calls, of whom I interviewed about 60 women. My son, not yet weaned, during the interview process, either clung to me, or ran, crying, into a corner of the room each time a potential nanny attempted to connect to him. As I listened to stories of dislocation, of leaving families in their native countries, of their work as nannies, of the further 200 hours of unpaid community work they were required to do in their application for landed immigrant status, most of which was spent changing sheets, cleaning bed pans, and scrubbing bathrooms in hospitals, of their desperate search for work after the required two years with the family that had sponsored them had lapsed, of their grieving for the children whose care brought them here, I thought, angry at the system for hired childcare help in our country, heartbroken for these women, could I use such a woman, and further how would I justify to myself that, somehow, I was better than she, and above the work of child raising?

I need to interject here and say that I am not against nannies. My life was graced by the most beautiful, large and loving Black nanny in my childhood in a jungle in Zambia, where I joined happily in with her brood of children. As I struggled with the question of a nanny for my son, though, having white South African parents, and hence coming from a lineage of exploitation of people of colour, I also suffered deep ethical anxieties as I struggled with the issues involved.

For many complex and even contradictory reasons, after my savings had run out, I decided to forgo returning to work and the privilege of being able to hire another woman to look after my child, decided to make the economic, social, and career sacrifices– and they were considerable– and stay home. And why, I thought, shouldn’t I approach this task as a feminist and try to remember the years that are usually forgotten in the silence our culture applies to them?

My husband at the time did not support my decision, and my staying home was often a point of contention. As a publisher he was able to give me freelance editorial work, however, so I did contribute to the family income, though I was immersed in the stay-at-home mother culture. I consider myself a “neither/nor,” I was not a ‘working mother,’ though I earned about the equivalent of a receptionist salary, nor was I a true stay-at-home mother like my friends at the time. For the most part, we were not a ‘privileged’ group in the sense that Chris Bobel talks about in The Paradox of Natural Mothering (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002) but, rather, lived at subsistence level, everyone subsidizing their housing in some fashion or other (rent-geared-to-income, boarders, parents). Like my friends, I was barely able to stay home financially, yet chose to anyhow.

A large part of my rationale for remaining at home with my children was the sense of being on an inner spiritual quest, of finding what was of value not only in the joyful, which there was in bounty, but in the weary, the menial, the culturally unconsidered yet enormous work of raising children. I would never suggest that anyone else follow this path, it was a waste of my potential in many ways, and yet I feel I progressed spiritually during these years. My children have not turned out any better than children who were in daycare from four months on, or who had nannies, or babysitters. I didn’t do it because I thought ‘the mother is best for her children,’ as is often cited in defence of mothers who stay home, but perhaps because, coming from a difficult relationship with my own mother, to take on the full time care of my children was a self-healing act. Through the physically and emotionally demanding work that young children are I learnt the song of the loving of children, and their precious loving of me. Through the rhythm of this music, jarring and difficult as its passages could sometimes be, mothering my children I mothered the un-mothered in myself. I am trying now to re-find my way back into the world, much older, perhaps no wiser, but I want to bring the multi-faceted rhythm of what I learned of the mother and child connection with me, to hear its strangely primal and loving music in the background of my own consciousness at all times.

there are many sides to the mother story

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