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Mother of Milk

By Brenda Clews

April 2004

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.

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.

I won’t say that I am not embarrassed talking about being a stay-at-home mother, or that I didn’t suffer the effacement, the feminine mystique, of those who— defined by the work they do, its lack of income and status— fall outside of the dominant mode of subjectivity in our culture. I feel especially awkward when I hear of the deep pain of women who struggled with the separation issues of combining mothering and work outside the home. One ponders, though, if one could take one’s babies and toddlers to work or to a daycare at work, if this was the norm, how different it could be for women who have children. Be that as it may, there are many sides to the mother story that each of us weaves out of our own experiences and which we have just begun in our many voices to tell. There should be room also for mine.

As I tell my story, I wonder what this intensive, embodied learning meant? The route, its rhythms, the way it’s continued its strange melodies, the places it took me, were unexpected. In the years since I have many times said that breastfeeding taught me how to meditate. If the male creator god arrogated the life-giving, reproductive powers of the female, and of the goddess behind her, then I would also posit a connection between breastfeeding and the art of meditation. Having since become a yoga teacher, and having spent many hours chanting mantras and meditating mainly with other women, I would say not only that I learnt to find the stillness within, but that the predominant metaphor for my particular form of spiritual expression, to turn to another side of this, is that of maternal love, of the milk of mother love. Mothering took me to the Adi Shakti of the yoga tradition I studied. She is an incarnation of the Divine Mother, who has become my particular tutelary spirit, who I turn to for unconditional acceptance, nourishment, comfort, who I ask to fill me with trust and strong love in the middle of the night when I cannot sleep, who I turn to for help when my children are throwing tantrums, or I am upset. Divine Mother has become my main goddess energy. While many goddesses come to mind, such as the Babylonian Ishtar, Greek Gaia and Hera, Christian Mary, Japanese Amaterasu, Chinese Kwan Yin, Nordic Freya, Indian Kali Ma, as well as present day Divine Mother incarnations in India, like the Gurus Karunamayi and Mother Meera, it is Isis, great goddess of ancient Egypt and of magic, of women in childbirth, of women suckling their young, of many groups of pagan, Wiccan women throughout the millennia, who I feel closest to. In my practice as a witch, a priestess, when I set up a sacred circle and light the votive candles and offer incantations and prayers to the forces that be, it is always Divine Mother whom I ultimately call upon, whose unconditional love and wisdom I ask to channel. What I am exploring through my life experience, the route I have chosen in a female incarnated form, in this inscribed and gendered body, is, then, inclusive of earth-based religions, which are important in their own right, but also moves towards an embodied spirituality.

It is in my mothering experiences that I have found unexpected gifts. These gifts were contained in what flowed through me, somehow the strength and forbearance gained from offering comfort. Perhaps it was the self-sacrifice of my dominant self for an underlying maternal consciousness that indicated an unconditional love and infinite compassion for the other are possible modes not only of consciousness, but of being— on good days at least. I know that there are many ways of coming to this knowledge, that this is only the particular path I took to interweave body, mind, and soul, to integrally combine multiple aspects of my/self in a multiple unity that, even in its discontinuous segments, has a wholeness that is satisfying, is inwardly nourishing. I think it’s about having the courage to be, in all your moments, in all the places and people you find yourself in and with, in all your activities, in all your giving to the world through whatever you do, and anyway you get to that is fine, is good. Let me close with an image of the ancient Egyptian goddess, Hathor, the ‘mother of light,’ whose milk, flowing from her abundant breasts, creates the stars of the Milky Way, among whom we are nestled on our creative, living planet of diversity... let the bright blue-green pearl of our home in the universe rest gently in your consciousness... in you, gently with sweet warmth and nourishment...

mmo : april 2004

This essay was originally presented at Mothering, Religion and Spirituality, the 7th Annual Conference of the Association for Research on Mothering, Oct. 25, 2003, at York University, Toronto, Canada.

Brenda Clews is a writer, artist, dancer, performance poet, yoga instructor and mother of two teenagers in Vancouver, Canada. She has degrees in Fine Arts and English from York University.

“I wrote this piece to express the very real conflicts women experience when they have children. Even though I was preparing for an academic career in the 1980s, I opted to stay home because my options for childcare did not seem to offer a way to put my beliefs in equality into practice. They, instead, reinforced the divide of a male-dominated ‘important’ work of the workplace and the female-dominated low status work of the domestic sphere. Childcare was largely done by women, and there were ‘sub’ classes of women being created through the childcare system. Hiring another woman to look after my children, either as a nanny or a daycare worker, was not going to dent, in any significant way for me, the structure of the inequality between the sexes. The most radical thing that I could do, and this, paradoxically, was also the most conservative, was to approach motherhood as a viable topic for feminist study from the inside and see what I could gather from my own mothering experiences.”

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