On being a mammal: or the really weird thing about breast feeding 

Breasts, when offered to children, are often talked about in terms of their instrumentality: for soothing, for feeding, for bonding, to aid attachment. And breast milk, in terms of its immunological and nutritive benefits is so well lauded culturally that I have been enthusiastically accosted on public benches while nursing just to be told that what I was doing was marvellous (!) I think this focus often distances us from the really weird thing, which 90% of the time we can avoid thinking about: that we are mammals.  What doesn’t get much press is bodily gratification. Maybe breastfeeding could be more about offering infants the chance to trust- and enjoy!- their bodily, embodied, sensuous life for its own sake. Like revel in the fact that we are animals, not just conscious brainboxes on stilts who need breast milk to further our chances of getting into Oxbridge. If there are some mothers like me, and I expect there are, it is a little disconcerting, maybe even a little taboo, to think about breast feeding in this way. Partly because perhaps culturally we are not used to thinking in terms of bodily enjoyment, so culturally accustomed are we to thinking in terms of bodily hatred. But also because many of us have disavowed our beast-y, bodily lives. We have been taught from before we can remember not to be greedy, not to want too much, to learn early that appetite is dangerous. Although I’m an extreme example, perhaps none of us make it out of infancy without some baggage. And the tricky bit of all parenting, at least for me, is parsing out what are my fears and fantasies, based on my own unmet needs, and what is actually there. Who this little baby actually is. I think this is compounded when it is at our unsymbolised intersection of psyche and soma, when it is about how we relate to our bodies before we could talk. Breastfeeding certainly brought me to the badlands of my psyche and asked me to do battle with the ghosts I found there. One of the fantasies or fears I had was that he was insatiable. That he would never stop feeding or never learn to fall asleep by himself if I let him enjoy falling asleep with my breast in his mouth. Although my inner starving infant felt and feared I might never be sated, my task was to separate out my real infant son from my historical hunger. The little guy I was nursing did have a sort of logic to his appetite which I came to appreciate, a kind of architecture of hunger: he would feed, and then be sated. Over and over again, and perhaps at first he would root and guzzle and then his swallows would slow and then there was nothing but his fluttering mouth moving as he slept on my chest. Not insatiable, as I had feared. And he came, in his own time, to stop falling asleep when he fed.

Maybe one of the more useful insights of Psychoanalysis is your relationship to your body is not something you can buy by investing in a gym membership, a new wardrobe and regular wax and nail treatments, rather it is something that happened a very long time ago which we have little conscious control over. Perhaps we could talk about breastfeeding in these terms, and perhaps we could frame it in terms of loving our embodied experience. If we can welcome the stickiness, the pleasures, the smells, the odd rhythms and timescales inherent to infancy and appetite, the eager latch-on, the strangeness sometimes of maybe feeling ones lactating cow-ness, the ravenous mouth, the insistent clinging, the finding-in-his-own-time, the noises of greed and pleasure, all for its own sake, maybe that is worth pondering. Even if it is a little disconcerting.

One of the most compelling of Winnicotts theories is his notion of ‘holding.’ That it matters how we are held when we are infants, that it matters how our body is first touched and handled and welcomed into this world out of the womb. That not good-enough holding leaves a psychic scar, that psyche and soma are inextricably intertwined. Susie Orbach, a psychoanalyst and feminist thinker, explores in great depth how we might come to inhabit our bodies by way of our experiences of feeding in infancy. Arguably, the capacity to enjoy living from our body is a key ingredient of The Good Life.

For someone who has spent a huge chunk of their life living in their head, it has been astonishing to find my way into a body. There are many reasons I was exiled, and many reasons I found my way back, but a contributing factor was caring for my son in the first year of his life. Perhaps for the first time in my life-in a sustained way- it was necessary to relate to another person non-verbally, through touch.

The body pulled the short straw in the Cartesian divorce. It does not get the respect it deserves, the way mind does. The body is something to be disciplined, managed through diet, exercise and grooming, taken to work, put to bed, something that is showed off or covered up or objectified or punished. We are frightened of our bodies. We want to ‘tame our baser natures.’ The body is rarely something that is lived from, related to with respect, or enjoyed. Our animal needs for sleep, for touch, for sex, for food, for movement are not always acknowledged, much less worshipped. But I think if we were to claim this part of ourselves, if we could elevate the body – our bodily needs and desires and pleasures- to the same status as we accord intellectual pursuits and other symbolic gratification like careers or money- we might live richer lives. Anyone who has seen a newborn blissfully pass out in a milk coma with a breast in his mouth might be converted to cults of the soma.

For the first year of my son’s life, I organised his life and my life around his bodily needs. Perhaps this is a kind of act of worship, or at least a Winnicottian act of ‘ordinary maternal devotion.’I think we could do this more, as a culture, for ourselves. For our inner infants, for our animal selves. Organise our life around what makes our bodies purr. Perhaps we could postpone our gold rush to logos, our frantic efforts to teach ABCs and abstract knowledge and routines till we have stepped into our own skins and till we have a body, some proper meat on our bones. Perhaps we could revel in our animal natures a little more, and instead of seeing appetite and ‘baser instincts’ and our bodies as something that need to be tamed, perhaps we could unleash them a little. Let the bridle come off. See where our animal selves take us, see what they sniff out, when they want to eat and what they would like to eat and who they’d like to run in a pack with. Perhaps we could allow ourselves to be a little more free-range, to enjoy our creature comforts, to listen to ourselves when our bodies tell us they’re hungry or tired or working too hard. I’m not advocating a daily chaotic Dionysian carnival of the flesh, but perhaps just a bit of listening, a little dignity accorded to our inner -infant -animal -self. This attitude of reverence to our mammalian natures might make us feel a little more vital, a little more alive, a little more like we love our bodies. Perhaps we might notice that they are places worth living from.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

DW Winnicott, Babies and their mothers

Susie Orbach, Hunger Strike / On eating

2 thoughts on “On being a mammal: or the really weird thing about breast feeding ”

  1. I love this. I think I relate best to people when I see them first as animals, and then as humans. I feel like if I had a child I would not only watch how humans mother, but also how animals mother for guidance. I think I am a little fearful about saying that outloud!

    Your writing brought this poem to mind, maybe you know it, “Wild Geese” By Mary Oliver:

    You do not have to be good.
    You do not have to walk on your knees
    For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
    You only have to let the soft animal of your body
    love what it loves.
    Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
    Meanwhile the world goes on.
    Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
    are moving across the landscapes,
    over the prairies and the deep trees,
    the mountains and the rivers.
    Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
    are heading home again.
    Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
    the world offers itself to your imagination,
    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
    over and over announcing your place
    in the family of things.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aw Sasha, thank you for your thinking on this. I love the poem by the way, please read it to me when we see each other next!!! I guess we were famously raised by cats. Not wolves which would be much cooler, but hey, you can’t choose your parents….


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