Why Don’t Breasts Make More Noise?
“Beep beep”, says my daughter, gently, but still annoyingly, prodding the nipple she has been feeding at. And I think of the “Honk honk” breasts have been assigned more traditionally, by grown-ups in their less grown-up moments.
But it’s a fair criticism: breasts have a fatal flaw. They are an almost-complete multi-sensory experience. From birth a baby uses their most developed senses to find what they need most; skin-to-skin helps them use Touch and Smell to navigate to the nipple, and there are remarkable videos of newborns using innate reflexes to find their way there.
Taste must follow hot on the heels of these first two senses. I did once dip a finger in some expressed milk, out of curiosity, and found it to be a rather foul musty flavour, but each to their own. Human milk is sweeter than cows’, presumably giving us a taste for a lifetime of syrupy lattes, and giving the hot sweet tea, prescribed to those suffering from shock, its comforting kick.
At some point later, the visual appearance of breasts becomes apparent, and it’s definitely their least important quality in the eyes of an infant – ironically, considering that for their mother appearance may well have been the breasts’ most important quality up until now. But nevertheless, the look of a boob or two is a tempting prospect – a plunging neckline catches the attention of red-blooded adult and infant enthusiast alike. I am careful to wrap myself in a towel after bathing, these days less due to modesty than because I’d like to get dressed without exposing my equipment for an opportunistic nibble.
But what of the audio element? Did God forget? Run out of time? From an early age my daughters sought to make up for this deficiency by supplementing the nursing experience with a sort of idle mouth-full yodelling. Whether an appreciative hymn or a summons to make the milk flow faster is unclear, but it certainly drew accompanying percussive huffs and puffs from their sleep-deprived father.
I can’t help being glad at the taciturn nature of the mammary gland. Even without my boobs playing a tune, breastfeeding a toddler attracts more attention than I’d like. Only because it somehow feels too public a declaration of my parenting choices, as if it’s something I’m doing stridently, almost aggressively, challenging others to find it offensive, rather than the natural continuation of my relationship with my child. (I think this feeling was uppermost in my heart when I warmed to Elena Ferrante’s recent column about women having to be careful not to be ‘too much’ of anything. We have our own internal spies keeping us in line, holding us back from transgressing, I’m not sure when mine were first appointed, certainly before puberty.) Like all the positive parts of motherhood, I am wary of discussing breastfeeding because it can seem smug or gushy, and I don’t think I’m alone in this reluctance. Before I had a child I knew I wanted one desperately but wasn’t sure why as I’d barely heard a good word said about motherhood. Maybe I filtered it out, but maybe happy parents were careful to self-censor.
It turns out motherhood is tiring and requires sacrifices – or choices as they should rightly be called from a position of privilege. Choices that sometimes bring feelings of ambivalence. None of this has surprised me that much. What I have found surprising is both the extent to which I have enjoyed motherhood and the extent to which that in itself has felt like a thorny issue. I was shocked to hear David Byrne describe his embarrassment at the conventional act of pushing a pram. Every moment of my experience of motherhood has felt like the opposite of slotting in to the prevailing culture, often uncomfortably so. I never felt so much of a rebel as when putting caring for my children before other concerns – financial stability, personal development, creative fulfilment. I’ve shied away from actually joining organisations like Mothers At Home Matter (which presumably yolks together the extremes of Right and Left wing beliefs about how these mothers can stay at home, either by having secured funds by virtue of birth/marriage/hard bloody work – otherwise don’t breed, or by having access to a Universal Wage of some kind.) You can probably guess which camp I fall into but I am secretly an adherent of the general uniting principle and yet am too scared to meet these women who alienate their sisters on the middle of both Right and Left wing belief by suggesting that by being with their young children full-time they might not be sacrificing their full worth. It’s just too outrageous a claim. How dare they even say it in public? I certainly won’t.
Ferrante suggests that men are jealous of women’s ability to grow new life. Perhaps this is true. Certainly our society is constructed so as to bestow little value on the worth of caring for infants – think how often the cost of childcare is bemoaned – how can such lowly work be paid so much? And there must be a reason behind this.
But I think there is a deeper reason why breastfeeding in particular feels such a weirdly countercultural act. It’s intimate. There’s nothing more intimate. And we live in a culture where we are used to access all areas. We expect it. I am very ill-travelled, have rarely ever boarded a plane, and I console myself with the thought that I can see the world through my screens, hear others’ travel tales. I’m pretty sure my adventurer friends know this for the self-deception it is. The internet also promises intimacy, a panacea for loneliness. Nothing gives the lie to this more than the sight of a woman and infant nursing. We feel it when we see it, the presence of a communing dyad from which the observer is excluded.
There is some truth in this. I’d never heard of the word ‘dyad’ before I breastfed – I’d never needed it. ‘Couple’ is the closest I’d come, and it’s not the same ( – admitting that feels like a betrayal – not just of my partner and his predecessors but of a cherished concept of fulfilment in sexual monogamy.) Breastfeeding is a visible, hearty, outward show of the bond that exists between any infant and their primary carer, whether breastfeeding or not; a bond that needs words we lack. Old English had dual pronouns for just two people – an ‘us/we’ meaning ‘both of us’ and a ‘you’ meaning ‘both of you’. When my younger child was a newborn, her sister started calling us Mummybaby. “Is Mummybaby coming with us?” she would ask, understanding in her two year-old wisdom what I could not have explained: that her baby sister and I were for the moment one unit with interdependent needs and wishes that could not easily be untangled each from each. This is almost impossible to articulate in an age that requires us to be productive units, rather than a mini self-nurturing community, producing nothing of ‘worth’ while somehow making/consuming free food. Go, as they say, figure.
But on the other hand, since having babies I’ve never felt more connected to the rest of the world, in particular more certain of the neediness of all of us. And despite having studied literature and having a continued fondness for words, I’ve never trusted them much as a fully functioning means of communication. (99.97% of interesting animals agree with me. And mynah birds are complete dolts.) So, breastfeeding, which feels like body language at Olympic level, provides an opportunity for me to briefly enjoy communicating in the way that feels far more real than, say, writing a blog about it. And although I don’t necessarily welcome involved conversation while breastfeeding, it’s already something that puts me in a bit of a hippie trance of love for my fellow human, and, creepy as this would have sounded to me before having kids, I’d be happy for pretty much anyone to join us and bask in the silent communion. It’s not watching. It’s listening.
Breastfeeding is not silent anyway. When it ends, which I suspect it will soon, the most potent memory pang remaining will be an auditory one – the glug-glug of someone swallowing from me. The sound of my temporary superpower. A music that like no other taps the source of my favourite drug, oxytocin, and sends it coursing through my veins. The sound of my heart melting.
Why don’t breasts make more noise? Because they don’t have to. They already speak (unquantifiable, liquid,) volumes.
Thank you Zoe Gardner for this. Zoe was the mother who told me about the archaic dual pronoun, which inspired my last blog.