My morning scrolling revealed an article titled, “8 things about breastfeeding that seem normal when you’re nursing, but so weird later.” Unsurprisingly, the title peaked my interest. The author spouted snippets of the importance of nipples and bringing your breast out at the dinner table. Sure, these things are “normal” in the context of breastfeeding, but perhaps less acceptable for the non-lactating or non-nursing among us. It was when I got to the bullet point about how weird it is that a mom may tell “other people how to handle your bodily fluids,” that I took pause.
The author notes that she has told family members how to prepare the “juice squeezed from” her body, adding just thinking about delegating the management of her milk made her “feel squidgy just thinking about it.”
But why? Why does breastmilk make us feel “squidgy?” This excerpt reflects an odd (by odd, I mean incompatible with biological function) attitude toward breastmilk. That squidgy feeling puts a finely tuned food in the same category as blood, urine or semen–a bodily fluid. A material that should be treated with care, and perhaps accompanied with a healthy dose of fear. Fiona Giles addresses this attitude, saying,
“Breastmilk is a bodily fluid, and we have been taught that, as such, it should be treated with care, especially if there is a risk of infection. Although the risk of being infected by breastmilk is neglible, the fact that it is stuff that comes out of our bodies means that it’s associated with everything from urine to blood, sweat, and saliva.
“But breastmilk seems to have been unnecessarily caught up in a swirl of squeamishness. It’s not just a bodily fluid, after all. It’s also a food. The fact that it comes out of a woman’s bosom, and not a cow’s udder, shouldn’t reduce its appeal, from a rational point of view, and might increase it when considering its compatibility to the needs of the human body.”
-Fiona Giles, Fresh Milk: The Mysterious Life of Breasts
But, why are we so squeamish around breastmilk? With the production of formula, the demand for wet-nursing decreased, and breastmilk and breastfeeding were framed as something dirty (a complex history, summed up insufficiently in a sentence–it’s a complicated tale). This perception deepened along with the AIDs epidemic. And today, breastmilk falls into the bodily fluids bucket, with the expectation that a regulatory hand is needed to ensure safe consumption, should that milk be intended for someone other than your baby. Yet, with the exception of Ebola, Hepatitis C, and AIDs, there are few conditions that are transmissible through breastmilk. If anything, breastmilk protects more than it has the potential to harm.
There is a disparity between the actual risk posed by breastmilk consumption outside of the mother-child dyad, and the perceived risk. Breastmilk is viewed as dirty. The assumption is that breastmilk is only intended for your own baby. But, are these attitudes rooted in anything more substantial than a belief system, birthed from a culture that is unsupportive breastfeeding?
There have been mornings when I am out of milk, and my coffee needs cream. My problem is solved with a moment of hand expression directly into my espresso. And that makes me feel like a goddamn super hero. I’ve taken expired frozen milk and turned it into sourdough starter for homemade bread. My family has eaten a breakfast of scrambled eggs with only the freshest milk.
When I see an advertisement for a product like Baby Gaga ice cream, I’m met with mixed feelings. Despite my rather liberal notions towards breastmilk, my cultural fabric is tough to breakthrough, and the idea of consuming breastmilk ice cream makes me feel a bit “squidgy.” In considering the history of breastmilk in developed countries (and the significant implications of this complicated history), I can’t help but consider how this “squidgy” feeling may not only damn access to Baby Gaga ice cream (it’s certainly not something you can pick up at your local Safeway,) but does it impact breastfeeding rates as well? If the findings published in the recent Lancet report are any indication, the answer is a resounding yes.