- Of Milk and Stars
Second star to the right and straight on till morning.-Peter Pan
Mother Seeks Breast Milk read the notice on a Cape Cod café bulletin board. It was 1993; I was on vacation. I'd always had more than enough milk to feed my son Will, then seven months old, and it felt wasteful expressing the surplus down the drain to keep my breasts from squirting sticky milk all over the place. I kept reading the sign: I'm undergoing chemotherapy treatment and unable to continue breastfeeding. I'm looking for mother's milk so my son can still reap the benefits of the most nutritious baby food in the world. I mentioned the notice to my husband, Steve, who asked if there were hygiene concerns for the sharing of bodily fluids—things to do with germs, bacteria, proper storage and temperature regulations; I didn't know the answers but I felt like nursing mothers were my people and I could no sooner walk away from a mother-in-need than the stars could shine without darkness. [End Page 35]
Even with an infant latched to my breast night and day for the better part of a year, I still loved being part of the breastfeeding club. I loved the efficiency of it, loved that, like the fish and the loaves, my supply would never run out, loved that the more Will nursed the more milk I produced, loved that I didn't have to sterilize bottles or mix up chemically enhanced formula, that I could dash out of the door carrying only my baby, a burp cloth, and a small diaper bag. I could simply lift or unbutton my shirt and voilà, dinner is served. I loved the stoned feeling that accompanied my exhaustion. I loved feeling slightly superior to mothers who didn't breastfeed, or who did so shamefully hidden in a dirty public restroom. I wore the breast is best mantra proudly and was not shy about nursing in public, almost daring a confrontation. The notion that my body had everything needed to nourish and grow my baby for his first year of life seemed astonishing, the heartbeat of all things. To my son, I was a universe. I suddenly saw myself not as someone frivolous—a person with a propensity for long baths, mascara, and pedicures—but as a provider and protector, a lioness.
Looking at the vast and inky night sky I think how we are part of a larger story. For an instant I am acutely aware of how we are tied to the natural web connecting all things, and how what we do impacts everything else. Humans are but a tiny speck, but collectively we are changing the planet.
The term mammal comes from the word mammalis, Latin for "of the breast." All female mammals have the capacity to nurse their young; some will nurse orphaned or close relatives' offspring in addition to their own. There are even cases of cross-species milk sharing. The lioness is one of the few mammals that will routinely protect and feed other lionesses' cubs in a pride, a true example of communal care. I decided, [End Page 36] standing in front of the Cape Cod bulletin board, that I was all for it.
Since bringing a baby into the world I had felt less separate from other people; I wept uncontrollably at the sight of the legless man who rolled on a dolly through the A train, bought more dinners for homeless people than I could afford, and over-tipped the pizza delivery guy who arrived by bike in the rain. It was like I now had more skin in the game. And by game I mean life. I walked around thinking, Everyone is someone's child. Before giving birth I empathized with others—I had worked with homeless people in New York City most of my life—but I was careful to pick and choose people I thought worthy of my benevolence. Post-childbirth, I would have taken a serial killer under my wing. Looking out for others felt less like a choice and...