Connecting with others, sharing stories, finding a role model is crucial to breastfeeding. Because breastfeeding is in crisis. Because it is highly idealised, but devalued in practice. And that can make you feel lost, lonely and unsupported. I felt like that. But myths, images and stories helped. They helped because they made me feel accompanied, made me feel valued and understood, gave me perspective, and also other ways to see myself and what I was doing. They made me feel part of something bigger....
On the 8th of November, 2016, the day Trump was elected, I was in Bristol, at one of the ESRC Breastfeeding Seminar series. That day of gloom, where everything that I value, that I think is important seemed to be symbolically shoved aside by this election, I took comfort in being in a room of women doing this slow work, the work of nurturing, of helping others, of trying to understand and find ways to generate social change. In this case the work was to support breastfeeding mothers, against all odds really. The collective grief made it more bearable. It made me feel less alone knowing that someone else also felt that this was important, that it mattered, that it counted. Of course, this goes well beyond breastfeeding. It is just that breastfeeding is such a powerful symbol of nurturing, of the encounter of warrior gods and mother goddesses.
The Mother Goddess, Mother Heaven, Mother Earth, in all its incarnations, as Joseph Campbell puts it in The Power of Myth*, is a personification of the energy that gives birth to forms and nourishes, and it is a female energy. And if the goddess is the creator, her body is the universe.
‘The human woman gives birth just as the earth gives birth to plants. She gives nourishment, as the plants do. So woman magic and earth magic are the same. They are related.' (Campbell, 1988, 167).
I still remember the pleasure and relief of having a full breast emptied. My baby rolling his eyes while feeding as in some kind of ecstasy. And after, the satisfied pulling away and falling fast asleep. In those moments, I did feel like a goddess, like my body was all that this baby needed. That I, by just being and having this body that could create, grow, and now feed another being, was just magic. And these moments, along with giving birth, gave me at times a sense of timelessness, of being connected to the fabric of this world, to my body, and to other women who have done this throughout history, and were doing this, right this moment, in near and faraway lands. There is a sense of sacredness to these moments that feels attuned to the way that breastfeeding has been represented, the Mother Goddess, Mother Earth.
Of course, this pleasure and fleeting goddess-like feelings did not happen all the time. Breastfeeding was not all soft lighting, roses and lace, far from it. Establishing breastfeeding was painful and hard. There were times when my first child had colic and feeding seemed like I was torturing instead of nurturing her. And my second baby would projectile vomit after a feed almost every time for the first six months, though that became almost funny in itself. Breastfeeding was everything from painful to pleasurable, boring to meditative, frustrating to relaxing. Or nothing charged with much significance: just something I did, while I went about our day. Breastfeeding for me was both timeless and mundane, goddess-like and very, very human.
All stories, myths and images are products and makers of their times. The mother goddess figures were especially prevalent in agricultural societies. At times when nomadic hunter gatherers came into collision with these societies, the mother goddess myths were subsumed under warrior gods, and more male oriented myths became dominant. These days, there are not many prevalent images and myths of mother goddesses. This lack is significant. It is not surprising that this happens at a time when we are deep into a breastfeeding and environmental crisis.The dominant values that enhance the warrior gods and devalue those of creation and nourishment are at play here. But, as always, there are undercurrents. There is resistance. There are people just doing things differently. And women like those I met through the breastfeeding seminar series, that just keep at it. And many many women who breastfeed. In this space, we want to contribute to, and swim with these currents.
We want to write and gather stories, as well as create and share images of breastfeeding mothers. The images Lisa creates and shows here, attempt to link to our past, to a sense of timelessness, taking the thread from the goddess myths. Inspired by the timelessness and sacredness of ancient models of Isis feeding Horus in Egypt, then reworked into the Madonna and Child in the Roman Catholic Tradition, Lisa beautifully photographs mothers feeding their babies, but plays with it by paring it down and making it both iconic and mundane at the same time.
We may not create new myths here, but we want to go deep into the different everyday experiences of women breastfeeding. To create more complex stories. To share more dimensions to breastfeeding than that of the medical community and the behavioural nudge that informs us that breast is best, but leaves us to navigate the challenges alone and make our struggles feel like private failures. But we can’t do this alone. We really want to reach out and make this a space for sharing stories, so please do. It is likely that someone out there can connect with it and feel less alone.
* Campbell, Joseph (with Bill Moyers), 1988, The Power of Myth, New York: Doubleday.
Image also from this book (p. 164)