Taking our time


Birth and breastfeeding are an invitation to enter into another domain of time. Or more accurately, to be in time, to be grounded in the cycle of life. The other day, I went for a walk and I came across a rabbit. He crossed my path, in not much of a hurry. I followed it, until I saw him hopping into his burrow. It reminded of Alice in Wonderland, and how she saw the rabbit, followed it, fell into the rabbit hole and entered a new dimension. She accepted the invitation. Motherhood at times felt like falling into a hole where there are different rules and things flow differently, and things that made sense before are not useful anymore. One of those things is clinging onto clock time. 

The way we live our lives today in industrialised countries is ruled by mechanised time. And clock time, industrial time, or historical time, as it has been called, is linear and progressive. We are immersed and socialised into clock time. It is the prevalent mode of experiencing and narrating time. It is so obvious and naturalised that we don’t even question it: time is something that has a beginning, middle and end. It is structured in our language and in our narratives.

Having been born and socialised in societies were linear time is prevalent, we automatically narrate and construct our experiences through this lens. If we are used to control and divide our time and use it productively to achieve and cross things of our to do list, mothering and breastfeeding just turns everything upside down and inside out, and we can end up deeply frustrated. I can’t count how many times I would have given a lot not to have to sit still and try to sleep a baby, or stop to breastfeed, and instead be able to tick something off my ‘to-do’ list. There is a lot of satisfaction that comes from that. I am not discarding the importance of having a sense of control over our time, or the sense of reward that getting things done give us. What I am saying is that it is important to have the vocabulary to think about or to narrate or for that reason, to value, what is going on our lives, and maybe also to communicate this in a way that could be understood and valued to those who continue living, predominantly, in linear time. I think that is why the letter to her husband that this woman wrote about why she didn’t clean her kitchen, resonated so much. It describes an everyday experience as a mother that is hard to narrate, as there is no satisfying beginning, middle and end.

Linear time became prominent and took hold in earnest with the industrial revolution, with the need to control production and enhance productivity. This model and mechanised narrative of time has been translated and has traveled to most arenas of our lives, including birth and breastfeeding. Fiona Dykes, a Professor of Maternal and Infant Health at the University of Central Lancashire, has written a seminal work on the experience of birth and breastfeeding in hospitals in the UK*. She notes how bodies start to be understood with the language of machines, and thus, how women, with their unique and changing body cycles, including menstruation, pregnancy and birth, become pathologised when our bodies don’t conform with this vocabulary and narrative.

Dykes notes how the model of the production line and the vocabulary of mechanised time filtered and shaped the experience of women in the hospital wards. Birth needs to conform to a certain trajectory, and if it doesn’t, then there is intervention. And breastfeeding is tied with time, productive time. The medicalisation of birth and breastfeeding has meant that generations of women have been told by ‘experts’ to time and control feeding according to clock time. And even now, as Dykes shows, when practices are changing and the advice is to feed on ‘demand’, or on cue, there is a residue of these practices that shape the way feeding is perceived, experienced and done. Breastfeeding was described by the mothers and health workers in her study as something that takes time, that can be too demanding, too messy, and as an in between stage until things go back to routine, to ‘normal’.

When I did my breastfeeding peer support training, we were introduced to the work of a Swedish nurse-midwife, Anne Marie Widström*, who spent years observing and researching the behaviour of newborn babies. She described the behaviour of babies that were placed skin to skin with their mothers straight after birth, and allowed them to spend time undisturbed. She described nine distinctive stages that the baby naturally goes through: the birth cry, relaxation, awakening, activity, resting, crawling, familiarisation with the breast, suckling, and sleeping. If uninterrupted, this stage lasted around 60-70 minutes. This was fascinating for me in many levels, not least for the instinctive capacity of babies to slowly adapt to the outside world and look for the breast if given the time. But what struck me, was that if the process was interrupted, the baby had to start all over again. And if this process was rushed, it often meant problems with latching on, as the baby was not yet ready to do so. I remember getting really upset at this point, because with my first baby, we were not given the time. I understand the many reasons why this cannot perhaps happen when babies are born, and that more and more, women are left undisturbed. But this is still an issue in hospitals today. This is about how we perceive time, and how we are not given or not give ourselves or others, the necessary time. About how we need to take our time.

There are different ways in which this entering another domain of time has been understood. Some studies on contemporary breastfeeding have understood breastfeeding as a liminal time, a time in between, that disrupts linear time, before getting back to ‘normal’. Before we get back to a routine, back to being productive, to work. But other thinkers, such as Alison Bartlett*, a Professor in English and Cultural studies at the University of Western Australia, have questioned this understanding as it can be a way of not giving substance or lived reality to this period of time. To understand it in this way devalues and constrain it to the margins of ‘normal’ life. Bartlett shows how breastfeeding cannot be solely confined in this terms, and that for many women, if they have more than one baby especially, this time of life can mean years of their lives and fundamentally changes the way their lives are structured. But if we live in societies where linear time predominates, this creates tensions.

So if we want to follow this invitation into a different dimension of time, we need a vocabulary for this, and stories and images that capture these different experiences of time. Robbie Pfeufer Kahn is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Vermont, who has written extensively about birth and breastfeeding. Kahn* describes three different understandings of time. She calls these: generic, mythic and maialogical.

  • By generic time she means ‘the time of all things on earth and the universe’ (23), and cyclical time is included in this. Before industrialisation the emphasis was on cyclical time, of time as we experienced it in nature, in the changing of the seasons, in the changing of light and shadows, in the rising and falling of the sun. Cyclical time follows the experiences of life cycles on Earth. It is one that was prevalent in agricultural societies, but we can intuit is probably more ancient than that too.
  • By mythic time she refers to a return to origins, and this is part of most creation myths. She states that mythic time ‘is felt most dramatically during pregnancy, birth, and lactation, but it is also present in any moment of love and healing, which re-establishes the connection to origins’ (26). It is a way of reconnecting with the transformational and creative energy of life. Mythic time is expansive and nourishing but, and this is important, it does not take us away from the cycle of life, it is grounded in life.
  • Finally, maialogical time is a term Kahn created to stand for the period of the woman’s life where she gives birth and breastfeeds (Maia is greek for mother; it’s root from ma, a child’s cry for the breast). It is the founding moment of the relation of self to other, grounded in the body; it is a time that is interactive and reciprocal. Maialogical time is slow, is a time to pay attention to the small things, to the non verbal, to gestures, to signs, to changes.

All these ways of perceiving and experiencing time ground us in life processes rather than taking us away from them.

Breastfeeding invites us to live along these different understandings of time. By making us stop, and be still, or be on the move but connected, breastfeeding pulls us into cyclical, mythic and maialogical time. While breastfeeding, I felt, at times, as if time slowed down and expanded. New ideas and connections emerged. It was a moment to take a breath. One of the mothers we interviewed said it felt ‘like a meditation’. In many of the interviews, when asked about their experience of breastfeeding, many of the women talked, then paused, and with a dreamy look, said, ‘brilliant’, ‘a miracle’, ‘incredible’ ‘great’. Like an untold secret. And something that words could not quite capture.

Apart from finding a language, other ways of representing time are needed. Lisa Creagh, in her work ‘Holding Time’, has tried to capture this with her images of women breastfeeding in sync with a timepiece (see pic above and her interview here). Before clock time, time was represented in shapes, as in the cosmatesque designs of the floor of sistine chapel. She used inspiration and insight from these designs to calculate time in shapes that grow as time passes. In this way, Lisa give us as an image of time as growth, by creating a timepiece that grows as women take the time to breastfeed.

These thinkers and artist do not proclaim that we should all be happy earth mother types. They do, however, highlight the need to recognise that we, humans, are connected to the rhythms of nature, and that to forget that is to lose something important. In this sense, the invitation to enter another time given to us by birth and breastfeeding means that we can take maternity, as Bartlett proposes, as a ‘radical alternative to standard life trajectories which revolve around transitions from school to work to retirement’ (227).

But we don’t necessarily need to choose between linear or cyclical time, we can live astride these different understandings and experiences of time. As Kahn reminds us, ‘uncorseting our maternal bodies does not have to be incompatible with living in linear time, providing that this time move forward more slowly and with more digressions’ (Kahn 31). But for this to happen, social values, and thus, formations and institutions such as work, also need to be transformed.

Dykes, Kahn, and Bartlett, all show how the language and images we have to understand time is important for our experience of it. By giving it a name, and its place in history, we give these experiences ontological substance, instead of placing them as something in between ‘normal’ time. To create a language and images, for these experiences, or to re-member these old ways of experiencing and representing time, is to make room for them. It is a way to see the time of birth and breastfeeding as a time of reciprocity; as affecting in a positive and expansive our relations, instead of unproductive time, of something that takes time away.

When I was reading these articles, I found a sense of peace, as in someone was articulating something that I knew and experienced but hadn’t quite had the words for it. There is a playfulness in the language, and a lack of judgement that is utterly refreshing. What these thinkers make the case for, and I want to do here, is to think time differently, to widen our lenses as to what time is and what is of value, and thus change our experience of it. To recognise the potential here for joy and pleasure, and to share it widely.

And, thus, to extend the invitation.




Picture by Lisa Creagh: Holding Time

*Bartlett, A. (2010). Breastfeeding and Time: in search of a language for pleasure and agency, in Bartlett, A., and Shaw, R., Giving Breastmilk: body ethics and contemporary breastfeeding practice, Toronto: Demeter Press: 222-35.

*Dykes, F. (2006) Breastfeeding in Hospital: Mothers, Midwives and the Production Line. London: Routledge

*Kahn, R.P. (1988). Women and time in Childbirth and During Lactation, in Forman, F.J. with Sowton, C., Taking our time: Feminist perspectives on temporality, New York: Pergamon Press.

*Widström, A M ; Wahlberg, V ; Matthiesen, A S ; Eneroth, P ; Uvnäs-Moberg, K ; Werner, S ; Winberg, J (1990) ’Short term effects of early suckling and touch of the nipple on maternal behaviour’, Early human development, 21: 153-163.


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