breasts and lovely dreams

ghyakurakan segaki (library of congress)

My mother-in-law gave birth to eight children, lost two. She married at a very young age and had a long happy marriage with her spouse, who died a few years ago. Having a mother-in-law with whom you don’t share a language in common and who lives across the sea makes for a really easy relationship, and she is most definitely one of the women I most respect, so strong and brave and wise. So beautiful and kind. There are so many things I would ask her if I could.

I tell you about her for two reasons.

First because I thought of her when I saw the Time cover of the mother breastfeeding a child who appeared to be old enough to read a novel in between sips from his mama’s breast. It was an incongruous and disturbing image, and clearly meant to shock and to spark extreme debate.

I remembered when I was newly married and my mother-in-law joked about her youngest son, how he breastfed until he was two or three, old enough to stand at the door when she was with her friends and gesture to her that he wanted her to come and feed him. He was a teenager when she told me this and while I laughed I also found it kind of creepy. The thought of a little human being demanding my breast in such a way seemed so alien, so odd, so invasive and rude. I could not imagine allowing such a thing.

I was raised in the U.S. during a time when bottle feeding was the norm. Before my friends and I had babies I honestly don’t think I had ever seen a woman feeding her child, as shocking as that may seem. I still remember when in my early 30’s I was at a dinner and a woman opened her blouse and began to feed the child with total naturalness. This was not a militant breastfeeder (I met a few of those later), but a very conservative, modest woman. She fed the child in public with natural discreetness. I found it at once so very beautiful and shocking, and stole from that experience a passage in my novel:

“My cousin nursed her son until he was almost three,” Sara said, “I’m definitely going to breastfeed my babies.” Francesca smiled inwardly at the girl’s certainty. She too had been certain of her future when she was Sara’s age, a certainty which had faded like a stain in the sun. The two women were transfixed by the relaxed naturalness of mother and child, the irony not lost to either of them that it was easier for a woman to take out her breast and feed her child here, in a country where a woman’s modesty was not only prized but required, than in the U.S., where clearly it was not. Just a week before Francesca left she’d read that another woman had even been arrested for breastfeeding in public, deemed “public indecency,” a perfect example of how dangerous upside-down logic can be and how it makes the beautiful ugly and the natural chastised at best and criminal at worst.”

I didn’t read the Time article, nor the ones that followed, but I do know that what may seem odd and shocking to those who haven’t experienced it can be the most natural when you live it yourself. While I was shocked at my mother-in-law’s story that day, I ended up breastfeeding three babies, two until they were not only old enough to let me know that they wanted to nurse but to express their preferences over which breast to nurse from. It was not dramatic or strange, militant or forced, but instead the most natural, lovely interchange imaginable between mother and child.

I did have Dr. Sears’ book, and I recall that I found it full of simple comforting wisdom, unlike so many of the do-this-don’t-do-that books out at the time that were so fixed in their methodology about what was right and what was wrong. Attachment parenting as I understood it to be was putting a name to the most natural of bonds between mother and child, one you might witness in any country of the world where women have babies and nurture them. Only here do we turn it into a philosophy to debate and dissect.

Nonetheless I do remember my shock then. And so many other shocks which followed over things that were unknown to me, unfamiliar. Ignorance best begets humility and curiosity rather than judgments and barbs. We learn from those who act simply and honestly rather than shoving their beliefs in our faces.

My second reason to mention my dear mother-in-law is to share something I found so unbearable sweet.

She speaks with her son (my husband) at least once a week, and often at length. Recently, in discussing a couple of decisions she had to make, she mentioned very matter-of-factly that her husband, who died several years ago, came to her in her dreams as he was oft to do whenever there was a decision to be made, something she was worried about. He calmed her with his presence and offered his advice.

I wish I could ask her more… how often he appears and what they speak of. I love not only that he comes to her, but that she finds it the most natural thing in the world. She doesn’t overthink or advocate, study or debate or dictate. She simply lives.

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