Is breastfeeding a captivity narrative?
If you need to hear this, I’m happy to say it: breastfeeding is a nightmare. If it’s the middle of the night, and you are there, typing one-handed into the search bar: “priblems breastfeeding” “breastdeding not wrking” “nipplr congusion” “lactstion consultan making breastdeding wrse???”: I see you. I wish I could take the baby from your arms for a minute. Is anyone there to take the baby for you? Let that person take the baby. Give the baby a bottle. It’s fine. Breastfeeding might work. It might not. It doesn’t matter. I see you. It’s hard to talk about breastfeeding because, like birth itself, it’s a place where the biological, psychic, and social aspects of human reproduction become hopelessly intertwined. Calories have become encoded with gendered history, morality, deep longing and magical thinking.
Do you know what I thought milk from my breasts was going to do? Ensure my child’s total physical and psychological safety and health, and also dismantle patriarchy by aligning me with a long tradition of womanly wisdom. Surprise! No one’s body can do any of those things! But with these stakes in mind, it’s not actually surprising that breastfeeding encouraged in me a terrible alertness to danger, like a deer at twilight. Ounces measured, app-timed nursing sessions, pumping-pumping-pumping, alarms set, consultants consulted, diapers checked, traumatic weigh-ins, suspicion of the weight charts and/or the scale used (perhaps the scale in Exam Room 2 runs low?), Google-Google-Google, sleep lost, sanity lost, self lost.
How did I get so far out into those woods?
Of course, breastfeeding isn’t always a nightmare. A dear friend describes her experience struggling to breastfeed her first son as “3 weeks it’s taken me 10 years to recover from” and then what it was like the second time around: “He grew, I slept. It was amazingly great.” The space between these experiences yawns, suddenly an overgrown thicket. I desperately wanted to find my way to the little matriarchal village — He Grew, I Slept — nestled in the forest. I never did find that magical place, and both of my babies were fed with a cobbled-together system of pumped breast milk and formula, and then when I finally gave up, entirely formula.
Why and how I felt that this was a failure is likely the result of a perfect storm of demographic detail. The pressure I felt to “exclusively” breastfeed (as La Leche League puts it, “no other liquid or solid from any other source enters the infant’s mouth”) is specific to my kind of person. And there’s no shortage of #content about breastfeeding for us — I’m not the first person to consider how we’ve gotten to this place as a culture. You can read fascinating accounts of the history of breastfeeding in the U.S., incisive accounts of what some have begun to think of the “industry” of breastfeeding, and simultaneously rich and exhausting dialogues about deciding how to feed your baby. And yet, it all feels so insufficient when you are lost out there.
Without a map pointing the way to where I wanted to be, or even how to get back out again, mostly what I did was just hack my way through. It wasn’t until I returned to teaching after parental leave that my sense of direction got completely reoriented by one of the first texts on my syllabus: Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. This first-person account describes English colonist Rowlandson’s captivity during the bloody conflict of King Philip’s War.
Her traumatic story begins with Rowlandson carrying her moaning and dying six-year-old child in her arms for nine days, and climaxes somewhere around the point where, near starvation, she finds herself eating a deer fetus and remarking vaguely on the softness of its bones. It’s the first “American” bestseller, and it’s considered to have established the genre of the captivity narrative, which was central to the development of American literature. On the surface, pre-twentieth-century captivity narratives were meant to justify settler colonialism, and align the process with “civilized” Christian values and ideals. Read expansively, as tales of culture crossing and psychic trauma, however, captivity narratives feature a wildness that always exceeds the genre, spilling out across the edges.
Rowlandson writes her story once she is safe back home as an attempt to bring her captivity experience in these richly symbolic woods back into some kind of order. She laments having to leave her buried child in a “wilderness condition” and it’s clear that even after her return to civilization, a part of her never fully left those woods where she starved and mourned. She can no longer sleep. And though she deploys scripture to control the wildness that arises in her, she can never fully account for her experiences. One night, over the fire, she steals a horse hoof from a baby:
Being very hungry I had quickly eat up mine, but the child could not bite it, it was so tough and sinewy, but lay sucking, gnawing, chewing and slabbering of it in the mouth and hand. Then I took it of the child, and eat it myself, and savory it was to my taste.
What is the charge to feed and nourish an infant but a captivity narrative in which a woman is isolated, and then made to feel that her fate is both privately and ideologically meaningful? A world no one told her about in which she would find herself having to choose between nourishing herself and nourishing a “sucking, gnawing, slabbering” baby? While Rowlandson never talks about breastfeeding in her Narrative, she speaks repeatedly about nourishment — about the cultural taboos surrounding it, about how what sustains us is overwritten with cultural scripts. And she does something else still so infrequently seen in contemporary narratives about breastfeeding: she acknowledges that calories in necessitate calories out of someone else.
[Rowlandson] acknowledges that calories in necessitate calories out of someone else.
Her nature, her woods, is a place of actual stakes for women. We like to believe that breastfeeding is “natural” in the sense that it is nurturing and sustaining, without any acknowledgement of how awful and violent the “natural” reality of human reproduction can be, and how much it can cost women. It shouldn’t be a surprise that one of the clearest messages of “pro” breastfeeding ideologies has been that breastfeeding is “free” (in comparison to the significant monetary cost of formula). This vision is one of nature as a benign closed circle: you nourish your child and your child nourishes you. Energy is conserved, the feedback loop beautifully regenerative. Conservation of energy might be a natural law, but it isn’t a human one. Grief, desire, wildness, even pleasure: none of these human states obey natural laws — they fray, they refuse to close the circle, they leave you at loose ends.
Five years out, my “failure” to “succeed” at breastfeeding either of my babies is at once so ridiculous and yet also still so big. I went very far into the woods, and when I came back, I was different. One of the trickiest things about breastfeeding, when it is a struggle, is that the skewed sense of danger and alertness you feel while failing at it starts to feel like “care” for the baby. But it isn’t care for the baby, it’s self-harm. Rowlandson’s narrative showed me that restoration — to a sense of self that pre-dates the captivity experience of early infanthood — doesn’t exactly work. What I needed was repair. If you are on the other end of yet another desperate Google search: you need repair.
I’m drawing this language of alertness and repair from Eve Sedgwick, who drew it from psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Sedgwick developed a theory of what she termed “reparative reading” out of Klein’s language. To read the world reparatively, Sedgwick suggested, was “to use one’s own resources to assemble or ‘repair’” the aspects of the world that pose emotional dangers to us: feelings of failure, anxiety, despair. For Sedgwick, repair of the self requires using the things that have most harmed the self. For me, this process has involved not moving into deeper, more satisfied conviction about how I fed my babies, but rather learning how to understand having failed, having been made vulnerable.
Our language around breastfeeding allows so little room for ambivalence, toggling between the argument-driven think piece and, like, “helpful tips,” with little description what the experience of breastfeeding is actually like, or attention paid to its gnarlier aspects — and by this, I mean to be expansive: from bloody nipples to arousal; pleasure in pain; deep, deep depression; marital woes, and more. So much of the contemporary conversation about breastfeeding/not breastfeeding is written from the perspective of people who came out of the woods, dusted their hands off on their pants, and were like “You know what! I’m totally fine, not gonna lose any sleep over any of what happened, nope, not me!” — as if they didn’t leave a piece of themselves back there, or stuff their pockets full of decomposing leaves on their way out.
While writing this column I’ve had a few conversations with friends about regret. I wish I had been kinder to myself in a hard time. I see much more clearly now how absolutely bat-shit I was for almost an entire year. I wish I had been able to hear the women who surrounded me with care and comfort and the secret post-partum knowledge that it absolutely does not matter how you feed your baby. I wish I had made my peace with formula feeding much earlier. My babies were formula-fed and they are fucking masterpieces! All of this seems like it should add up to a person at peace with how it all went down. But there’s a part of me that still really wishes I had been able to breastfeed my babies.
I wish I had been kinder to myself in a hard time.
The further I get from the magical thinking around feeding my children (i.e., the more pizza and French fries they eat) the less I want to reconcile these opposing emotional realities. The less I want to sweep away the leaves crumbling on the floor under my feet. I don’t want to be “restored” — or, in contemporary parlance, to offer a “clapback” or “make the case for” formula or breast. I don’t want to argue for benefits or drawbacks. I want to describe, I want to chat in the night, I want to hold your baby for you. I want to make questions about feeding our babies into questions about how to nourish ourselves.
Sedgwick notes that “Among Klein’s names for the reparative process is love.” This short, blunt sentence has always held me a bit in thrall. “Love” isn’t the only name for repairing the self, but it’s a vital start.
“Parenting by the Books” is a series about parenting and classic literary texts.
Parenting by the Books: ‘Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson’ was originally published in The Hairpin on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.