methical mothers, divine mothers and royal mothers. Ancient clay figurines of pregnant women and contemporary explorations of birth. As an art historian of 20 years, I have seen many representations of motherhood. And from Renoir’s wholesome portraits of his wife nursing their son to countless versions of the Madonna and Child, many of these images depicted blissful breastfeeding scenes. A few years ago, with my new baby sleeping on my chest and unable to self-soothe to sleep, I began obsessively searching for historical fragments of maternal lives – because I felt like I was failing and needed something to to bind myself.
When I decided to get pregnant, I already knew I wanted to breastfeed. Other parents decide it’s not for them – a decision I respect now more than ever – but that’s how I envisioned motherhood. I carried these idealized artistic representations of breastfeeding with me to prenatal classes, where I watched a woman hold a baby to a knitted breast and took notes on the best feeding positions. In these classes we were never told about formula milk or preparing bottles or about how we might feel if our feeding hopes don’t go as planned.
For the first days of my son’s life, just over four years ago, breastfeeding was as easy and brilliant as I imagined. I forgot about the small amount of formula he was given at birth. About how a midwife told us the next morning on the postpartum ward that formula was akin to feeding our newborns junk food. I forgot how shocking I found that comment, how it made me feel, like I had already let him down by having my son formula at birth.
After we got home, I went to every breastfeeding support group I was lucky enough to have locally and took all the advice given by the friendly experts there. But still, feeding was often painful and I clutched my knuckles, wondering why I felt so unprepared for this. What was perhaps even more surprising was the depth of my desire to continue. My nagging concerns that something was not right were dismissed by GPs. Then, at four weeks old, my son was briefly hospitalized for losing too much weight.
Tests thankfully ruled out anything serious. The cause of his weight loss was “simply” not enough milk. Overwhelmed by guilt, I could only blame myself. We were sent home with instructions to buy formula, bottles and a breast pump and were left to navigate bewildering and sometimes inconsistent advice. I was full of self-doubt, which permeated the rest of my life and left me an insecure mother and broken wife. I spent hours expressing milk when I needed to sleep and scribbled down equations to work out how much formula “top up” we needed. I carefully recorded feeding times, which led to the kind of documentation I found myself in later Milk reportby art duo Conway and Young, who calculate the economic value of the work of breastfeeding.
The anger I felt at myself for “failing” to feed my baby properly was only matched by the newfound awe and appreciation I had for my body, which grew and birthed a baby, and which continues to made one of the most incredible substances. earth. So, with the support of a loving partner and empathetic family and friends, I continued steadfastly and determinedly.
But somehow focusing on the most important task of my life made me feel small and insignificant in the world. It was visual art that offered me solace in that tumultuous first year of new motherhood. Just looking at images helped me make sense of my breastfeeding experience, providing avenues to reconnect with myself and help me understand why my breastfeeding body sometimes felt like a personal and social battleground.
Louise Bourgeois said that “an artist can show things that other people are afraid to express”. In those early days, I returned to her again and again and found poignant humor in her work. Red pregnant bodies bleed across the white page with astronaut babies floating in it. Globular multiple-breasted figures captured the strange, ever-changing landscape of a birthing body.
In her Good Mother sculpture of a nursing woman encased in a bell, I recognized the depth of love in the gaze between mother and baby. I also saw myself in the tired mother’s isolation. But, more than that, the glass jar finally made me see how much we are expected to mother in a detached world. A world in which motherhood is exalted as ideal, while mothers themselves are too often sidelined, unsupported and filled with doubt.
This immediate, visceral response to art led me to other questions brewing in my sleep-deprived mind. What did mothers do before me? Why did wet nursing fall out of favor in Western Europe? Why did I feel nervous when I first fed my baby in public, when our art galleries are full of images of breastfeeding? When I began what would become the initial research for my book, Milk, I learned that while breastfeeding defines us as mammals, beliefs around it change, influenced by social, political and religious factors. I began to understand how confused and contradictory our culture is when it comes to breasts and breastfeeding.
Meanwhile, I continued to struggle, making tearful calls to the fantastic breastfeeding helpline and finding a chorus of solidarity and encouragement in mommy groups and internet forums. However, when I went to the GP with a severe breastfeeding injury, she told me she had never heard of it before and suggested I switch to formula. Once again I collapsed in shame that my body still seemed to be doing it wrong.
It wasn’t until I was idly browsing the archives of the Wellcome collection and came across Victorian nipple shields that I realized that some women have always had to find ways to ease the pain of breastfeeding. As I looked at examples made of tin, glass, or wood, I became cruelly thankful for the smooth silicone screens I used to resent so much.
The more I looked, the more I felt myself being stitched into a larger history. I researched various remedies offered to lactating women around the world, from cabbage leaves and shells to jasmine flowers and spiced foods. I was mesmerized by a rare 6th-century Indonesian bronze statue of a seated weaver interrupting her work at her loom to breastfeed, mesmerized by the detail of the baby adjusting a bare nipple as they nursed. In the ancient Wife of Willendorf, I saw for the first time a postpartum woman in all her vulnerability and supremacy. I studied paintings that depict a startling moment in history when, during the late 18th century, it was more economically viable for Parisian parents to send their babies to wet nurses in the countryside while they worked in the city. I found Bronze Age baby bottles excavated from burial sites that contained traces of animal milk. In the performance art of the MAMA project, Lynn Lu and Jess Dobkin, I reveled in the unapologetic explorations of motherhood, sexuality, labor and taboo. The intimacy between mother and child in paintings by impressionist artist Mary Cassatt helped me realize that when it came to my son, what mattered most was that he always felt my deep love for him. That our relationship was nurturing and nurturing in many other ways.
This sense of connection and understanding that I found in history and art continued to guide me through motherhood. Knowing that these parts of my identity are fully intertwined brings me comfort and confidence. It made me a better parent and art historian. Although breastfeeding became much easier and we continued until my son was 18 months old, I now know where to look when navigating life’s other difficult times.
Two years after my son’s last feed, I stood in a London gallery, my eyes unexpectedly wet with tears as I looked at another Bourgeois sculpture. Encased in a large display case, on a cold steel pedestal, a small pink woman knelt, her head slightly bowed. White threads from her nipples connected to five coils fanned out in front of her. I remembered the long nights when I felt desperately alone, and realized my struggle was never mine alone. I have always been stitched into a large and elaborate historical tapestry.
Milk: An Intimate History of Breastfeeding by Joanna Wolfarth (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is available now for £18.99, or buy it for £16.52 from guardianbookshop.com. It is also available as an e-book, £9.99, and audiobook, £21.99