sabato 12 maggio 2012
Some thoughts on motherhood and natural instincts
The latest cover picture of The Time Magazine shows a mother breastfeeding her 3-year-old child, and the attitude of the journalist who wrote the article is clearly "against" this, which is considered an "extreme". The photo and the article and especially the negative attitude made me ponder on many thoughts concerning motherhood, parenting, breastfeeding, and, in general, natural instincts.
I will start with a very personal memory, one of my first memories with my daughter. As I was sitting in the maternity ward with my new baby, feeling tired and happy beyond words, I was struck by the very physical and down-to-earth sensation of "being a mammal". I was sensing my animal nature very sharply and clearly, and this was strong and strange and beautiful. I was lying in a nest of blankets and pillows, like a wolf or a fox in a den, my very small daughter searched my skin with her tiny mouth, she knew by instinct where milk was, we were a mother and child like in the beginning of time, unchanged, millions of years old. I couldn't take a shower for a few days, my skin had its own particular smell that we tend to wash away every morning before going out of the house. And I loved to smell my daughter's fluffy hair. The nurses had washed her so she smelled of soap, and I was annoyed at that, I wanted "her" smell, the unmistakable and precious smell that all animal mothers would recognize among millions of others. A seal would never mistake her pup among the hundreds of alike-looking seal pups, and in those first wild days I felt my animal instinct, I was a mammal. And I was a human being, with my huge heritage of thought and civilization inscribed in my bones.
At home, I kept my baby physically close as much as I could. I let her sleep for hours on my breast, especially when she was very very tiny. I had this thought guiding me: in nature, pups are close to their mum. Our modern world is full of rules on how mums are supposed to raise their children, giving them habits and routines, letting them sleep in their cot from a very early age. I never cared about these things. I wanted to hold my baby as close as possible to me, I wanted to Feel her all the time: smell her, touch her, hear her. I was sad when I lost my milk, very early unfortunately. I'm underweight so maybe my body just couldn't afford to produce a lot of milk, after the struggle of the pregnancy in which it nursed a 4,230 kg baby (the biggest in the maternity ward, among the ones born around the same days). Anyway she had my milk for the first 2 and a half months of her life and I'm sure if I still had milk in my breast I would be wonderfully happy to give it to her. The Chinese writer Mo Yan said he got his mother's milk up to over 5 years, and that was very common in rural China, no-one thought it was strange. And why should it be strange? Nothing that is natural is strange. What I think is unnatural is the set of rules and regulations that have been tied around the very instinctual process of mothering and raising babies and children. Lots of contrasting ideas, all of which are supported by different scholars in the field, and all of which will drive young mums crazy. I remember at the hospital, according to the nurse who had the shift, I got a different lecture, different advises, different "you must do like this"'s. Then as soon as I went home I started to build my own, unique relationship with my little pup and I'm not saying it's the best, of course. Everyone can make mistakes but these mistakes will have smaller consequences if you follow your own feelings and instincts. I found precious advise along the way by other mums, especially some of my friends, and incomparable help from my mum and grandmother, and even great-grandmother, though I don't have any conscious memories of her. Having a baby made me feel with stunning clarity how I was a part of a particular stream of life, starting from my great-grandmother and down to my mum, and me, and my daughter. One of the first book I read after I knew I was pregnant was An Angel at my Table, by Janet Frame. It's her autobiography and I needed to read something like that, the story of a family, because I was experiencing with sharp intensity my own sense of belonging to another story: the story of my family, especially of the women in my family, which was continuing through me and my daughter who was still inside my belly.
So, what I think is that there's nothing wrong in breastfeeding up to the age of 5, or up to whenever there's milk in the breast. And there's equally nothing wrong in giving powder milk, with the same love and tenderness, if there are any problems breastfeeding. It's OK to sleep with your child until both parents and child are happy with it. What I think is very wrong is to force your unique and wonderful mother-child relationship into a set of pre made rules that will make the mother stressed and the child frustrated.
Precious support to my instinct I found (much later) in these books: Why Love Matters, and Women who Run with the Wolves. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, author of Women who Run with the Wolves, has just written her own beautiful answer to the Times article, and you can read it here.
So, these are just my personal feelings about motherhood. I have fears and doubts like everyone of course but, above all, an immense love for my daughter and that is what lights the way, every day.