Thursday, January 29, 2009

The History of Breastfeeding

... is as long as the history of the human race.  Longer, of course, since other creatures do it as well -- but we are surely the only species to make such a fuss over it, much less consider alternatives.

The subject, about which we had thought rarely in the past 45 or so years, has been on our mind lately, as Baby Anonymous keeps sucking away.  We were more amused than outraged when Facebook banned the photos posted by proudly breastfeeding mamas, on the grounds that they were "erotic."  Seriously?  No.

And then we read the fascinating article, linked above.  It's worth a gander.

The New Yorker's Jill Lepore is well on her way to becoming indispensable.  Her writing may lack the zing that once defined the magazine -- Dorothy Parker!  A.J. Liebling! -- and which is now restricted principally to Adam Gopnik and, especially, Anthony Lane.  In its current incarnation, the magazine has a soft spot for earnestness, no doubt because editor David Remnick does it so well, and one of its earnest back-page features are essays on historical and literary topics of no special interest to the smart set.  These are often written by Simon Schama (good enough) and Louis Menand (quite good).  Jill Lepore's essays are the best of this sort.  She zooms in on her topics -- occasionally quite academic ones -- and extracts from them the images and ideas that make them seem suddenly important.

In her nursing essay, Lepore both begins and ends in the present.  As you probably know, breastfeeding is on the rise among bien-pensant mothers of the middle and upper classes (this includes the administration of milk which has been pumped and bottled, which is a rather different thing).  Much of Lepore's time is spent on the ironies, injustices and outright follies that have come with this.  A striking instance:  corporate lactation rooms are often meant only for pumping -- women aren't allowed to actually feed a child in them.

But understanding the present requires a tour of the recent past, and this is where Lepore shines.  Linnaeus, the great classifier of species, originally tried to distinguish the class to which human beings and horses belong as quadropedia, "four-footed," which caused confusion; later he invented the term mammalia, "nursing."  During the years that he revised the system, not coincidentally, his wife bore and nursed seven children.  The category was deemed "scandalously erotic" by critics but has endured -- although, as Lepore observes, by a a very strict definition, men cannot actually be "mammals."  (And from his youth, Fr. A. recalls at least one ladyfriend suggesting that he was indeed a lesser reptile or amphibian.)

The most gripping bit of Lepore's historical section is the late 19th century, when

... bizarrely, American women ran out of milk. “Every physician is becoming convinced that the number of mothers able to nurse their own children is decreasing,” one doctor wrote in 1887. Another reported that there was “something wrong with the mammary glands of the mothers in this country.” It is no mere coincidence that this happened just when the first artificial infant foods were becoming commercially available. Cows were proclaimed the new “wet nurse for the human race”....  Tragically, many babies fed on modified cow’s milk died. 

Lepore nicely avoids pinching the usual suspects, in favor of a more subtle sociological observation:

But blaming those deaths on a nefarious alliance of doctors and infant-food manufacturers, as has become commonplace, seems both unfair and unduly influenced by later twentieth-century scandals ....  In the United States, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century physicians, far from pressing formula on their patients, told women that they ought to breast-feed. Many women, however, refused. They insisted that they lacked for milk, mammals no more.

There's much more, and it is all fascinating.  Egg readers in particular may be struck by a bit of religious trivia.  Colonial preacher Cotton Mather decried the European custom of wet-nursing:

 “Suckle your Infant your Self if you can,” [he] commanded from the pulpit. Puritans found milk divine: even the Good Book gave suck. “Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes, Drawn Out of the Breasts of Both Testaments” was the title of a popular catechism.

Pardon our pedantry, as we observe that the image of the Scriptures as mother's breasts was not original to the Puritans.  Even more extravagantly, Carolyn Walker Bynum has found numerous instances in Cistercian monastic writing in which the abbot, and Jesus himself, are called "mothers," precisely because one is to drink the milk of wisdom from them.  Father A. (ahem) devoted a chapter of his STM thesis to sermons in which John Donne uses the same image to describe a parish priest in relation to the faithful.

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