World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated every year from 1 to 7 August in more than 170 countries to encourage breastfeeding and improve the health of babies around the world. (WHO)So, in honour of World Breastfeeding Week, and on the principle that it's better to post something late than never, here are some examples of breastfeeding in the romance genre, and a short discussion about them.
In LaVyrle Spencer's Morning Glory Elly breastfeeds her baby (Lizzy) while Will looks on:
She sat on one of the overstuffed chairs with Lizzy in the crook of her arm. Will rolled onto his belly, crossed his wrists beneath his chin and observed as his wife looked down, took a nipple between two fingers and guided it to the baby's open mouth. His eyes became dark as onyx, his body aroused as he imbibed the image, both maternal and sexual. (279)Here Will "imbibes" the image, not the milk, but there are some romances in which heroes do imbibe breastmilk. The attitudes of heroes who watch breastfeeding and/or drink breastmilk can differ significantly: "Hayden's desire for access is the 'typical' masculine desire for female breasts as secondary sexual characteristic, not Hawk O'Toole's desire for the maternally sexual/sexually maternal female, nor Trey's desire for the glory of the God(dess)'s love" (Frantz 29).
Another breast-feeding hero can be found in Lisa Kleypas's Dreaming of You. In the epilogue we learn that "Motherhood had brought a new radiance to Sara's features, while her achievements in her work had given her maturity and confidence" (366). However, motherhood has made Sara less confident about her sexual relationship with Derek:
She could find no way to explain her reluctance to him. She had gone through so many changes ... She was a mother now ... She wasn't certain that making love with him would be the same at all, and she didn't want to find out. She was afraid of disappointing him, and herself, and it was easier to keep putting off the event than to face it. She shrugged lamely. "I'm afraid it won't be the same as before." (370)Derek's response is to undress her and kiss her until
She stirred in awakening desire, clasping him closer. To her sudden mortification, a few milky droplets seeped from her breasts. Pulling away with an apologetic gasp, she tried to turn from him. Derek pushed her shoulders down and bent over her breasts. His breath flowed in deep gusts as he stared at her. The moist nipples were a darker pink than before, surrounded by a delicate tracing of veins. The lustily maternal sight sent a wave of aching excitement through him. He touched the tip of her breast with his tongue, teasing and circling, then fastening his lips over the tautness. Gently he pulled with his mouth.I can't help wondering if Sara's disinclination to resume sexual relations after becoming a mother has a lot to do with something I mentioned in an earlier post about motherhood: "Images of motherhood in western society have most often ignored maternal sexuality, notwithstanding the sleight of hand that this entails" (Pascoe). This scene in Dreaming of You certainly brings maternal sexuality to the forefront of the reader's attention: the breast is a "lustily maternal sight" and Derek and Sara learn that post-partum sex is "not the same as before ... It's even better" (372).
"Oh, you mustn't," Sara gasped as she felt a tingling ache in her breast. "It's not decent ..."
"I never said I was decent."
She gave a breathless moan, caught beneath him as he drew a surge of milk from her body. (371)
However, although it may be positive for maternal sexuality to be acknowledged and celebrated, "cultural notions of the female breast as a primarily sexual object place the act of breastfeeding in a controversial light and can be one of the most influential factors in a woman's decision not to breastfeed" (Rodriguez-Garcia and Frazier). As Cindy A. Stearns has written,
Breastfeeding is an embodied experience that is likely to provoke important insights and apparent contradictions concerning women's bodies. Breastfeeding, like being pregnant, is a state in which the body is in some ways a public good and thus open for public comment. However, unlike pregnancy and childbirth, the expression of breastfeeding is a continuous activity that requires the ongoing participation of another person. To the extent that breastfeeding occurs in the presence of others and/or symbolizes good mothering, it is also a visual performance of mothering with the maternal body at center stage. [...]Romances in which breastfeeding heroines are "both maternal and sexual" would, then, seem to challenge ideas about what is "decent." At the same time, however, if they sexualise breastfeeding without showing heroines breastfeeding in public, it could be argued that they leave unchallenged, or perhaps even reinforce, the idea that breastfeeding should be performed in private. I don't think romances should be instruction manuals on how to breastfeed (just as I don't think, pace Quilliam, that it's fair to judge romance novels primarily in terms of whether they provide "sex and relationships education" (179)), but I'm fairly sure that there are plenty which include discussions about breastfeeding and/or have scenes of public breastfeeding. Right at the moment, though, I can't think of any examples. Can anyone help?
The prominence of the sexualized breast poses a problem for breastfeeding women and their maternal bodies. The good maternal body is not commonly believed to be simultaneously sexual, despite the obvious facts of human reproduction (Davis-Floyd 1992; Newton 1977). The sexual aspects of women and the maternal aspects of women are expected to be independent of each other. Thus, breastfeeding raises questions about the appropriate uses of women's bodies, for sexual or nurturing purposes. (308-309)
- Frantz, Sarah S. G. "'Expressing' Herself: The Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power." Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism of Popular Mass-Produced Fiction in America. Eds. Lydia Cushman Schurman and Deidre Johnson. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002. 17-36.
- Hackett, Helen. Women and Romance Fiction in the English Renaissance. Cambridge: UP, 2000.
- Kleypas, Lisa. Dreaming of You. New York: Avon, 1994.
- Pascoe, Caroline Myra. Screening Mothers: Representations of motherhood in Australian films from 1900 to 1988. PhD thesis. University of Sydney, 2006.
- Quilliam, Susan. " 'He seized her in his manly arms and bent his lips to hers…': The Surprising Impact that Romantic Novels Have On Our Work." Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care 37.3 (2011): 179-181.
- Rodriguez-Garcia, Rosalia and Lara Frazier. "Cultural Paradoxes Relating to Sexuality and Breastfeeding." Journal of Human Lactation 11.2 (1995): 111-115. [Unfortunately I didn't have access to this journal, so I've quoted from the abstract.]
- Spencer, LaVyrle. Morning Glory. 1989. New York: Jove, 1990.
- Stearns, Cindy A. "Breastfeeding and the Good Maternal Body." Gender and Society 13.3 (1999): 308-325. [Excerpt]
The illustration is by Hans Sebald Beham and is from Wikimedia Commons (there's a detailed description of it here, which is mostly in German). It illustrates the story of Cimon and Pero, which has inspired a number of artists. Some other artistic interpretations of the story of Cimon and Pero can be found here. According to Wikipedia "The story is recorded in Memorable Acts and Sayings of the Ancient Romans, Book Nine (De Factis Dictisque Memorabilibus Libri IX) by the ancient Roman historian Valerius Maximus, and was presented as a great act of filial piety and Roman honor." The Rijksmuseum describes Reubens' painting of the story like this:
At first this seems a strange subject for a painting: a young woman giving her breast to an old man tied up in chains in a bare prison cell. In fact it is a story from Roman history: the tale of Cimon and Pero. Cimon is Pero's father. He is in prison awaiting execution and has been given nothing to eat. Pero has recently had a child and saves her father from starvation by secretly giving him her breast. This relatively large picture was painted by the famous Antwerp artist, Peter Paul Rubens. To enliven the scene, Rubens has added two prying prison guards on the right.One may suspect that the "prying prison guards" are not simply impressed by the "filial piety" of Pero's motives but rather have a more sexual interest in the scene. Byron, though, focused on its 'purity':
The starry fable of the milky wayBreastfeeding takes place in a similar context in a story in Barnaby Rich's Farewell to Military Profession (1581), although the plot is more similar to that of a modern romance since it features a wronged woman and the man who must learn to appreciate her goodness:
Has not thy story’s purity; it is
A constellation of a sweeter ray,
And sacred Nature triumphs more in this
Reverse of her decree, than in the abyss
Where sparkle distant worlds: — Oh, holiest nurse!
No drop of that clear stream its way shall miss
To thy sire’s heart, replenishing its source
With life, as our freed souls rejoin the universe. (Childe Harold, Canto IV, Verse CLI)
In the seventh story, ‘Of Aramanthus born a leper’, King Rodericke believes false accusations of adultery against his pregnant wife Isabell and sends her into exile, but when he is overthrown and imprisoned by the Turks she leaves her baby and returns in disguise to help him. In a graphic image of female nurturance, she comes to his prison each night, where ‘She would leane her self cloase to the grate, and thrustyng in her Teate betwene the Irons, the kyng learned againe to sucke, and thus she dieted him a long season’ (p. 175).
Because of Queen Isabell’s disguise, ‘Neither wiste the kyng what she was, that bestowed on hym so greate grace and goodnesse: yet he blessed her more then a thousande tymes a daie.’ While his companions in prison die for lack of sustenance, his gaolers observe him miraculously growing in strength from his unseen nightly ‘banquettes’. The episode has much of the resonance of mediaeval iconographies of the Virgin sustaining adult believers with her milk. (Hackett 88-89)