Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Milk of Human Kindness

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.
"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)
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).

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. [...]

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)
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?
  • 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 way
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)
Breastfeeding 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:
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)


  1. Hi Laura, I have breastfeeding mothers in a number of my books and they do feed their babies in front of friends, generally using a shawl for discretion. It's easy to breastfeed in public without exposing the breast, after all. But breastfeeding in a public place goes together with a necessity to go out and about with a baby, which my aristocratic heroine wouldn't often need to do. They breastfeed in front of the father, too, of course, but I think in such cases the fathers love their wives as beautiful mothers rather than reacting to them directly as sexy.

    Long ago I taught childbirth and breastfeeding classes, and the sexual aspect isn't simple. A lot of new mothers who are breastfeeding don't have much interest in sex, not because of body-awareness issues, but because of a) lack of sleep, and b) the almost constant physical contact with the baby, which due to post-partum hormones, especially oxytocin, is their true focus at that time. They love their partner, but they're really not into getting hot and sweaty with them.

    There's a huge variation, and some new mothers are keen on sex, but many yearn for physical separation and are more likely to love the father for taking the baby out and giving them some time alone.

    I'm talking here about the one or two months and these days sex isn't recommended for six weeks anyway. Later the libido can be strong or enhanced, but there will be the milk issue.

    Sex with a breastfeeding mother is usually messy because she'll release milk during arousal. I portrayed that in my book The Shattered Rose and some readers found it a turn off. The couple found it funny.

    It'd be interesting to do research to see whether having breastfed babies themselves alters how authors portray the whole thing.

    A lot of breastfeeding aspects don't show up in books, or not as I've found.

    My milk let down was so strong that if one of my sons came off the breast mid feed milk could shoot across the room. It made the Tintoretto painting, the origins of the milky way, seem quite literal!

    In case anyone wonders, I found breastfeeding wonderful and so easy and convenient, and of course it is very good for the baby. I'm 100% in favor.


  2. "It's easy to breastfeed in public without exposing the breast, after all."

    That's true (although some people have babies which wriggle enough to make that a bit trickier) and re that and

    "I found breastfeeding wonderful and so easy and convenient"


    "A lot of breastfeeding aspects don't show up in books, or not as I've found."

    it occurs to me that when something is a trouble-free part of a daily routine (which, admittedly, breastfeeding isn't for all mothers who try it), then it perhaps isn't going to (a) seem worth mentioning in the context of a story any more than face-washing or other mundane activities and (b) if it is mentioned in a novel, it won't stick in the readers' memories in the same way as the scenes I quoted above.

  3. Really fascinating read and a subject close to my heart. Sexuality after childbirth is really challenging for most mothers, I think, and breastfeeding is an extra complicating factor. I breastfed for a year and my own attitude towards my body changed significantly. I definitely felt it belonged my baby and me, not my husband.

    I love Lisa Kleypas' scene (Dreaming of You is one of my all time favourites). It's such a positive image and captures some very realistic experiences. It would be great to see more of that.

    I heard an interesting radio programme about factory working women breastfeeding - their baby would be brought to a gate during their break for a feed and they would feed (if I recall rightly) through a sort of hatch. Obviously that's the opposite end of the social scale than most typical regency heroines.

  4. De-lurking Laura.

    As a mother of three who were all breastfed, the connection between mother and baby is intense anyway. But if a woman breastfeeds it is even more so. Of course I am in no way criticising women who choose not to do so.

    As for the sexual relationship between a feeding mother and her partner, it varies from woman to woman. How much help they get from their partner and how much sleep. Becoming aroused does release milk, sometimes spectacularly. Even though the female body has changed after childbirth, making love two to three months after having a baby is almost another right of passage for a woman. Is it going to hurt? Will I split apart? Those are thoughts that can make re-connecting intimately difficult and problematic at first.

    This is where a strong partner, or in a book, a husband/hero comes in, and the excerpt about the husband suckling his wife, rang true for me.

    Recently I underwent a mastectomy, so I view my breasts somewhat differently these days. I'm in my forties, so not I'm over the hill.

    Naturally, sensation has gone and although I still enjoy an active physical relationship, I do miss the tug and the pull from a nipple.

    Great post, Laura.

  5. My favourite romance with breastfeeding scenes is Judith Duncan's 'Murphy's Child'.
    There aren't any discussions about breatfeeding - or any public breastfeeding - when the heroine needs to feed the baby during a family party at his parents' home, she goes into a quieter room - his grandmother joins them, but that's not really public.

    But the little details bring back what it was like to breastfeed - the damp patches on her clothes, the agony when she's engorged, or the moment where her milk first comes in:

    'He heard the baby start nursing, then a funny, startled sound from Jordan.

    She was leaning over the baby as if her chest were about to explode, the most astonished look on her face, and there was milk everywhere. All over the baby's face. On the sofa. Soaking one half of her shirt.

    ... Without saying a word, he went to the bathroom and got a guest towel and a damp facecloth and brought them back, handing them to Jordan. Another mystery of female physiology exposed and solved.

    .... "This is really great. First I try to starve him. Then I try to drown him."'

    And then there's the morning when the (very colicky) baby first sleeps through:

    'He felt her come awake, then go suddenly stll, as if she was trying to get her bearings. Then like a diver exploding from the water, she bolted upright, her face frozen in alarm as she looked at the cradle. ....

    "It's a miracle, Mama," he said, hoping she thought his gruff tone was from sleep. "The kid finally took mercy on us. He slept through the night. The whole, entire night. Maybe there is hope after all."

    She was so still that not a single muscle moved. The corner of his mouth lifted in amusement, and he ran his hand up her spine. "It's okay, Kennedy. Breathe in. Breathe out. That's what you do when you find out you're alive."
    He got a little huff of laughter, then she went still again. "Oh, God," she breathed, a tone of horror in her voice. Ah. She had just figured out why he was very wet.
    Murphy chuckled and tightened his hold on her, deciding to give her a hard time. "You know if you were a dairy cow, you'd be some farmer's major asset."'

    Marianne McA

  6. This is all very interesting to me, because it suggests that experiences of breastfeeding can vary widely. For example,

    "I breastfed for a year and my own attitude towards my body changed significantly. I definitely felt it belonged my baby and me, not my husband."

    For me, the part that was odd was having something kicking me from inside my own body. After the birth I felt it was still my body, as it had always been, but I also felt that as I'd made the decision to have a baby, I had an obligation to feed it. Breastfeeding was, for me, the easiest way to do that.

    "As a mother of three who were all breastfed, the connection between mother and baby is intense anyway. But if a woman breastfeeds it is even more so."

    I didn't find the connection particularly intense then, nor that it was intensified by breastfeeding. I found that the connection grew over time, particularly once I could communicate verbally with my child. For me, breastfeeding was mostly a time of peace and quiet when I could be sure that there wouldn't be any screaming and I could be fairly sure of having a few minutes when I could read a book and/or eat something without being interrupted. Unless he drank too much and spewed some of it back up all over me, of course.

    "the moment where her milk first comes in"

    I don't think I had a time when it wasn't there, really. Very early on, when the midwives trying to tell me he wasn't latched on properly, they got me to take him off; milk squirted everywhere because (a) he was latched on properly and (b) there was milk. I don't remember leaking much, either.

    "there's the morning when the (very colicky) baby first sleeps through"

    In our case, that didn't happen for well over a year.

  7. Oh, and what I should have said first was, thanks for de-lurking, Christine. It's good to "see" you!

  8. It isn't as easy to avoid exposure during public breastfeeding under certain conditions. I have a large breasts, and all three of my daughters wanted to see what was going on around them while they were nursing, and would therefore push off any covering. Sometimes I have felt my breasts were literal, just not symbolic, public domain!

  9. I breastfed both my children and it was intimate, bonding, exhausting, sometimes messy, delightful. So many things. Another word: exclusive. It was about me and them, not my husband. Don't get me wrong, he was fully involved in child rearing and took his turn doing the odd expressed-milk feed. But when I was breastfeeding, it was about me and the baby.

    So for me, breastfeeding and romance are just not that proximate. (I was going to say 'incompatible' but I don't really feel that they were at odds - just that they were in different worlds). The absence of romance in the presence of the baby is also nothing really to do with post partum sexuality, more that that was a time in my life when I fell deeply in love with someone other than my husband - as did he. That shared experience brought its own intimacy between the two of us, something deeper and more profound - now we were related to one another, indirectly! - but it wasn't really a romantic feeling and we knew that nothing would ever be the same again. We had changed the shape of our relationship, adding another (and then later another) jigsaw piece to our family puzzle.

  10. Janet W: I breast fed all three of my children and I loved every minute of it. It's a perfect time to read and cuddle and love.

    Two marvelous breastfeeding scenes: a short story by Mary Balogh: a lord returns home to his estranged wife on Valentine's Day. Watching her breastfeed his son serves as a bridge back to their mutual love. Another Balogh, The First Snowdrop, makes me sorta hate the hero again as he plans to take a nursing baby away from her mother. I don't hate Alex but it sure shows how dumb he is.

    A Civil Contract has Adam watching Jenny nurse his son and heir. It's as close to love as you're going to get in that book (which I love).

  11. Laura, there's a book you might find interesting --written by my favorite seminary professor Margaret R. Miles: "A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750." Margaret is a wonderful writer and a deeply insightful scholar who uses art as a window into historical understandings of embodiment and spirituality.

    Here's the product description from Amazon:

    "Looking at painting and sculpture from the fourteenth through the eighteenth centuries, this provocative work focuses on the symbolism of the female breast to open a dazzling interpretive view of Western European history over four centuries. Margaret R. Miles finds that while in 1350 the Virgin's bare breast represented nourishment and loving care--God's provision for the Christian--by 1750, artistic representations of the breast were either erotic or medical. The breast had lost its meaning as a religious symbol. But how did the breast, and nakedness more generally, lose the ability to represent human bodies as site and symbol of religious subjectivity and commitment? To explore this phenomenon, Miles engages in a wide-ranging investigation of the social, cultural, and religious circumstances within which a religious symbol came to be thoroughly "mastered" by erotic and medical meanings. What emerges is a nuanced understanding of the location of power in early modern Western Europe, of how the lives of women changed over this period, of how art reveals and helps to construct religious meaning, and of how modern Christianity's attitude toward bodies was shaped."

    Blessings to you,

    Melinda (RevMelinda)

  12. Thanks Kyra, Jo and Janet for sharing your experiences.

    Thanks, Janet, for the examples of breastfeeding in romance.

    And thanks for the book recommendation, Melinda. It sounds fascinating. Sadly, though, the book's not available from any of the libraries near me, and my book-buying budget is rather small.

  13. I find this discussion years after it was first posted, as a breastfeeding mother (reading nonstop since my baby is apparently a bottomless pit) looking for romance novels that don't whitewash breastfeeding or the effect it has on a relationship. I appreciate reading the perspectives here.