Madonna of the Meadow, Giovanni Bellini (1500)
There are few commonplace events which prove the malleability and the fragility of the human animal body more than the process of growing a child. He grows within, larger and larger, pushing your body to accommodate him. He's born and then, if all goes well, the person who birthed him produces milk to nourish him. Child creation demands your body become a vessel for another and a producer of nourishment for a new human, within and without.
On Saturday, October 6th, my godson Francis was brought into this world in a birth that went as predictably as one could ever hope, expelled physically from the womb by one of his mothers as his other mother received his new body in their hands. As soon as he stopped breathing from the umbilical cord, however, Francis has had to spend his first days in the neonatal intensive care unit due to his inability to draw enough air into his lungs, which are less than the size of a fist.
There's a reactionary and conservative strain of thought that has always been present in this world that, despite all evidence to the contrary, believes it's just common sense that the human body should be this immutable, unchanging object in the world. But the human body is constantly changing—generating cells as the cells decay—and constantly vulnerable to change. What's more unacceptable to this reactionary thought but as true as anything is in this world: the human body should be altered. The body should be mutable by desire, by need, to keep the body alive, to help another body stay alive.
Gossiping, Johannes Christiaan Janson (1780-1810)
One of Francis' moms asked me to bake her some lactation cookies. I was unfamiliar with the concept, but at least I didn't think, like the author of this lactation cookie recipe's asshole friend, that the this meant the cookies contained milk from human lactation. The lactation cookies are meant to contain as many galactagogues—supplements meant to encourage the production of breast milk in the body—as possible. The cookies contain herbal galactagogues, the efficacy of which is not backed by any scientific testing done so far, but supported by the testimony of many lactating mothers.
At the moment, Francis is being fed breast milk from a feeding tube. As he grows stronger, he has to learn how to use the mouth muscles that will allow him to suckle, muscles that adult humans take for granted every single day of their lives.
Lactation is something that humans, as mammals, have done for centuries, the reaction of the healthy body to produce nutrients to nourish the newly born. Since the establishment of elite sectors of society—conservative by definition in almost every sense—there has been an attempt to outsource the duty of lactation to the lower-born in the form of the wet nurse. There has long been this instinct that to recognize the human body's function as an animal body is below a certain group of people, an attempt to deny and make unseen its utilitarian functions.
The 18th century saw a popular attempt to bring breast feeding back to mothers in the elite class, but not for ethically sound reasons. The philosopher Carl Linnaeus published the pamphlet Nutrix Noverca, advocating that breast feeding should no longer be outsourced to wet nurses. The argument was not that breast feeding promotes bonding with the child or that its economical, but that he saw wet nurses—always belonging to a lower social caste—as unhealthy and possibly diseased. He thought that the wisdom of the upper-caste mother would flow through her milk and it made it more desirable.
Charity, Guido Reni (1629-1630)
The act of feeding a child at your breast, especially for the unprivileged, remains largely vilified, looked down upon, and in some cases criminalized, in the centuries since. Breast feeding in public has stayed contentious as the patriarchal world we are all subjected to short circuits at attempts to maintain the idea of breasts as sex objects and functional parts of the animal body simultaneously. The Right to Breastfeed Act—a law that ensures the very basic right that you will not be arrested for feeding your child on federal property—wasn't passed in the United States until 1999.
Somehow, the act of promoting lactation and supporting the rights of mothers to lactate however and whenever they want is a political act. The actual lactation cookies themselves are largely unsweetened with the exception of coconut sugar and raw honey (a specific variety of raw honey, as I learned from Samin Nosrat's excellent new Netflix show Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, was traditionally given to Mayan women immediately after they gave birth). The flour component in the cookies is created by blended oats and tapioca flour. Crushed fennel seeds and brewer's yeast pack even more galactagogues into the cookie. It's essentially a baked good engineered to deliver as much nutrition as possible in one mealy-tasting unit (it tastes better than a lot of gluten-free cookies, I'm told).
I've been coming to understand—while witnessing my two close friend's pregnancy and then the birth of their son—that the care of children demands the responsibility and the involvement of many people outside of the parents themselves. Our contemporary world and culture can be isolating and so much emphasis is put on the individual. The narrative so often enforces the idea that, whatever a child is or becomes, it is the direct result of the choices that two people made alone. But it's undeniable that so many more people will have an effect on any given child's life and development. It's my responsibility, not just as a friend but as a community member, to do what I can to ensure Francis' healthy growth and to do what I can to ensure the ongoing health of his parents. He needs them, we need them, and now, as of this week, we all need Francis.
You can donate to the ongoing health of Francis and his family here.
Virgin and Child, Master of Saint Ursula Legend (1475-1499)