Academic journal article Hecate

Yummy Mummy and the Medicalised Milkmother

Academic journal article Hecate

Yummy Mummy and the Medicalised Milkmother

Article excerpt

There is science; but as an objective discourse, science is not concerned with the subject, the mother as site of her proceedings.

Julia Kristeva (1)

Introduction

She didn't notice the five of us standing in white coats at the foot of her bed. She lay back awkwardly as required, propping herself into a half-sitting position with elbows locked, palms flat against the stiff white sheets. A midwife waited by her side. One or two student nurses and an obstetrics registrar lingered.

She grunted. She groaned and moaned. She was indomitable in her beauty, a world beyond my comprehension: big-boned, broad-hipped, and magnificent. We were a bunch of fourth-year medical students, and the consultant didn't ask the woman if she minded when he told us to go in for the last fifteen minutes. She ignored us, didn't even glance our way, and parted her trembling thighs. She laid open her birthing vulva before my four male companions, the midwives, the registrar, and me, and delivered that baby, that miracle of nascent flesh and blood and sinew, without falter under our gaze. Her vulva became something unrecognisable, a great purple fruit peeling back, heaving open. She sweated. She gasped. She grunted and strained from her unnatural position on the bed, so that her face twisted red and her neck bulged. I stood there ashamed at my uninvited presence, furious at the profession I was entering; and tears slid down my cheeks because I knew something holy when I stood before it. I understood numen.

In 1986, within months of leaving the hospital, I had a job as medical officer at the Woolloongabba Aboriginal and Islander Community Health Centre, in Brisbane. There I realised that many of the ideas we doctors had about mothers and babies were culturally determined. When I opened a practice in nearby West End, by now in my late twenties, I learnt from the consulting room that many women felt embarrassed if joyless exhaustion, or outright misery, accompanied their pregnancy. Many felt disempowered as they gave birth, and carried anger and grief about it for years. I learnt that many mothers of very young children felt devalued by society at large, and ashamed of their negative feelings about motherhood.

Then finally, at the age of thirty, I, too, became a mother. In the midst of those sometimes terrifying, often tumultuous and exhausting early experiences of maternity, I coined the term 'milkmother' to denote the pregnant, birthing, and physiologically or metaphorically lactating woman. A woman is a milkmother, according to this terminology, when she lactates physiologically but also when she lactates metaphorically, offering the particular minute-by-minute physical nurturance that very young children require, regardless of feeding method. And a milkmother, as I was learning myself, is in biological transition, from the pre-maternal years into a lifelong state of maternity; her physiological transfiguration is accompanied by a profound psychological rite of passage. (2) This paper proposes the need for empowered representations of the milkmother in the cultural imaginary as a counterweight to the milkmother's medicalisation, and is shaped by my own experiences in the early 1990s as a milkmother, and by my twenty-five years as a general practitioner.

The doctor, a masculinist imaginary, and feminism

The imaginary of a culture can be defined as a collection of myths, symbols, and shared assumptions (communicated through religious practice, artistic expression, and the popular media) by which members of that culture make sense of their world, and by which they hope to achieve their full humanity. The Judeo-Christian imaginary, with its separation of matter and spirit, taught us to view the body and, in particular, the maternal body, as unclean and dangerously uncontrolled. Julia Kristeva argues that we frame the body as 'abject' due to the breakdown in systems of meaning that occurs in our society when the integrity of bodily boundaries is threatened. …

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