An Elegy to Breastfeeding, from Titus Andronicus to Now

Alicia Andrzejewski // I nurse my daughter for the last time. She is fifteen months old. I hear her sharp cry at 6:10, and, as my partner checks his phone, I rush to grab a glass of water and walk through our five-foot hallway to her. She stands in her crib, expectant, and offers her pacifier to me. An exchange. I turn off the sound machine and turn on the light: “Good morning baby! How did you sleep?” I pick her up, the weight of her more and more each morning. We walk over to the couch and I pull a blanket over us, turning her to one side. She latches.

I stroke her fine, glittery hair, curling up into space out of various spots on her head. Her dark eyes fix on my breast with purpose; her jaw moves with vigor; the hollow of her throat sinks in and out. My mother calls this face “nursing face.” “Years later,” she tells me, watching me feed my daughter one day, “you’ll see it again when she’s drinking from a straw. It’ll take your breath away—the loss.” I know what she means, then, about the face; my daughter looks like a different person when she feeds. She’s animal-like, playing with my mouth, grabbing my hair, looking at and away from me—thinking without language. She twists her body off of me, then the couch, and runs away.

And we’re done.

The loss.

The nursing body is an animal body, a public extension of the bodily intimacy between a child and pregnant body—a bodily intimacy that, for centuries, masculinist systems of power have sought to sanitize and control. Breastfeeding collapses “the boundary between human and animal, civilized and uncivilized” (Ussher 81). In the early modern period, the pregnant and nursing body were believed to shape not only the health but personality of a child; it was widely believed that a child would imbibe characteristics from its nurse, and often “women were employed who were considered closer to nature: peasants and, in overseas colonies, native women and women of African descent” (Schiebinger 402). This widespread practice of wet-nursing informs Nicholas Culpeper’s racist, sexist sentiment in The English Physician (1652), “If the blood be impure, how can it breed good Milk? Dirty water will make but dirty Pottage” (150). In William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, for example, when Tamora orders her sons to rape and murder Lavinia, Lavinia echoes Culpeper’s sentiments in her pleas: “O, do not learn her wrath: she taught it thee. / The milk thou suckst from her did turn to marble; / Even at thy teat thou hadst thy tyranny” (2.2.143-45). In Shakespearean drama, few characters “speak as if mothers nursed their own children” (Paster 199), and Lavinia is one of the few to assume a mother in Shakespeare’s plays breastfed. Lavinia’s assumption speaks to Tamora’s otherness, her animal body, the racialization of the Goths in Titus Andronicus, and also works to emphasize the threatening power of the pregnant and postpartum body.

We have not come so far: Even though (some) science says “breast is best,” the breastfeeding body is not a civil body: it must be covered up, it must be regulated, it must be pure. I breastfed my child for the last time because I needed to go on medication deemed “incompatible” with breastfeeding (“dirty water,” Culpeper might say). There is far too much pressure to breastfeed to begin with (see Meaghan O’Connell’s chapter “A Certain Kind of Mammal” in And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready). In many ways, ever since “science” conceded that “breast is best,” people who give birth endure the incredible labor necessary to breast or chestfeed. I never received undue pressure from physicians to breastfeed: Just one nurse, who knew it would be hard, who all but yanked me out of my hospital bed postpartum to attend a class. “I’m still hooked up to Pitocin?” I pointed out, and she started removing the IVs. “The longer you wait to learn, the more weight she’ll lose.”

The pressure to breastfeed was bigger, came from more places than I can point to, and it made me want to breastfeed. All of those voices and pressures added up to wanting to, even though, as is the case for many people, my breastfeeding story was not “natural.” My daughter did not crawl up my body, fresh from the womb, and latch on. It took maneuvering, and expensive pillows, and consultants, and crying, and unnecessary trips to the doctor with 40 dollar co-pays. My partner and I agonized over our daughter’s weight, how much milk she was getting, buying newborn bottles we never used. Later, the choice to breastfeed meant pumping in the New York City College of Technology locker room as women came in and out, averting their eyes and apologizing. It took leaving networking events every 3-4 hours to pump in a hotel room in LA before and after giving the biggest talk of my career at the last Shakespeare Association of America conference.

Once my daughter and I figured out breastfeeding, however, it was an easy way to feel close to her. Sometimes a cheap way—when she fell, or was upset, or felt need, I could comfort her. I started this piece focusing on her, the child: how she looked, whether she was ready to wean, how her sharp cries and needs called my body to her body. But I was also part of this bodily exchange. I can still feel the oxytocin release with my milk; her little hands on my body, pinching my back lightly; the ache of my breasts the first time she slept through the night, and the relief when we came together, finally, that morning.

As a mother, I know there is a lot more nursing to come, in many iterations. I woke up crying from a nightmare this morning, though, about being adamantly wrong about something. Displacement, Freud might say. What is this loss I’m reeling from? What is the relationship between my body and the body of my daughter now? So much about growing up is about moving away from the body that gave birth to us—literally leaving it, over and over again, and there has been plenty of (psycho)analysis on this leaving. But what about being left? Something about my body died yesterday, even though it was, in some ways, my choice to wean my daughter. That connection—the transfer of fluids that brought my daughter into being, created limbs and legs and second chances while the world watched suspiciously—is gone.

I told my partner in bed last night, I—my body—is now so free and so lost.

Works Cited

Culpeper, Nicholas. The English Physician. London, 1652.

O’Connell, Meaghan. And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready. Little Brown & Co, 2018.

Paster, Gail Kern. The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England. Cornell UP, 1993.

Schiebinger, L. “Why Mammals Are Called Mammals: Gender Politics in Eighteens Century Natural History.” The American Historical Review, vol. 98, no. 2, 1993, pp. 382–411.

Ussher, Jane M. Managing the Monstrous Feminine: Regulating the Reproductive Body. Routledge, 2006.

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