A review of Fresh Milk by Fiona Giles

For those of us who have experienced the sensual, emotional, and intense power of being able to feed our children for extended periods, there are many chapters in this book which will resonate. Those who haven’t probably won’t be interested. Giles has created a very enjoyable, easy to read, and thoughtful book which is part social commentary, part literature, and part pop.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Fresh Milk:The Secret Life of Breasts
By Fiona Giles
Allen & Unwin , 268 pp, $A24.95
ISBN 1865089796

Fiona Giles is no prude. Her books focus unflinchingly on those parts of our anatomy often glossed over. In Dick For A Day, Giles asked well known women what they would do if they had a penis. In Chick For a Day, she asks well known men what they would do with a vagina. The results were surprisingly literary, erotic, funny, and sometimes just icky. In her latest piece of scholarship, Giles turns her query to the mammary glands, breasts, and more specifically, breastmilk. Of course breastmilk is more than just the fluid of a body part, a sexual orientation, or even a critical component of the female psyche. It is also the essential food for babies – and in many cases, their sole source of nutrition for the first 6 months or longer.

Once again, Giles’ work is thorough, and has a wide scope, looking at breastfeeding, breasts and breastmilk from as broad a perspective as possible. This is no simple guide for mothers, although you will find out how some breastfeeding mothers dealt with mastitis, the pain of cracked nipples, the increased cup size, and even how to buy a sexy maternity bra in a sea of white cotton thick strapped D cups. There are essays from women who couldn’t breastfeed, and others from women who were liberated by the experience, an essay from a woman who advertised for a wet nurse for her child, and one by a woman who felt violated when a woman fed her child without consent. There is a touching piece about a woman who kept pumping milk for a breast bank after her daughter died – as much a form of therapy as a goodwill gesture. There are stories of outrageous pain (bleeding, infections, cracks, flat nipples, engorgement, mastitis…), extreme pleasure, those who loved it, and those who just didn’t like it. There is an adoptive mothers’ attempts to lactate, pieces on returning to work, pumping, shopping, feeding in public, feeding triplets, and a lovely piece from a man who comfort suckled his daughter:

When I relate the story of that closeness between Miyuki and me, I’m always reminded of that look she’d give me when she latched on, and the feeling of her whole body relaxing against mine. From being a tense and dissatisfied baby, she would melt into a soft bundle. It was safe. We were close” (195)

Not all the pieces are about breastfeeding babies though. There are also pieces which explore adult breastfeeding (maybe this should have another name…), breastfeeding as a sexual act – both for males and females, and even breastfeeding porn. There are also stories about people who have cooked with breastmilk, with recipes provided the back of the book.

Giles has written the introduction, and the last story in the book – a revealing look at her teenage years and relationship with her mother, but throughout the book Giles’ voice introduces the pieces, follows through with the thread, makes sense of the pieces, and generally narrates. Sprinkled in between the pieces are the results of a number of questionnaires that Giles sent out, including things like “What single change to the world would have made breastfeeding easier for you?” “If you could buy breastmilk by the litre from the corner store, how much would it cost?” (ranges from $2.95 to $1,000) :If your breasts could speak, what would they say?” There are also quotes from children who remember what it was like, and describe it pretty clearly:

“It tasted like Coke. Lemonade in that one. Coke over here.” (226)

Giles is a good editor, and she organises and narrates her material well. There is always a light touch, an open mind (and you need it for some of the pieces), and a good sense of humour inherent in the book. It is hard to pinpoint who this book has been written for. Perhaps the perfect reader is the modern literate would-be mother, or even better, a mother in the process of feeding a baby while reading (it worked for me…). I can’t imagine the book being passed around though at Playgroup or in Nursing Mother’s meetings, and as how-to books go, you’d probably get more value from Kitzinger or La Leche League’s The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. Like Giles’ other books, when it gets really funky, it tends to be a pretty gross – with descriptions of masturbating mothers, lactating porn stars spraying the camera, couples prolonging lactation so daddy can continue to get his nightly feeds, or the feeding of animals. As a breastfeeding mother, I can’t agree with Giles’ statement that the need to be able to feed my child safely comes at the price of joie de vivre (since breastfeeding itself is such a celebration of life). On the other hand, there aren’t many books around which take such a literate, liberated, and in-depth look at the way in which breastfeeding can impact on women, on babies, and on society.

For those of us who have experienced the sensual, emotional, and intense power of being able to feed our children for extended periods, there are many chapters in this book which will resonate. Those who haven’t probably won’t be interested. Giles has created a very enjoyable, easy to read, and thoughtful book which is part social commentary, part literature, and part pop. For more information, visit: Fresh Milk

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