The author of Fresh Milk talks about the genesis of her book, the process of gathering the material for it, the challenge of writing a book part academic thesis, part entertainment, and part how to guide, how she researched the more riske topics and how she felt that might impact on her readers, the “way forward,” her readers, recipes, Sheila Kitzinger, and potential future work.
Magdalena: Tell me about the genesis of Fresh Milk.
Fiona: After my first child was born, I was invited to write a chapter for the anthology MOTHERLOVE 2, on an aspect of mothering. I told the editor I had only just become a mother, so didn’t feel qualified to comment on this, but asked if I could write about breastfeeding. I then kept a journal and wrote a story, “Two Breasts, Twelve Weeks” which was included in the book. It was while writing this essay that I realised how little literature existed on the experience of breastfeeding, as opposed to how-to manuals and polemics on why women should breastfeed. I had a publisher in New York, where I was then living, (my anthology, DICK FOR A DAY was just being published) and suggested a collection of stories about this aspect of breastfeeding — it took three years to persuade him!
Magdalena: How did you conduct the surveys and collect the essays/stories. Were the pieces commissioned?
Fiona: I sent out the questionnaires by snail mail and email, to people who answered my advertisements and calls, or who had heard about my research. I received over two hundred replies, about 10 per cent of them from men. The interviews I conducted were organized after coming across interesting stories in the questionnaires, or due to research I’d been conducting. For example, tracking down the producer of lactation pornography for the story (“Pumping It”), or talking to the milk bank in Austin, Texas, who then put me on to the woman who had donated her milk after the death of her child (for the story “God’s Gift”), or after attending a lactation consultant’s college seminar hearing about the woman who suffered terrible dermatitis yet continued nursing (for “Hell Ride”). These stories were based on edited transcripts of interviews. Others, such as “Mammatocumulus,” “Letdown,” and “Thinking Through Breasts” were stories that had already been written for another purpose but hadn’t found a publisher (except for the last, which was adapted from an academic journal). Finally, there are stories that I wrote (“Quest for Bravura,” “White Chocolate”) which are autobiographical, then two others “The Secret life of Nipples” and “Rain” which are fictionalised versions of stories based on people I knew, or someone I’d been corresponding with via email. Then the Introductions to each story were written by me. Finally, the lists are selected answers from replies to the questionnaire. So it’s a real mix of voices.
Magdalena: Was it difficult to walk the line between informative writing for the layperson (or nursing mother), academic analysis, and entertainment?
Fiona: It was not difficult so much as a challenge that I enjoyed trying to meet. I read lots of books, articles, etc, and spoke to lactation consultants (and had a lactation consultant fact check the ms for me). First I collected the stories, as I felt these would be the most important part of the book, then I wrote the introductions, which came together quickly as I’d already read so much on the various issues — such as wet nursing, or induced lactation. One of the biggest challenges was persuading one of my editors that readers could cope with more challenging pieces (such as “Thinking Through Breasts “). My view though, is that readers are smart, also that they can pick and choose in an anthology such as this. I also hoped the fragmented nature of the book, would mean that even if an introduction seemed academic (though I hope they don’t!) that the story which followed it would make sense of the introduction and be entertaining. Finally, the lists helped to break things up even more.
Magdalena: How did you research some of the more riske elements, such as the lactation porn, male lactation, the breastmilk as adult food, etc?
Fiona: I heard of the lactation porn early on in my research but it took a lot of work to find the producer. He uses a pseudonym, and I was just emailing people in the pornography industry in America, or journalists who had written about it, but for ages no one could help as this is an obscure corner of the fetish market. I finally found out his name and called him from Sydney. After that it was straightforward to arrange an interview, which I did on a research trip to America in 2000. Male lactation has been written about in the scientific literature, and there are websites on this too, which were extremely helpful — particularly Laura Shanley’s website on Milk Men: http://ucbirth.com/milmen.htm
I was also lucky in this instance in that even though none of those men who’d claimed to lactate were willing to be interviewed, a man I knew had experienced having his daughter latch onto his breast, and had interesting things to say about it. I was also more comfortable with this arrangement as I would have wanted to see any male lactating interview subject actually produce the milk, otherwise I might have been hoaxed on this score! With the man I interviewed, he wasn’t interested in producing milk, just in settling his baby. With breastmilk as adult food, these answers mostly came out of questions I asked in the questionnaire. I also asked friends and it became a bit of dinner party entertainment that people were surprisingly keen to be involved in!
Magdalena: Were you worried that publishing these bits might put readers off, or detract from the other sections?
Fiona: Not really. I hoped that readers would be intrigued by these things in the same way I was. I know there is a risk that some readers will be offended by some parts, but my aim with the book is to tell the truth about breastfeeding and lactation, and how we live with it, so it wouldn’t have been honest to leave these things out. I’m not arguing that men should breastfeed, or that people should watch lactation porn, or cook with breastmilk. I’m just hoping we can think about these things as a way of opening up our understanding of human lactation and relaxing our views a little on its uses.
Magdalena: What would you say the overall thesis/theme of the book is?
Fiona: I’m hoping the book will help people feel more relaxed about breastfeeding in our culture and to incorporate it more easily into their lives. I feel we’ve been very narrow-minded about breastfeeding to date, since it’s been re-introduced to us since the early 1970s. Of course, all the nutritional information and helpful research on breastfeeding has been hugely beneficial, but at the same time, there’s crept into a lot of literature a sense of a right and wrong way to breastfeed, and a right and wrong attitude to breastfeeding, which I think has contributed to the guilt and resentment many women feel when they have trouble breastfeeding, or don’t enjoy it. While all the medical research is essential, and the press coverage really important, an image problem for breastfeeding has evolved out of that, to some extent. I’m hoping that FRESH MILK will give breastfeeding and lactation a more open, pleasurable, even wacky image. It is after all, somewhat wacky to us all that we can produce wonderful food from our own bodies, yet don’t really accommodate it. I also want the book to be a celebration of our capacity to lactate. For mothering and parenting in general to benefit from its pleasures, rather than just feel burdened by a sense of duty.
Magdalena: In your afterward, you talk of a “way forward.” What is the ideal? (eg a more informed, more relaxed population, more sexy nursing bras, public acceptance of imagined possibilities?) Do we have a long way to go to reach this ideal?
Fiona: I don’t think we do have all that far to travel. There are so many people out there, doing their own thing, if it were better known, I think that in itself would help others feel more relaxed and empowered. It’s a bit like conscious-raising — once we know others feel the same way, that we’re not alone, we can just get on with things more happily. On the other hand, the continuing scandals about public breastfeeding, make me feel that public institutions have to update their attitudes and their facilities, so that breastfeeding really can be incorporated at a practical level. This is not just to free up attitudes to breastfeeding in public (which was the single most important change that women wished for in my questionnaire), but to make it a less stressful proposition for women to work, or mother several children, and breastfeed at the same time. For many women, it’s simply too stressful, and there’s not enough practical support for mothering overall. Breastfeeding is one of the first things to suffer under these conditions, as supply drops, and the woman is forced to give up. I guess overall, mothering — and parenting, which includes fathering — needs more practical support in our culture, while the image of mothering could do with polishing up — and perhaps this would come if we really did have room, through this support, to get more pleasure from it, and to enjoy ourselves as mothers.
Magdalena: Who are your imagined readers?
Fiona: I’d love new mothers to read FRESH MILK, and also new fathers. And then all parents of young children, or even grandparents, who could mention it to their breeding offspring. I’d really love lactation consultants to approve of my book, at least in parts, and to recommend it to the parents they advise. It would also be great if young women could read the book, before they have children. I think we need to start thinking of our breasts as fully functional, and to enjoy them in all their capacities.
Magdalena: Have you personally tested any of the recipes?
Fiona: No, I’m ashamed to say I haven’t. A friend offered to make the breast pumpkin pie for me to serve at the book launch, but unfortunately the venue I’d chosen didn’t allow us to bring our own food! If any readers do try them, I’d love to hear how they go.
Magdalena: The book is endorsed by breastfeeding guru Sheila Kitzinger. Was her work a starting point for you?
Fiona: The starting point for me was really my own experience with breastfeeding, and the intense curiosity I felt. It really intrigued me in so many ways. I’d read Kitzinger while pregnant and was encouraged and reassured by her open approach to the ways in which the female body produces children and milk, not as an illness or mystery, but something joyful and empowering. So her work is incredibly valuable. I was also influenced by Barbara Sichtermann’s essay “The Lost Eroticism of the Breasts” which was sent to me by a colleague when I was writing that first essay for MOTHERLOVE 2. Sichtermann’s work really spoke to me of what was missing from the general literature and our cultural understanding of breasts.
Magdalena: You mention in the introduction that Fresh Milk is only a selection of the stories you uncovered. Is there more to say on the topic? Will you write more on it?
Fiona: I’d love to write a long essay on adult nursing, which is where couples get together (with or without children) to nurse. I’m hoping to start on this soon. If any readers have experience with this, please email me, as I’d love to interview you. (my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Magdalena: Are you working on a new project you can give us a hint about?
Fiona: I don’t have anything firm as yet. I’m a bit torn between an urge to go deeper into this subject, and breastfeeding and maternal sexuality, and a desire to move into more fictional territory, probably looking at a different subject. I also like the idea of continuing to make use of scholarly research while reaching a wide audience by making it accessible through storytelling. I guess I’d like to see how FRESH MILK is received first, before making a decision.