The Daily

First Person

Notes from the Milk Cave

July 17, 2014 | by

Breastfeeding and boredom.

Wyspianski_Motherhood

Detail from Stanisław Wyspiański’s Motherhood, 1902.

“You are an animal,” my husband told me. We were in bed. The context was not what you’d expect. A baby was latched onto my right breast while the left leaked an opalescent waterfall of milk.

“I’m a mammal,” I said. This is about as deep as our conversations got in the first month of parenthood. We were upstairs in what we have dubbed the milk cave—the dim bedroom of the nineteenth-century log cabin in southeastern Ohio, where we are currently living. I spend the better part of my days here, watching as my baby’s eager, sucking mouth goes rooting, and then latches on with the force of a heavy lid sealed shut on an overflowing container. There is nothing soft or gentle about my baby’s latch. It is the precise enactment of its definition: a clamping on, a fastening of two bodies. I feel a sudden tug of suction, a rasp of thirst, then sleepiness. I listen for the ker, ker, ker of her swallowing.

Before I gave birth, I knew breastfed babies needed to eat every two hours. But knowing this did not prepare me for the sheer amount of time breastfeeding would demand. Even if someone had told me “twenty minutes per breast per feeding,” it would still have taken sitting down every two hours for forty minutes for me to understand, because just like every other aspect of pregnancy and motherhood—morning sickness, contractions—the imagined experience turned out to be laughably unlike the experience itself.

I was hunkered down in the milk cave in a mess of sheets, sticky with an overabundance of milk, balancing the baby in the football hold and watching her eyes blink slowly open and closed with the rhythm of sucking. I’d finally finish, set her in her Baby Björn, and start digging into e-mails and then, again, she’d shove her fist in her mouth and start smacking her gums with comic franticness. Whole yellow and green summer days slipped by between the milk cave and the breezy porch, gazing at baby on the breast, at the whirring fan and the sheets with their pattern of roses, at the pastures of wavering grasses incandescent in afternoon light. Nights I awoke at two, at four, at six, and in the grainy coffee black, I’d hold the warm parcel of her, feel the eager pressure of those small gums, our animal bodies pressed together, the trickle of milk, the darkness undulating a bit in my delirium. I’d try not to fall asleep, have half-thoughts, then enter a space of no thoughts at all.

At first the novelty of the experience was enough to consume me entirely. But after a few weeks, I grew restless. I had to do something else. Or rather, I had to do something, since breastfeeding somehow didn’t count. It seemed to exist in that nowhere realm of feminine activity: in the back stairways, the dark kitchens, those places where women do the invisible work that drives and maintains life. The essential, ground-level work: the feeding, the nurturing, the staving off of chaos, work not measured in hours, miles, words, dollars. Work that doesn’t count as such. I would sit and stare and enter an oxytocin-fueled dream state, a new kind of boredom.

In the past, I’ve felt boredom as a restrained and tedious anticipation: How many more minutes in the waiting room, or until the bus arrives, or until this lecturer stops droning on? Boredom as a state of toe-tapping impatience for the next event. But in breastfeeding, boredom was a kind of presence, an altered way of being. It didn’t involve any anticipation. The act of giving milk itself is pleasant and soothing; it’s not that I am eager for it to end. And it’s not that it is uninteresting, between the strange palpable effects of the oxytocin and the mesmerizing face of the latched baby. It just doesn’t fit into the matrix of productivity or purpose or attention I’m accustomed to. It is simply being, mammal-animal being, layered with a human consciousness as thin and light as linen. It is not directed, not overtly constructive, containing the possibility of a spark of curiosity or desire, but also the possibility of a lack of either. There could be a revelation—an insight to be used in an essay or in dinner conversation—or there could be nothing more than the vaguest drifting of consciousness among the wind in the trees, a faint awareness of the sound Pattiann Rogers describes as a “cavalry of paper horses.” It is this lack of drive and intentionality, lack of self perhaps, that I find so unfamiliar and disconcerting. That I call boredom.

So I did what we do when we become bored: I bought an iPhone. The iPhone is incomparably handy for traveling and for taking six thousand photos of baby in hooded bath towels, baby in socks, baby in sweatpants, baby with flowers, baby with dogs, et cetera, but breastfeeding was the final justification: I needed a task to perform. And so at two A.M. I started writing one-handed e-mails, checking Twitter, googling Muriel Rukeyser. I got things done. I rejoined the ranks of multitaskers, not only living my life but cataloging and documenting it, too, making sure it adhered to measurable standards of productivity.

It only took about a week or so to recognize the loss behind this gain. The self I’d returned to—busy, hyperaware of a particular situation and its particular worth and where she is heading and why—felt more boring than the self present in milk and darkness. I couldn’t fall asleep again at three A.M., after the constant churning of Twitter. And each time I turned from the screen to my baby’s face, I felt guilty, as if I’d just missed a whole era for the forgettable pseudo-events taking place over and over in the spinning hamster wheel of cyberspace.

One night, as I was breastfeeding, checking e-mail on my phone, and thinking about this tension between presence and multitasking, I came across a recent post highlighting the work of the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, who emphasizes the importance of boredom in learning to pay attention to the world. Phillips writes:

In boredom, we can also say, there are two assumptions, two impossible options: there is something I desire, and there is nothing I desire. But which of the two assumptions, or beliefs, is disavowed is always ambiguous, and this ambiguity accounts, I think, for the curious paralysis of boredom … In boredom there is the lure of a possible object of desire, and the lure of the escape from desire, of its meaninglessness.

It is this in-betweenness that makes boredom so disconcerting. I’m staring out at the pastures, hypnotic in summer heat, their hazy grasses swaying, lulled by this escape from desire, its meaninglessness, and then a thought comes and I want equally to follow it and to let it go.

“‘When I’m bored,’” one “relentlessly cheerful child” explains to Phillips, “‘I don’t know myself.’” When I’m not writing, when I’m not multitasking, when I’m not consciously constructing new material, I don’t know myself. But in breastfeeding, I have found that not knowing myself brings its own satisfaction. Or perhaps it’s simply a way to be more present in the world at a time when just being without interpretation or justification or representation seems increasingly rare. The difficulty, I discover in writing, is in seeing boredom not as a gimmick, but rather as a state of being to be explored, productive or not productive.

In the midst of working through these thoughts, breastfeeding on the front porch one clear afternoon, I tasted a blackberry—that is, I didn’t just eat a blackberry expecting a blackberry taste. Looking out at the proscenium of summer sky over the humming stage of woods and pasture, I tended to think that maybe I’d just never paid so much attention. The blackberry had been just another layer in a multilayered reality. But when I spend the majority of my day sitting with a baby at my breast, with my world limited to a series of delicate, one-handed reaches and careful crab walks, my brain soft and dreamy with oxytocin, I notice only one flavor at a time, or I don’t consciously notice at all. I settle into my boredom as the day settles into its changing airs and clouds, until the baby pulls abruptly off the breast as she tends to do, sending a little jolt of pain through my nipple and leaning her head back in pure satisfaction, a dribble of milk running down her chin.

Sarah Menkedick divides her time between Mexico and a farm in southeastern Ohio. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Harper’s, Oxford American, The New Inquiry, Amazon's Kindle Singles, and elsewhere. She is the founder of Vela, an online magazine of nonfiction writing by women.

10 COMMENTS

7 Comments

  1. Colleen Leonard | July 17, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    Lovely to have put into words so poetically and mindfully this experience for our generation.

  2. LJ | July 17, 2014 at 9:19 pm

    Thank you for writing this. It is beautiful. I happen to live in Southeast Ohio and as such, in the grand scheme of things, we might be neighbors.

  3. Regina Staier | July 18, 2014 at 12:06 am

    “There is nothing soft or gentle about my baby’s latch. It is the precise enactment of its definition: a clamping on, a fastening of two bodies.” True. Very true.

  4. Aislin Ainslie | July 18, 2014 at 1:04 am

    Thank you for this loveliness. Thank you, thank you, thank you. All of us, each of us must make permanent the drifting dreamy strangeness of what it means to exist hour to hour as whatever it is we are: new mothers or obsolete mothers or writers or children or waitresses or lovers or students or accountants or drifters or whatever; and all of us must find the stillness to note the stillness and to note the frightening shallow magnetism of screens.

  5. Rochna Pant | July 18, 2014 at 4:37 am

    Ohh my word! Such a beautiful piece of literature. If I would have to write about my breastfeeding experiences one day, they would so much resemble these sentiments! “When I’m not writing, when I’m not multitasking, when I’m not consciously constructing new material, I don’t know myself. But in breastfeeding, I have found that not knowing myself brings its own satisfaction.” This is so me. Absolutely beautiful.

  6. E | July 18, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    Just beautiful. Thank you. Funny, too, I am breastfeeding my little one as I read this.

  7. Joan Hinsdale | July 19, 2014 at 3:18 am

    Thank You. I stopped breastfeeding The first baby At 6 mos. I wasn’t getting enough done. I was, in fact, getting The most peaceful feelings Ever. Just didnt realize it. A beautiful piece.

3 Pingbacks

  1. […] absolutely adored the essay Notes from the Milk Cave by Sarah Menkedick, published in the Paris Review.  This is writing to aspire to.  Her beautifully […]

  2. […] Menkedick, “Notes from the Milk Cave” (The Paris […]

  3. […] THINK: Notes from the milk cave: “Work that doesn’t count as such.” | What we see when we read. | “It’s a warm and nutrient-rich bath between the beach of daily life and the cold, black water of actual writing.” | “Sir, Will you allow me to draw your attention to the fact that in a review of a book by me (October ) your reviewer omitted to use the word Highbrow?” […]

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