giving milk

In a world literature class in college, I read “Breast-Giver” by Mahasweta Devi. It’s Bengali literature — a story about a Brahmin-class woman who nurses babies at the temple so their mothers can keep their youthful figures. Jashoda’s only role is to give milk — life — to babies, and “[her] place in the house is… above the [sacred] cows.” She is like a goddess.

In my notes I wrote that because of her class and her gender, she becomes lower than the cows when her breasts stop giving milk.

The end of the story is gruesome and sad. Jashoda develops breast cancer, and the story says her breast explodes with infection. It “becomes like the crater of a volcano. The smell of putrefaction makes approach difficult.” Jashoda is rejected by the people whose babies she nourished. She’s rejected by the babies themselves. Even her doctor — one of the babies she had suckled — is not present at her death. She dies alone.

I had to return to the story and to my notes to remember all these details. I remembered the breast-giving — the suckling — but I didn’t remember how she was revered at the temple. I remembered the cancer and the rotting breast, but I didn’t remember the rejection.

When a baby is feeding from your breast, you feel like your heart is swelling with affection. At every single feeding. (Sidenote: this does not happen when you express milk with a pump.) I have only breastfed my own child, but I believe it would happen with any child. Jashoda gave more than milk to the babies she nourished; she gave them her heart and her emotions. And as her breast erupts, I believe her heart is breaking too. I wonder if she regrets the suckling, as she’s dying alone. I have never been fully rejected; I have never suffered in that kind of pain. But I still don’t think I would regret having given milk to babies. I hope Jashoda didn’t either.

I get advertisements for baby formula all the time. The ads sing the praises of formula. It has DHA! vitamins! minerals! These are essential for your baby’s development! But, the fine print reads, breast milk is always best for a baby’s health.

I have said I would nurse another mother’s baby. I think people in our culture might get wigged out to know that, but it seems like a natural sacrifice — something any woman should be willing to give another. And I call it a sacrifice because there is a connection of flesh and hearts in breastfeeding, a connection I would probably have to sever day after day, and eventually forever, when the baby is weaned.

I remember Jashoda because of how she gave. She kept giving and giving, even when she was suffering alone. If I could be remembered for one thing, I would want to be remembered for giving like that.

    • Rachel
    • September 7th, 2007

    Wow, what a cool blog entry, Carrie! That sounds like a very provocative story. I admire your willingness to go beyond what people expect. And I think it’s wonderful that you’d be willing to nurse another mother’s baby. Yay, breastfeeding! Yay, love! 🙂

  1. June 24th, 2008
  2. September 14th, 2012

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