This has been on my mind lately. It would seem it’s always flavour of the month. Breast milk. Mmm. Rahma loves it. I remember when she was about 5 months old, she used to come off the nipple during let down and cascade the white stuff over her tiny face, just because. Then she’d lick her lips, sated but not full. It’s her version of a halal fine wine I suppose. I imagine it’s delectable. There’s no need for me to imagine, I tasted it. My own. Alas, the nectar was wasted on me, my palate not as refined as Rahma’s, the wet nothingness trickled, empty and tasteless.
Anyway, I was sitting in my local yarn store with Rahma, knitting away, breastfeeding, knitting. A lady sat down and started quizzing me about how long I was going to breastfeed, blond hair cascading down her shoulders, rolls of flesh folding themselves into the sofa. I told her probably the first two years of my baby’s life if I could manage it. She was shocked; it was like I’d said I was going to keep going until she was married and had her own children; like I was going to be present at my daughter’s wedding night, on stand-by in case she needed a drink or a comfort suck.
The thing that struck me most was the forthright way in which this woman asked; it was her right to know and I must answer. She asked, she waited, expectantly, double chins quivering, knitting, and staring into my face, demanding and blonde. I didn’t care what she thought, but I still, found myself answering:
“According to Islamic guidelines, the breastfeeding period recommended is two years. Also the WHO organisation recommends that nutritionally, breastmilk is best for the first two years.”
This is what my lips said. My brain was screaming at my face to shut up. But I couldn’t. I felt the need to justify something that was no business of hers. It was a knee-jerk reaction and it wasn’t just reserved for breastfeeding questions. As mothers, we are constantly called on by members of the public to justify what we’re doing with our babies. We’re interrogated, inadequate and inferior, compared to a time that once was. An unspoken rule dictates that we must answer, we must lay bare everything we do behind closed and open doors for all to judge and pick through the seedy excrement of our parenting.
Why? Why should you know when I plan to stop breastfeeding? Why should you know about my daughter’s sleeping and eating habits? Socially conditioned to answer such questions, ignoring the putrid violation and flesh-tearing intrusion, we do so with a smile, immediately and happily. It seems like the right thing to do, after all, they’re only asking because babies bring out the best in everyone, right?
It’s a judgement; a comment; a comparison. You’re being weighed and measured against their standards, according to what they did with their tiny people, according to what they think should be done. No one says it out-loud, everyone is too polite, but you’ve been weighed, you’ve been measured and you’ve been found wanting. That piece of flesh I tore from you to reveal your inadequacies, it’s not what I thought it should be. Even those who don’t have children of their own do it: What’s she like at night? (This right there is a blog post of its own. Sleep.) How often does she feed? Shouldn’t you be giving her that Gripe Water diluted?
I hear your brain; your thoughts are too loud: I’m guilty of this and it was just curiosity, it was me feigning interest in your tiny bundle when really all I wanted to do was hold and give it back before it cried, threw up or excreted. True, many people, especially people without children, ask out of a feigned curiosity, but it’s no less intrusive than what Blonde Quiver Chins did to me the other day. A result of social conditioning and expectation, you’re just falling into line and asking what it supposed to be asked. I understand. But it needs to change. Too often mothers are made to feel inadequate through this social nicety; too often we’re left questioning ourselves and what we’re doing with our Rahmas as a result of this well-meaning cross-examination. The blinding light of the interrogator illuminates everything we hate about ourselves, our parenting and sometimes our baby. We resent them if they don’t fall in line, if they’re not doing what society dictates they should do; if they’re waking too often at night, especially since you’ve had to explain apologetically to four different people how you’re breastfeeding on demand and she’s going to get up as she’s so small.
Mothers do it to other mothers. This is the most wretched thing of all: we compare everything; it makes us feel better about our own situation, but it also demonstrates how social convention has cruelly shaped us all. Often we ask in solidarity, so we can sympathise: yes, my baby is a biter too; the sleepless nights? So hard aren’t they? Do you get a chance to shower? Lovely. But sometimes, we slip into dangerous territory where our questioning is designed not as a show of solidarity but as a show of might; a David and Goliath of parenting; secretly we compare what we’re doing so we can feel better about ourselves, tearing off a piece of flesh to cover the historic scars left from previous questionings. After the interrogative battering we take from others, some validation would be nice. So we wrestle it from each other in the form of responses, each one clawing back the dignity and privacy lost during previous inhuman probing.
The cycle continues. And with every clamouring bundle of flesh that stumbles into the world, there is a cacophony of sound, endless queries, quizzes and questions, fluctuating around us, bumping us, prodding, poking pushing. And so we push back, into ourselves, into each other. Tear off another piece of flesh and start again.
I’d like to break the cycle. Shatter down the frivolous social convention that dictates mothers must always answer with a smile. Just once I’d like to reply with a pithy comment or snide remark, metaphorically slapping the face of the intruder with my wit and repartee. Just once I’d like to say, it’s none of your business; after all the secret life of Rahma is exactly that, a secret.
But I’ll just answer. Tearing off another piece of myself. Offering it to you on a platter. Dine. Be sated.