When my baby was born I was astonished that nothing in the world had told me that birth is a miracle. Out of my body came this entirely new being: it seemed incredible, yet more real than anything, and entirely personal. And then I couldn’t believe how hard it was to take a baby into town, how so little in the culture supported mothering, how devalued its status. I could not reconcile my experience with the fact that all the billions of people who walk or ever walked the earth are only alive through the same miracle of the mother’s body, her fecundity and succour and work. I thought about the magnificence, vulnerability and ferocity of mothers, of how bodily and messy it all is. How it’s a result of sex but not very sexy. I thought about the hunger for the breast, about yearning and weaning, about how we all drink milk.
Milk is incredible when you think about it, a primal food more miraculous than honey. I remember holding my baby to my swelling breast and letting the milk down, watching that little face, holding that dear little body close to my heart, talking softly sometimes even soundlessly. And knowing that the milk is just right in every way, perfect.
Somewhere in late pregnancy my breasts grew huge and tender; swelling shyly along with my belly into a strange new visibility where I became an archetype without secrets, as if belonging more to the human race than to myself. And I remember how exposed I felt when breastfeeding in public; how the attention of the world split me from that tent of feeling I needed to wrap us both in. So when I went to town, I looked for quiet corners, little sunny corners.
When the wonderful restrooms in the Athenaeum Library closed, I mourned the lost convenience and atmosphere of enclosure. I even missed its shabby gloom when faced with using new restrooms that provided just a closet at the end of an obstacle course. And the cafes with their sunny corners did not welcome us, since hostile habitués wrote letters to the editor decrying ‘public’ breastfeeding, which put them off their flat whites. I was thankful for the public library, where people were mostly kind, quietly ignoring me in that sunny corner parked up with pushchair, bags, and baby.
But it’s not really enough to be tolerated. Not when you really think about it.
In this town we definitely need more quiet sunny corners.
Elaine Webster is exploring memoir and other forms of creative non fiction to express a point of view. She also works at the University of Otago as the Director of Summer School & Continuing Education, and has almost completed the first draft of her book on the history and practice of school uniforms in New Zealand, which is based on her doctoral research.