Mother’s milk

Click to see photograph “Woman begging while breastfeeding, New Delhi, India.” Copyright © Bonnie Gruenberg.

At noon, on an April day in New Delhi, the weather was like a fever, hot on Rebecca’s brow, where pearls of sweat glistened and remained, because the air itself was so pregnant with its own sweat. Rebecca was sitting on an airport bus with her 18 month old on her breast, her husband next to her. The boy was thirsty, and restless after the long night flight from Johannesburg. They were traveling to another terminal so that they could board their connecting flight to Chennai.

Rebecca’s first image of India was through the smudged and scratched window of that bus. What she saw would remain more lucid in her memory than any photograph could ever capture. A thin young woman, poor, but nevertheless beautiful in her vibrant and colourful sari, held her baby in one arm, whilst it suckled, and at the same time she walked, holding her other arm out to beg. She approached anybody that she could, but most of them did not give her anything.

The sultry sun, the lack of sleep, did not hinder Rebecca’s mind from reflecting on what she was seeing. Her own life, she thought, was easy in comparison, but in its easiness it was hard. She was reminded of the times when her little boy was a baby and how she used to get up at the deadest hours of night, because she had not gotten it right to lie down and breastfeed him in bed. To while these quiet hours she used to watch documentary films on television.

On one of these nights an image of India would become indelibly etched in Rebecca’s mind. The documentary film in particular featured women in India working in a stone quarry. There was a woman, also thin, young, and poor, bashing stones with one hand, while the other hand held her baby, which was suckling as the mother toiled; hard physical labour. Rebecca was seeing this from an armchair with a cushion here and a cushion there, all arranged just so; so that she could get the geometry for breastfeeding just right. Success was the suckling sounds of her baby snug at her breast. And from this vantage point Rebecca watched a woman in poverty, who knew how to do it, this breastfeeding, and who was getting on with her work, with life, with no cushions, no maternity leave, and no time to catch up lost sleep. The most important thing, Rebecca thought then, and now—is for richer or for poorer, that a baby should be in its mother’s arms and drinking mother’s milk.

Copyright © Quirina Roode-Gutzmer 2012. All rights reserved.

This is a completely true story, where Rebecca is me, and the little boy is my eldest son, who is now 12 years old.

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24 thoughts on “Mother’s milk

  1. Love the vivid writing here — I could see the scenes. I remember how difficult it was for my wife to breast-feed at first, but after a day or so both mother and baby got things arranged. I can’t imagine how tough it must be to breastfeed when trying to make even the most meager living.

    • Thank you, Larry. The interesting thing is that in our so-called privileged and civilised life-style we sometimes forget or unlearn natural skills. It is indeed hard to imagine, but I think this experience helped me to imagine it, but that is still very far away from living this reality.

  2. A useful meditation. Thanks for sharing it. Comparison’s of our own situation with that of others can leave us feeling richer, more miserable, or more in contact with the real; what is really happening here as we go about our lives wherever we are. I think your piece brings the reader closer to the third effect, and does this reader, anyways, a service in doing so.

    • Thank you, Gerard. I agree with you about the effect comparison has on us, how we perceive inequality and how we can feel elated or depressed by it. I feel it is important, however, to reflect on it, otherwise we cannot express compassion.

  3. Thank you for sharing this wonderfully juxtaposed narration. Since I hail from India it touches me in more ways than one. This shall be carried in mind & heart for long, long time.

  4. Wow. Such an insightful piece – and well executed. That’s not a long bus ride from the International terminal to the domestic, but it was long enough to make an impact on Rebecca, huh? Great story!

  5. This is a truly captivating story, even more as it is real (if it was fiction it would appear very real too). What comes to my mind is that here are often so great efforts done for babies and children, as there are so few of them – and one can often observe a kind of over-protection and “over-care” (see for instance all that worrying about qualification, health etc.) while there children simply have to survive.

    • Thank you, Martin. What you mention about the bureaucracy surrounding life reminds me of the fact that doctors that have qualified as surgeons have a hard time being allowed to operate on patients unless they have experience. So qualified doctors in Germany go to Baragwanath hospital in South Africa and just get on with it, saving people’s lives.

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