She’s Got Great Breasts

detail from Botticelli's Birth Of VenusMotherhood makes for much reflection. My world view shifted when I began to look at life for someone else as well as for myself. That shift hasn’t been as selfless as it might sound, though. Motherhood is as much about me as it is my daughters.

And about my body. More intimate than I could have imagined, breastfeeding has me marveling. Conceiving and caring for a child is the stuff of gods: to create and admire and even sustain life.

Or rather, it’s the stuff of goddesses. Because we’re talking about breasts.

In her engaging study Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, Florence Williams relies on zoologists, anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, and an array of other scientists, doctors, and personal narratives for insights into women’s breasts. Like this one: lactation expert Peter Hartmann tells us that breastfeeding “represents 30% of a woman’s energy output.”

Williams translates: “What he meant by that energy bit is that while a woman is lactating, the metabolic energy required to feed her infant is 30% of her total output – or the energy equivalent of walking seven miles – every day. Looked at another way, a male baby requires 1,000 megajoules of energy the first year of life. That is the equivalent of one thousand light trucks moving one hundred miles per hour.”

Breastfeeding has been 30% of my metabolic output. So what do I do with that energy now that my youngest is weaning? Walking seven miles a day hardly seems a fair exchange for the mother and child communion I found in nursing. I’m not into Crossfit, so shouldering up against a light truck to push it across a field won’t do.

More than requiring my energy, breastfeeding has overwhelmed me with affection and wonder. For years I’ve nursed love incarnate, as my daughters smiled against me and held me with their gazes and hands.

And wonder! As if the miracles of birth and love weren’t enough there’s mother’s milk. Of course breast is best. And maybe even more. Florence Williams reports that breast milk boasts as many as 600 species of bacteria and 200 oligosaccharides that we don’t yet understand. That “human milk inhibits the transmission of HIV.” That one our milk’s proteins, alpha-lactalbumin (aka HAMLET for human alpha-lactalbumin made lethal to tumor cells) “kills forty different types of cancer cells in a dish, including those of the bladder, lymphoma, skin, and brain.” It seems that women’s breasts evidence greatness even beyond breastfeeding.

I’ve also been overwhelmed with oxytocin, the so-called love hormone our brains release when we give birth and breastfeed. As my youngest daughter Eve weans, I’ve been pregnant or nursing for more than 5 years.  I’m coming out of a contented high. A very long contented high. Is this what it might feel like to leave The Odyssey’s infamous Lotus-Eaters after a 5-year stay on their idyllic island?

I wonder: now what? There cannot be another union like the one I’ve shared with my daughters. Will I measure other loves against a miracle? As breastfeeding ends, will I feel like something’s missing, like after a break up? What will I do?

Maybe I’ll focus some of my thought and emotion on writing to better understand what it is to be a woman and a mother. With great breasts.


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