You Might Want To Wipe That Off Before You Drink From It

“He who distributes the milk of human kindness cannot help but spill a little on himself.” ~James Matthew Barrie

The Milkmaid by Vermeer

The Milkmaid by Vermeer

I’ve always been particularly skeeved by the idea of wet nursing. It’s probably because it brings to mind upper crusty women who couldn’t be bothered nursing because they were too engaged in being playthings to their important husbands and staving off melancholy with alcohol while their hearty and appropriately cowed maids (milk maids?) kept lactating long after their own children were weaned. Lazy, classist bitches can’t even feed their own kids. (I blame books for this bias.)

Also, the term. Wet nursing. It’s like “wet work” to describe killing missions. Gah. Go and ruin the word wet for me. I guess I wasn’t all that fond of it. But really, nursing wasn’t descriptive enough? Had to add wet to it? I really don’t think anyone would have been confused if Mrs. Haversham said, “Sally nursed baby Charles until he was out of diapers.” Nursing does the work, and context picks up the slack.

Of course I know that women giving milk to other people’s babies is probably more common in those tight, matriarchal-type communities where women clatch together and work and play and raise kids while the men do what they do (smoke and fart and hunt?) with their own kind. I get that it’s natural and practical… so are holes in the ground for pooping. But, whatever. I don’t come across a lot of references to wet nursing in my life. I don’t raise kids and only hunt in the grocery store. I don’t talk about baby feeding with my friends who have babies. As far as I know they’re cross-nursing and baking placenta although I doubt it…er, I hope not.

I bring it up because a while back a Chinese policewoman breastfed a bunch of kids after an earthquake (May, 2009). She was on the scene, her body was in the lactating way, and she eventually ended up nursing 9 babies whose mothers were too traumatized to give milk. (The kids were in a shelter without milk, powdered or otherwise). She probably saved their lives. Or at least prevented severe malnutrition. She was given all sorts of commendations and a promotion to Vice Commissioner of the Public Security Bureau. So, you know, another woman got a promotion because of her boobs. (Bah-dum-dum. Sorry. I didn’t know that’s where this was going when I wrote it.)

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4 Comments

  1. Lyd said,

    September 24, 2009 at 10:00 am

    (Did you read that New Yorker article on that Vermeer too?)

  2. julieluongo said,

    September 24, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    I did not. I ask for The New Yorker every year for all gift-giving holidays. But no dice. One year I was told, “Merry Christmas, you’ll be getting The New Yorker in 12 weeks,” but it never arrived. It’s not so sad, though, because sometimes I steal them from the gym or doctors’ offices.

  3. Lyd said,

    September 27, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/artworld/2009/09/21/090921craw_artworld_schjeldahl is the link to an abstract of last week’s article (do you believe it? they make you PAY for looking at it online). But what they don’t mention in the abstract is the erotic undertones of the milkmaid (not quite wet nurses, but the source of um…. pleasure)

  4. julieluongo said,

    September 27, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    They’re like the fishmongers discrete cousins.


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