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About the term "milkmother"

I worked part-time as a GP in the blue-painted rooms of the Gladstone Road Medical Centre from 1996 until 2009 – right through the years when my kids were at school. It was Brisbane’s well-loved LBGTQI practice, and I loved it there. I feel some pride that I was even, for a time, a qualified prescriber of the new HIV medications, back when the devastating social stigma around HIV/AIDS was only just receding. Not that I would pretend I was an expert in HIV management like other doctors there, but I was available for back-up when needed. I worked alongside my friend Dr Gale Bearman, an Australian pioneer of community-based transgender health care, and also joined her at the Brisbane Gender Clinic for six months in 2003. 

I mention this professional background because I am acutely sensitive to the complexities and dynamism of our human sexual orientations and gender identities. I know from thousands of intimate stories entrusted to me in my work that sexual orientation is often fluid, and that gender experience is not biologically or structurally inherent.

Back in the early 1990s I needed a name for my rite of passage through pregnancy, birth and those first months of caring for my babies. I searched for a term which also spoke to the experiences shared with me by other cisgender women during this time of life – gay or straight – when they saw me as patients. Since I couldn’t find anything else, I coined the term milkmother, and used it in my PhD and in a couple of publications in women's studies. 

These days, I celebrate Professor Aurelie Athan’s ground-breaking work on matrescence and also her discussions about the spectrum of our reproductive identities.[1]  I’ve wondered about erasing the term milkmother from my own writing. But milkmother invokes imagination in a way that a scientific term like matresence may not. Milkmother is just one word for this time of life, but it is the word I used. It doesn’t try to represent the science and it doesn’t try to speak to all experience. We need many words for this rite of passage, this hero’s journey, which has been for so long banished into silence. 



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