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Issue #3

17 September 2022

I have wanted some epic use for my excellent body,

some heroism … I have wanted courage, I have thought about fire

and the crossing of waterfalls …

I have lain down.

I have lain down and sweated and shaken

and passed blood and feces and water and

slowly alone in the centre of a circle I have

passed the new person out …

language of blood like praise all over the body …

I and the other women this exceptional

act with the exceptional heroic body,

this giving birth, this glistening verb.

Sharon Olds, The Language of the Brag, Satan Says, 1980

The journey to motherhood is an odyssey of epic proportions and every woman who undertakes it a hero.

Susan Maushart, The Mask of Motherhood 1997, p. 318

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36 weeks pregnant with Emma, October 1990

Milkmother and the hero's journey


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. One of them was in the journal Hecate - I include an extract from that article below.


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 speaks to the heat and the pain, the urgency, the delight, the raw physicality of milk. It doesn’t try to represent the science and it doesn’t try to speak to all experience. Milkmother is just one word for this time of life, but it is the word I used.


We need many words for this rite of passage, this hero’s journey, which has been for so long banished into silence.


Picture 2 Newsletter 3 Heroic women.jpg

I photographed and laminated these extraordinary images about two decades ago now, it seems, and they have been near me, blue-tacked up on cupboard doors ever since. They inspire me whenever I am beginning something new or trying to create something. I no longer know the artist who created the first image (please let me know if you recognise it); the second is a photo of a stunning batik artwork by pioneering childbirth educator and activist, Sheila Kitzinger, whose books were important to me when I was having my own babies.

Yummy mummy and the medicalised milkmother

Excerpt p. 119 from Hecate 2010;26:119-135


There is science; but as an objective discourse, science is not concerned with the subject, the mother as site of her proceedings.

Julia Kristeva 1980[1]


She didn’t notice the five of us standing in white coats at the foot of her bed. She lay back awkwardly as required, propping herself into a half-sitting position with elbows locked, palms flat against the stiff white sheets. A midwife waited by her side. One or two student nurses and an obstetrics registrar lingered.


She grunted. She groaned and moaned. She was indomitable in her beauty, a world beyond my comprehension: big-boned, broad-hipped, and magnificent. We were a bunch of fourth-year medical students, and the consultant didn’t ask the woman if she minded when he told us to go in for the last fifteen minutes. She ignored us, didn’t even glance our way, and parted her trembling thighs. She laid open her birthing vulva before my four male companions, the midwives, the registrar, and me, and delivered that baby, that miracle of nascent flesh and blood and sinew, without falter under our gaze. Her vulva became something unrecognisable, a great purple fruit peeling back, heaving open. She sweated. She gasped. She grunted and strained from her unnatural position on the bed, so that her face turned red and the veins in her neck bulged. I stood there ashamed at my uninvited presence, furious at the profession I was entering; and tears slid down my cheeks because I knew something holy when I stood before it. I understood numen.


In 1986, within months of leaving the hospital, I had a job as medical officer at the Woolloongabba Aboriginal and Islander Community Health Centre, in Brisbane. There I realised, if I didn’t already know, that many of the ideas we doctors had about mothers and babies were culturally determined. When I opened a practice in nearby West End, by now in my late twenties, I learnt from the consulting room that many women felt embarrassed if joyless exhaustion, or outright misery, accompanied their pregnancy. Many felt disempowered as they gave birth, and carried anger and grief about it for years. I learnt that many mothers of very young children felt devalued by society at large, and ashamed of their negative feelings about motherhood.


Then finally, at the age of thirty, I, too, became a mother. In the midst of those sometimes terrifying, often tumultuous and exhausting early experiences of maternity, I coined the term ‘milkmother’ to denote the pregnant, birthing, and physiologically or metaphorically lactating woman. A woman is a milkmother, according to this terminology, when she lactates physiologically but also when she lactates metaphorically, offering the particular, minute-by-minute physical nurturance that very young children require, regardless of feeding method. And a milkmother, as I was learning myself, is in biological transition, from the pre-maternal years into a lifelong state of maternity; her physiological transfiguration is accompanied by a profound psychological rite of passage.[2] This paper proposes the need for empowered representations of the milkmother in the cultural imaginary as a counterweight to the milkmother’s medicalisation, and is shaped by my own experiences in the early 1990s as a milkmother, and by my twenty-five years as a general practitioner. 


[1] Julia Kristeva, ‘Motherhood According to Giovanni Bellini’, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine and Leon S Roudiez, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon S Roudiez New York: Columbia UP, 1980, 237.

[2] A woman may become a mother without passing through a milkmother phase, by caring for older children who are not her biological offspring. It’s important to recognise that women may identify as mothers for the rest of their lives having once conceived, regardless of intervening miscarriage, stillbirth or death of a child.

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Emma and me in her second week of life, November 1990

The milkmother

Doctor of Philosophy in Creative Writing and Women’s Studies, The University of Queensland 2012; excerpt p.12-13


Unexpected and dangerous bodily events may occur during pregnancy, childbirth and in the postpartum, with devastating outcomes, and medical anticipation routinely saves lives and prevents the kinds of horrific injuries endured by mothers and babies in low-income countries without access to high quality health care. But a doctor’s necessary vigilance, our readiness for catastrophe, blurs into a pervasive belief that the gestating, birthing and lactating body is unruly, capricious, and dangerous. An assumption that the maternal body is untrustworthy and inadequate to the task of reproduction profoundly shapes medical practice during pregnancy, birth, and the first months postpartum. I have participated in my profession’s struggle to contain its anxiety about the maternal body, and our tendency to represent her in a medicalised language heavily reliant upon metaphors of machinery, electrical circuitry, and engineering.


Beginning in childhood, women learn from the stories they hear that their bodies are unfit to meet the frightening physiological or psychological demands of this time of life. This in turn promotes a woman’s mistrust of her own bodily function, and she, too, becomes anxious and afraid. Her imagination is a biological event: the immune, neuroendocrine and neuromuscular systems of the body alter in response to imagined disasters and associated emotions, mediated by a host of hormones, neurotransmitters, and immune factors. These physiological effects of fear and anxiety don’t help. But much more importantly, unnecessary and intrusive medical practices interfere with normal physiological processes, triggering costly cascades of preventable technological, surgical or pharmaceutical intervention. It is not surprising then, that the mothers I see in my work often experience their body throughout pregnancy, childbirth and the early years of childraising to be unreliable, unpleasant, and “not enough.” Throughout my years in general practice, “not enough” has dominated the narratives of my pregnant, birthing, and breastfeeding patients: I wasn’t dilating, the baby was too big for my pelvis, I didn’t have enough milk, nothing I do can settle him, if I spoil him he’ll never stop. My own profession’s discourse is alive with these misconceptions, which are passed on to women and become self-fulfilling prophecies.


 For more about the term ‘milkmother’, please click here.

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