The Madonna, Mama’s Day & Mudflap Babes

Madonna and Child, c.1525-30 Joos Van Cleve
Ye O’l post nurse snooze, circa 1525

Mama’s Day

My boys surprised me this year for Mother’s Day with an evening picnic out by the river. Joe took me for a walk Saturday, and then on the way back, low and behold, there were our two sons lounging on a blanket with all the accruements for a picnic. Including flowers picked in our yard and a chocolate bar. It was perfect. I felt a huge upwelling of love, not just for my boys, but all the mama’s and babies of this world.

Mother’s Day hasn’t been something we have celebrated much, so it was particularly sweet to be suprised. From 2004-2012 Joe and I worked insane hours every Mother’s Day, because it is always the first day of the Astoria Sunday Market. Opening day meant we both worked, whereas in general we worked opposite shifts so the boys always had a parent at home.  The Sunday Market pretty much meant  I was “celebrating” Mother’s Day by making large quantities of things for other people to eat to celebrate their Mom, while my own children spent the day with someone else. So in those years we all missed out on  eating burned pancakes lovingly prepared for me by small children.

This Mama does a little light reading in a manuscript while the holy child snoozes.

It strikes me that Mother’s day is a holiday fraught with less angst than some other holidays. Not celebrating Mother’s day does not mean that I don’t relish being a Mama. In fact being a mother is the most satisfying thing I have ever done. I am so grateful these two marvelous creatures showed up in our life.  Luckily they are both really good at expressing appreciation most of the time, so I haven’t needed a special holiday to feel appreciated by my children.  (To be clear, they are just as good at expressing disappointment, and alerting us to anything they think is not as wonderful as it could be.)

It is interesting to note that Mother’s day was proposed and lobbied for in the US by Anna Jarvis to honor her mother, Ann Jarvis, a peace activist and proponent for public health. Anna envisioned a non commercialized holiday to honor all mothers. Anna felt so strongly about it that she even got arrested once for disturbing the peace. She was protesting at a 1924 event that was selling flowers for Mother’s Day. I would say our picnic qualified for her vision.

The Holy Mother

Speaking of mothers, I love how many of the old paintings of the Madonna and the Holy Child express one of the joys of motherhood, namely nursing. Have you noticed how the exposed breast is depicted as a sign of holiness? Motherhood and breasts completely entwined in these powerful images. Painted at a time in which breast feeding was the only option for feeding infants and toddlers, these beautiful religious depictions elevate a experience very familiar to most women of the late Medieval and Renaissance periods.  It is one of the ways women were honored during those times.

When these paintings were painted, in the 1300-1500’s, how common would it have been for someone to be seen nursing publicly? Pretty normal I suspect. It saddens me when I see the lengths to which many mamas will go to make sure no one ever sees a nipple while they are nursing today. It is strangeness itself that modern women have been thrown out of public places for breast feeding their child. When did it stop being normal, even holy, to nurse your child? When did our breasts stop being a portal to connect our lives to the divine?

Whereas the divide between breast-fed-is-best and formula-is-fine, evokes more angst than Mother’s Day, it once was not possible to even have that debate – simply because everyone was breast fed. Our breasts somehow transitioned from sacred to profane. Our society for the most part now equates breasts with sex. (Which, by the way, is not true in the majority of cultures world wide.) Just when did we become fixated on breasts as sexual objects?  And how does the rise of that fixation parallel the decline in breastfeeding and the rise of artificial factory produced substitutes for breast milk? I think the reason we are having the debate today is directly related to the descent of the sacred breast from more lofty places.

st uke drawing virgin detail 1
Visible baby joy while nursing.

Look but don’t touch.

We need women to be comfortable touching themselves. Which is why I also like how the Madonna images often show her hand on her breast. It is something I noticed during the nursing years, you are pretty much constantly adjusting your breasts and nipples, just part of the process. All the adjusting has the boon of helping a person be more comfortable with her body.  The Madonna and Child paintings show that a reverence of women, as the vehicle for the divine, can include acceptance of the practicalities of our earthly bodies. That in fact our very Earthly processes might themselves be holy.

When Australian Musician Chrissy Amphlett, front woman for The Divinyls, was dying from her breast cancering in 2013, she had the brilliant idea to repurpose her 1990 song “I Touch Myself” to encourage women to do self breast examination. An example of breast cancering transmuting breasts out of the world of sexuality and into the world of health and wellbeing.

The I Touch Myself Project was launched as a needed public health effort. Because sadly we live in an era when we have become so removed from our bodies that we need public service announcements to remind us to check in with ourselves. Especially our breasts, because somehow the right to touch them belongs to others more than to ourselves. (Lovers and doctors for instance.)  That the American Cancer society has declared that breast self exams are no longer necessary is a ludicrous farce. Many thousands of women have discovered a lump themselves, why would we possibly wish to discourage self touch?

I wonder too if the rise in breast cancer is related to the shame women feel about their breasts? A few people mentioned to me that I must be happy about the opportunity to get a boob job paid for. Hinting that it is a silver lining in the whole breast cancering sh** storm.  Unfortunately, this included the young woman who operated the ultrasound machine for the four echocardiograms I received during my year of treatment with the cardio-toxic/lifesaving Herceptin. She brought it up every single time. Setting aside the fact that post mastectomy breast reconstruction is not in anyway a “boob job”, and the fact that I never had any plans to pursue reconstruction, how is having any surgery a silver lining?

And while I understand why many women choose reconstruction after cancering, the fact that so many healthy women either augment or modify their breasts to meet some imagined ideal of beauty saddens me. I suspect that the fact that “boob jobs” are so common contributes to many more women choosing post-mastectomy reconstruction than might otherwise do so. It is not a procedure to take lightly for any reason. I suspect that the beautiful young ultrasound tech was struggling with some self image issue that she thought could be solved surgically. I think she was trying to connect to my experience in the only way she knew how.

The classic girl in trucking. (Image from Photo: Brandon Doran/Flickr)
The classic girl in trucking.
(Image Brandon Doran/Flickr)

Sparkling Chrome Babes of Truckland

Speaking of silver, I have a slight fixation on the chrome mudflap babes as seen on big trucks. When my milk came in after Sam’s birth I thought I finally understood where those impossibly huge, yet perky breasts came from. After all, where else are they seen in nature than jutting from the chest of a new mother with milk engorged breasts?

I had fantasies that all the truck drivers were part of an underground breastfeeding cult,  they just didn’t realize it yet. I imagined myself, along with a few select breastfeeding friends, crawling around truck stops commando style, with babies strapped to our backs. We would use hand cut stencils and spray paint to apply pro-nursing messages above the chrome babes while the truckers got coffee and jo-jos inside. In these fantasies the truckers would get back on the road, only to realize many miles later that anything had happened. At which point, they would kick their heels in the dirt and say, “Well Damn Straight!” And immediately call home to thank their wives for taking such good care of their babies.

This might not be as far fetched as you might think. Check out this article in Wired Magazine:  “Mudflap Girl” was this guys Mom. Which presents the story of the guy who trademarked the babe. Perhaps our fixation with breasts is more complicated than we know. And really, why not love breasts? They are amazing and worthy of adoration. Babies and toddlers are openly sensual about nursing- probably because breast feeding is fulfilling about a gazillion needs simultaneously. It makes sense that the brain would up the output on pleasure hormones to encourage more nursing. Perhaps the rise in artificial feeding is leaving a hole in our collective psyche that comes out as our need to affix chrome babes to our mud flaps or seek surgery to enhance what we’ve got, all in our search for something we missed out on as babies.

Working Title/Artist: The Holy Family Department: European Paintings Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: ca. 1512-13 photography by mma 1998, transparency #8c scanned and retouched by film and media (jnc) 3_23_07
Why did the Breast go into hiding?

The Rebirth of the Pure-Mother-Love-Power of the Babas

For awhile it seemed that people all over town were talking about my boobs. Which pushed my comfort zone way further than any inadvertent exposure during my breast feeding days.  On the bright side, my friend Betsy once got out of a speeding ticket using my boobs remotely in Colorado.  By evoking the story of my breasts as reason for her inadvertent speeding while she was traveling to the airport to come see me. The officer let her go out of sense of compassion. So it wasn’t all bad.

Whichever way you look at it we have a lot of powerful feelings about breasts in western culture. Especially since we tried separating the breast from motherhood, and turning them into sex objects. Before the pink breast cancer awareness campaigns breast was a taboo word we could barely say out loud. Though I don’t appreciate how shallow the pink campaign is, nor how it promotes mammograms so aggressively, at its best it has changed how we talk about breasts. (Though at its worse the pink campaign has sexualized breast cancering for profits…) If nothing else, open discussion of breast cancering has helped to opens a door for people to openly discuss our bodies. Even if sometimes the conversations are about mammograms, mastectomy, or reconstruction surgery, it does make breasts more public in a non sexualized way.

Maybe there is still a remnant of the Sacred Power of the Babas circling in the ether after all. I like to think that those chrome babes are a modern version of the Madonna and Child. Perhaps the Officer that pulled Betsy over had just watched a big truck go by, and  was softened up a little by the pure mother love power of the breast.

We have a long way to go on this transformational journey. I wonder what our great granddaughters will think about their bodies, and if they will come to honor breasts again as the embodiment of sacred womanhood, motherhood, and their own personal connection to the divine? The good news is we can all choose to reclaim that right now. After all, everyone you ever meet arrived in this world through the miracle of a flesh and blood woman, not some symbolic image. Which is something to celebrate for certain.

Working Title/Artist: Pesellino: Virgin and Child, ca. 1444-46 Department: European Paintings Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: photography by mma 2004, transparency #1a scanned and retouched by film and media (jn) 1_5_06


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Sue Skinner says:

    Love this post, Iris. Have you ever heard “Rufus is a Tit Man”, written about Rufus Wainwright as an infant, by his father, Loudon Wainwright? it’s a great example of adult male envy toward a mother’s ability to feed and care for babies so they thrive and grow.

    The many nursing Marys you discovered are truly divine. Thanks for the May inspiration!

    Much love–

    Sue S

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