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Breastfeeding Breasts!

Breastfeeding Breasts!

Laura E. Ruberto (August 18, 2008)
Tina Modotti
"Baby Nursing" (1926)

In honor of my two young children and World Breastfeeding Month, a few thoughts on the work of women’s breasts.


Among Tina Modotti’s better-known photographs is “Baby Nursing,” with Luz Jimenez nursing a young baby; it was first exhibited on October 7, 1926, in the Galeria de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, and later appeared in a review of the exhibit in the December 15, 1926, issue of Art Digest.

Like most of Modotti’s work, the image makes visible otherwise overlooked people and places, showing, if you will, the aesthetic of the everyday. As Art historian, Sarah M. Lowe puts it (in describing “Baby Nursing”):

            The photograph [is] tender without being sentimental and descriptive without objectifying
            its subjects…. The image is tightly cropped so that the geometric roundness of the breast
            and of the baby’s head become significant compositional elements.
            (Tina Modotti: Photographs, 31)   
That Modotti’s subjects included a suckling child and mother reminds us of the importance of childrearing and daily, necessary, and very personal kinds of relations, relations that much of our contemporary society judges less than essential. In order for nursing to happen, it’s not just biology that has to be in place, but social parameters, a point alluded to by Modotti’s series of photographs of mothers and children. In short, she gave recognition to the value as well as the beauty of the relationship between mother and child.
"Children Bathing"           "Mother and Child"
         "Children Bathing" (Tina Modotti)                                      "Mother and Child" (Tina Modotti)
Tina Modotti was born in Udine (Friuli) in 1896 and immigrated to California at seventeen. Her basic biography (Italian immigrant; seamstress; film actress; anti-fascist revolutionary; photographer of Mexico’s indigenous people; Communist Party activist; first model and student, later lover and co-worker, to Edward Weston; friend of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera) is out there, knowable. Her status as one of a few early female photographers (albeit in the shadows of Edward Weston) is established in the world of art history. Nevertheless, she’s yet to be fully embraced within many Italian American circles. Do a few Google searches with terms such as “famous Italian Americans” or “well-known Italian Americans,” and you’ll see that she’s rarely listed. (The reasons for this I’ll leave for another post.)
But allow me to return to women’s breasts for a moment. August is World Breastfeeding Month, an expansion of “World Breastfeeding Week” (August 1-7), itself a commemoration of the signing of the so-called Innocenti Declaration, adopted in 1990 by a consortium of international organizations, like UNICEF and WHO, which met at the “Innocents’ Hospital” in Florence. The document declares the overall benefits of breastfeeding for both mothers and children and suggests public policy goals to further encourage nursing, especially in the first year of life.
It seems quite fitting to me—a woman, a mother, a professor—that my posts on this site would now and then explicitly address this particular trifecta of my identity. Within Italian and Italian American everyday culture, motherhood, and specifically nursing mothers, evokes strong sentiments. Most women, mothers or not, have stories to tell, stories that get shared mainly with other women over the telephone, at the park, in the kitchen, at the water cooler—or on blogs!
Before shutting down my computer so I that I can tend to my own nursing baby girl, I close here with another image of breastfeeding and motherhood.  Evoking a quasi-sublime experience, Carole Maso, Italian American author and Brown University professor of English, writes:
            This mythic elixir—so elemental, so essential. At the center of our living: a fountain.
            The very essence of how we live—since we have arrived, since we have been asked to
            enter this pact: curve of the world—earth bound, earth-linked, the love we pass. I am
            drinking the stars, the little monk said upon his chance  invention of champagne. I look at
            her drunken, pleasured face. That magic potion, her satiated face—a heady brew. With her
            small hand she pats my breast three times and she is at home.
            (Carole Maso, "Rose and Pink and Round," in The Milk of Almonds: Italian American

DISCLAIMER: Posts published in i-Italy are intended to stimulate a debate in the Italian and Italian-American Community and sometimes deal with controversial issues. The Editors are not responsible for, nor necessarily in agreement with the views presented by individual contributors.
This work may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without prior written permission.
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Breast feeding

I love the photos, and I am so happy to have found this website, and your blog. I breast fed each of my eight children, well into thier second years. I often tell people that, if, like the character, Emily, in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town", I died, and was granted the chance to revisit one day in my life, I wouldn't even want one day, I would only ask to sit, and nurse a baby for one half hour! This moment is the closest that we will come to knowing why we are alive! It, truly, is, the very best life has to offer.

I try very hard not to make other women feel bad about not breastfeeding, when I am on my "Nursing Soap Box",especially when I think of my own mother's story.

My mother was very candid about how she viewed marriage; she said that, although she was very much in love with my father, the main reason to get married , as she saw it, was to have babies. And, she wanted to have babies. My mother was a first generation Italian American, and, fiercely proud of her heritage. She grew up around the Italian way of giving birth; usually at home, with a midwife. She had older cousins who had given birth this way, and she had a real respect for the ways of the Old Country. Even if she could have afforded to go to college, to my mother, the idea of college and career could not compete with the significance that Italian society placed on motherhood. But. like many Italian American women of her generation, she very much wanted to be the "modern American wife and mother". And if there was one thing that could persuade her to abandon the old ways, it was the American medical institution, and it's doctors ( whom, I believe, she considered as infallible as the Pope!) So, when she was told by her doctor, after giving birth to her first child, that her milk was "no good", she , obediently, bound herself up, and, suffered through the drying up of that precious milk supply. I can still hear the sense of failure, and guilt in her voice, as she said to me, "I tried, Fran, I really did, but the doctor said the milk was just too watery." I never had the heart to tell her that all breast milk is watery, when it first comes out. I didn't have the heart to tell her that she was duped by the institution that she had held in such high esteem.

I do know , however, that she didn't hold it up quite so high, after the birth of her third child. When my mother gave birth to her first two children, in the early 1940's, general anasthesia had not yet become the standard birthing procedure (at least in the rural areas of Massachusetts). So, when she arrived at the local hospital to give birth, to her third baby, in the summer of 1949, she did not expect the (unsolicited) sedation that she received. She suffered a severe psychotic reaction to this medication, and, required long term psychological treatment, as a result. She was in an institution, seperated her from her infant son (and, him, from her), for over one year.

After that, my mother's faith was placed , solidly, in the American School of Psychology. something that served all of her children well. My younger sister, who, in fact, was named after my mother's favorite nurse, at the Institute for Living, in Hartford, CN, became a psychiatrist. It was one of the things that my mother most proud of: My Daughter, the American Doctor!

Strangely, my mother couldn't wait for me to stop breast feeding my babies. Not because she didn't believe that it was good for them, (I'll never forget her saying to me, in all seriousness, "I guess you can't sterilize your nipples, can you?") It was just that she wanted to be able to feed the baby.

Even though she did not breast feed her babies, she still , instictively, understood the significance of the act of "feeding the baby"; and, she valued this act more than any other interaction with the infant. For her, it was still the most intimate act between a mother and her child; and the most sacred. I'm absolutely certain that my mother came as close as was humanly possible, to breastfeeding her children, without really doing it, because of the great significance placed on the role of the nurturing mother in Italian society. Mother, as the source of all lifegiving sustenance,, was revered above all.

My mother was an amazing cook.

lruberto's picture

immigrants & childbirth/breastfeeding

What amazing stories! Thanks for sharing your mother's (and your) birthing/breastfeeding experiences. It's so important to tell these stories! Reading your words I can't help but think of how they capture so well some of the all-too-typical interactions immigrant women had (and have still today) to institutional medicine. You might like to check out the book by Angela Danzi: "From Home to Hospital: Jewish and Italian American Women & Childbirth".

sciorra's picture


wonderful post, as usual.

i just received this email:

Call for Papers: MOTHER

Guest Editors: Nicole Cooley and Pamela Stone

We have entered a motherhood moment--from celebrity mom baby-bump sightings to recent televised debates between "stay at home moms" and "working moms," from "welfare mothers" to "Alpha moms," images of motherhood are circulating in our culture as never before.

Motherhood demands a new look. As women push motherhood later and later, as a larger share forego it entirely, and as mothering itself takes up a smaller fraction of women's lives, why is the fascination with all things "mother" at an all-time high? What does it mean to be a mother when motherhood is increasingly decoupled from biology? At a time when women's reproductive rights are vulnerable and the pro-choice movement on the defensive, why is so much of the discussion about mothering framed in the rhetoric of choice and agency? As the majority of mothers pursue both family and paid employment, the "cultural contradictions" of intensive mothering that sociologist Sharon Hays first identified over a decade ago do indeed seem, to paraphrase writer/journalist Judith Warner, an ever more "[im]perfect madness."

This *WSQ* special issue invites feminist work that speaks to our current historical moment in an effort to try to begin to construct a comprehensive and critical overview of mothers, mothering, and motherhood. We welcome academic papers from a variety of perspectives in all disciplines, from theory, qualitative research, and empirical studies to literary studies. We would also be interested in memoir and first-person essays, fiction, poetry, art, and writing which blurs boundaries and crosses genres in its exploration of mothering.

Topics to be explored include:

. Discourses around motherhood and how they are shaped by race, ethnicity, immigrant status and sexuality

. Mothers in the workplace: The price of motherhood, "mommy tracking" and "maternal wall," "opting out"

. The "mommy wars": Stay-at-home moms vs. working moms

. The paid and unpaid work of mothering and caregiving; the "second shift"

. Motherhood, loss and grief: Infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth and infant and child death

. Motherhood and disability/special needs

. Intensive mothering: Ideologies and practices around co-sleeping, breastfeeding, homeschooling and unschooling, toilet-training, tutoring

. Mothers as consumers: The marketing of motherhood

. Pregnancy: The medicalization of and birthing practices, representations of the mother's body, assisted reproductive technologies (ART), surrogacy, abortion and reproductive choice

. New models of motherhood: LGBT moms, young moms, single mothers, stepmothers and blended families

. Men as moms: Stay-at-home dads, coparenting, single fathers

. Immigration and motherhood; global labor chains

. Childcare and domestic labor: Practices, issues and politics

. Motherhood and ecofeminism, explorations of "mother nature"

. Mommy lit as its own brand of chick-lit and the new "dad" books

. Mothers and digital media: The role of mommy blogs, list-servs, message boards and social networking sites

. Adoption: Transnational and domestic, transracial

. Motherhood and public policy: From debates about FMLA to activist groups such as MomsRising

. Mothering older children, mothering adult children, grandmothering

. Motherhood and Third Wave Feminism

. The experiences of women who choose not to mother

. Mothering in comparative, global and transnational contexts

If submitting academic work, please send abstracts by September 30, 2008 to the guest editors Pamela Stone and Nicole Cooley at: WSQMotherIssue@ . If accepted: Full papers should be no longer than 22 pages, and will be due by January 1, 2009.

Poetry submissions should be sent to WSQ's poetry editor Kathleen Ossip, at [email protected] , by January 1, 2009.

Fiction, essay, and memoir submissions should be sent to WSQ's fiction/nonfiction editor, Susan Daitch, at sdaitch@hunter. by January 1, 2009.

Art submissions should be sent to WSQMotherIssue@ by January 1, 2009. Please keep in mind that after art is reviewed and accepted, accepted art must be sent to the journal's managing editor on a CD that includes all artwork of 300 DPI or greater, saved as 4.25 inches wide or larger. These files should be saved as individual JPEGS or TIFFS.

-- Stacie McCormick Administrative Associate WSQ at the Feminist Press 365 Fifth Avenue New York, NY 10016 212.817.7926 www.feministpress. org/wsq