There is a moment surely every new mother has. Not the one of sheer joy as you look into your newborn’s eyes (I never had that one. Just me?). The one where you have made a cup of tea and this – you’re hoping. I mean, please! – is the one you’re going to get to drink warm. Then you realise, you have no milk. No cow’s milk. No almond milk… But hang on, you have breast milk…Would it be so bad if you strategically aimed a squirt at your teacup? (Again, just me?) This moment got me thinking. Is breast milk vegan? Would my vegan friend waiting for her tea in the sitting room while holding the baby, be down with some of my mammary liquor? Set aside whether it’s okay to offer friends a taste of your bodily fluids, she has a strict no animal products policy, and I am an animal.
I conducted a highly unscientific poll of my “post milk-generation” friends to find out. “I like boobs, I like milk. I like sucking on things. Where’s the downside?”, said one. A bit weird. Direct contact with the
source material was not what I’d had in mind. “Maybe I would have tried it during my first month or two of veganism when I was adapting,” another offered. Visions of milking parlours full of women discharging “vegan transition produce” came to mind. Always good to know how a woman’s value compares to a cow’s.
But here was the response that hit me: “If an animal suffered and there were agrochemicals used in the production then I avoid. Your milk isn’t either of those, so send some over’.” No suffering, huh? Let me tell you: I suffered. Women suffer. Breastmilk does not often come without pain. And does an epidural count as agrochemicals? Pelvic girdle pain in pregnancy. Sciatica. Sweeps (otherwise known as assault with a battering ram to the cervix). Induction of labour. A slice through the perineum that means you can’t sit down properly. Set all that suffering aside. The first eight weeks of breastfeeding were hell. I had blisters after the first feed. My nipples looked like the Grand Canyon. Vegans often talk about the high percentage of pus in milk, due to cows getting mastitis. Well, I had mastitis. Want to know the cure for mastitis? Feed the baby more. Let them drink the pus. Want to know what you do when your nipples are bleeding? Feed the baby more (practice makes perfect). Let the baby lap up the blood. Want to know what you do when you have nipple thrush? Feed the baby more. Let the baby suck down the yeast infection (and medicate later). Want to know what newborn babies do? They milk you. Constantly. Think they can’t possibly still be hungry because they just finished feeding? They can. They are. The baby boob clamp does not let go four hours at a time. I was confined to one room, one seat, one position – for weeks.
My goodness, I thought. Was my child exploiting me? Could I, in good conscience, let her work me round the clock for my milk like this? Her demands made me weep constantly and even required that I spent much of the time attached to uncomfortable machinery. My uncle used to be a dairy farmer. I remember the suction hoses attached to the cows’ udders in the milking shed. I have one just like it. Shhhk-brrrrp. Shhhk-brrrrp. Shhhk-brrrrp, it went. One hose on each boob. I set it to the minimum power because anything else was too painful. Still, I spent hours at a time extracting some 30ml of liquid, because my hormones made the idea of feeding cow’s milk-based formula to my newborn feel too heartbreaking.
Alas as the female of the species, once jaguar-like, we had presumably, at some point in history domesticated ourselves to reap the benefits and comforts of societal existence, only to find ourselves in lifelong servitude to men and children. Or something.
And now, here I was, standing poised over a teacup about to squirt my pus-filled, painfully got, labour-camp produced milk into a vegan’s brew. Better not, I thought. And, do you still want my breastmilk, friends?*
*No vegans were intentionally harmed in the making of this article.
Jasmine Gardner is a writer and editor who has worked for The Sunday Times and the London Evening Standard. She gave birth to her first child, Minna, in May 2016 and is now halfway through the delights of pregnancy with a second baby. She lives in Deptford, London.