“Ages ago, women linked themselves inextricably and symbolically with cows. In ancient Egypt, the goddess Hathor, the great mother, was depicted as a cow whose body was the heavens and whose udder spewed out the Milky Way,” Laurie Winn Carlson writes in “Cattle and Women.” “Scientists have found that the cow’s pituitary gland…contains a powerful hormone that drives maternal behavior. The hormone has been extracted from cow brains at slaughter, then administered therapeutically to pregnant women as oxytocin.”
Cows. Women. Calving. Birthing. Milking. Nursing.
I trace my connections between women and cows to the year I visited a dairy farm to buy fresh milk—the same year we watched the “menstruation movie” in school, when I had a new body awareness and emotions I couldn’t quite pin down.
Before I stepped into the farm’s milking parlor, I’d never seen a cow being milked, even though we lived near several dairy farms. I was intrigued by this new environment, yet embarrassed for the cows as I watched two men in dusty overalls connect their udders to a milking machine, which pulled and yanked at each teat. I wondered where the calves were.
I felt such sadness for one ailing cow in particular, whom the farmer milked with bare hands, which somehow looked like mistreatment.
Those evenings gathering milk are seared into my memory. Perhaps it is not surprising that in the morphine haze surrounding the aftermath of my son’s emergency birth—during which I received a cocktail of various antibiotics and other drugs—I thought of that cow and asked if my milk would be okay. That ailing cow, stunned, out of place, and sore, was not so unlike me and how I felt in the ICU, separated from my newborn son, expected to nurse.
As I recovered from the blood loss and the cesarean section, I experienced overwhelming feelings of failure, which was nothing new to me. For years, doctors had tried to diagnose symptoms that plagued me. When that diagnosis finally came—late-stage endometriosis—it resulted in total reconstructive pelvic surgery, just a year before my son was born. During my pregnancy, I had preterm labor and gestational diabetes and was ordered to be on thirteen weeks of bed rest. I felt as though my body had failed me in menstruation, getting pregnant, carrying a pregnancy to full term, and delivering a baby naturally.
To have problems nursing added insult to multiple injuries.
Seventeen years later, I took a class with my mentor Kathy Fish, who offered a writing prompt that she called “A Rant,” intended to give voice to something that had been haunting or preoccupying us—and this story spilled out of me. By then, my son had grown into a strong, sturdy, very healthy, wonderful young man. It was finally time to give words to the emotions I’d had when I’d bottle-fed him, feeling I’d let him down. The trauma of his birth had gotten locked up in my brain, but the writing prompt allowed me to give voice to my perceived failure, and helped me move on.
For women suffering from postpartum PTSD due to traumatic birth, find more information at Postpartum Support International.
For women unable to nurse immediately after emergency deliveries and long recoveries, but who still want to nurse, learn about relactation at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
JOLENE MCILWAIN’s recent work appears in The Florida Review, West Branch, The Cincinnati Review, New Orleans Review, Fractured Lit, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Janus Literary, LITRO, Prime Number Magazine, and Prairie Schooner’s Sports Shorts, among other journals. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize and appears in The Best Small Fictions: 2019 Anthology. Jolene’s forthcoming short story collection, set in the Appalachian Plateau of Western Pennsylvania where she was born, raised, and currently lives, will be published by Melville House. Find her on Twitter @jolene_mcilwain.