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Off Piste: Intellectual sustenance

A fortnightly series in which academics step outside their area of expertise. Laleh Khalili on two intimate, nourishing and, for female academics, often simultaneous acts: breastfeeding a child and feeding one's own mind

Breastfeeding is a peculiar and intimate act. Peculiar, because a woman's body suddenly becomes a source of nourishment in an extraordinarily primordial way. Intimate, in its unapologetic corporeal conjoining of two persons.

After the birth of my daughter, who is now nearly four years old, I found myself strangely disorientated. The overwhelming sacralisation of motherhood among the British middle-class women I knew took me by surprise, as the same category of women in the US, where I had lived for nearly two decades previously, or Iran, where I had lived before that, do not necessarily place motherhood at the apogee of their various identities.

Here in the UK, though, as soon as my belly had expanded, people would ask me how long my maternity leave would last and were surprised by my need to return to work after four months. Even more shockingly, many would admonish, "But a small child needs her mother, no?"

My response was usually to point out that yes, a small child needs a parent, but the lightness of such chit-chat prevented me from impolitely hectoring them about their assumption that parenting was going to be a one-woman job in our household. Or that, given the economic exigencies of two academic careers, I could comfortably take unpaid time off work.

Breastfeeding was similarly fraught with hidden meanings, multiple interpretation and conflicting expectation. In Scotland, where my daughter was born, apparently a minuscule percentage of women choose to breastfeed their children and hence, the NHS and the regional government have made a concerted effort to encourage breastfeeding. In 2005, the Breastfeeding etc (Scotland) Act came into force, meaning that any business that prevents breastfeeding on its premises could face a £2,500 fine. Well-meaning but often vaguely patronising midwives and health visitors pat you on the back if they hear you are breastfeeding and tsk-tsk you if you are not.

I had never pondered the possibility of not breastfeeding my daughter. In the abstract, providing antibodies and nutrients on demand - any place and any time without resorting to bottles, or worrying about the composition of formula milks - seemed so reasonable and convenient. When I actually had a babe on the breast, though, the concrete reality of breastfeeding was overwhelming. I suddenly felt my body as the locus of millennia of womanly history, of social discipline, familial expectation and meaning.

So much meaning was packed in the act of placing a breast in a child's mouth. No longer was my body wholly my own, as it had become the vehicle for another person's survival, with all the obligations, anxieties, intimacies and affection this entails. The act of breastfeeding is intensely private and yet bizarrely public. Breastfeeding is often quiet, intense and close. Yet it can happen anywhere, anytime. Hungers have to be sated even at gatherings, restaurants, parks. For a first-time mother, her entire day can seem like a succession of feedings interrupted by a few minutes of rest here and there.

And then there is the astonishing intimacy of the act. A child knows how to suckle on the breast. It is a kind of primeval knowledge written somewhere - everywhere - in its body. Even before knowing how to hold, the baby grasps at the breast. Even without seeing or, later, understanding, a suckling baby stares at you. The sensuousness of breastfeeding seems to overtake the body.

And it is strange to find one's body producing the milk that is needed to keep alive a small person. What is taking place is a kind of elemental transformation of a body that is used for writing and thinking and cooking and running and pleasure and loving into so overwhelmingly an instrument of feeding. And feeding. And feeding. As one of my colleagues describes it, it transforms one into "a real dairy farm".

Most women who work with language for a living - academics, journalists, teachers, authors - find themselves with swathes of feeding time during which they can read the books they usually don't have any time for. And feel that as their body serves this corporeal function, they can still and simultaneously work with the stuff of their work life.

Not all nursing mothers read. Some love the silence, the solid earthly experience of serene nurturing, of plenitude. Some find the humour inherent in breastfeeding a big-eyed apple-cheeked wobbly-necked creature sufficient entertainment. Other mothers find the concentration required to remember the narrative arc of a novel and the complexities of its characters far too demanding in their sleepless delirium.

Some, only admitting to this sheepishly, watch television while breastfeeding. Others solve page after page of sudoku and crossword puzzles.

With my second child, now three months old, the breastfeedings of my Sunday and Monday evenings are spent grappling with The Independent's 16x16 Saturday sudoku and The New York Times' Sunday crossword puzzle. Working on them during the day feels like cheating. Sometimes, if they are particularly difficult, I find they last through 20 or 30 breastfeeds on successive days. But by Saturday, as I sit ensconced in the firmest corner of the sofa cradling my son, I am already desperate for the super-sudoku.

An academic friend who runs a cheeky anthropology weblog used to lay her child on her lap, "stick a breast in her mouth", lean over her and type on her keyboard. Meanwhile, mothers with twins experience the near-impossible exhaustion of tending to perpetually alternating hungers, or the necessity of using both hands to do tandem feeding. One heroic mother I know found time between breastfeeding her twins in rapid succession to complete her doctoral thesis and fill in multiple job applications (landing a very good one). Needless to say, she wasn't reading much besides drafts of her own thesis.

Some friends read books that are pleasantly interchangeable and the predictability of whose endings soothes particular genre-cravings. My erudite journalist friend read Ian Rankin's entire Inspector Rebus oeuvre while breastfeeding her third kid. As someone also addicted to Rebus novels, I can see the attraction of their dark and complex plotting and the satisfying - if not always unambiguous - resolutions.

My journalist friend confesses she now cannot "remember a thing about them except that they were about solving murders and set (mostly) in Edinburgh". But then she devoured them because of the ease with which they could be read, because they didn't require all of her attention, and because the local library carried them all.

My Spanish linguist friend whose usual tastes run to sophisticated continental novels set aside the Orwell and Chomsky tomes her husband had bought her and read all of Carmen Reid's chick-lit books instead.

She wanted something joyful and easy to devour, and the gossipy stories about harried and harassed modern women balancing careers, love lives and needy children seemed to appeal to her as she weighed the importance of, and reorganised the various compartments of, her own life.

Some nursing mothers choose more instrumentally. A brilliant anthropologist married to a Lebanese man and living in Beirut read Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct while breastfeeding her second daughter. The book is about the universal grammar hardwired into our brains and the ways in which the genesis of language in every child combines this inherent language with environmental factors.

It is about what language does and does not do in shaping how we think, challenging those theories that imagine hierarchies of cultures based on some presumed pecking order of languages. My anthropologist friend wrote to me: "I was already arguing with (my husband) about what language the girls should speak and be schooled in. Pinker's book was lively enough to keep me awake while nursing; and I won my argument." A decade later, her daughters speak three languages fluently.

Some mothers contemplate the content of what they read and the possible effect it might have on their babies. One woman read funny books all through her breastfeeding in the surreptitious superstition that her child would become good-humoured. Another would skip over the clinical sex scenes in a French experimental novel for the fear that her milk would be tainted by the vulgarity of such coldness.

Sometimes chance combines with desire to determine what nursing mothers read. Another young academic mother read Kari Anne Roy's Haiku Mama and Alexei Yurchak's elegant ethnography of the collapse of Soviet Union, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More. She chose the former because it was "a collection of haikus (read: short and can be read quickly) about the ups and downs and hilarious aspects of motherhood", while the latter just happened to be on her coffee-table, and "just seemed like an ethnography of a different place that dealt with major shifts in life ... something I was experiencing".

The sense of liminality, of being in motion and transformation, resonates in her thinking. Sometimes the reading of books can act as a rite of passage in a moment of transition. Somewhere between the lightness of comical poetry and the immensity of the end of an era lies that terrifying and exhilarating moment during which we women also become mothers.

I think it is in some ways reassuring to continue reading one's antenatal books during nursing. My anarchist activist-scholar friend in New York was photographed reading Against the State: An Introduction to Anarchist Political Theory while breastfeeding her son. He is named Leo after the Christian anarchist Tolstoy. I am sure she hopes that he absorbs the ideas through osmosis.

She has negotiated the complexities of transition to motherhood with extraordinary grace, joyfully mothering, finishing a doctorate and starting a new academic job in the impossible New York job market. And she reads anarchist theory not directly relevant to her research or her work but because inside her skin, alongside the breastfeeding mother, is still the same sassy radical woman.

With my daughter's birth, I worried about becoming all flesh and senses, and about my capacity for sustenance overwhelming my identity as a woman who writes and thinks and works. So I read and read and read. To shore up my identity against the uncertainties of such massive transformations in personhood and in what use my body is put to, I read the kind of thing that is far from postnatal concerns. I read Che Guevara, General Giap and Mao on guerrilla warfare. I read Kwame Nkrumah and Frantz Fanon on the nature of colonialism and Nelson Mandela and Amilcar Cabral on their anticolonial struggles.

I read about violence, structural inequalities, colonial exploitation and the making of revolutionaries. When I thought about it at any length, a strange superstition would overtake me: that the violence I was reading about would be transmitted through my breastmilk to my daughter; that word would become flesh would become mother's milk. The alchemy of breastfeeding was something before language, before writing; like the practice of breastfeeding itself. And to read about revolutionary violence was a way of invoking something man-made against the primeval.

The uncertainties were no longer there when my second child was born three months ago. There are still occasional busybody tsk-tskings about my wanting to return to work when he is five months old. Somehow, it doesn't matter. Somehow, in the intervening years, I have become accustomed to layering who I am, to not fear my body becoming something biblical - the source of word and of manna. Indeed, I even exult it secretly.

It is in the comfort of knowing that my flesh-milk-words can become the independent bossy little daughter who answers me with confidence and tells imaginative stories with her little figurines in which pirates and princesses loom large, that I quietly, happily nurse my son, solving sudoku puzzles in the first half of the week, and in the latter half not being anxious or superstitious about the endless books and blogs about counterinsurgencies and prisons and policing that I read.

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