Breastfeeding in Literature – Jean Auel

Breastfeeding in Literature – Jean Auel
After decades of waiting, I have recently finished reading the sixth and final book in the Earth’s Children Series, more commonly known as the “Clan of the Cavebear Books” by Jean Auel. This series chronicles the time period of overlap as Neanderthal man gives way to the more well-adapted Cro-Magnon man and focus on one woman, Ayla, throughout the entire series. While the books are clearly and obviously and fiction, the author did an immense amount of research on life in this period as well as the geologic realities of human and animal life during this time. One of the things that I love about this series is the everyday way that breastfeeding fits into the lives of the women and families in these tales. Breastfeeding is discussed in various ways in all of the novels, both for humans as well as animals. The need of children to nurse and the need of mothers to both adapt to and work around that need is illustrated is woven into the stories in refreshingly matter-of-fact ways from the vantage point of those of us in a “formula-alternative” world. Here are just a few of my favorite reflections on how Auel addresses breastfeeding throughout her epic tales.

The “Lost Art” of Breastfeeding
The confidence and knowledge with which new mothers in the story approach their early breastfeeding experiences in the Earth’s Children books is something that can only be expected in a culture where women are surrounded by breastfeeding throughout their entire lives. Breastfeeding a baby is foregone conclusion. Certainly, one would imagine, “animal” instinct is much stronger on both the part of the mothers and the babies regarding technique and mechanics than is present for current women and children.

But it is not surprising that there is not a single reference to breastfeeding pain or early struggles. Women take babies to breast immediately after birth and breastfeed without any sense of this being remarkable through age 3-4. Women birth surrounding by other women and one would imagine if there are any hiccups in the nursing process, those women are on hand to help (just imagine the breastfeeding rates if this were true of all births today).

The Breastfeeding Sisterhood

There are no breast pumps – if women need to be away for an extended part of the day, another women will nurse the baby. At one point when Ayla returns from an excursion full to discomfort with milk (the physical realities of this are wonderfully acknowledged and described in the 6th book) to find her baby has just been nursed, another mother casually hands over her soon-to-be-fed infant to empty Ayla’s breasts.

When Ayla loses her milk after her first baby due to complications with the birth (I’ll be cryptic so as not to be a needles spoiler for those who have not read the books) in the first book of the series, other mothers in her Clan take her baby to breast and help to recover from the mastitis that she develops. When a baby in the 5th book is found to be malnourished due to neglect by an irresponsible mother in the cave, the other mothers ultimately take responsibility for the baby and the baby’s older sister takes on the responsibility of shuttling the baby around between families for feedings on a well-developed schedule. The adaptability of women’s milk supply and the ability of women’s bodies to produce whatever milk is needed is wonderfully illustrated to a modern world of women often under-confident in their own ability to produce milk for even one baby for a much shorter duration.

The sisterhood of women in these novels, the communal responsibility for the babies in a community and the primacy of breastfeeding and extended breastfeeding all exist with the backdrop of women who all contribute simultaneously to their society in critical daily ways. Women do not choose between exclusive and extended breastfeeding and providing for their family and community as leaders, hunters, craftsmen or hundreds of other ways. But it is the communal sisterhood and support of women that makes this reality possible for all women. These are images that are far too limited and foreign in Western culture today.

Breastfeeding and Prematurity

In the third book of the series, a baby is born critically premature. While babies generally died in this hostile caveman world without the sorts of NICU care and knowledge available today, Auel saves this infant with an all-too-ignored (but oft-proven-successful) method today – kangaroo care. The new mother is instructed to wear the baby in sling, skin-to-skin, breastfeeding on demand and not even removing the baby for diapering.

Regulated by the mothers warmth and heartbeat and nourished by mother’s milk, the baby survives. This was a surprising and inspiring episode in the book, as this approach has been shown in modern times to be effective and sometimes even preferable to “cutting-edge” medical interventions for near-term infants. There was even a case some years ago was pronounced dead and revived on its mother’s chest when she was given the baby to say her goodbyes. Kudos to Auel for choosing to highlight this too-little-known phenomenon.

These are only a few of the ways breastfeeding is present and visible in Auel’s Earth Children’s series. Breastfeeding in the animal world also figures into the story and impacts the plot in important ways. Thank you, Jean Auel, for addressing this once everyday facet of life in such graceful and thoughtful ways.

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