It is not uncommon to hear a new, breastfeeding mother complain “I feel like a cow!” In our society the act of giving milk has been so ubiquitously associated with the dairy that many women have trouble integrating lactation as an aspect of human experience. Our elegant udders fill with creamy milk as our baby slurps at our teat and we feel we should moo. One woman I know refers to her baby’s cries for milk as “Paging Dr Bovine”!
This strange feeling of bovinity can be unsettling. Indeed, for a few, it is enough to stop them breastfeeding altogether. Others shrug it off as silly. But perhaps this feeling of “being a cow” holds jewels as yet unacknowledged.
I once learned a powerful lesson in primal mothering from a cow. When I was a teenager, I lived and worked on a farm for a while and regularly took part in milking, herding and caring for cattle. I remember only one of them today. Short and stocky, she was certainly not the most charming of the herd, and in fact I found her vaguely annoying. She would invariably resist being herded into the milking stall, and her accusing glares were far from endearing.
Then the day came for her calf, who was still milk-fed and living by her side, to be sold. The calf was locked in a pen by the dairy, while the cow and her herd were removed to a paddock a stone’s throw away. I arrived later to discover this cow lowing heart-breakingly in the direction of her calf, and the poor calf’s cries echoing back over a rise in the road. My heart went out to this beast’s suffering, but farm life demanded a degree of stoicism, so I endevoured to resist my sentimentality as I watched, fascinated.
The paddock was fenced with four lines of barbed wire spaced about a foot apart. I watched as that cow pushed her head between the wires, then gasped as she squeezed her shoulders, her front legs and at last her whole hulking body between those rows of spikes. Thus liberated, she and her calf were soon reunited, nuzzling each other for comfort through the wooden palings of his pen.
Soon the dairy hand followed her, herded her back to our paddock and imprisoned her once more. Four times I watched her make the same impassioned escape, and again and again she was torn from her frightened baby.
I left in awe of the bond between mother and young that caused her to choose barbed wire tearing her flesh over separation from her baby. I witnessed a natural miracle that day, and felt the echo of her primal mother-passion in my own as yet virginal body. What I had thought was sentimentality was, in fact, the maiden-mother in me, sharing the pain of the breaking of a primal bond.
I now understand a mother’s fierce protectiveness first hand. I also respect that cow’s indifference to being herded “into the system” and her reluctance to have her milk – her baby’s birthright – appropriated by the technological hand of man. She showed me what it is to be a devoted and courageous mother in the face of a culture that seeks to break that bond, and to this day I am grateful.
And so perhaps, when the experience of giving milk to our babies engenders feelings of bovinity rather than divinity we are in fact tuning in to the powerful mothering instinct that these gentle beasts, the archetypal nurturers, represent. I suggest that we shrug off the cultural disparagement of these dewey-eyed, long lashed, quietly powerful mothers, embrace what we have in common with them, and see the beauty in being bovine
We are sacred cows.
Blessed be and blessed moo.