I belong to a book club. We take turns selecting a monthly novel (and hosting the meeting, which often turns raucous), and because we have diverse tastes we get to read works we as individuals would never have picked from a stack.
Over the past months, we met a pair of authors who fell down on lactation.
The first was Marina Lewycka, who wrote the warm, wry A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. We adored the novel but were less than enthused with her take on milk production in Valentina, the narrator’s elderly father’s detested new wife (page 237):
She pulls up on the brown oil-scarred lawn and eases herself out of the driving seat. Her belly is vast, her splendid bosom engorged with milk . . ..
No. Just no. Ask any breastfeeding counselor, any woman who’s nursed her child. Milk doesn’t come in until the baby’s out, when childbirth makes for hormonal changes in the mother’s brain, changes to signal her body that the energy she formerly used in creating a tiny human should now be devoted to feeding that infant. The structure is built for lactation – almost everyone’s breasts grow during pregnancy – but the milk itself? Not there yet, because not yet needed. It would be like using automobile factory resources to concentrate on the paint job when the car has yet to be built.
The latter author, the celebrated Rachel Kushner, wrote The Flamethrowers. It’s a terrific, finely crafted, well-researched book. Except for this (page 277) that includes a pregnant young woman named Anna:
The one with the microphone leaned in toward [Anna] and placed his hand on her breast.
She looked at him with a child’s mischievous delight.
“There’s milk,” she said, holding her breasts up . . .. She pushed with her hands, squirting a fine light stream up at him.
This passage actually contains two basic errors. One, of course she could have no milk, she’s still pregnant; and two, human milk does not eject in a single “fine light stream”. A woman who pulls her breast from her nursing child’s mouth will wet his face with fine light multiple spatters like a garden hose set to spray rather than jet.
Look, it’s not brain surgery. It’s basic physiology, for writers who have never breastfed. If you’re going to spend time checking your research on 1950s tractors (Lewycka) or Italian motorcycles (Kushner), use those same skills to make sure you do not, out of ignorance, burden your pregnant characters with abilities they cannot in real life possess.