A Woman in a Box

Read at Hares and Hyenas on March the 1st, 2013 for Rabid Fire, “A Woman in a Box” is a short excerpt from my work in progess titled ‘this body, written’. I am speaking here about breastfeeding and babies, about the way that feeding an infant is an embodied thing, and about the moments in time that turn us in to mothers.

For my Deaf friends, and those who don’t feel like watching a video, here’s the text.

You were eight weeks old when the Black Saturday fires razed everything they found and in the city we sat in a west-facing weatherboard house in a sticky breastfeeding soup. A fan pushed the heated air around and you sucked for an hour, and there was so much sweat it gathered into drops and and formed tiny rivulets that formed little pools where our bodies met, and even breathing was hard. Even breathing was hard. It was so hot I was frightened to go outside. There was a sense that even here, amongst all this bitumen and steel, things would spontaneously catch fire. If we sat too close to the big lounge room window that looked out and down over yellow grass and Merri creek the sun would hit us, attached, and turn us slippery slick with sweat. On the news it was all fires. Helicopters dropped useless bellyfulls of water over the raging bush and everyone knew someone who had lost someone to flames like a scourge.

Everyone knew someone who had lost someone and in amongst all those leavings was you. Every morning I woke from our broken sleep to find you, still there. I loved you too much I thought. I would lose you in the night. Either from SIDS, or you would roll and fall, your soft skull impaled by some sharp thing on landing, or someone would come while we slept and just pick you up and put you under their arm and be gone. I loved you too much to be able to keep you. More than that, somehow I wouldn’t be allowed to keep you. The stairs at the front of our house were made of jagged rocks cemented together and every time I carried you down them I saw the bowl of your skull crack open. I had never been less concerned with the self that was me. I was all breasts and milk and a craving for barbecued chicken and watermelon at three in the morning because you were drinking every ounce of energy I had. I was arms and a voice. I was food.

On Black Saturday we couldn’t stay in the house. The weatherboard walls radiated and even putting you under a table draped with a wet sheet, a fan blowing through the soaked fibres, couldn’t cool you. I put a singlet over your nappy and we rushed into the car where the air conditioning fought to cool us. You cried all the way to Richmond and I scratched the roof of the car and sang doe, a deer, a female deer, ray, a drop of golden sun, over and over again because sometimes the scritching and the beat of the song would work its way past your discontent and settle your yell. At Victoria Gardens I prayed for cool but on a forty five degree day it wasn’t possible – at least it was less hot. When we arrived you were hungry so I pushed you past families camped out in the food court with backgammon sets and sweating drinks and found the parent’s room.

Sanctuary in a shopping centre. A change table, a toilet, little curtained off rooms with reclining chairs; I was so relieved I nearly cried. I settled myself inside the beige walls, pulling across a jaunty lime green curtain. You fed. At some point a two year old poked his head in to see what was happening and his mother pulled him away, issuing an embarrassed sorry (as if he had seen me on the toilet, or caught me picking my nose) as she left. I was split. I breastfed in public to make a point, because “lactating breasts, when they are taken outside the home, are capable of disrupting the borders of morality, discretion, taste and politics; in short, breasts are capable of transforming legislation, citizenship and cities themselves” (Bartlett 2005, pp. 66-7). It takes guts to challenge social scripts about bodies and about where and how those bodies should behave, every day, many times a day. That day, that little room meant I was unlooked at, and you fed undisturbed, and (almost) no one sought my eye or my nipple but you. I was not unaware though, that I was a woman in a box, who travelled to other boxes, to sit next to women in boxes. I may not have been looked upon, but nor could my baby and I gaze at others. That green curtain closed us away, and the door that led to those little cubicles would not swing unless a button was pressed. Was I, were we, bound or free?

While we sat in a beige recliner and breastfed, then shopped, then drove home to sit on the couch and breastfeed some more, the fire kept ripping through all that bush; it melted steel and boiled dams. I soaked big squares of muslin and lay them across the opening of your hammock, but you couldn’t sleep. It was too hot, and the devil wind churned through your guts, turning you into a red and twisted thing; you squirmed and arched no matter what we did. The fires finally died down and the heat receded, but still you couldn’t sleep, unless there was a nipple, my nipple, in your mouth. Sometimes though, if I drove you for long enough you would scream, then nod, then fall. I was careful not to turn towards the sun; I avoided the East in the mornings and the West in the afternoons. Usually we headed North. I could not stop because you woke without an engine thrum, perpetual movement, the sense of going somewhere. Out along Plenty Road, then up, winding, through the ashen bush. Charcoal sticks against a bright hot sky, foundations marking out the footprints of lives, tourists stopped at the edge of the road unashamedly snapping pictures. All those Australian flags. You slept while I drove through the devastation, and woke unknowing back by the creek with magpies singing the sun down from its zenith.


Bartlett, Alison. 2005. Breastwork: rethinking breastfeeding. Sydney: UNSW Press.

Copyright, Karina Quinn, 2013.

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