Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within
I gave birth in September 2006, the most beautiful month of the year in Istanbul. Happy and blessed as I felt, I was also perplexed and unprepared. We rented a charming, quiet house on the islands where I could nurse and write. That was the plan. But it turned out I could do neither. My milk wasn’t sufficient, and each time I attempted to go back into the world of fiction and start a new novel, I found myself staring at a blank page with growing unease. That had never happened to me before. I had never run out of stories. I had never experienced writer’s block or anything that came close to it. For the first time in my adult life, as hard as I tried, words wouldn’t speak to me. Suddenly I was seized by the fear that something had irreversibly changed in me and I would never be the same again. A wave of panic surged through me. I started to think that now that I had become a mother and housewife, I would not be able to write fiction anymore. Like an old dusty carpet, my old Self was pulled out from under my feet.
Books had been my best friend since the day I learned how to read and write. Books had saved me. I had been an introverted child to the point of communicating with colored crayons and apologizing to objects when I bumped into them. Stories had given me a sense of continuity, center and coherence—the three Cs that I otherwise sorely lacked. I breathed letters, drank words and lived stories, confident that I could twist and twirl language in a passionate tango.
All this time my writing had filled the one suitcase I took with me wherever I went. Fiction was the invisible glue that held my different facets together, and when it was no longer with me, all my pieces fell apart. Without it, the world seemed like a melancholic place, infinitely sad. Colors that had looked bright and cheerful were now dull. Nothing was enough anymore. Nothing seemed familiar. I, who had traveled across continents, easily finding home in so many places, could not find the strength or will to go out into the street. My skin got so thin everything started to hurt me. The sun was too hot, the wind too harsh and the night too dark. I was full of anxiety and apprehension. Before I knew it, I had plunged into a severe postpartum depression. After weeks of watching me cry, my maternal grandmother—a gentle but mighty woman with abundant superstitions—held my hand and whispered, in a voice as soft as velvet, “My dear child, you’ve got to pull yourself together. Don’t you know that with every tear a new mother sheds, her milk turns sour?”
I didn’t know that.
I found myself thinking about this image. What would happen if my milk curdled? Would it darken, acquiring a thick and murky texture? The thought of this not only alarmed me but also made me feel guilty. The more I tried not to cry the more I felt like doing so. How come every other woman I knew adapted to motherhood so easily, but I couldn’t? I wanted to breast-feed my child as long and best as I could. The image of spoiling milk nagged at me during the day, and attacked me in my dreams.
Then one morning, after months of depression, seclusion and unsuccessful treatment, I woke up with an urge to write again and sat at my desk. It was quiet, except for a few fishing boats in the distance and the baby sleeping in her cradle. There was a scent of jasmine in the air and the sky over the Bosphorus was a blue so pale that it had almost no color. Suddenly I had this most soothing realization that everything was okay and had always been so. As Rumi said, the night contained the day. We could start our lives over, anytime and anywhere. It was okay that I had panicked and could not stop crying. It was okay that I had feared I couldn’t manage writing and motherhood at the same time. Had my milk not been as white as snow, that, too, would be okay. If I started to write about the experience, I could turn my blackened milk into ink, and as writing had always had a magical healing effect on my soul, I could perhaps inch my way out of this depression.
That same day, I put the baby in her pram and walked out of the house into the bustling street. At first cautiously, then more daringly, I started talking to other women about their postpartum experiences. I was surprised to hear how many of them had gone through a similar emotional turbulence. Why didn’t we know more about this? I had always been told that all women jump for joy as soon as they hold their babies in their arms. No one said that while jumping some of us hit our heads on the ceiling, making us temporarily dizzy.
As I kept writing Black Milk I had myriad moving conversations with women of all ages and professions. Slowly and steadily, it dawned on me that I wasn’t alone. That helped a lot. It was ironic for someone who had always taken pride in her ability to be alone to seek solace in numbers, but I chose not to dwell on that. The simple fact is that postpartum depression is far more common than we, as a society, would want to believe.