Our extract this week is from the newly published A Line Above the Sky by Helen Mort
As a runner and climber, I’ve often seen the landscape of my body as an outcrop, sturdy and self-contained. I like feeling solid. Descriptions of female climbers tend to emphasise their surprising strength, the contrast between femininity and physical power. Jim Ballard boasted of Alison that one of the best climbers in the world was 5 foot 4 and a size 10 in a dress.[restrict]
As a young woman, she was slim and boyish, her strength concentrated in her small frame. My image of her as a mountaineer is of a strong woman alone, intent and hunched over her ice axes, or levering her way up a gritstone overhang with the wind blowing through her bark-coloured hair, skin glowing from exertion. When I think of myself outdoors, I am solitary too, running to the top of Blencathra, stooped and serious, or climbing a hill alone in rain, a book stowed in my backpack.
I like to sprint along Burbage when there’s nobody else around. I like to feel the edges of myself. In many ways, I have aspired to the condition of gritstone, proud and weathered, constant. But motherhood changes the body’s landscape, introduces a fundamental duality. Breastfeeding Alfie was the most intimate experience of my life, perhaps even more than birthing him. We were attached to one another. He cleaved to me and I held him tight. During pregnancy, I did not believe that my flat breasts could nurture a child. The thought made me incredulous. Since I lost weight as a teenager, my shape had always been elongated, sharpened by miles of mountain running.
Friends joked about my boyish figure, my inability to wear strapless dresses. In the days when I waited for Alfie to arrive, I squeezed around my nipples, desperate to see pearly drops of colostrum glistening there, proof that I could produce milk. In my rational brain, I knew that breast size has nothing to do with the ability to breastfeed, but – not for the first time – my A-cup bra size became a focus for my anxiety.
When Alfie was born and my milk came, I barely recognised myself, swelling and taut with liquid, desperate for him to drain the new fullness of my breasts. The first few days of feeding are gruelling and sore, a struggle to get the baby to latch on, to swallow enough goodness. Colostrum is thick and golden, a nectar that the newborn only needs in tiny amounts, a teaspoonful at each feed.
Like all babies, Alfie was constantly hungry, constantly suckling. I don’t remember how I first helped him latch on to me, but I do remember his ardent, deter- mined drinking, how I cradled the softness of his neck and head, learned how to hold him under my arm like a rugby ball. I remember the ritual of guiding him to my nipples. Two days after he was born, I was flooded with milk. It came with a choking sorrow, a sense of overwhelming love and responsibility.
A Line Above the Sky
by Helen Mort is