blood and milk

Canadian Blood Services has set up camp on campus today. Two locations. Many signs showing the way.  I used to donate regularly. I saw it as a form of civic duty: this was a gift that I could, relatively painlessly, give to others who really needed it. And they were always happy for another pint of type B blood. Less than 8% of the Canadian population has B positive. And that makes me special.

In fact, I’m now even more special: because I lived in England for two years during the Mad Cow Disease crisis, I am not allowed to donate blood at all. My eligibility is, according to the language of Canadian Blood Services “indefinitely deferred.” I am, of course, not the only one. Many others are indefinitely deferred: men who have had sex with men, even once, since 1977; anyone who has received money or drugs for sex; anyone from certain areas of Africa; insulin dependent diabetics…

My indefinitely deferred eligibility also means that I cannot donate any other fluid substance from my body. This includes milk. When my second son was born, I very quickly found myself with what I would euphemistically call an “overabundance” of breast milk. As a NICU nurse observed, “You could feed the whole NICU!” 40 babies. The lactation consultant wasn’t particularly supportive or helpful, chirping that: “Many women would love to be in your position.” (is my resentment still that obvious, over six years later?).  Let’s just say that 13 litres of frozen breast milk is more than any single baby can handle, let alone a four pound preemie consuming less than 100 ml in a day.

So, good citizen that I was, I explored the options of breast milk donation. BC Women’s Hospital (where I gave birth and where my son spent the first three weeks of his life) is home to Canada’s only milk bank. Before the mad cow crisis, they would have been happy to relieve me of my 13 litre stash. But for milk, too, my eligibility to donate is indefinitely deferred. My milk, like my blood, is understood as a possible site of contagion.

Ah, the irony.

According to the experts, breastfeeding my own child is the healthiest thing I could possibly do for him. The aforementioned lactation consultant was pretty clear on this, too. Breastfeeding is seen as a badge of honour (in fact, the online pregnancy forum I used to frequent had badges you could add to your avatar: 3 months, 6 months, 12 months, 2 years…) Breastfeeding instantly elevated me into the ranks of good mothers. I can still see myself, my halo polished, glowing as I rose above mere mortal mothers who fed – not nursed – their children formula. As a breastfeeding mother, I can claim kinship with Marianne.  Be/aring my milky breasts, I am the ultimate mother-citizen, reproducer of the nation. I can take my anointed place within the hallowed haloes of mother-nurture, secure in the knowledge that I have achieved maternal immortality.

Marianne, symbol of revolutionary France. Image by Patrick Janicek (available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/marsupilami92/5005121978/)

But woe betide the anonymous infant who might be subjected to my indefinitely deferred eligibility. Mother-nurture? Mother-citizen? Hardly. No, in this incarnation, I have become mother-demon, a being whose potentially infected, diseased, contaminated fluids threaten the health of the populace as a whole.

The politics of fluids shape how I am read. How my body is read. And they shape, too, my relationships with those around me and the role that I am allowed to play in society. My blood, my milk, my fluids are not welcome. While it might be argued that this is to protect the broader public good, the decisions seem, to a large degree, arbitrary. Certainly, the decision to exclude anyone who has lived in Britain for more than 6 months between 1980 and 1996 is not based on any scientific evidence. There is no demonstrably clear link between mad cow disease and CJD. And even if there was, those of us who have been indefinitely deferred may never have eaten a morsel of beef in our lives (or chicken or pork or veal or lamb…). Or we may have grown up in Saskatchewan and Alberta, both of which have had their own issues with mad cow disease. But we are singled out – indefinitely –  walking bio-hazards who threaten the security of the state.

I am Tissot’s wetnurse. She, in turn, is me.

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