It was recently the 70th anniversary of the end of the siege of Leningrad. I read the most extraordinary account of the way people survived. It’s no secret that it is widely acknowledged that the women were a key element of survival, showing astounding ingenuity on order to find, if not food, then something to eat. But one account moved me more than any other, that of a women who, when her starving baby was unable to get any milk at all from her even-more-starving breasts, would prick her skin at let the child suck her blood until she fell asleep. And remarkable and hideous as the story was, there was something incredibly un-other, incredibly non-unimaginable in it. I thought, I could just about imagine that I would do that. And, moreover, I could just about imagine any other woman I know doing that. This is of course your moment to shout at your computer screen in horror, declaring that is ridiculous and disgusting, or indeed that there are plenty of men who would make huge sacrifices for their children unflinchingly, but we maybe owe it to those that Russian woman to dig a little deeper and risk causing offence. Or to the mothers of the 800,000 babies a year who die because of insufficient breast milk from their starving mothers. Or not even, less dramatically, to the one in five women in our own country who regularly have to miss meals to better feed their own children.
Raise your words not you voices, Rumi tells us, it is the rain which makes things grow. I find it hard not to see that rain as tears, a reflection of the power of love, grief and tenderness, And it is a thought that has often entered my head, what if that power could be harnessed, would it not be the most overwhelming force the world had ever seen? If the energy of the tears and the love of mothers could be collected, like damning huge tides or collecting the wind from storms, how productive could it be? How creative? And if this is the case would this not be a constant source of anxiety and jealously, something to be contained and suppressed at all cost?
The Scottish psychiatrist Ian Suttie, in his extraordinary and potentially life changing work The origins of love and hate, identifies new jealousies, rather than Freud’s penis envy and Oedipal complex. He describes Zeus envy, as Zeus ate his pregnant wife and gave birth to his daughter Pallas himself. He was envious of his wife’s total domination of the means of producing and sustaining life, both as birther and breast-feeder. Far fetched you think? Impossible you say? Perhaps we could consider what a history shaped by Zeus jealously might look like, We would have constant interference in the mothering process. Books to tell women when to feed their children and when not to cuddle them. We would have developed systems of education and childcare that separated children from their mothers. We would have changed the way women give birth, so that they were unable to connect with their bodies and their own instincts and were beholden to the interventions of others. We might even have periods where we tell women not a breastfeed and create substitutes instead. We would have taken control of the food supply, so that the seeds that people had used for generations to provide for their families were the possessions of corporations, manipulated, made barren, used to create hunger rather than food. Oh, hang on, that is exactly what has happened. Even the very Gods we worship have changed from earth mother goddesses of providence to sky father gods of punishment. .
So maybe, just maybe, we should be trying to claim a bit of this back. Perhaps this day we should be connecting with the strength of our feelings for all of the women who have seen their children starve since you started reading this post. After all we are living in a world of such horrific imbalance and inequality that wealthy nations spend more than five times the amount of money on losing weight than would be required to feed the hungry, where all it would take to wipe out hunger for good would be for a double-decker bus worth of the world’s richest people to check behind their figurative sofa cushions for change. Dismiss this because you don’t care of you have your own problems or you don’t think there is anything that can be done about it. But please, on international women’s day, don’t dismiss it because a man tells you that you don’t understand economics.
Open the floodgates. Let the rain come. Make things grow.