Breastfeeding: A Feminist Perspective (Originally published November 2010)

So, I hear there’s a bit of a debate about whether breastfeeding is harmful or helpful to the feminist cause. I got this little gem in my inbox from my Friends of Midwives mailing list today and it brought to my attention a perspective on breastfeeding I hadn’t quite considered before: breastfeeding as an instrument of oppression. How did I never think of this? What an idea. The article is a response to a decidedly breastfeeding unfriendly article in Atlantic Monthly written over a year ago by journalist Hanna Rosin, entitled “The Case Against Breastfeeding.” The Miami Herald’s Casey Woods makes the argument that breastfeeding isn’t actually the oppressor but the oppressed.


Despite campaigning on “family values,” our lawmakers have time and again refused to mandate paid maternity leave, making this the only industrialized country without it. Most working women are obliged by financial necessity to be back on the job just weeks after their babies are born. The return to work is one of the most common reasons that mothers stop breast feeding


.
This is the line I usually follow. Readers who attend my weekly breastfeeding lectures (I sound so important when I phrase it this way) know that I draw from my experience living in Norway to answer questions of societal breastfeeding opposition. Living there, I learned that women were able to take ample time from their jobs with a completely manageable cut in pay (there were a couple of options about time off and pay cut) to stay home and take care of their children for the first critical months of their development – and by first critical months I don’t mean the first month or two that we get here; I mean the first nine to twelve months. There, I met very breastfeeding-friendly medical professionals for the most part, a lot of women with successful breastfeeding relationships, and overall a society with a very healthy and encouraging attitude toward breastfeeding and motherhood. It was a new mother’s utopia. So, when I look at the problems we confront as mothers in the United States, my default assumption is that things would be better if we had a setup more like Norway.


When I read the quotes from Rosin’s article offered by Woods comparing breastfeeding to oppressive housekeeping requirements of old, my first inclination was to agree with Woods simply on the grounds that this comparison is totally absurd. Breastfeeding is just something we do because our bodies can do it and it’s good for ourselves and our babies. Men don’t do it because they lack the appropriate hormones to render their underdeveloped mammary glands functional. This isn’t any more a sign of societal inequality than the fact that only women have periods and get pregnant. These are biological inequalities for which there is absolutely nobody with whom to file a complaint. However, I do just love to challenge my own assumptions. What if I have been wrong or maybe have had an incomplete picture of things? What if breastfeeding is, after all, another in the long line of things that are keeping us down? So, in the interest of intellectual curiosity and objectivity, I read Ms. Rosin’s article.

Well, it’s interesting. The woman did her research. Sort of. First, I’ll tell you what I learned and breastfeeding moms whom I love: ohmygod please don’t hate me for this. Hear me out. Remember all those studies we read in The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and in about a million Dr. Sears articles and in about a million Parenting Magazine articles and so on and so forth about how breastfeeding makes your babies smarter and healthier and impervious to disease? Reports may have been exaggerated. Ohgod don’t hate me please keep reading. Now, while I took most of what she said about specific studies pertaining to ear infections, leukemia, diabetes, and so on with a high degree of skepticism on account of her lack of citations, what she said about the studies as a whole was, unfortunately, true and made an awful lot of sense.

An ideal study would randomly divide a group of mothers, tell one half to breast-feed and the other not to, and then measure the outcomes. But researchers cannot ethically tell mothers what to feed their babies. Instead they have to settle for “observational” studies. These simply look for differences in two populations, one breast-fed and one not. The problem is, breast-fed infants are typically brought up in very different families from those raised on the bottle.


This is irrefutable. The studies they do on breastfed infants are not scientific and, if you know me, you know how offensive that is to me. When you do observational studies on something like successful breastfeeding, which is highly vulnerable to class, race, and educational disparities, you simply cannot trust the results. This doesn’t mean that breastfeeding is not beneficial, but that we should probably throw out everything we thought we knew and start over.

However, there is good news: Rosin offers the results of one study, specifically about breastfeeding’s influence on digestive health, that took this into account and solved it kind of creatively by simply offering extra support to a test group of women that was already breastfeeding and leaving the control, also already breastfeeding, alone. Basically, the findings were that breastfeeding reduced gastrointestinal problems by 40 percent. One down. I do not know whether anyone has adopted this method and done any further exploration of the benefits of breastfeeding or lack thereof, so I’ll have to get back to you on that, but so far this is what I’ve got.

That was the end of her scientific argument that breastfeeding is nonessential. However, even if it turned out that formula feeding actually gave babies superpowers, that wouldn’t really answer the question as to whether breastfeeding was oppressive to women. Rosin’s argument on that one just gets ridiculous. I’d like to show you every single one of these idiot things in their entirety, but in the interest of brevity, I’ve (painfully) cut the quotes down and/or summarized them.

1. Breastfeeding ad campaigns with things like dandelions and scoops of ice cream with cherries on top as playful euphemisms for breasts are ‘dripping with sexual innuendo.’

They’re breasts. They’re recalling images of breasts. One of the first things we have to do as breastfeeding mothers and activists is derail the assumption that our breasts are meant solely for the purposes of selling cars and titillating men. Breasts are for feeding babies. Those ads were talking about feeding babies. With breasts. There were no women in cold rooms (wink, nudge) wearing low-cut tight-fitting tops. There were scoops of ice cream. Nobody was aroused. That is not sexual innuendo.

2. Breastfeeding means a loss of ‘modesty, independence, career, sanity’

Wow. Okay, first of all, fuck modesty. Nobody needs modesty. Modesty is an outdated concept tied to virgin worship and slut-shaming and the expectation of such is used as fuel for blaming rape victims and ohgod any number of other assaults to the feminist senses from male ownership of women’s bodies to ‘come on let’s all wear burkas.’ See also: breastfeeding at work is totally embarassing!

Your choices are (a) leave your story to go down to the dingy nurse’s office and relieve yourself; or (b) grow increasingly panicked and sweaty as your body continues on its merry, milk-factory way, even though the plant shouldn’t be operating today and the pump is about to explode. And then one day, the inevitable will happen. You will be talking to a male colleague and saying to yourself, “Don’t think of the baby. Please don’t think of the baby.” And then the pump will explode, and the stigmata will spread down your shirt as you rush into the ladies’ room.


Feminism 101. The problem here is not that her breasts leaked, which is not a shameful or amoral act, but the fact that she refers to it as stigmata and allows male coworkers to shame her. Rosin loses feminist points on that one. As for independence? Well, yeah, to an extent, breastfeeding can compromise your independence, but the difference in independence between a woman who breastfeeds and a woman who does not breastfeed but still takes care of her child is relatively minimal. If you have a baby, you don’t have much. We’re talking about a very minor difference here. Career? The baby did not take your career. If your career has been compromised it is because we live in a warped system that does not appreciate women or motherhood and does not allow adequate or paid maternity leave. End of story. Sanity? Show me a study where breastfeeding mothers are more likely to be Baker acted, and we’ll talk. Otherwise, this is just insulting.

3. Breastfeeding mothers are ‘miserable… stressed out… alienated by nursing’

Alienated? Really? But wait, Rosin! Didn’t you JUST accuse the upper middle class moms in your group of responding to your threats to discontinue breastfeeding thusly:

The reaction was always the same: circles were redrawn such that I ended up in the class of mom who, in a pinch, might feed her baby mashed-up Chicken McNuggets.


It’s okay. You forgot. It happens to the best of us.

4. Rah-rah Friedan!

In Betty Friedan’s day, feminists felt shackled to domesticity by the unreasonably high bar for housework, the endless dusting and shopping and pushing the Hoover around—a vacuum cleaner being the obligatory prop for the “happy housewife heroine,”… When I looked at the picture on the cover of Sears’s Breastfeeding Book—a lady lying down, gently smiling at her baby and still in her robe, although the sun is well up—the scales fell from my eyes: it was not the vacuum that was keeping me and my 21st-century sisters down, but another sucking sound.

That was cute. Nice try. I, too, have read Friedan. Allow me to share my favorite quote from the introduction by Anna Quindlen in my edition:

In hindsight, the shortcomings of the book become clear. Too much attention is paid to the role of institutions and publications in the reinforcement of female passivity, too little to the role of individual men who have enjoyed the services of a servant class and still resent its loss.


See what this means is that the vacuum cleaner, without which your carpet might be covered in grime and dust, and your baby, without whom you wouldn’t need to be spending the money on formula, are not actually the instruments of oppression that we need to fight against. Actually it is men who intend to force you into the limited role of housekeeping and/or mothering and keep you out of a career. It really doesn’t make any difference whether your baby and vacuum cleaner make the same noise. How silly. And cheers for them showing her in her robe when the sun is up, because that’s exactly where a breastfeeding mother in a society with reasonable maternity leave would be. The problem is only that in the United States, that mother probably doesn’t have a job to return to and whose fault is that? Not your kid’s. Try again. It rhymes with Lorporate Cobbyists. Rosin might recognize these villains from this:

Even in the best of marriages, the domestic burden shifts, in incremental, mostly unacknowledged ways, onto the woman. Breast-feeding plays a central role in the shift. In my set, no husband tells his wife that it is her womanly duty to stay home and nurse the child. Instead, both parents together weigh the evidence and then make a rational, informed decision that she should do so.

Wait a minute! Why does she have to leave her career and stay home forever to nurse the child again? Oh… right.

5. Marriages suffer! Rosin asks, what about the woman whose ‘marriage is under stress and breast-feeding is making things worse?’

So I’ll just respond here the way I respond to my breastfeeding group. Why is the marriage suffering from breastfeeding? Because you can’t go on dates? I went on dates from the second week of my second son’s life. It’s fairly easy to time about 2 hours of romantic date around nursing times. Of course this is temporary. By the time baby reaches about 6 months and can be supplemented with solids, it’s easy enough to time a 5 hour date. By the time baby reaches a year, you can go out all day or night without any trouble at all. Because you can’t have sex? Well, why the hell not? Put your baby wherever you would put a formula fed baby and have sex. Yeesh. Because the father wants to feel more involved? Offer him the responsibility of diaper changing and cuddlings and clothes changes and walks and baths. Ta-da. I once asked my dear husband if he ever felt jealous of me for being the only one who could breastfeed our sons. He responded with ‘No. Do you feel jealous that I’m the one who’s going to teach them to pee standing up?’ Brownie points!

So, no, I do not feel that breastfeeding hurts feminism or oppresses women. I feel that needy husbands, predominantly male members of the ruling class of our American Corporatocracy, and women who insist upon judging other women are hurting feminism and oppressing women. Breastfeeding didn’t kill your career, the lack of maternity leave killed your career. Breastfeeding didn’t harm your marriage, the lack of patience and cooperation on your husband’s part harmed your marriage. Breastfeeding never alienated anyone, cliquey attitudes alienated people (and will continue to do so, for every reason ever). Perspective, Rosin. Perspective.
Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

One response to “Breastfeeding: A Feminist Perspective (Originally published November 2010)

  1. Let’s hope the accommodations for mothers expressing breastmilk in the workplace portion of the Affordable Care Act still stands after the Supreme Court is done deciding on the law’s constitutionality. The federal law only covers up to a year, but most states (including mine) had nothing at all. Those are the kinds of accommodations nursing mothers need to make sure that breastfeeding doesn’t “kill their careers,” in addition to maternity leave.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s