Our bodies, ourselves: Gisele’s breastfeeding photo and our obsession with our physical selves

Ah, the power of supermodels.

With one instagramed snapshot, Gisele Bundchen revealed the Victoria’s secret of ideal motherhood. Privileged, serene, and perfect, while simultaneously nurturing her child in a way that earns both the AAP and Mothering.com’s seal of approval. In doing so, she is now credited by fellow celebrity Ricki Lake as “starting the conversation” about breastfeeding. Funny, I was hoping that conversation was finally wrapping up.

Source: http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/entertainment&id=9356910

Source: http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/entertainment&id=9356910

I don’t see anything wrong with Gisele’s photo, or her caption (“What would I do without this beauty squad after the 15 hours flying and only 3 hours of sleep #multitasking#gettingready”).

She’s being pampered by a team of professionals, which she graciously acknowledges. The fact that her child is nursing is an afterthought; it’s not the point of the photo, nor should it be. But that didn’t stop the media from turning it into a mommy war, confusing the issue of normalizing breastfeeding with what really rubs some of us like a poorly fitting bra: our resentment of how society has shoved us back into the same stagnant gender roles we’ve been trying to escape for the past century or so.

Before you stop reading, thinking this is just another second-wave feminist rant on biological essentialism, hear me out: I am not suggesting, as Jennifer Block writes for the Pacific Standard regarding feminism and breastfeeding, that any of us should be “politically afraid to admit that women are biologically different and demand support for those differences.” My problem is that once again, I am being reduced to my body parts and how they operate.

As a young woman, I struggled with anorexia and body dysmorphic disorder. I spent hours staring in the mirror, raking my fingernails over my face in hatred for its contours (too ethnic) and pinching my skin (too fleshy) until it bruised. It didn’t matter that I excelled in school, that I was smart and creative – I couldn’t “think” myself taller or blonder, or create a world where looks didn’t matter. And my adolescent brain wouldn’t allow me to escape the prison of these imperfections, especially in a world where the prettiest people always won. Chelsea Clinton entered the White House as a gawky tween while I was in high school; despite the fact that she was probably the smartest and coolest First Kid we’ve had this century, all anyone could talk about was her frizzy hair. And when her father decided to have a very public affair, people seemed more concerned by his mistress’s girth than his indiscretion. These messages permeated my psyche, imprinting one clear message on my young mind: Being a woman meant being judged on your body.

Flash forward to my early thirties – eating disorder solved, happily married, but still staring in the mirror wishing for more here, less there. And then I got pregnant. Watching my body grow didn’t fill me with wonder or pride, but rather horror and disgust. I cherished the child growing inside of me, but hated feeling so out of control. When my pregnancy went south and it turned out my body hadn’t been nourishing or protecting my son properly, when I had to be induced early, when my son couldn’t latch, when my milk was essentially poisoning him – all these things made me resent my physical body even more.

But as he grew, I finally grew up (it only took 36 years). My son loved me for me. Not because my breasts provided him with food (they didn’t). Not because I gave birth to him naturally (unless one considers 18 hours of pitocin and an epidural “natural”). He loved me because of my mind: my ability to reason with him when he was worried, to teach him about the world, to listen to his stories, and to make him laugh. He loved me because I was there for him. Because I was his mother. And none of it had anything to do with my body.

Now, when I look in the mirror, I still hate my body – perhaps even more than ever. Unlike many women, I don’t embrace my stretch marks as “battle scars” or my fleshy lower belly as proof of my ability to give life. I just think, yuck. I wish I was lithe and firm and young. If I had the money, I’d gladly go under the knife for a tummy tuck, or get rid of those pesky laugh lines.  I haven’t learned to love my body, or become immune to our beauty-obsessed society just because I am a mother and I was able to reproduce.

But something has changed. I don’t define myself by my body, anymore. I revel in my mind.

And that is what bothers me about our current “conversation” about motherhood, and breastfeeding, and feminism. We are still so focused on our physical selves. It’s great to embrace our differences, and discuss ways that the workplace can better accommodate mothers and their biological processes. But by focusing so much on these constructs of birth and breastfeeding and smacking the labels “progressive” or “feminist” on them, we’re once again defining ourselves by our bodies and how they operate. We accept the way male physicians discuss our feminine capabilities in reverent tones; we discuss our births as ways to reclaim our power as women. We sport slogans on t-shirts and social media like “I make milk- what’s your superpower” with no hint of irony. And what we say to the world, to each other, is “You are your body. Your worth is your body. Your worth is your body’s ability to conform to its biological purpose, and that is what makes you a Woman.”

What message does this send to women who are infertile? Who cannot breastfeed? Who choose to remain childless? What message does this send to our daughters, who observe their mothers spending hours online arguing about what comes out of their breasts (or doesn’t) or what they did with their placentas? Why are we asking are you mom enough, when we could be asking, are you woman enough? Are you person enough?

It’s not that motherhood or birth or breastfeeding can’t be feminist; they can be. But we also can’t dismiss the fact that focusing so much on our physical selves is going to have an impact, in a society so obsessed with perfection. Replace Barbie with the breastfeeding doll, but in the end, they are both dolls. I’d prefer my daughter play with Legos.

Of course, none of this is Gisele’s fault (well, except for the asinine comments she’s made about women gaining too much weight during pregnancy or making it an “international law” to breastfeed for 6 months). Come to think of it, her breastfeeding image might be the perfect representation of today’s “conversation” about breastfeeding, and motherhood in general. If we are going to reduce motherhood and womanhood and personhood to body parts, they may as well be pretty ones.

 

Of nanny states and nonsense

This is why I hate politics.

Earlier today, Jennifer Doverspike’s scathing indictment of Latch On NYC popped up on the Federalist website. By this evening, Amanda Marcotte had written a similarly scathing indictment of Jennifer’s piece on Slate. Both talked about hospital policies, formula feeder paranoia, and boobs. But in the end, what should have been a smart point-counterpoint between two passionate, intelligent women turned into a steaming pile of another bodily substance.

Yep, I’m talking about shit. 

Look, guys, I’m sorry for the language, but I’m done being classy, at least for tonight. Tonight, my Boston-bred, townie self is coming out, because I. Have. Flipping. HAD IT.

 

Doverspike’s piece does veer into political territory, mostly from the use of the term “nanny state”, a phrase that is undoubtably evocative (and apparently intoxicating) in today’s partisan climate. There were portions of her article that made me (a self-proclaimed, sole member of the Turtle party – our platform is that we just hide our heads in our shells whenever political issues arise. Anyone’s welcome to join!) a little uncomfortable, mostly because I worried that her important message would get lost by those on the Left. But I naively thought (us Turtles are naive about such things, considering we start singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” whenever someone brings up Congress and prefer to our news from the Colbert Report) that she’d covered these bases with her final paragraph:

 

There are, of course, many laws the government issues for our protection and those of our children. Seatbelt laws, child car seat booster requirements, bans on drop side cribs and helmet laws. Regardless of whether or not these encompass valid risks (many do, some don’t), they do not encroach on personal freedom the way laws regarding parenting methods do. And don’t get me wrong; this goes in all directions. Infant feeding, and the personal freedoms associated with it, is not a liberal or conservative issue.

 

Apparently, it is a liberal or conservative issue, at least according to Marcotte, whose response to Doverspike felt far nastier than necessary. Marcotte accuses Doverspike of not doing her homework regarding the implementation of the WHO Code, for example:

 

What Doverspike fails to mention is why the WHO wrote out these regulations in the first place, something a quick Google search reveals. As reported at the time by theNew York Times, researchers had discovered that poor parents were stretching out formula by watering it down, which was leading to malnutrition in infants. In addition, places that lack clean drinking water are places where formula feeding is downright dangerous. There are substantial benefits, particularly worldwide, to creating a culture where breast-feeding is the go-to way to feed children, and formula is only viewed as a supplement for cases where breast-feeding isn’t working. Of course, that does cut into formula company profits, so if that’s your priority, by all means, bash the WHO’s efforts to keep babies healthy some more.

 

Huh. See, that’s odd, because I clearly remember reading something in Doverspike’s piece about this very issue… let’s see… ah, right:

 

Unlike the city of New York, the WHO  has valid reasons to be concerned with breastfeeding rates worldwide. After all, in less developed countries not breastfeeding may mean instead using cow’s milk for infants. When formula is used, the risks of it being prepared incorrectly and using contaminated water is rather high…The WHO should focus being on how to educate and support women in developing countries regarding the dangers of cow’s milk, the benefits of breastfeeding, and the importance of correctly mixing formula. Unfortunately, the WHO Code saves most of its energy in marginalizing formula companies, requiring hospitals to under no circumstances allow formula advertising and requiring that product samples only be given for research at the institutional level — “In no case,” it stipulates, “should these samples be passed on to mothers.” The WHO is also requiring labels stating the superiority of breastfeeding and warning to not use the product until consulting with a health professional.

True, she didn’t delve into the issues surrounding formula use in developing nations as deeply as she could have, but Marcotte’s take on the subject wasn’t exactly accurate, either. The Nestle controversy which she alludes to involved corporate subterfuge (women dressed as nurses convincing new mothers to use formula; these “health workers” then packed up and left, abandoning the moms with no established milk supply, no resources to procure more formula, and dirty water to use for what formula they did have), and this was what drove well-meaning individuals to create the WHO Code… but the problems that exist which lead women in these same countries away from breastfeeding are so much more complex than our Western understanding of “unethical marketing”. And to compare the risks of not breastfeeding in these countries to the risks in countries which are debating baby-friendly initiatives isn’t fair nor useful. These are two entirely separate issues.

Marcotte also dismisses Doverspike’s concerns that under Latch On, formula “must be guarded and distributed with roughly the same precautions as addictive and harmful narcotics” by citing a “sober-minded assessment” that she claims “shows that no such things are happening”. This “sober-minded assessment” is a CNN option piece from writer Taylor Newman, who repeatedly brings up her own breastfeeding experience in a hospital with piss-poor support. Newman engages in some of the most immature name-calling I’ve seen in a respected news source – those who disagree with her opinion of Latch On are “obnoxious”, “unhinged” they write “badly-written” posts that are just ‘kicking up dust”. (If this is sober-minded, hand over the vodka. This is mean-girl, bitchy, completely anti-feminist bullshit, is what it is. If a man called a fellow woman writer “unhinged” or accused her of being hysterical, I bet we’d see plenty of backlash from Slate. ) She also makes the fatal mistake so many reporters, pundits and advocates have made in this tiresome debate: she’s only seeing it through the lens of her own experience. It may not seem like a huge deal to someone who wanted to breastfeed (and ultimately did, successfully) that new moms will have to ask for formula each time a baby needs to eat, or that they will have to endure a lecture on the risks and intense questioning of their decision. But try living through that experience as, say, a single mom who was molested as a child. Imagine you don’t have anyone around to defend you, to demand that the nurses treat your decision not to use your body in a particular manner with respect. Imagine that you don’t feel like reliving your abuse and telling a total stranger – repeatedly – why the idea of letting a baby suck on your breasts makes you want to throw up.

I know I’m digressing here, and again, I’m sorry to be throwing my usual I-Support-You, let’s all hold hands and braid each other’s hair Pollyanna-esque, evolved FFF persona out the window. This is old school FFF, the angry one, the one whose claws come out when I see that women are being told their voices don’t matter, their concerns don’t matter, their choices don’t matter. The one who refuses to allow an important discussion – a women’s rights discussion, not a political one – get bogged down in right vs. left rhetoric.

Marquette’s choice of image to go along with her article is a baby holding a bottle with the caption “Freedom Fighters”. Again, I have to ask – really? Fine, be mad that the Libertarian Federalist invoked the Nanny State and beat up on poor old Bloomberg. Rage against that. But to belittle those of us who care about this issue is petty and cruel. And to ignore – once again – that what Latch On’s PR machine told the press was quite different from what was written in the actual materials used to implement the program; to ignore that no one has actually done a follow-up story since the initiative was announced which reports actual accounts from actual women who actually delivered in actual Latch On hospitals and used actual formula – this is just poor journalism.

Feminists, journalists, bloggers – I belong to all of your clubs, and I’m sure you’re about to revoke my membership, but I have to ask: Why are we rehashing the same arguments over and over, instead of discussing how we could come to a more beneficial, neutral ground? For example – couldn’t women be counseled on the benefits of breastfeeding before they enter the emotional sauna of the postpartum ward? Yes, I realize that not all women have access to prenatal care, but for those who do, this seems like a practical and  beneficial adjustment. If these issues are discussed beforehand, at least a mom who knows from the start that she doesn’t want to nurse can sign whatever documentation is necessary to tell the state s has been fully informed of the “risks” and “still insists” (Latch On’s term, not mine) on formula feeding. For those who change their minds while in the maternity ward – well, couldn’t we just agree that she gets one lecture on why it’s a bad decision, and then receives the education, support and materials she needs to feed her baby safely, rather than having to go through the whole rigamarole every time her infant begins rooting?

Or here’s another idea – take the hyperbole out of the initiative. Stop saying these things are “baby-friendly” or “progressive” or “empowering” because they aren’t necessarily so. And by saying that they are, you get people all riled up, politically. You start hearing terms like “nanny state” because some of us don’t want to be told how we should feel (or how our babies should feel, for that matter. If my mom couldn’t feed me and some nurses weren’t letting me access the next best thing, I’d be hella pissed, and that environment would become decidedly baby unfriendly. Especially when I punched the person refusing my mom the formula in the nose with my tiny baby fist). You start getting feminists shouting about second waves and third waves and whether women should feel empowered by their ladyparts or held down by them. It’s one big mess, is what I’m saying. So can we stop it, now? Can we start writing articles that are balanced reports rather than press releases for a particular administration or cause? Can we stop hurling insults at each other just because we don’t agree on what being a mother should mean?

Can we please, for the love of all things holy, just flipping stop?

FFF Friday: “Without support I just didn’t feel I could stop.”

Welcome to Fearless Formula Feeder Fridays, a weekly guest post feature that strives to build a supportive community of parents united through our common experiences, open minds, and frustration with the breast-vs-bottle bullying and bullcrap.

Please note, these stories are for the most part unedited, and do not necessarily represent the FFF’s opinions. They also are not political statements – this is an arena for people to share their thoughts and feelings, and I hope we can all give them the space to do so.

Today is International Women’s Day, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how infant feeding dynamics play into women’s rights. I admire those who are vocal about all types of feeding rights – those who fight for longer maternity leaves and better pumping accommodations; those who defend a woman’s right to nurse in public and breastfeed as long as she cares to; and of course, those who have the audacity to actually choose to formula feed (the horror!) simply because they know it’s the best option for their families, without going through the requisite heroics. 

You can think a woman who opts not to breastfeed is selfish or uniformed. You can raise your eyebrow at her, make a snarky remark on the internet, or (as in Kelly’s case, below) bring her to tears with your judgment. Just please do not tell me that choosing not to breastfeed isn’t a women’s rights issue. Taking away the “rights of the baby” and all that rhetoric for a moment, one must acknowledge that insisting a woman endure physical pain, loss of autonomy, and pressure from the patriarchal influences in her life can easily infringe on her basic human rights (and before the comments come pouring in, I am in no way suggesting that breastfeeding causes any of these hardships for the majority of women- but for some people, it can and does). It’s fine if you’re going to argue that the good of the child and of society supersede those of the mother (although I will fight you on the quality of the evidence to support those claims), as long as you don’t turn around and tell me you are genuinely concerned about the plight of your sisters.

But enough feminist ranting. I think Kelly’s story illustrates what I’m trying to say here (far better than my overtired self can manage on a Friday night when I’m itching to go watch Zero Dark Thirty on pay-per-view) and I bet the strength and confidence she exhibits by the end of her journey will leave you cheering. 

Happy Friday, fearless ones,

The FFF

****

Kelly’s Story

Before having my first kid, I figured I’d be skewing granola on most things – carrying baby instead of using a stroller, co-sleeping, and of course breastfeeding. It wasn’t long before reality came along to challenge me. Boy#1 was delivered via emergency c-section, and was immediately whisked away to the NICU, so my hopes of holding him and nursing him after birth were dashed. In fact, I didn’t get to see him until the next day. Still, I hoped it wasn’t too late, that we could establish a breastfeeding relationship. This proved to be extremely difficult. He didn’t latch on well, and the pain – even with a nipple shield – was intense. The lactation consultants I worked with with equally unable to get a good latch out of him. By the second night, the NICU called me in the middle of the night and insisted that they be allowed to give him a bottle. I agreed, but felt that I had started down a slippery slope.

My feeling was correct. By the time we went home, I couldn’t get him to so much as look at a nipple, forget about latching on to one. He was all bottle, all the time. I felt terrible over it – all of my friends breastfed their babies, why couldn’t I do the same with mine? Reinforcing this feeling was the judgment from the public. I clearly remember deciding to attend a new mothers’ group, thinking it would help me to make connections and fight the creeping sense of depression and isolation. I did chat a bit with a few women, but when Boy#1 cried and I pulled out a bottle…backs were literally turned. And a loud conversation about how breastfeeding was so difficult but so rewarding was begun. I immediately burst into tears and left, vowing not to go to mom’s groups anymore. At home, my husband was somewhat supportive, but couldn’t understand why I didn’t try harder to breastfeed, and expressed disappointment and resentment that I was unable. So I kind of felt attacked from all sides.

For the next four months, I pumped and used formula as well. Given the time commitment involved in pumping, there were many times when the baby would be crying or wanting attention, which I would be unable to give since I was hooked up to that infernal machine. Now I look back and wish I had skipped the pumping – he wanted me more than he wanted breastmilk. But I felt so guilty about my failure I just didn’t feel I could stop. Finally, after a miserable bout of double mastitis, I decided it was time to be done. And slowly but surely, once I was free from the pump, I started to come out of my depression and actually enjoy the baby.

The second time around, I was determined to do things differently. Having done a good bit of reading on the subject, I was no longer convinced that breastmilk was a magic elixir – Boy#1 is healthy and happy, as well. I did, however, want to avoid the mess and expense of formula. I’d been jealous of my friends who never needed to mess with a bottle – they had food ready-made wherever they went! So when Boy#2 was born via VBAC, I thought that was an excellent start, and began trying to nurse him right away.

Unfortunately, he turned out to be what the lactation consultant termed a “barracuda baby” – his latch was SO strong, he left bruises on my areolas! And my nipples were battered and destroyed within a day. Nursing him was so painful I had to make sure I had a stack of Kleenexes available to blow my nose, as I sobbed through the whole thing. Actually, I’d usually start crying once I realized he was hungry, in anticipation of the pain I was about to endure. Given a newborn’s appetite, this meant I was pretty much crying nonstop. But I persevered, as I’d promised myself I would really try – and everyone agreed it was hard at first, right?

Things did not improve once we got home. Feedings were agonizingly painful and went on forever – and the worst part was, he always seemed hungry afterwards. I could nurse him for an hour and he would be screaming and sucking on his fists. I added in pumping sessions to up my supply, but rarely got more than a half ounce, and in the meantime, my nipples were getting worse. I desperately wanted to quit, but felt I couldn’t unless my husband promised he wasn’t going to hold it against me. I figured I could stand the judgment of outsiders if I had support at home. However, he admitted he couldn’t promise that, and felt I needed to just deal with it. I dreaded feedings, and was beginning to resent the baby for inflicting the pain, but without support I just didn’t feel I could stop.

But Boy#2 was losing too much weight, and not peeing/pooping enough. When he was nine days old, his pediatrician said that if he hadn’t gained or held steady in the next few days, he would have to be hospitalized. She instructed us to give him formula, and for me to pump for half an hour after every feeding session to get my supply up. I had a sudden flashback to Boy#1 crying all alone while I pumped, and thought, NO, I don’t want to do that! Even if I wanted to, I don’t know how it would be possible while trying to watch an energetic toddler. I told my husband I would be willing to continue to nurse, then give bottles, but I would not be attaching  myself to the pump ever again.

That night I nursed Boy#2, then immediately came down with terrible chills, followed by a high fever. Turned out I had developed infections in both nipples as well as a uterine infection, and ended up being hospitalized for three days. So once again my actions, intended to create greater closeness with the baby, had the opposite effect – in this case, complete separation! Once in the hospital, I decided to hell with what my husband thinks, I’m done. I was offered the use of a pump multiple times by the nurses, but each time I turned it down firmly. A couple tried to convince me I could still breastfeed, to which I replied, yes, I know, but I’m done. And I felt good and confident about saying so.

Boy#2 has been gaining weight and looking better now that he’s on formula. The lethargy is gone, and he dirties diapers with gusto (never thought I’d be so happy to see poop!). Feedings are now a sweet time when I can snuggle him close and talk to him, instead of crying and watching the clock. My only regret is that I didn’t stand up for myself sooner and say it’s MY body, and if I don’t want to be in agony, that’s perfectly reasonable and my right!

***

Ready to share your story? Email me at formulafeeders@gmail.com.

Latch On NYC: Let’s latch off for a second and consider the repercussions

I’ve written about seven different posts about Mayor Bloomberg’s Latch On NYC initiative between yesterday morning and today, none of which said what I wanted to say.

Finally, At 2am, I fell into a fitful sleep, and had the craziest dream.

In the dream, I am a forty-two-year-old Manhattanite, in the waiting room of a fertility specialist who will hopefully assist me in becoming a mother, after a five-year struggle to conceive. As I wait in anticipation, a nurse comes into the room. She sits down and kindly – yet with an unmistakable, underlying, patronizing tone – asks me if I was sure about going down this path. She informs me that babies conceived through IVF have a higher risk of autism, a 40% higher likelihood of ADD,  and a 42%  higher risk of developing cancer later in life. She explains that nature really intended for women to have babies in their early twenties, and since I’d been too selfish busy to get around to it, it would probably be best for me to forget about it. Considering assisted reproduction is strongly correlated with preterm labor and multiple births, my “choice” is going to have public health repercussions. The choice was mine, but she wanted to make sure that I had really thought it through, and perhaps considered just getting a puppy instead.

“Oh!” she calls as she leaves the room. “I will see you next time – we’ll have this little chat each time you come in for your appointments.”

Then, my dream-world shifts. Now I am a single mother living in a poor neighborhood in New York City. I have to work, and my daughter has to stay with the only childcare provider I can afford – a woman whose idea of stimulation is setting my kid in front of Dora the Explorer. I hate it, but what can I do? I’m sitting in my living room when the doorbell rings. It’s Child Protective Services. They tell me that my child will be taken into custody because she watches far more television than the AAP likes, and plus, children of single mothers are far more likely to end up on drugs or with severe psychiatric disorders. They know it will be painful for me to give her up, but it really is for the best. She’ll be better off in a clean foster home with organic food and no screen time allowed. Maybe I should consider getting a puppy to fill the void.

Once again, the dream swirls around, and now I’m back to being me. I am sitting at a table with a friend and her kids, and she is feeding them hot dogs and cold cuts, with tall glasses of milk to wash it all down. I harshly inform her that plant-based diets have recently been proven to provide numerous health benefits, cutting down on both cancer risk and the chance of obesity. She looks uncomfortable and angry, but I press on – because I know she wants to be a good mom, and if she really loves them, she’d want to do what the studies say is best. After all, I feed my kids a vegetarian diet, and I don’t find it difficult. Look how beautiful and healthy my children are!

But she points out that her kids are beautiful and healthy, too. And while it may be true that plant-based diets are healthier, she doesn’t think it’s that cool that I allow my son to ride forward-facing, at nearly four years old. Don’t I know that recent studies have shown that extended rear facing cuts the risk of severe injury and even death due to car accidents?

And then my vegan son takes a bite of her son’s hot dog, and my friend throws a puppy at me, and I wake up in a cold sweat.

My feelings about the Latch On initiative, where women in maternity wards will be forced to beg for formula each time they want to feed their babies, and lectured on top of it, are quite clear. It’s explaining them that trips me up, because it’s so easy to stumble into tangents about flawed statistics and relative risk, and nanny states, and common sense, and all that nonsense that just gets tempers flaring and gets us nowhere. But you know, my feelings shouldn’t matter. Just like it shouldn’t matter if plant-based diets are better, or we should all get knocked up at 22 to protect the health of the nation, or we should take children out of loving homes simply because the conditions aren’t ideal. What matters is that we need to draw a line somewhere, between advocating for healthier choices, and becoming so overzealous that we set off internal alarms about human rights.

Don’t fool yourselves into thinking that this isn’t a feminist issue. It is, more so than ever. Back when our mothers were diapering our little butts, they were given hell because the studies showed that children with working mothers got the short end of the stick. When our grandmothers gave birth, they were knocked out for the whole experience because of a paternalistic view that our hysterical sensibilities couldn’t handle it. And we revolted.

Where’s the revolt here? Why is it being squashed down, ignored, accused of being in the pockets of the formula industry? Why is it being brushed off as a “mommy war”? Why is no one realizing that our anger has nothing to do with promoting breastfeeding – something the vast majority of us support – and everything to do with concrete, authentic fears about personal freedom?

I keep hoping that women’s rights organizations will rise up, speak up, and stop this insanity. But all I hear is silence.

It’s like a bad dream.

 

You’ve (Not) Come a Long Way, Baby: Why feminism and lactivism make such a dysfunctional couple

You know those couples who seem completely wrong for each other? Like, so wrong that you find yourself sitting in a hotel bar the night before their wedding with the rest of the bridal party wondering if you should speak now or forever hold your peace, or just put on the green poufy dress and hold your tongue with a strategically-placed cocktail weenie?

Lactivism and feminism are kind of like that. Seductively intertwined, but fundamentally discordant.

Last year, when I was in the writing process for my forthcoming book, I struggled to find any feminist discourse about breastfeeding. Don’t get me wrong – there was plenty of cherry chapsticked lip-service out there; there’s a Breastfeeding and Feminism Symposium held at the University of North Carolina every year, and plenty of outspoken third-wave, young feminists for whom lactivism is a frequent blog topic. But the conversation was ridiculously one-sided, focusing on the male-dominated medical community which had provoked our bottle-feeding culture in the first place.

(Speaking of that assertion…Knocking women out for childbirth and convincing them that they were too “nervous” for breastfeeding was pretty shitty. But I also think there were plenty of women who were hankering for a safe alternative to breastfeeding, considering the historical prevalence of wet nursing. Even in the 70’s and 80’s, right before breastfeeding’s resurgence, I don’t think we can blame poor breastfeeding rates on a misogynist medical field. In a time when we had to fight tooth and nail for respect and opportunity in the workplace, formula allowed women to get back to work faster. I doubt that many of our moms/older sisters had the luxury to fight for pumping rights, when issues of equal pay and sexual harassment still hadn’t been resolved in any legal way, let alone in the real-world way…)

I have always felt that there were uncomfortable parallels to the abortion debate here, but I hesitate to bring it up for fear of things devolving into a pro-life/pro-choice free-for-all. But if we can put the politics of that debate aside for a moment, I do think it’s important to consider how the concept of choice has been co-opted by certain facets of the lactivist movement. If you try and argue that a woman should have a choice about whether or not she feeds her baby from her breasts, you will likely find yourself shot down quicker than you can say Betty Friedan. The typical lactivist argument is something to the effect that we cannot choose freely, because we are brainwashed by the bottle-loving society we live in, as well as the Big Bad Formula Companies; therefore, “choice” is an irrelevant concept in this context. (For a more nuanced and articulate discussion on this topic, check out this essay by breastfeeding advocate, scholar and author, Bernice Hausman.)

But really, I think there’s something else at the heart of this argument. Like this:

Are there women who should feel guilty for not breastfeeding? In my opinion, yes. If there is no medical barrier (disease, medication, or other conditions) barring her from breastfeeding; if she is otherwise capable of breastfeeding; and she knows that breastfeeding is what she ought to do… yet she still, knowingly, chooses to feed artificial milk… yes, she should feel guilty. Because in that case, there was a choice, a knowledgable choice not to do what she knows is best for her child. I think guilt is entirely appropriate in that case, especially (but not only) if harm results. I am also of the opinion that a woman who does not educate herself should feel guilty later on; if you’re bringing a baby into the world, you owe it to that child to make choices for it that will lead to a healthy life. A choice to formula-feed, all other things being equal, is not entirely the woman’s choice to make: she has, presumably, chosen to have that baby, and in doing so, she makes the choice to give the baby its birthright, the best she can provide.

Jan Andrea, SleepingBaby.net

I actually applaud this article (although much of it seems like a regurgitated version of Jack Newman’s infamous guilt argument) because, while inexplicably offensive, at least it is honest. The writer does not mince words, nor couch her true feelings in pseudo-feminist diatribes about how poor, uninformed formula feeders have no choice. This, I can respond to; this, I can counter. It’s a lot harder to argue with a feminist throwing haphazard verbal darts about classism, racism or sexism. That kind of rhetoric scares other feminists out of intelligent discourse. And we need feminists to be addressing this issue, because it is getting entirely too Handmaid’s Tale-ish up in here.

In the past week, the conversation I’ve been waiting for finally began, thanks to the brilliant Jessica Valenti , (and a bunch of other semi-anonymous folks who’ve joined the threads of subsequent posts inspired by Valenti’s Tumblr piece). Women who have no stake in the breast/bottle argument are taking notice; young women who have yet to enter the Dark Wood of Modern Motherhood (where at every wrong turn you’re met by an angry gnome who hits you in the kneecaps with Dr. Sears’s Baby Book) may now be able to navigate that forest with some perspective and foresight.

Breastfeeding needs feminism, to ensure that women can combine motherhood with paid employment, and to protect us from the idiots who think nursing a baby in public is obscene, and yes, to shield women from misleading ads or societal pressures which might discourage them from attempting to nurse.

But formula feeding also needs feminism, to ensure that child-rearing and child-bearing are not synonymous; that women are not reduced to biological functions, and can maintain bodily autonomy; and to act as a watchdog group that protects against those who blame all of society’s ills on a mother’s non-compliance with breastfeeding recommendations.

I don’t disagree that women are often sabotaged in maternity wards, or that the current medical system works in ways that are detrimental to breastfeeding success. We need strong and vocal women to put a stop to this. But I also know that vast numbers of women (as evidenced by this blog and the numerous “bottle feeding support” pages cropping up on Facebook) are being coerced, scared, and guilted into breastfeeding, by medical and governmental authorities. Women are being given so many “reasons” to breastfeed – most of them ominous warnings about what could happen if they don’t – as if no one could possibly want to breastfeed, which is demoralizing and insulting, as well as kind of ironic in the colloquial, Alannis Morrisette-sense. Women are being told that they have been brainwashed and taken advantage of, insinuating that the only way to gain back their self-respect is to breastfeed. By presenting it this way, we can avoid the very real (and for some, very uncomfortable) truth that some women really don’t want to breastfeed (hey, y’all, I said SOME. I’m not contradicting what I said a sentence or two ago… some of us really want to nurse, others would rather not. Simple as that.) It’s been that way throughout history. And it’s okay. Just as it’s okay not to want kids, or to want to combine work and motherhood, or to not want to combine work and motherhood, or to home school your kids or co-sleep with them or feed them a vegan diet.

Feminism, to me, is about respecting every woman’s right to define what being a woman means to her. To HER. Not to you. You don’t have to agree with her, or like what she’s about, or want to have a slumber party and talk about how cute Ricky Schroeder is with her. Just don’t tell her what she should think, feel or do with her body, and you’re cool by me.

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