breastfeeding, sexism, and feminism

[originally posted at my old blog on 26 May 2009]

Partly because of Hanna Rosin’s Atlantic article “The Case against Breast-Feeding,” several versions of ‘Do you think breastfeeding is antifeminist?’ have been addressed to me in casual conversation of late. ‘So-and-so [the father of a young baby] keeps telling me breastfeeding is antifeminist,’ ‘Have you read that article that says breastfeeding is antifeminist?,’ ‘What does it mean to say breastfeeding’s antifeminist?’

When I ponder that last question–what “breastfeeding is antifeminist” (a friend’s words, not Rosin’s) could possibly mean–I’m imagining an individual’s stance on an incredibly complicated set of issues. Does he or she mean that the act of breastfeeding is itself antifeminist and that I am wrongly perpetuating patriarchal systems/ideas because I breastfed and am enthusiastically looking forward to breastfeeding our next child? Or that encouraging people to try breastfeeding (or to seek help rather than switching to formula if problems arise) is antifeminist? Or that it’s antifeminist to do that in the context of a system that makes breastfeeding unreasonably difficult for many women (because of the lack of paid parental leave, flexible working hours, conveniently-located/affordable/high-quality childcare, cultural norms supporting equal parenting and housekeeping, etc.)? Or that these systems that pose so many challenges for caregivers–not just breastfeeding mothers but all mothers, fathers, and other caregivers to adults as well as children–are themselves the problem, and “breastfeeding is antifeminist” is really just a confused/confusing shorthand?

It seems to me that feminists ought to support women’s individual informed decisions regarding what we do with our breasts and our babies, but not just in the easy whatever-she-chooses sort of way. Choices aren’t made in some fantasyland individualistic vacuum outside cultural pressures and constructions, economic realities, family structures, and so forth. Instead, feminists ought also to work to make both breastfeeding and formula-feeding genuine options and to allow for truly informed choices in infant feeding (much as feminists have worked over the past few decades for greater self-determination and informed consent in childbirth practices and other healthcare arenas). Now, in my experience and observation, a lot more people want to breastfeed but find that formula is the only workable option than vice-versa; I believe we have a lot of work left to do before every woman will have the (practical and social) support that successful, comfortable, happy breastfeeding requires. And by ‘successful, comfortable, happy breastfeeding’ I mean in the context of a woman’s life, not at the expense of her well-being and life beyond parenting, and not merely (though also importantly) the practical matter of a physically comfortable latch and satisfactory milk production and infant growth. Breastfeeding support, and the large body of pro-breastfeeding literature, often fails miserably on this point.

It’s also clear that we have a lot of work to do before every woman feels free to choose a feeding method without worrying about what other people will think or say, not because these women are weak-willed but because there’s a hell of a lot of pressure out there when you bring a baby into the picture. Ditto for every woman knowing matter-of-factly and without guilt that she gets to have needs and desires that count and need to be balanced in a sane way with those of her baby.

But I absolutely do not believe that these projects–working toward greater support of breastfeeding, greater freedom of choice regarding feeding method, and greater self-kindness amongst mothers–are in any way contradictory or in competition with each other. Instead, in the big picture, better conditions for caregivers in general are better conditions for mothers who choose to breastfeed. These points lead me back to the already-much-discussed Rosin article.

To a radical feminist who breastfed super-happily and intends to do it again, Rosin’s tone is pretty damned off-putting in its universalizing approach to her own experiences, its insistence that breastfeeding is inherently destructive of equal parenting (I’ll write more about that in another post soon) or that women cannot sanely have both career and breastfeeding or that breastfeeding is experienced as a sacrifice by all women–none of which has been even vaguely true in my own life. These message can’t hurt me because I already know that both her experience and my experience are real possibilities, so I just sort of found the article uninteresting … until I was saddened to encounter people who had read it and become worried that those implications of universality are valid: that breastfeeding will necessarily lead to resentment and all sorts of problems in their careers, relationships, partners’ involvement in parenting, etc. (I also believe that Rosin overstates the lack of scientific consensus on the benefits of breastfeeding to both baby and mother, but that’s been covered all over the internet and is irrelevant to my concerns here.) Her points regarding feminism and breastfeeding are basically as follows:

  • Lots of the pro-breastfeeding literature, and parenting (read: mothering) literature more generally, is antifeminist. Our childbirth/parenting culture tends to treat baby’s needs, preferences, whims, etc. as paramount and mothers who have needs, preferences, whims, etc. as selfish and in conflict with our babies. She’s right: that’s insane. These attitudes and cultural narratives create immense problems and unnecessary suffering for actual human beings who are trying to parent.
  • People should stop being crappy about other people’s parenting choices. I totally agree. No one should bully or shame a formula-feeding family for using formula. No one should bully or shame a breastfeeding family for breastfeeding, either–and, as most of us know perfectly well, a mother is likely to get all sorts of unsolicited advice and judgment about feeding method regardless of what that method happens to be. Either because she hasn’t experienced it in her social circle or because it’s irrelevant to her point, Rosin barely mentions the judgment faced by many breastfeeding mothers for nursing in public, for nursing ‘too long’ (past six months / a year / whatever arbitrary weaning point the judge has in mind–When are you going to wean that baby?!?), for nursing at all. All this crappiness in both directions is crappy. People should be nice, just like we tell our children.
  • And then this: “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,’ as Friedan sardonically called her. 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.”

I can’t get behind that last bit. I just can’t. I absolutely agree that the imagery of breastfeeding/mothering/birth publications is problematic, generally communicating a romanticized, strictly-defined, and highly domestic vision of motherhood. But that’s the publishing industry being sexist and oppressive, or the childbirth industry being sexist and oppressive–it has nothing to do with “the sucking sound.” If the act of breastfeeding can feel oppressive in our society, then there are obviously problems in how our institutions and culture treat breasts, parenting, work, domestic responsibilities, children, sexuality, and the public/private dichotomy.

I feel compelled to note that, for me, breastfeeding was most certainly not like vacuuming. It was not an unpleasant, noisy, tiring chore; it was a physically and emotionally pleasurable experience and an opportunity to do huge amounts of academic work while I had a hand or two free. It was, in fact, liberating. Pumping was a lot more like vacuuming in the ‘chore’ sense (and my particular pump requires two hands–no responding to emails then!), but after a couple weeks of adjusting to the idea, it was fast and a non-issue. And, for me, breastfeeding was not at all oppressive or a sacrifice; it was the simplest, cheapest, most enjoyable way to feed our baby. That’s not true for everyone, for every personality or family arrangement or work schedule, but it’s also not an unimaginable or unrealistic perspective. In fact, if everyone had my advantages–supportive partner, flexible work schedule, midwifery care that expressed great faith in my ability to breastfeed in the context of my real life, excellent access to information, a town where breastfeeding in public is completely acceptable–it would be a whole hell of a lot more realistic for lots of people.

The larger issue, of course, is that US corporate culture and labor laws create a situation in which breastfeeding (and indeed caretaking far more broadly understood) is ill-supported. All this concern over infant feeding is therefore occurring in a context that’s deeply sexist, not only in the popular sense of ‘bad for women’ but also in the sense of ‘bad for men and boys as well as women and girls, because it reinforces the entire system by which we grant huge and arbitrary meaning to the difference in sex organs.’ That may sound weird, since of course breastfeeding in a mother-father-baby family means the female partner feeds the baby based on her secondary sex characteristics. But that’s not an arbitrary distinction (I really was lactating, and my partner really wasn’t), and it shouldn’t be universalized (such that all women must give birth and breastfeed in order to be ‘real women’ or ‘real mothers’–as sometimes, very unfortunately, is taken to be the case). Instead, the large-scale problem is that our institutional and cultural dynamics put immense pressure on families to reproduce what is already normal, regardless of the personal cost to those families.

Non-gender-based paid family leave (for people who need to care for aging relatives, ill spouses, etc. as well as for new babies), affordable high-quality childcare near parents’ places of employment (or onsite childcare in the cases of large employers), and flexible work schedules (again, not just for parents, let alone just for mothers) would help eliminate the culturally-constructed conflict between breastfeeding and everything else many of us need. The ability to pursue professional and/or social activities. A fair division of domestic and parenting labor. Strong relationships with other adults. A continued sense of self, personal autonomy, and self-worth. All of those goods can actually be enriched rather than torn apart by breastfeeding when the context makes sense.

The point is that it seems easy to miss the forest for the trees here. Breastfeeding can end up contributing to resentment and being stuck in an unwanted domestic role because caregiving is gendered feminine and wildly undervalued in our society, and because we live in a capitalist culture that doesn’t give a shit about people, and because our culture tells us that pregnant women and mothers are public property and can be guilt-tripped, judged, and corrected by whomever pleases (and therefore often make ‘choices’ in a social context that undermines genuine and confident decision-making), and because a lot of people are grossed out by the idea of a woman feeding her child from her breast in public, rather than because of anything inherent to breastfeeding itself. All of that crap is what’s “antifeminist”–not breastfeeding itself.

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  1. Leora
    Posted 22 April 2011 at 2:53 PM | Permalink

    I do want to add to your very sane take on Rosin’s article (which I read some time back & am not going to reread because it riled me too much) that I think the notion that our parenting culture is too child-centric is suspect, too. I’d say that’s rather like saying the idealization of the “angel in the house” should be taken as evidence that women were really valued & supported by Victorian middle-class culture.

    • Molly
      Posted 22 April 2011 at 4:49 PM | Permalink

      You’re totally right. I’ve realized more and more during the past few years that our culture, regardless of the romaniticizing (and oh-so-commodifying and politically loaded) images and rhetoric, does not give a shit about families or, particularly, children. And a lot of parenting culture is about companies making money or families (mostly women) acting out/within really restrictive and demanding scripts to avoid censure and/or guilt … not about meeting children’s real needs and desires or–gasp!–treating them like full human beings. (End rant. For now.)

  2. Anna
    Posted 23 April 2011 at 2:02 PM | Permalink

    Sort of unrelated to the post, but it’s been a very long time since I found a blog I liked so much I wanted to delve into the archives. I discovered yours on Friday afternoon and have since read every post on it. They’re fantastic and interesting, and I’m so glad to have found this space!

    • Molly
      Posted 23 April 2011 at 9:35 PM | Permalink

      Thank you!!!

  3. Erin
    Posted 26 April 2011 at 9:54 AM | Permalink

    @Molly & Leora – I just wanted to chime in to say how much I agree with the points you make. I had no idea how hostile our society was to children until I had them. Then I was sensitized to the way people talk about and treat children. It’s easy to miss, I guess, because the sounds of “WHAT ABOUT TEH CHILDREN?!?” is so defeaning – and yet nothing in our culture supports or respects children, let alone treating them like human beings. Whenever I think about initiatives to have flights create “family” areas, I want to have a stroke. It’s disturbing to me how resentful people are of children in public spaces (and of course this hostility always manifests itself as motherblaming [why can't that mother control her children!]). I hang out a lot in Mediterranean countries, and it’s really striking how much they love children, and include them in public life.

    I find the “breastfeeding/natural childbirth is antifeminist” conversations so tiresome. I mean, seriously, feminists? Seriously? I understand that there are elements to these movements that are of concern to women, but listening to a Very Privileged Person like Rosin railing against something that was actually *very easy* for her (with her affluence, education, access to health care, partner, flexible job) at the expense of speaking out for women without those opportunities makes me angry.

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