Breastfeeding -- particularly who does it, and where -- has materialized as an especially volatile flash point in the politics of motherhood. Although marginally less polarizing than the abortion debate, tensions around public breastfeeding and "breast is best" promotion campaigns are equally related to society's perceived interest in regulating women's reproductive behavior and the power of culture to assign sexual and moral meaning to mothers' bodies.
At this point, there is really no doubt that breast milk is a superior food for young babies. It's also true that in developed countries where clean water and the means to sanitize infant feeding gear are widely available, there are perfectly safe alternatives. (Hard core lactivists, please take note: I wrote "safe," not "risk-free.") Under such favorable circumstances, you'd think we could all agree that society has no legitimate claim on mothers' private decision to breastfeed, or not.
Ah, if were only that simple! The reality is that after a period of exile -- particularly during the post-WWII "Golden Era" of the American family -- extended, exclusive breastfeeding has been firmly reinstated to the culturally-inscribed "to do" list of ideal mothering. As Linda M. Blum points out in her excellent book, At the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in the United States, the dominant ideology of motherhood. -- which Blum defines as the ideology of "exclusive" motherhood -- is both racialized and class-marking. As a married, white, educated, middle-class mother -- in other words, U.S. prime grade motherhood material -- I never seriously considered not breastfeeding unless physiological or medical reasons prevented it. Whatever obstacles I might encounter in my eagerness to conform to the standard of good mothering, I was pretty confident that breastfeeding would not be one of them.
My problem was, I hated breastfeeding. I hated pretty much every aspect of it -- the heaviness and constant wetness of my breasts, the pain like an electric shock that signaled let-down, the raw nipples, the high-tech breast pump that extracted milk from one tit while the other weeped in sympathy, the sour-smelling nursing pads, the whole, inescapable embodiment of it. Not to mention the crushing fatigue caused by frequent night nursings and the general physical depletion that can accompany lactation.
My bluish-white milk with its thick crust of yellow fat seemed like an alien substance. I did not like to look at or handle it, although I believed the books and lactation consultants who continually reminded me it was a miraculous and perfect foodstuff for my babies. Looking back -- and my opinion about the quality of my breastfeeding experience has not softened over time -- using my body in that way probably runs counter to my fundamental temperament. In retrospect, it's possible bottle feeding from the get-go would have reduced the misery and anxiety of my early motherhood. But I did breastfeed -- for four months with my first son, and for a year with my second. I did it, but not because I was convinced that formula feeding was an unacceptable risk or because I'd deliberated the options and decided the potential benefits to my children outweighed my temporary discomfort and immobility. I did it because for women like me, breastfeeding -- or at a minimum, an expressed desire to breastfeed -- is accepted as a critical component of what it means to be a responsible mother.
I've tried to imagine how my experience of breastfeeding might have been different in a highly-evolved culture in which women's reproductive freedom was not construed as a danger to the moral order and female bodies were not routinely objectified or loathed. And that's pretty difficult, because no woman or girl in human history has ever inhabited such a world. My imaginary self in that imaginary situation might find breastfeeding an empowering and self-enhancing episode in my personal journey of womanly self-determination. Or, I might hate it.
The point I'm trying to make is that it's almost impossible for individual women to create authentic or original meaning out of the cultural experience of motherhood, whether the experience at hand is breastfeeding or any other maternal practice. The best we can hope for is an opportunity to sample, negotiate, resist and rescript the meanings supplied to us through the existing mix of ideology until we patch together something that makes sense and allows us to feel strong and whole. As Blum writes, "Breastfeeding, in actuality, is as likely to represent an oppressive aspect of social control and disciplining of the body" as a pure and pleasurable expression of female embodiment. "Breastfeeding does not have inherent truth, but meaning determined out of power relations, various disciplining practices, and conflicting needs and interests, which are inherently political. Our goal as feminists should be … to gain interpretive power over our embodied experiences, to define our own embodied wants and desires."
To that end, here are some questions we might pose: If we had the technological capacity to produce an artificial breast milk that exactly matched the health and nutritional value of the real article, or even exceeded it -- by, say, reducing infant mortality or adding a few points to baby's adult IQ -- would extended, exclusive breastfeeding still be the best and most socially desirable maternal practice? Why, or why not?
Now, let's hypothesize that there is only a single factory capable of manufacturing this far-superior, mortality-reducing, brain-boosting infant food, and supplies are limited. Which mothers and babies would be more likely to have access to it? Would society have a responsibility to assure fairness of distribution?
You can see how quickly this gets complicated.
There is, of course, much more to say about breastfeeding as politics and practice, and this month's contributing writers have a great deal to add. In Ambassador of Breast Milk, first-time contributor Karen Oakes redefines what it means to be a lactivist. Jessica Smartt Gullion returns with a feature essay that questions the rationale of the "breast is best" message when most mothers' jobs are incompatible with breast pumping. Johnna Thompson takes a closer look at how and why much of what we think we know about the benefits of breastfeeding to mothers and babies is only sort-of-true, and makes recommendations for a more realistic -- and more mother-centric -- breastfeeding promotion campaign.
In Essays, Shannon Hyland-Tassava returns to MMO with a thoughtful meditation on the meaning of having your last baby, and in My Left Breast, Jampa Williams writes about redefining the purpose and beauty of her breasts on her own terms after a mastectomy. Finally, Heather Janssen muses on why she is obsessed with Angelina Jolie's "Hollywood Hooters." "Like it or not, this wacky culture of the U.S. of A. revolves to a certain degree around celebrity culture," Janssen writes. "And just for the sake of discussion, I wanted her to breastfeed" (in Commentary).
There are a few new announcements on the Get Active! page, including information about upcoming conferences and how to contact attorneys at the Center for WorkLife Law if you believe you've experienced Family Responsibilities Discrimination, also known as "maternal profiling." In Noteworthy, readers will find a write up on the Summit to Ensure the Health and Humanity of Pregnant and Birthing Women (which I attended last month), and a brief report on the January 31 "Ceasefire in the 'Mommy Wars'" press event at the Women's Media Center in NYC. Also in this month's Noteworthy: Summaries on a new report finding that the U.S. lagging behind all other wealthy nations in assuring decent working conditions for families (so, what else is new?), information about the Economic Policy Institute's Agenda for Shared Prosperity initiative, links to a report on strategies for implementing workplace flexibility for lower wage workers, and survey results suggesting that executive women are using flexible work arrangements to "option in" to successful careers. Plus: Selected news and commentary from elsewhere on the web on mothers & mothering, men & women, and public policy and the progressive agenda.
It's good to be back after the winter break. Unexpected deadline pressures prevented me from completely updating the Book List and Resources section last month, but never fear -- I'll be working on those sections over the next few weeks.
I truly appreciate the timely response of MMO readers to my December plea for content submissions. In activist media, there is constant tension between honoring the vision and sustainability. Right now, I'm fighting for the vision. The work of the MMO's regular and occasional contributing writers has been instrumental to this project -- first by giving me the opportunity to amplify the voices of mothers who have original and provocative ideas to share on motherhood and feminism, and also by assuring the sustainability of the Mothers Movement Online. To readers and contributing writers, past and present: I cannot thank you enough for your continuing support of the MMO.
Our next edition will cover the topic of Adoption (deadline for submissions is March 1). The April issue will be devoted to Single Motherhood. (For more details and deadlines, please download the 2007 Editorial Calendar). There are many pathways to motherhood, and none of them are perfectly smooth. Share your story. Because we really need to know.
Judith Stadtman Tucker
Editor, The Mothers Movement Online