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For whom is breast best? by May Friedman

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The privilege of angst
It isn’t simply the gender dynamics that make “Breast is Best” so problematic. I can appreciate the privilege in my owned spoiled brat insistence that indispensability is so, like, awful. Ultimately, I am enormously lucky to have the option of being tethered to my children in this way. Jodi Kantor of the New York Times wrote recently about the two-class system for nursing mothers in the U.S. and, presumably, in Canada. Using the example of Starbucks, she discusses the private lactation room, company supplied pumps and easily accessible refrigerator available to the company’s employees at head office. By contrast, Kantor considers the experience of front-line workers who must furtively pump in one of the shop’s few washrooms while anxiously counting minutes of break time. Unsurprisingly, Kantor chronicles that many blue-collar workers “choose” not to breastfeed. She notes that, “It is a particularly literal case of how well-being tends to beget further well-being, and disadvantage tends to create disadvantage -- passed down in a mother’s milk, or lack thereof.”2 Of course, it is not only the baby who loses out in this scenario: it is the mother who faces the enormous expense of formula and, of course, in the face of the “Breast is Best” campaign, feels an enormous sense of guilt.

Toronto’s own world famous breastfeeding guru, Dr. Jack Newman considers the idea of guilt around breastfeeding, suggesting that the idea that aggressive breastfeeding campaigns make mothers feel guilty is simply a red herring put out by formula companies. He writes,

Let's look at real life. If a pregnant woman went to her physician and admitted she smoked a pack of cigarettes, is there not a strong chance that she would leave the office feeling guilty for endangering her developing baby? If she admitted to drinking a couple of beers every so often, is there not a strong chance that she would leave the office feeling guilty? If a mother admitted to sleeping in the same bed with her baby, would most physicians not make her feel guilty for this even though it is the best thing for her and the baby? If she went to the office with her one week old baby and told the physician that she was feeding her baby homogenized milk, what would be the reaction of her physician? Most would practically collapse and have a fit. And they would have no problem at all making that mother feel guilty for feeding her baby cow's milk, and then pressuring her to feed the baby formula. (Not pressuring her to breastfeed, it should be noted, because "you wouldn't want to make a woman feel guilty for not breastfeeding.")3

Newman makes some excellent points regarding the aggressive techniques of formula companies and the obvious investment they have in minimizing breastfeeding. Nonetheless, he draws a false parallel between other “risky” behaviors and the choice to not breastfeed. Simply put, he does not consider that for many women, there is no choice to be made. Similar to the seemingly eternal feminist debate about working outside the home, for many mothers the choice to work -- and to breastfeed -- is so constrained that there is truly no element of choice involved.

Interestingly, pro-breastfeeding literature seems to have caught on to the idea that market forces present a useful way of considering the pros and cons of breastfeeding. On a website put up by Toronto Public Health, one of the ways that breastfeeding is beneficial to mothers is that “Parents of breastfed babies are absent from work less often,” presumably because of the health benefits of breastfeeding.4 For mothers who cannot make the choice to breastfeeding, the message would seem to be that they are doomed to be uncommitted workers as well as ineffective mothers.

In the face of the class dynamics of breastfeeding, it would seem that the neurotic frustrations that I opened this paper with are perhaps less relevant. Ultimately, however, it is the constellation of effects of not only pro-breastfeeding campaigns, but breastfeeding itself that require feminists in particular to consider a new analysis of the topic. The fact that feminist mothers often buy into “natural parenting” or “attachment parenting” models that privilege breastfeeding as a natural choice betrays many of the class dynamics of feminism and likewise fails to address the deep ambivalence that many young feminist women may feel toward breastfeeding.

Madonna and child
Recently a friend of mine who had a baby several months ago said, shrugging, “Every time I had to nurse him, I thought I was going to throw up. But I didn’t tell anyone, because I thought I was supposed to be enjoying myself.” Much of the pro-breastfeeding literature focuses on the contentment and enjoyment of mothers, the “blissed-out” hormonal reaction that women have to nursing, the natural anti-depressant effects of breastfeeding. Mothers who do not experience the beatific splendour of breastfeeding (particularly in situations where there are no obvious barriers such as extreme pain) can often feel unnatural. Ayun Halliday, author of The Big Rumpus recently organized a “virtual book tour” for the UK release of her book. The book was reviewed and discussed on a number of weblogs.  Strikingly, it was the following passage on which many reviewers chose to focus:

Shortly after moving to New York, I decided I’d better make a plan in case I got pushed in front of a subway train. I’d read a grisly short story a former transit cop had published in Esquire on this subject… In the cop’s story, the pressure of the train squashing the woman against the platform acts as a temporary tourniquet, keeping her alive just long enough to identify the purse snatcher who gave her that fatal shove. It was tawdry, all right, but it stuck with me.  Waiting for the train, I wondered what I would say if I were pinned between the train and the platform with just minutes to live. Not long after Inky’s birth it hit me. If I ever had the misfortune to be flung in the path of an oncoming train, I could instruct the gaping herd to bring me my baby. ‘I want to feed her one last time. Don’t bother with the sarong, boys!’… I never managed to explain why Inky hadn’t gone flying under the train with me. Maybe her backpack came with a special ejection seat. It wasn’t important. All that mattered to me was a good death and the chance to feed my baby one last time.5 (186)

Blogger Julia of “Here be Hippogriffs” gives the following response:

I breastfed Patrick. After three weeks of cracked bleeding nipples, numerous infections, and much weeping and gnashing of the teeth (mine) it got better and we persevered and it was fine. But, to borrow a fantasy from The Big Rumpus, would I have asked to nurse Patrick one final time if I found myself fatally pinned between a subway car and the platform? No. I would have asked for some goddamned morphine or, failing its ready availability, one last Camel Light now that I would no longer need to worry about cancer or setting a poor example for my son. Reading Ayun's paean to breastfeeding made me feel... inadequate. About something we had both done but I was suddenly afraid that I had not sufficiently enjoyed! How ridiculous is that?6

Perhaps it is ridiculous.  But perhaps, instead, it is part of the insidious position that it is not enough to breastfeed. In order to be truly natural, one must enjoy breastfeeding. And despite the rhetoric of how breastfeeding is best for both babies and their mothers, it would seem that we should enjoy breastfeeding because we should enjoy mothering, in all its child-centeredness, in all the ways we must put aside our selves. How can we begin to reconcile this model with feminist ideals? This is at the heart of the challenge of dealing with breastfeeding: in a liberal individualistic society, we have been taught that we have certain rights. When a woman mothers someone with his or her own rights, however, there is a fundamental contradiction. In my estimation, nowhere is this contradiction more obvious than with respect to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is undoubtedly beneficial to babies.  But unless pro-breastfeeding messages begin to acknowledge that there are many women for whom breastfeeding is, at worst, impossible or, at best, unpleasant, then the message that I take away from such campaigns is simply that to be a good mother, I must subsume myself to my children. More importantly, I must enjoy it.

but I’ll never know…

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