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For whom is breast best? by May Friedman

page 3

But I’ll never know…
Some time back I mentioned that I was curious about the ways that not nursing would affect the gender dynamics of parenting in my home. So here I am, with baby number two, we’ve got our control kid and now we can do the experiment properly, no? No. Because despite my ambivalence, I went on to nurse Noah for almost two years. And now baby Molly is here, and guess what? She hates bottles, too! So why didn’t I simply wean my babes to formula? Why did I begin this dance of dependency afresh this past spring? Because on some intrinsic level, I do believe that their need for nutrition trumps all of my concerns.  Breastfeeding is where I realized, on the most visceral level, that the model of liberal individualism is bullshit. Their needs do trump mine, and I couldn’t, and can’t justify not giving them the benefits of breastmilk despite my ambivalence. I hasten to add, however, that this implies no judgment of anyone who, for whatever reason, chooses not to breastfeed. Breastfeeding involves our bodies and our autonomy: it must involve our consent. When I read Dr. Newman’s treatise on guilt, I worry that it is not far removed from another child-centered debate that privileges children -- fetuses -- over the bodies and autonomy of their mothers. With that debate (and hopefully by now it is clear that I am referring to abortion), feminists asserted a woman’s right to choose, without caveats, without justifications, without judgment. When it comes to breastfeeding, I feel like the feminist response is oddly silent. Is it because we’ve betrayed the sisterhood by choosing to procreate? What would a feminist response to the politics of nursing that based itself on some of the rhetoric around abortion look like? And would such a politically loaded response simply maintain stereotypes about fire-breathing, baby-eating feminists? Or would it potentially provide a basis for some of the type of analysis, on the basis of power and privilege, gender, class and more, that we sorely need to apply to a discussion of breastfeeding?

The other day, I opened the trunk of my car and found that my son’s rubber ball had sprung a leak. I stood there for awhile -- I’m tired these days, and not moving all that quickly -- and thought, “Huh.  What does this remind me of?” After a while, it came to me, and I thought, “Gosh, I hate breastfeeding.”

I don’t hate breastfeeding. Aesthetics aside, I have come to find the lovely moments of nursing my babies. What I do hate is the view of breastfeeding that eliminates all the shades of grey from my experiences, that allows me, as a breastfeeder, only to be a savvy, groovy Earth-Mama who gives my kids the world and myself and likes it every day. I hope that we have made some headway in recognizing the profound ambiguity and ambivalence of mothering in general. Isn’t it time that we extend that analysis to breastfeeding? The concern from pro-breastfeeding advocates is that if we allow women to choose to breastfeed despite everything, to acknowledge the health benefits for our babies, but to also acknowledge the class and gender implications of breastfeeding, and to struggle with the individual costs and stressors of each nursing relationship, women will choose not to breastfeed. So we minimize any potential inconvenience and stress only the positive. Toronto Public Health informs us that “Breastfeeding helps mothers respond better to stress.”7 That may be true for some women. Personally, I think that an acknowledgement of the stressors associated with breastfeeding, an honest outlook that suggests that breastfeeding may be a pain in the ass, but that it may be, nonetheless, worth it, would result in higher rates of sustained nursing. Certainly such an approach would allow me to “respond better to stress”. In the meantime, I’ll continue my campaign to be a grouchy nurser in aid of those shades of grey.

mmo : november 2006

May Friedman lives in Toronto. Although she is working on a doctorate in women studies unrelated to her fascination with motherhood/mothering, she continues to ponder the politics of parenthood on a regular basis. This essay is based on a presentation she gave at the Association for Research on Mothering's 10th Annual Conference in October 2006.
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1. Newman, Catherine. (2004.)  Bringing up Ben and Birdy: Week 94: Daddy Dearest.
Retrieved October 15, 2006 from http://parentcenter.babycenter.com/general/preschooler/1390694.html

2. Kantor, Jodi.  (2006, September 1)  On the job, nursing mothers find a 2-class system.  New York Times. 
Retrieved September 4, 2006 from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/01/health/01nurse.html

3. Newman, Jack.  (1998.)  Breastfeeding and guilt. 
Retrieved October 10, 2006 from http://breastfeed.com/resources/articles/drjack/guilt.htm

4. Toronto Public Health.  Breastfeeding support. 
Retrieved October 20, 2006 from http://www.toronto.ca/health/breastfeedingsupport/

5. Halliday, Ayun.  (2002.)  The big rumpus: A mother’s tale from the trenches.  New York: Seal Press.

6. (2006, August 7.)  Julia/Here be Hippogriffs: Book Tour. 
Retrieved August 9, 2006 from http://julia.typepad.com/julia/2006/08/welcome_to_day_.html

7. Toronto Public Health.  Breastfeeding support. 
Retrieved October 20, 2006 from http://www.toronto.ca/health/breastfeedingsupport/

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