OK – here it is: my first Feministe post. I’m sorry this is rambly – I’m working through these thoughts, myself. I’m happy to clarify.
There have been, for a number of years, endless debates about approaches to parenting. When I had Bean, the Sears and Sears’ “Attachment Parenting” was big, and it sounded pretty good to me, despite some very serious flaws. For those of you who are not familiar with this concept, let me give you a quick primer.
Attachment Parenting (not to be confused with the psychological notion of “attachment”) suggests that we parent through more closely bonding with our babies. This bonding happens, Sears and Sears argue, through breastfeeding exclusively and on demand and for an extended period (e.g., no fixed feeding schedule and no formula, until the child weans itself), “baby wearing” (you’ve all seen those slings, right?) as opposed to strollers, and co-sleeping (which actually can refer to a number of varied practices, but essentially what it means is that the baby does not go off to a separate room to sleep. Co-sleeping can mean that the baby sleeps right in the bed with the parents; or it can sleep in a cute little (expensive) specially-designed co-sleeper, which is like a bassinett only it attaches to the side of your own bed so that you don’t have to get up to reach the baby; or it can sleep in a little baby bed with sides that is then put on the bed, between the parents; or the baby might spend part of the night in your bed and part of the night elsewhere. Many co-sleeping families simply have a couple of mattresses on the floor and everyone sleeps in the same room (this is nice for toddlers and older children who are afraid of being alone at night).
These practices, Sears and Sears tell us, are all the rage in other, “primitive” cultures, where babies don’t cry (we know this, of course, because anthropologists have said so, but I don’t believe that any of the communities being studied have made these claims). They have supported huge businesses here in our “more developed” cultures, where, if you have the money, you can buy all kinds of fashion nursing tops, slings, and, as I mentioned above, various equipment for co-sleeping. Also, as these practices have been imported, they’ve lost their community focus. Instead of depending on, say, the other women in the village to help you breastfeed your child, just as you do for theirs, the task of breastfeeding every hour falls to you.
So, it’s very apparent that the “parent” doing all of this parenting is the mom. Well, in Sears and Sears’ model, both moms and dads (and of course, we’re talking heterosexual, cisgender, white, American, and middle-class couples as far as they are concerned) have particular roles to play. The dads “support” the moms. The moms generally do the heavy lifting, the breastfeeding being the heaviest load because – leaving aside the issue of sore nipples, leakage, mastitis, etc. – it takes a lot of time. To breastfeed exclusively and on demand often means breastfeeding nearly continually for the first 8-12 weeks. (Now, let me be clear: I did this, and I don’t think this is a bad thing in and of itself, BUT everyone should know that this is a huge undertaking. Potential breastfeeders should know what they are getting into. Everyone else in the family should support the breastfeeder and recognize the work this takes.)
(There are, apparently, some anecdotal stories of men breastfeeding in more than one culture, including contemporary American culture. Women who have not been pregnant or given birth can lactate, and it would not surprise me if men could, as well. So far, though, there has not been a push for men to breastfeed. From what little I’ve heard about this, the process would enlarge the male breasts, which would require us to think very differently, societally, about gender (and that wouldn’t be a bad thing).)
Since we’re on the topic, my attitude about breastmilk is this: it is wonderful for babies, and if you are able to share it with them, for however long or short a time, that’s awesome. If not – well, babies have thrived on formula for generations. There are many, many things we do as parents that help our children. Breastfeeding is just one. I mean, make no mistake, I’m a breastfeeding advocate, even a lactivist, but parenting is a life-long endeavor and you don’t get points for, for example, breastfeeding your babies and then teaching them all kinds of effed up stuff about what God thinks, KWIM? (Attachment Parenting is one place where the feminist, crunchy-granola mom comes together with the fundamentalist, quiverfull mom, so the situation I’ve described is plausible.)
Anyway. Moving on to baby wearing. Certainly, dads can do this, but Sears and Sears expect dads to be off at work, so mom is left to clean this house and do laundry with baby in a sling. (I could never figure out how to do any of this without whacking the baby into things. I certainly could not have worn my baby to work on any kind of regular basis. Sears and Sears also suggest that moms think about whether they really need to work, or not. This is where I started to get very suspicious of Sears and Sears.) However, regardless of who wears the baby, it does seem, for some babies, to be a useful thing. The sling calmed Bean down on many occasions when nothing else did the trick. (Of course, in this experiment, my n=1, so this is purely anecdotal.)
Finally, co-sleeping. In terms of actually getting the most sleep, I have personally found that this method works well. However, I know some (heterosexual and cis) couples that had difficulty with it because the male partner wanted the bed to be a Place of Sex, and the baby (or toddler) being there made this a problem (in these cases, the mom wanted to co-sleep, and the dad, who worked hard all day at the office while the mom stayed home and cooked, cleaned, and took care of the kids, was not really terribly interested in co-sleeping or even attachment parenting). I am a little judgemental about these particular couples; it seems to me that there are lots of other places that can be used for sex, and anyway, if you have a small child and the mom is breastfeeding, I think the partners ought to back off with the sex demands until she initiates things, because it’s easy to feel touched out and exhausted from body contact when you are breastfeeding, baby wearing, and co-sleeping (and this, in fact, is why some women, too, object to these things).
This might be a good time to point out that I am in no way attacking families in which the moms work at home and the dads work in an office. I’m writing about a fairly specific community in which I lived when Bean was born. I was shocked at how many women I knew there who had husbands who wouldn’t, for example, change any diapers. They had children with men who thought that changing their own baby’s diaper was disgusting and beneath them, and therefore, the wife should do it because the poop would be less disgusting to a mom, or something.
In any case, what I’m trying to present a snapshot of here is a traditional patriarchal, gender division of labor that both supports attachment parenting (since it supports the woman at home, holding her baby all day) and also makes it hard to practice (because it challenges the woman as Provider of Sex and bed as Place of Sex).
Well, I tried to start out talking about what I liked about Attachment Parenting and ended up ranting about Sears and Sears’ inherent sexism and homo-transphobia (I doubt very much we’ll be reading about men who give birth in any of their books) and patriarchal culture in South Dakota. Let me get back to what I like about AP as an idea, apart from the problems I’ve discussed so far: I think it’s good for the baby. I think breastfeeding is good for the baby. I think being held close much of the time is good for the baby (and comforting). Ditto for sleeping with the baby’s parents, esp. the nursing parent; co-sleeping is also good for the nursing mom because she doesn’t have to get out of bed to breastfeed – she can just roll over. And it is frequently the case that she wakes up before the baby starts crying because the baby will start to become restless when it gets hungry.
OK – so I’ve written all of that simply to get into the issue of parenting, sacrifice, and feminism. For feminists, there are some clear issues here about gendered division of labor with regard to parenting. There are also problems in assuming that the amount of work required of each mother is desirable, if it is even feasible. (Families with two (or more) breastfeeding people in them would be great, actually, though you’ll certainly never see such a suggestion in a Sears and Sears book. But here is where households with two moms, or with more than two moms, or with any combination of more than one breastfeeding person, have a clear advantage. In these families, everyone will get more sleep.)
Feminists have argued both sides of the issue of AP, and breastfeeding is a particularly volatile topic. Feminists who have argued against this practice have pointed to the ways in which it ties women down, can interrupt careers (pumping milk poses its own problems and is not a panacea), and demands sacrifice. And this is key, because forcing a woman to make a sacrifice, even having a general expectation that she make a sacrifice, is the antithesis of white, middle-class feminism. I think white middle-class feminism sees certain aspects of parenting as sacrifice and writes them off, when really, they are required aspects of parenting. I don’t mean that breastfeeding is a required aspect of parenting, but that putting yourself second and your child’s needs first is necessary for good parenting. I’m also not saying that not meeting your own needs and only meeting your child’s needs will make you a good parent. I’m simply saying that sacrifice is part of parenting.
I think that indigenous feminisms and woman-of-color feminisms and working-class feminisms have tended to get this. They have formed movements that often manage to put the community needs at the center, rather than the needs of individual women. White, middle-class feminisms have tended to call the category of “women” a community and to thereby focus on individual needs. And that’s not all bad, at all, but it’s not all good.
Where I think we run into trouble is in not understanding that being a parent is going to require constant, unending sacrifice. It should not be all on the part of the mom. But I would love to see, instead of someone using feminism to argue that breastfeeding is bad for women, someone using feminism to write, perhaps, about how men can breastfeed and how it would be good for men. Instead of just rejecting a practice because it feels rooted in biology, let’s maybe challenge what society is telling us about biology.
And the importance of sacrifice isn’t just in parenting. We are all well aware in the First World that we are using far beyond our share of the world’s natural resources. We know what we are doing to our environment. We know that we have far, far more than our share of wealth. Making sacrifices isn’t just about what we give up for ourselves as individuals. It’s about what our sacrifices allow others to have, or, to put it another way, what our refusal to sacrifice means for others.
(One note re. comments – this is NOT an abortion thread. I will delete comments that take this there.)