What’s going so wrong with the breastfeeding and formula-feeding conversation?
Start with the rampant individualism. Conversations about how you feed your baby tend to be preoccupied with women’s choices and decisions.. and then, blame. You know the conversation has little feminist value when you end up at a point where some poor, exhausted woman is trying to justify her decision to formula-feed her baby to you, or likewise, if some other poor woman is trying to justify her reasons for breastfeeding her toddler to you.
The main reason why the breastfeeding/formula feeding conversation is not moving forward is because it is bogged down with this individualism. I think there are several factors behind that. Firstly, public health messages, like those promoting breastfeeding, are notoriously heavy-handed and don’t deal well with nuance. This is a shame because people’s health is actually quite nuanced. Secondly, the breastfeeding message is, in part, a marketing message attempting to compete with the marketing messages of formula companies. When you do this you invariably make women consumers. Thirdly, we live in an era when motherhood is hyper-competitive and driven by perfectionism. Everyone is trying to Get It Super Right Or Terrible Consequences Will Happen For Their Children, and everything seems to come down to mothers and their choices. This leads to conversations that over-emphasise the role of choice in outcomes and also, that invariably run into the limitations of professionalising motherhood when it is still monetarily worthless. Finally, it’s just so terribly easy for a patriarchal culture to put all the responsibility on mothers and not chase the real culprits behind the big decline in breastfeeding and long-term breastfeeding rates in Western countries, which are things like inflexible workplace policies, the absence of universal maternity leave schemes, insufficient anti-discrimination legislation and hostile societal attitudes towards women’s bodies.
One of my good friends was an unapologetic formula-feeder with her children. She tried breastfeeding but having grown up with constant fat-shaming she was unable to ever feel comfortable with breastfeeding. When she found herself forcing her newborn to skip feeds during the very hot days of summer so as not to have to breastfeed in front of visiting family and friends and then panicking about whether she had dehydrated her tiny baby, she decided it was time to formula feed. She loved bottle-feeding – it helped her to start enjoying her baby. Was there much pressure on you, I asked, to breastfeed, and were people judgemental about your formula-feeding? Not that I noticed, my friend told me, but this world can apologise for how much it hated my body before I will apologise for not breastfeeding my children.
Good for her, except, what a bloody heart-breaking way to finally reclaim some space for yourself. Experiences like hers remind me what is so damn wrong with individualism in the breastfeeding/formula-feeding conversation. We’re pushing breastfeeding as a message but we sure aren’t embracing it as a culture. And we somehow blame individual mothers for the shortfall.
After recognising the problem with individualism, often the feminist discussion retreats to a place where everyone agrees to respect one another’s right to choose what is best for them and their babies and then to just all shut the hell up. Initially this makes sense, if everyone is shouting over the top of one another and everyone is feeling very defensive about their feeding decisions then let’s agree to turn down the volume. The problem is that once you turn the volume down on breastfeeding activism and formula-feeding choices we don’t get silence, we get another kind of noise. Because we exist not in a vacuum but in a misogynist culture.
I swear, I really do write about other issues in motherhood, even though I seem to have made breastfeeding my core topic in guest posts at Feministe.. and this is maybe why it has been my topic du jour, because breastfeeding is more than a choice about how to feed your baby, it is a lens through which you can see with absolute clarity the intersection between misogyny and motherhood. There are a million other possible examples but this area of mothering is a stunning case of it. Because, let me be clear about this – women get harassed and shamed and illegally evicted from public space for breastfeeding; women get threatened with losing custody of their children for breastfeeding for ‘too long’; women get ridiculed and bullied for trying to pump milk at work; women get described as a freak show for breastfeeding twins or tandem feeding; women get called names like ‘stupid cow’ or ‘filthy slut’ for breastfeeding; women get told they are sexually abusing their children for breastfeeding; women get told they’re not allowed to keep breast milk in communal fridges because it’s a dirty bodily fluid (and cow’s milk isn’t?); women are bullied into stopping breastfeeding because breasts are the sexual property of their husbands; women get told that breastfeeding is obscene in front of other people’s children or other people’s husbands; women get told their bodies are too fat and too saggy and too veiny to be exposed while breastfeeding; women get told to stay at home with their babies until they are no longer breastfeeding; women get instructed to throw blankets over themselves and their babies if they wish to breastfeed outside the home.. and on it goes. This is not the result of some peculiar sensitivity towards babies and small children eating, this does not happen with bottle-feeding, this is specifically about breastfeeding and it is about policing women’s bodies and lives.
Breastfeeding is a feminist issue not because mummy bloggers like me say it is, but because it’s about working to ensure that women and their bodies are considered as important (as normal) as men and their bodies. Something happens for all of us – regardless of whether we are breastfeeders or not – when a woman is allowed to breastfeed, in public, as a member of her community, while getting shit done in her life – it makes a statement that women belong, that women’s bodies belong, that women are here.
The animosity shown towards mothers who formula-feed is judgemental crusading and it should never be condoned by feminists but you are missing the big picture if you argue that bottle-feeding is demonised and breastfeeding is not – that we’ve gone too far with lactivism. Quite simply, something is very frigging wrong in our world when women are harassed and shamed for doing something that women’s bodies do as a routine part of raising children. This should trouble all feminists.
Breastfeeding also provides an example of how deeply hostile workplace culture is towards mothers.
Breastfeeding can be hard work in the beginning. (I got the latch so messed up when I breastfed my first baby that in the first couple of weeks I almost ended up with the end of my nipple torn off. My baby would finish a breastfeed and dribble blood out of her mouth. I know, so vampire. All those years of averting my slightly horrified gaze from mothers breastfeeding in public when I was young did not prepare me at all well when I came to breastfeed my own baby). Breastfeeding in those early months requires a lot of energy. You need to be eating and drinking and resting regularly or you can’t sustain a milk supply. (Try chasing dairy cows around the paddock all day long and see how much milk you get from them in the evening). This is an excellent argument for maternity leave, lactation breaks in the workplace and generally supporting new mothers. But it also shows you how far we have to go, because in the United States there still isn’t a universal paid maternity leave scheme and even for those who do have access to maternity leave it is usually woefully short. No sooner do you get breastfeeding established and bang! you’re back at work (full-time, of course), and separated from them all day long while now being expected to suddenly get used to a breast pump. And then, oh, breastfeeding didn’t work out for them, what could possibly be the explanation?
When feminists write about these tensions for mothers there is a tendency to argue that because it is so difficult to breastfeed in these circumstances that we need to back-off about breastfeeding. I’m a little sceptical of this strategy, though I think it comes from a good place. Women are entitled to their choices, of course, let’s not head back into individualism, but isn’t it awfully convenient that we never question the institutions of power that happen to arrange themselves in such a way that women have little real choice about breastfeeding?
Because here is the other thing about breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is lazy. Ultimately, I came to love breastfeeding as a mother because I am quite lazy. Breastfeeding is fast food. Breastfeeding is multi-tasking. Breastfeeding is portable. Breastfeeding is unstructured and unscheduled. All of these elements are very pleasing to lazy people, like me. So, it annoys me no end as a feminist that we, as a Western culture, stigmatise breastfeeding when in the long-run it can often make mothers’ and children’s lives easier.
I can’t help but be suspicious that we prioritise solutions to this work-life conflict that suit a model of workplace built around men’s lives and that consistently challenge women to find new ways of adapting without ever questioning whether our economy could be moulded just a little more fairly around care work and dependency. Because, dependence is not deviant behaviour – being young, being old, being unwell, being hurt and healing, being disabled – it’s normal life. And this is not hippy stuff; this is just finding a better way of working with capitalism. For that matter, breastfeeding is not hippy, it just is. It’s not some special gift, it’s not a sacrifice, it is just the way mammals generally feed their young.
If we were more accepting of breastfeeding on those grounds instead of trying to up-sell it then maybe we wouldn’t be stuck in such an endless loop of defensiveness with formula-feeding choices. Yes, breastfeeding has nutritional and immunity merits but it is also offers a way of being close with a baby and that, in itself, is valuable enough. There are other ways to experience that closeness, of course, and mothers shouldn’t be forced to parent in that way if they don’t want to, but for those who do, we shouldn’t sabotage them. And this is where the feminist conversation must be particularly careful, and it’s a tricky juggling act, but in our desire to neutralise all that ridiculous individualist blaming of women for their choices we often diminish the significance of their choices to them. Because when we say breastfeeding is not all that important we silence the grief some women feel about not having been able to breastfeed and we take away the sense of achievement other women feel about breastfeeding in spite of multiple obstacles, but possibly worst of all, we undermine the broader message every parent is trying to give, which is that workplace and institutional change needs to happen.. and it needs to happen soon.
P.S. I want to acknowledge and thank one of the writers of Hoyden About Town, Lauredhel who stayed up late with me one night so I could bounce my arguments around with her and who steered me when I was off-track and reminded me of elements I had overlooked. Thank you, L.
P.P.S. I also want to acknowledge that although I have generalised about breastfeeding mothers here, as I recently discussed on Feministe, fathers sometimes breastfeed, too.