Why Breastfeeding Is A Feminist Issue

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.

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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.

About Guest: blue milk

blue milk is one of the 2012 roster of Feministe Guest Bloggers. She normally blogs at her own blog, Blue Milk and also contributes to Hoyden About Town.
This entry was posted in Body image, Disability Issues, Discrimination, Domesticity, Economics, Feminism, GLBTQ, Health, Labor, Trans, Work and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

83 Responses to Why Breastfeeding Is A Feminist Issue

  1. matlun says:

    I am not sure I get what your problem is with individualism.

    Are you just saying that it is a problem with the conversation that we talk so much about it that it distracts from more productive discussions? (This was how I read the first part of the OP)

    Or are you criticizing the individualistic perspective because it does consider dependency and the needs of the larger family? (That was how I read the last part)

    • mxe354 says:

      The individualism here is found in merely painting breastfeeding as a choice without talking about how that choice is often restricted because of prejudiced social attitudes towards breastfeeders.

      • matlun says:

        Ok, but I have always read the line of “we should accept the individual choice” to be an argument against external pressures. Ie not only “they have that free choice”, but also including “they should be given that free choice”. (Ie classical individual freedom arguments)

        Anyway: I think we agree in that the larger discussion about societal structures and cultural pressures is probably more productive. It seems to be the discussion to have if we are to change those structures to something better.

      • matlun says:

        Or what Kristen J said below @5: This type of semantic discussion is not very important compared to the substance of the issue.

        I just did not get what you meant, but this sidetrack is probably just a distraction that should be allowed to die.

    • Chataya says:

      I read it as an “I choose my choice” critique where you have a lot of people saying that they chose to bottle-feed/breast-feed because of Reasons and that’s all that matters, rather than attempting to change the toxicity surrounding that choice or even contributing to that toxicity. Because if I* can do it, why can’t you*? Or, I* did X without experiencing hostility or social pressure, so why are you* complaining?

      Basically empathy fail.

      I’m not a parent, though, so there might be some nuance I’m missing.

      *general I, general you

      • Lolagirl says:

        I also think what blue milk is getting at is that the tendency to get all me, me, me about this subject does nothing to address and change the negative societal notions and stigmatization of breastfeeding that is still so common here in the U.S. Instead of getting so defensive and caught up in defending our own decisions or desires wrt to breastfeeding the conversation needs to do more to make the choice to either breastfeed or formula feed one no longer a socially and personally loaded one that can be made without everyone and anyone insisting that you’re doing it wrong.

  2. Esther says:

    I’m saying “hear, hear” to the issue with individualism. I actually see this with birth as well. I’ve had my babies at home with a midwife. First, the problem is: is it safe? can it possibly be safe? can you possibly be trusted to be in charge of giving birth to your OWN babies in a way that isn’t irresponsible? But once I learned how to navigate that issue, I feel like I fell into an even more permanent and unsolvable quaqmire, which is individualism. I’m tired of “each mom should do whatever makes HER comfortable” and “you do what you’re going to do and I’ll do what I’m going to do and we’ll agree to disagree” because when we live that way we don’t shame the medical system into doing a better job of serving women who want more choice and control over our birth processes (less Pitocin, less monitoring, etc). The emphasis on individual taste is like choosing to be collectively re-active instead of active — chocolate or vanilla, but no going to a different ice cream store! — and all in the name of being nice to each other. Believe me, I do want us to be able to be nice to each other, but…not voiceless in the process.

    Good work untangling this.

  3. Kristen J. says:

    I wish both sides of the debate would focus more on reducing contraints on choice rather than on converting others to their perspective.

  4. Safiya Outlines says:

    I do think turning breast and or formula- feeding back into how I feed my baby or child, instead of some kind of wider political statement or method of personal fulfilment or way of defining an attitude towards parenthood would help.

    So much is put into “how you feed your baby” and I don’t think it helps parents or babies. So I’m not sure how helpful a post looking at things through the prism of breastfeeding is. It feels like everything is being reduced down to a minor issue (Yes! I said it, how you feed your child or infant is not the be all and end all), instead of talking about the big things that affect parents throughout their child raising years.

    • Lolagirl says:

      So I’m not sure how helpful a post looking at things through the prism of breastfeeding is.

      I think blue milk is pretty explicit on why this is such an important discussion. It isn’t about defending or explaining our choices, it’s about how deconstructing all the many ways our U.S. society at large treats women in discriminatory ways for the sin of being women and mothers. It’s about judging us and discriminateing against us for either choice to breastfeed or bottle feed, for having the nerve to breastfeed in public, for insisting that we have equal rights to exist and move about in the public sphere, for having breasts at all, for reminding men of the uncomfortable reality that our bodies and our breasts are not solely for them to use for their personal playthings, and for insisting that we don’t need to be just like men in order to be treated as intellectual and social equals to men.

      • Safiya Outlines says:

        I did get that point, but considering the anti-women BS pushed by within lactivism, as seen in Deborah’s comment below, which gets a massive pass because 1)It’s women doing it and, 2) Breastfeeding is seen as sticking it to The Man, I do not see breastfeeding as the field for fighting for wider mother’s rights.

        That well has been truly been poisoned, by people on both sides of the debate.

      • Lolagirl says:

        I disagree.

        And that certainly doesn’t mean that we then throw our hands up and not deal with all of the other related issues discussed in blue milk’s post.

        We’ve had this back and forth so many times here on Feministe. It’s really discouraging. I absolutely agree with you that there is a small segment of lactivism that goes overboard and shames some women for not breastfeeding. That’s wrong and should stop. However, in the bigger picture our society as a whole is still very anti-breastfeeding and a huge number of women still get tons of pressure and shaming for trying to breastfeed at all. Not to mention all of the structural issues that stand in the way of women trying to stick to their choice to breastfeed once they leave their own homes and either go out into public or, heaven forbid, work outside the home and try to continue breastfeeding.

  5. Deborah says:

    While family supported her decision to bottle-feed, some strangers were not so accepting. One woman told her “if you can’t feed your child you shouldn’t breed” while another called formula “evil”.

    They make you feel like a bad mother

    Really, it doesn’t matter what you do as a mother. Someone, somewhere, will tell you that you are wrong and bad, and that it’s all your fault, without ever, ever, looking at the social structures that surround you and push your “choices” inexorably in one direction. And then you get blamed for not being strong enough to stand up to the pressures.

    • Stephanie says:

      We also need to start talking about the history of feeding babies. There is a lot of discussion about how mothers “fail” to breastfeed now and that it never happened in the past. Difficulty with breastfeeding is not just a 21st century problem (though our cultural knowledge base has in many ways disappeared), mothers had/have a hard time breastfeeding in communities without formula or donor milk available. When that happens sometimes the babies failed to thrive, but there was also a community of other breastfeeding mothers who fed not just their own children.

  6. Deborah says:

    A case in point, of individuals being blamed no matter what. It’s all lovely supportive messaging, until the last sentence about most mothers being able to work through the issues, “if they choose to.”

    Judged mums defend bottle feeding

    Breastfeeding support organisation La Leche League spokeswoman Lisa Manning said all mothers deserved to be respected and supported “irrespective of their feeding choices”.

    “We’re all just trying to do the very best we can,” she said.

    “It’s not helpful for women to feel they are being judged or compared.”

    Personal choice or health issues aside, lack of support was one of the biggest obstacles to women continuing to breastfeed, Manning said.

    “With the right support from your family, your whānau, your partner . . . most women, if they choose to, can work through any issues.”

    • FashionablyEvil says:

      “With the right support from your family, your whānau, your partner . . . most women, if they choose to, can work through any issues.”

      I’m not sure what goes in that elision, but I think the meaning of the sentence is clear: with support most women can work through any issues they have with breastfeeding.

      • Lolagirl says:

        I agree that, taken at face value, the statement that a parent can overcome obstacles to breastfeeding can do so if they want to is perfectly acceptable. I had some significant obstacles to breastfeeding my twins the first month or so, and that sort of cheerleading message really helped me to stay confident that I could work through them and make it work. It was important to me to breastfeed them and not just give up, and that had absolutely nothing to do with caring about or judging what other parents ended up doing with their own babies and everything about doing what felt for me, my babies and my body.

        The bottom line here is supposed to be about parents doing what they decide is best because it works for them. Which is why the language used in that sentence is “if they choose to.”

  7. robotile says:

    I agree that breastfeeding is a political issue, and discomfort and lack of support for it does marginalize women as a whole, and does reveal how much society is still structured around patriarchy and men’s needs, not women’s.

    But part of the blame should lie with health and public health officials. Getting more women to breastfeed on a population level is a very noble goal, because in aggregate, it will probably lead to better health. But for an individual woman, they will never be able to discern whether their kid is healthier or not because they were breastfed (or not). Pushing and shaming individual women who choose not to breastfeed is actually pretty stupid public health policy, yet doctors, nurses, and even epidemiologists who work in outreach spend most of their time advocating for policies that increase pressure on individual women to breastfeed, while paying only nominal lip service to political changes that would actually make breastfeeding easier on a population level. So in the end, they get to feel good about spreading a healthy message, but in practice they are stigmatizing women and not doing much to raise actual breastfeeding rates and by extension, public health.

    Of course, it’s uncomfortable to be in a position where you’re advocating for something that is inherently political and controversial–which is what guaranteed maternity leave is, or guaranteed pumping rights, or baby friendly workplaces.

    If doctors seriously started lobbying for paid maternity (And paternity leave, because let’s face it, women will still be disadvantaged in the workplace if men don’t take similar amounts of time off to raise their kids), they would probably be demonized by conservatives. It’s uncomfortable to be disliked, and to be caught up in a political issue (see climate scientists).

    But it’s absolutely necessary if they actually want to be doing their job, which is improving public health, not just individual health. To me, this type of cowardliness is endemic to the field–which you can see in the constant shaming of overweight people while placing only weak emphasis on structural elements of society that encourage a sedentary, fast-foodified lifestyle.

    • Bint Manga says:

      Resounding YES on the paternity leave issue – if anyone thinks that all we need is maternity leave and the workplace will automatically be more fair to parents, that’s wrong – people will simply continue to mommy-track women and hire/promote men instead. And women who don’t want to stay home with new babies will be forced to do so anyway because, hey, you’re the one getting the paid leave, and we’ll have more lovely patriarchy forever.

  8. ana says:

    What you’re describing is the status-quo damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t experience that I have had as a female since I was very small.

  9. Alexandra says:

    Right. I think the critique of Public Health is spot on. Public Health, by its very nature, is part of the government of nations; and where governments have two conflicting interests – on the one hand, improving the population-wide health of children through breastfeeding, but on the other hand, serving the interests of corporations that don’t want to have to pay for maternity leave – you’re going to see Public Health people not advocating for what would do the most good, ie society wide structural changes, but rather advocating “education” into the right choices as some sort of panacea. Education is critically important, but in the US there are lots of populations of women who know about the importance of breastfeeding, but who find it difficult or impossible to do for structural reasons like an unfriendly work environment.

    “Education” also fits in very neatly with the high value the US has historically placed on individual responsibility for one’s welfare and happiness. It doesn’t make much sense on a public health level to value individual responsibility because so much public health requires collective action (like vaccinating against infectious diseases, or creating sewer systems, or fluoridating water, or…). But there’s so little political will in the US right now to do anything other than lecture people who “make bad choices” or who have the “wrong” sort of body.

    I mean, honestly, if we wanted to change the shape of people’s bodies in the US the place to start would be by changing the kinds of processed foods sold in America, and even deeper than that, by changing food subsidies and thus the kind of food grown, bought, sold, and consumed in this country. But instead we’re getting fat-shaming. So also with breastfeeding.

  10. Safiya Outlines says:

    Lolagirl – I would disagree that it’s “a small section”. Just starting with the “all women can breastfeed if given the right support” – yes apparently unlike the rest of the human body, everyone’s breasts function always, to the way mothers (generally) are told that you may struggle but it’s worth it – why? If you told women to struggle with any other physical activity for someone else’s benefit, you would be swiftly dismissed.

    That breastfeeding isn’t popular in wider society, does not eliminate or minimise the anti-women rhetoric that is a feature, not a bug, within lactivism, it just means that it is overlooked. The fact that women feel that they “can’t win” whether they formula feed or breastfeed is a big clue, that both sides deserve further scrutiny.

    Also, for those saying that breastfeeding should be a public health issue: no, no and thrice no. All that means is women being given loads of “but it’s for the good of your Baybee!” guilt-tripping.

    • Past my expiration date says:

      Not necessarily. As Alexandra says above), cavities are a public health issue, so we (the public we) fluoridate; we don’t just say, “Personal responsibility for brushing and flossing!” Safe drinking water is a public health issue, so we have the Safe Drinking Water Act; we don’t just say, “Personal responsibility for getting your water tested!” Infectious diseases are a public health issue, so we have mandatory vaccinations for children; we don’t just say, “Personal responsibility for washing your hands!” And so on.

      (Note that I’m not saying that these public responses to public health issues are 100% effective, just that they exist.)

      I can imagine a society saying that breastfeeding is a public health issue, so everybody gets six months of parental leave and affordable on-site child care. In fact, there probably actually are societies that say this. I just can’t imagine US society, right now, saying it.

      • robotile says:

        The fact that people associate “public health” with “shaming en masse” is because public health as a field has lost its way and has taken to pressuring (erm “educating”) individuals rather than doing what would actually help a population: namely, change policies, change the environment,a nd change the landscape so it is easy for more people to make a healthy choice without even having to think about it. So there are ways to make breastfeeding a public health issue without the shame. It’s just that in the US, we’ve backed so far off our public health roots that we don’t even recognize what effective PH would look like.

    • Emily says:

      Lots of women struggle with the sleep deprivation involved in caring for a newborn and are encouraged to push through it because it gets better. It is physically draining to care for a newborn whether you are breastfeeding or not, but we do it and it gets better and it gets easier (like breastfeeding).

      And I am another pro-breastfeeding lazy mother. I would have loved to have a year of paid maternity leave so I could nurse my kids to 12 months. I have close to the ideal pumping situation (my own office with a door I can close, outlets I can use,etc; not micro-managed on how I spend my time during the day) and I couldn’t keep up the pumping past 7-8 mos. With my second I kept pumping an extra week or two just to make it to our family vacation so I wouldn’t have to bother with formula and bottles while we were away from home.

  11. Lolagirl says:

    That breastfeeding isn’t popular in wider society, does not eliminate or minimise the anti-women rhetoric that is a feature, not a bug, within lactivism, it just means that it is overlooked. The fact that women feel that they “can’t win” whether they formula feed or breastfeed is a big clue, that both sides deserve further scrutiny.

    This has nothing to do with breastfeeding being popular. But way to minimize people calling me (and other breastfeeding parents I’ve known) a pedophile, a sicko, disgusting, and a self-absorbed, mentally ill woman who is hell bent on ruining my sons and turning them into mama’s boys and sissys.

    Because that is the sort of stuff that I and blue milk are discussing about societal pressure to not breastfeed that we encounter both on the home front and in public.

    • Lolagirl says:

      Well, maybe this isn’t specifically what blue milk means, but it sure is what I’m talking about.

    • Bint Manga says:

      I hear you on the anti-woman rhetoric about BFing being “weird.” Don’t underestimate, however, how powerful the message from doctors, public health folks and others is on why you must BF, it’s magic for your baby, it’s not that hard, you can work through problems if you’re willing to nurse all night and pump all day, and aren’t you selfish for not being able to sacrifice for your baby’s sake, etc. It preys on women’s insecurities and uses a lot of good old-fashioned Good Mothers Sacrifice All rhetoric. One look at Kellymom or La Leche League and those who are ambivalent about BFing or struggling with it can get as good a guilt trip as any in the world. What Jane says below about people suddenly policing your body and your choices is something that those who did not or could not BF are very familiar with. Colleagues, friends, internet parenting sites all pressure women to “do the best thing” for their child and for public health, to hell with their right to choose what to do with their own breasts.

  12. Safiya Outlines says:

    Again – two separate attitudes about a subject can exist.

    How exactly does stating that there are anti-women issues in lactivism minimise your experiences? By stating this am I saying that anti-breastfeeding attitudes don’t exist? No. So I am neither denying nor minimising your experiences.

    By stating that, you’re putting lactivism above criticism, I.e, because anti-women rhetoric exists in opposition to breast-feeding, we can’t discuss anti-women rhetoric espoused by those who are pro-breastfeeding.

    • FashionablyEvil says:

      because anti-women rhetoric exists in opposition to breast-feeding, we can’t discuss anti-women rhetoric espoused by those who are pro-breastfeeding.

      What anti-women rhetoric espoused by those who are pro-breastfeeding? I am sure it’s possible that it’s out there, but I haven’t seen it on this thread.

      • Safiya Outlines says:

        See antigone’s comment @40 for a description of what is definitely out there.

        Likewise, within the natural birth movement. Natural birth can be an amazing thing for labouring women and their babies, but the push for women to have natural births (which is a big thing in the U.K) can lead to women feeling exactly the same feelings of powerlessness and being denied what they feel they need ( e.g being told good women can handle their pain by moving about, you don’t need an epidural, if you have pethidine, your baby won’t be able to latch on, etc etc) as being pushed down the medical route.

        It’s not enough to take things on face value, just because they’re seen as being natural or women led.

  13. GinnyC says:

    I think that taking about choosing to breastfeed is a really complicated because which people breastfeed and how is often connected to structures of oppression at the societal level in very complicated ways.

    For example in some Latin American countries, women in the upper and middle classes don’t breastfeed in public, but many indigenous women openly breastfeed their children. So breastfeeding a child in public becomes a radicalized division and one in which the dominant society polices middle-class mestizas and others indigenous women.

    It think that a discussion of breastfeeding has to include the reality that different groups of women are under very different pressures as to where they breastfeed and whether or not they breastfeed. And that not getting harassed for breastfeeding in public can also be a sign that people in the dominant society are not willing to treat you as fully human. But at the same time, breastfeeding takes fewer resources than preparing safe formula and is a tradition that many women very much want to conserve.

  14. Safiya Outlines says:

    I’m not USian. I live in the UK.

    So we have very good maternity leave (at least 9 months paid), token paternity leave and there is a big push within our universal healthcare system to promote breastfeeding, with what I’ll describe for the sake of brevity as, mixed results.*

    From a UK, looking at the U.S perspective, I think the focus on breastfeeding here, when most working women have to go back to work at six weeks, which really stymies breastfeeding, is…well it’s not what I would prioritise. Also, I don’t think improving breastfeeding rates should be used as the justification for better maternity leave, because I dislike there being any societal pressure around breastfeeding, either for or against.

    * To give a few examples: Some still feel they aren’t getting sufficient support or advice to breastfeed. Pro breastfeeding materials have a disgustingly big emphasis on breastfeeding “helping you lose the baby weight”. Some hospitals refusing to supply formula. Some women feeling pressurised to breastfeed. Some women simply not wanting to breastfeed anyway. Note usage of the word some throughout.

  15. 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.

    It was motherhood that led me to define my feminism in a way I never had to before. It was motherhood that pushed me up against the walls of patriarchy in a way that opened my eyes to so many other gender inequalities in our society. While I was aware of women’s rights movements and certainly supported them and their goals, it wasn’t until I became a mother that I felt personally impacted by patriarchal structures.

    Of course, I had been impacted by patriarchal structures before becoming a mother, and I definitely see those things in retrospect. But when I became a mother (at 25), I felt like I was doing a pretty good job of exerting my equality in my immediate society. I was married to a man who agreed that it was just as much his job to do the dishes as mine, I was in college and pursuing a career I loved, and I felt confident and in control of my choices. But once I became pregnant, my perspective completely changed.

    And breastfeeding was a HUGE part of that. The way other people were suddenly policing my body and my choices was eye-opening.

  16. EG says:

    I love this post. To be honest, I’ve loved all your posts. I love the way you so clearly enumerate the political aspects of the vast constraints on breastfeeding in the US, and how all of this is so often handwaved away in favor of “everyone makes their own choice.”

  17. chava says:

    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.

    YES. More than this, though, I think we need to stop making health the moral justification for breastfeeding. We’re in a cultural moment right now where healthy=moral good, and that’s just wrongheaded. Breastfeeding should not be supported because it is the healthier or better choice; it should be supported because women have a right to use their bodies to feed their babies, or not. Period.

    • EG says:

      I agree. As blue milk does in this post, it needs to be repositioned as a political issue; we have the right breastfeed in public and for breastfeeding to be made feasible for women who work outside the home because women’s bodies are normal bodies. Making it a health issue not only makes it code for morality, but it also makes it about the babies, not about the women and our right to live in public without fitting our lives into a mold created for straight middle-class white cis men in the 1950s.

      • chava says:

        Yes. I love the idea that “turning down the noise” on the flame wars around feeding lets you hear the pushback against women publicly using their bodies for, yes, breastfeeding–but really, and more importantly, anything not patriarchy-approved.

    • Bint Manga says:

      “Breastfeeding should not be supported because it is the healthier or better choice; it should be supported because women have a right to use their bodies to feed their babies, or not. Period.” Thank you. Exactly.

  18. chava says:

    In other “this is still a problem” news, we’re visiting relatives. An older male relative of mine*, when I mentioned the baby needed to eat, broke out with “well you could feed him right here at the table, and if you feed him the way I think you’re going to, you know, we’ll all watch. Amirite, Uncle Chava and Grandfather Chava? We’ll ALL WATCH! Get it! Harhar.”

    So yes, still a problem.

    *he is in most respects a wonderful man. that he thinks this is an OK joke to make speaks volumes about the place BF still occupies as an oversexualized, “dirty” action in our society.

    • EG says:

      Wow. Because you know what’s funny? Creepy incest jokes.

      No offense to your Older Male Relative, but does he even realize that he is suggesting that your grandfather ogle the boobs of his own granddaughter?

      • Lolagirl says:

        But there are bewbies on display! Mens just can’t help themselves when that happens, amirite?

        With all of the nasty pushback I’ve experienced in my breastfeeding career, I have to say I’ve been pretty shocked by how open and supportive my super conservative, Catholic, Foxnews watching Dad has been about it. Even when I was tandem nursing twins he was wonderfully supportive (as opposed to my FIL and step-FIL, who have never been.)

    • DonnaL says:

      Ugh. I do hope that someone called him on it, or at least supported you if you chose to say something.

  19. lahana says:

    I think people also have to realize that not all children can be successfully breastfed. Sometimes it is because – for one reason or another – the mother doesn’t produce enough milk. But in other cases, the children will not nurse strongly enough to get enough milk. When my nephew was born he would not even suck on a premie nipple. He and his sister never took more than 2 ounces of formula at a time. There have always been children like this – in days past they died – it was called failure to thrive. And the last thing these mothers need is someone telling them that they just need to keep trying – that everyone can nurse if they work at it hard enough.

  20. antigone23 says:

    I think shaming women for breastfeeding in public or for breastfeeding toddlers is misogynistic, and it does happen. But there is also overwhelming pressure to breastfeed, particularly in certain regions and socioeconomic groups. And I think many of the tactics utilized by lactivists are paternalistic and misogynistic — distorting the evidence to make formula feeding look far worse than it actually is, guilt, shame, character insults, etc.

    I also think that the breastfeeding debate ties right into the mothers as martyrs issue – that women should have no right to make choices about their own bodies or their own lives because it’s best “for the children.” I’ve been told by multiple people that women who don’t want to breastfeed shouldn’t have children, because it’s “selfish.” I have gotten into debates with people who simply can’t comprehend that a mother taking care of her own needs IS what is best for her children, that continuing to breastfeed when the mother is miserable does not serve the best interests of the baby either because the baby needs a mother who is healthy and happy and up to the challenge of parenting.

    I know a lot of breastfeeding advocates like to paint breastfeeding as the easy choice. And for some women, it is. If breastfeeding works, it’s easier and cheaper than formula feeding. But if it doesn’t work, it can be expensive and oppressive. I spent more money trying to breastfeed for two weeks than I spent on two months worth of formula. And yet the same breastfeeding advocates who promote breastfeeding as easy and cheap will tell women to pump every 2 hours around the clock in addition to nursing and supplementing (while recovering from childbirth…this regimen could drive the strongest women insane!), or tell them to spend $200 a month on prescription meds and herbs to increase supply, or tell them to ignore the pain and misery that breastfeeding is causing them and soldier on, and if they fail to do these things then they are lazy and selfish and destroying their children’s health.

    I am very supportive of breastfeeding. I think it is beautiful. I think it should be publicly supported. I think that women breastfeeding in public should be unremarkable. I support measures such as extended maternity leaves, 24/7 trained lactation support in hospitals with free follow up visits, insurance covering breast pumps. But in the end, the breasts belong to the woman. It IS her choice. And we are never going to achieve the kind of overwhelming numbers that breastfeeding advocates want to see. Because the cat is out of the bag. Women have options and I don’t want to see those options restricted. I don’t think that is in the best interest of feminism. Having read many of the stories on fearlessformulafeeder.com, and been one of them myself, I know that the reasons why women don’t breastfeed are numerous and varied. More support will help. More social acceptance will help. But many of those reasons are not going to go away. There are always going to be a contingent of women who don’t want to breastfeed, who try breastfeeding and don’t like it, or who have challenges that make breastfeeding not worth continuing, for them.

    • Jill says:

      I also think that the breastfeeding debate ties right into the mothers as martyrs issue – that women should have no right to make choices about their own bodies or their own lives because it’s best “for the children.” I’ve been told by multiple people that women who don’t want to breastfeed shouldn’t have children, because it’s “selfish.” I have gotten into debates with people who simply can’t comprehend that a mother taking care of her own needs IS what is best for her children, that continuing to breastfeed when the mother is miserable does not serve the best interests of the baby either because the baby needs a mother who is healthy and happy and up to the challenge of parenting.

      Yes. One thing I loved about this post (among many things) is how blue milk was careful to privilege women’s choices as needs. She didn’t say this explicitly, but I got the strong sense that she was basically discussing the concept of whole-family health — that the choice to breastfeed or not breastfeed or breastfeed sometimes is a decision in which there are many factors, and social norms and male-centric policies limit real choices. But yes, a lot of the rhetoric from pro-breastfeeding advocates is… not ideal. I particularly hate the “breasts are for feeding babies, not for men!” line. Because, well, why do breasts always have to be for someone else? My breasts don’t feed babies. They also aren’t for men. But one of the best things about them is their sexual function — which is for me. Men are involved. But just like I’m not under the impression that men’s penises are for women, I am unclear on how we got to this place where we see the sexual nature of breasts as being “for men” instead of for ourselves.

      Anyway, side note, but that framing irritates me (not that blue milk was framing it that way — she wasn’t). If this post was the breastfeeding conversation we could have, I think we’d all be a lot better off.

      • Lolagirl says:

        I particularly hate the “breasts are for feeding babies, not for men!” line.

        I’ve only ever pulled this line out when I’ve been called a perv for breastfeeding and told that I need to save my breasts for my husband’s viewing and enjoyment. In that sort of context, the reply that it’s perfectly normal and natural and healthy to use my breasts to feed my baby sounds feminist enough to me.

        Because, well, why do breasts always have to be for someone else? My breasts don’t feed babies. They also aren’t for men.

        I’ll agree with this statement too. Yet context is always important, isn’t it? Stop making boobs all about mens’ tittilation and enjoyment and accept that they can and will be used by some people for feeding babies. This all ties back into standard feminist ideas about not treating women’s bodies as sexual objects for the gratification of others. Look at my face, not at my breasts, when you talk to me, walk by me or whatever. And by the way, this basic rule of how not be a sexist person doesn’t change if a baby happens to be nursing from those breasts.

    • robotile says:

      But in the end, the breasts belong to the woman. It IS her choice. And we are never going to achieve the kind of overwhelming numbers that breastfeeding advocates want to see. Because the cat is out of the bag. Women have options and I don’t want to see those options restricted.

      Antigone23, I totally agree. It’s very instructive to look at world breast feeding rates–in no country is the number of exclusive breastfeeding women at 4 months anywhere close to the 95% of women that La Leche League and others claim are physically capable of producing adequate supply of milk for their children. And it’s not just rich countries where rates are low. So clearly, there will always be some subset of women who choose not to breastfeed or to supplement, and it’s not just an issue of getting more maternity leave, more support, etc. Those things are important, but there will always be a substantial part of the population that chooses, for whatever reason, not to breastfeed, and that should be okay too.

    • Alexandra says:

      I love this comment to death.

  21. Cloud says:

    Blue Milk, this is an awesome post. You have really clarified my thinking on this issue. I breastfed both kids for what in the US is considered an “extended” time- roughly two years. I happen to live in a part of the country and move in circles where that is not a particularly big deal- other than a few people expressing a shocked sort of admiration (and dude, the hard part is the early days- breastfeeding a 20 month old is soooo easy), no one much commented- but I know from my friends and family in other places that this is not a universal experience. I happened to have no problem pumping when I went back to work (at 4 months post partum, both times)- but again, that is not a universal experience.

    I want us to stop fighting about working vs. stay at home, breastfeeding vs. formula-feeding, and look at why things went so well for me (and others), and figure out how we can make that possible for all women who want it.

    And I want to stop needing to point to health benefits to justify the length of time I breastfed. All that should matter is that I wanted to, my kids wanted to, and it hurt no one.

    And god, do I want us to get away from the idea that we have to do everything “perfectly” as mothers, for fear of frittering away some small iota of our children’s potential. Human young are more resilient than we credit. I’ve been doing some reading in the sociobiology/anthropology realm and I believe more firmly than ever that human babies need love and to feel secure- and the rest will probably be OK. The human brain actually generally requires a lot of repetition to learn- which means that an occasional screw up is probably no big deal, as long as the overall environment is good. We don’t have to be perfect as mothers. And there is no one right way.

  22. Natalia says:

    People have been having children for thousands of years. Most do OK.

    I’m generally a big fan of the radical notion that we can generally trust women to do their best. With the caveat that there ought to be actual *resources* available to them.

    And that the thing, isn’t it? We’re so focused on the “I choose my choice – No! I choose my choice better than you choose yours!” narrative, that we leave very little room for structural analysis and genuine activism.

    And the other thing is… Parenting screw-ups happen. My parents screwed up majorly once. It wasn’t the “they bought me Malibu Barbie instead of Ballerina Barbie” type of screw-up. It wasn’t “mom breastfed too long” or “mom didn’t breastfeed enough.” It was a grade A, awful, painful screw-up, and I am a different person because of it. At 28, I’m *still* learning to adequately cope with it. I’m learning to mourn the person I will never become because of it – so I can finally let her go. And I don’t rule out the possibility that my child will also come to identify my most glaring mistakes – and to be forced to find ways to heal from them – though I hope my parents’ mistake has taught me something too.

    But for the most part, these things are part of the process we call life. Life is messy. It’s also often ugly and scary – and no one gets out of it alive (hardy har har). I think in the U.S., too many people have lost touch with the fact that life is like that. They want perfection. They want “the perfect baby.” They want the chance to be “the perfect parent.” Yet these concepts are the products of the feverish imaginations of ad executives. They have nothing to do with real life.

    And it doesn’t matter if the Joneses aren’t reading the same baby books that you are – nor does it matter if Alicia Silverstone brings her kid to Coachella. You “choosing your choice” doesn’t matter. What matters is whether or not you get royally fucked for doing so – as most parents, mothers in particular, inevitably do.

  23. Past my expiration date says:

    But actually I think that the fact that parenting screw-ups happen — indeed that bad things in general happen — are a major motivation for insisting that I chose my choice better than you chose your choice. Because maybe if I choose all my choices exactly right, then nothing bad will ever happen to my child.

    (Yes, I know that this is not the actual way of the world.)

    And, to tie it back into blue milk’s post, this magical thinking is a feminist issue because if something bad does happen, obviously it’s the mother’s fault for not having chosen her choices correctly.

    • Natalia says:

      Of course, they are indeed guided by that motivation. Which is silly at best – and at worst is guided by some serious fear and hate.

      Throughout my pregnancy, throughout Lev’s first year, well-meaning friends and relatives have been going, “BUT DON’T YOU WANT TO MAKE SURE THAT YOU DON’T FUCK HIM UP?! HERE, READ THIS BOOK. IT IS THE GOSPEL. JESUS CHRIST, YOU OWN *THAT* KIND OF CARRIER?! WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU. WHY ISN’T HE WEANED YET? WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’RE PLANNING ON WEANING HIM?! BAD MOMMY BAD!”

      The need for perfection fosters the illusion of control.

    • robotile says:

      This type of magical thinking is very similar to situations where women feel that they are safe from rape if they are good girls who don’t wear the wrong clothes or walk down the wrong street or drink too much or say yes to some sexual acts….etc.etc.etc. Obviously, the “if I’m good enough bad things won’t happen to me” mentality is incredibly problematic for so many aspects of life.

  24. Athenia says:

    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.

    QFTT

  25. SWNC says:

    Because, dependence is not deviant behaviour – being young, being old, being unwell, being hurt and healing, being disabled – it’s normal life.

    This is beautiful. One area where I feel like contemporary feminism–at as seen on the Internet–sometimes fails to acknowledge the reality of many, if not most, women’s lives. My child is dependent on me. My elderly, often sick parents are dependent on me sometimes and likely to become more so. Do I resent my parents or my child? Not at all. I’m proud that I can take care of them. But I do resent the larger social structures that make it so hard to provide that care.

  26. Stephanie says:

    This is a great post, but I have one quibble: For some of us, breastfeeding is anything but a lazy act. I breastfed until 13 months and it was a struggle the entire time. Not because of latch (though that was a horrific experience in the beginning, but because I am a super-producer (I know, boo hoo, me). I had to constantly manage my supply and breasts due to chronic plugged ducts and mastitis. Luckily I have a super supportive husband and workplace so I was able to do it for longer than most despite the trials.

    It was also never an on-the-go activity due to the size of my breasts which I had to hold up to keep in my child’s mouth due to their weight. Finally giving up (not entirely my choice due to a mastitis that effectively shut down one breast) was the most liberating thing I have ever experienced.

    • Lauren says:

      I cannot stand the assertion that breastfeeding is easy/lazy. If the learning curve and maintenance of the breastfeeding experience super-easy and totally lazy, it’s likely because you have nature and privilege propping you up. The ease of this experience doesn’t seem to be the norm.

      Granted, it’s a hot-button point for me because during both of my pregnancies, all the “you should do it! so cheap! best thing for the baby!” cheerleading broke my heart. It wasn’t in the cards for me and all of my explanations or protests got lost in the rhetoric, which then became a mental and emotional chore to endure.

      • chava says:

        Well, when it works out well, it certainly can be (eventually) easier than bottlefeeding IME. When it doesn’t, though, it tends to tank rather spectacularly.

        The “easy” or “lazy” rhetoric tends to come from a place of trying to justify one’s decision (at least for me). I’ve had friends have a go at me for breastfeeding, and I’ve certainly used the “it’s easier than formula for me” defense.

      • Lauren, I completely agree that the breatfeeding message is too simplistic – it’s free!, it’s easy!, it’s natural!.

        Except, there’s the opportunity cost of women’s time, and it’s not always easy and probably not going to be in the beginning because we don’t grow up knowing/seeing much breastfeeding, and then the whole ‘natural’ thing is absolutely loaded as a word. And I was going to highlight that problem in the piece but then decided it was getting too long.

        I’m careful about the argument that breastfeeding, itself, is a priveleged activity. I grew up in parts of the Middle East and Asia, as well as Australia and Europe and obviously, some of the poorest people in the world breastfeed their children.. and while needing to work. Western countries are the outliers here, but even within this group of countries there are variations. Australia has much higher breastfeeding rates than the US – we also have more family-friendly workplace practices and we’re a less religious country so less puritanical attitudes towards women’s bodies. I hope I’ve highlighted those kinds of factors in this piece.

        But the stigmatising of breastfeeding, especially in public, is huge in Western countries. There was an interesting conference paper I saw a year ago that looked at Sudanese refugees in Australia – they arrived with very high breastfeeding rates (and they’re young, homeless, traumatised, poor, isolated, non-English speaking and very often single mothers: so about as disadvantaged as you can possibly imagine) but reportedly felt challenged in continuing with high breastfeeding rates in Australia very quickly because of societal attitudes and the absence of breastfeeding women in public spaces.

      • Lauren says:

        I’m careful about the argument that breastfeeding, itself, is a priveleged activity. I grew up in parts of the Middle East and Asia, as well as Australia and Europe and obviously, some of the poorest people in the world breastfeed their children.. and while needing to work. Western countries are the outliers here, but even within this group of countries there are variations. Australia has much higher breastfeeding rates than the US – we also have more family-friendly workplace practices and we’re a less religious country so less puritanical attitudes towards women’s bodies. I hope I’ve highlighted those kinds of factors in this piece.

        Yes, I absolutely agree. I was speaking to a Western experience, ultimately, in that if it’s free and easy, you probably have the social support of wealth, stability, family to prop you up while you lay around for 6-12 (or more) weeks figuring it out. And that if you continue to breastfeed, in all likelihood you have the social support to be a stay at home parent full time or the stability to challenge outdated standards in your workplace. We’re in an economy now where this is just not the case for most women, if indeed it ever was. It’s extra maddening and saddening that Dr. Sears, one of the biggest proponents of attachment parenting, with which the breastfeeding movement is securely latched (heh), advises that women “just” quit their jobs and borrow money so they can stay home and do all the breastfeeding while their kids are young. I’ve got an old copy of the LLL handbook that advises the same. I know not all breastfeeding advocates or attachment parent proponents believe this, but it’s a cornerstone of what we culturally tell women they need to do to be good parents, and between the lack of social support, the vulnerability of pregnancy and new motherhood, and the shitty economy, this method of promotion is arguably socially abusive.

        The “natural” bit makes me particularly nuts, but mostly because it’s part of the natural = moral thing we have going in the United States at the moment, and it’s a seriously under-examined woo.

        I agree with you that the emphasis on personal experience is validating and feel-good, but ultimately impotent when it comes to making any legal or social circumstances for women any easier. How to move what we want from chatter to the real world is beyond me.

      • Lauren says:

        And for some reason my comment sounds way more combative on re-reading than I meant it to. I think we’re mostly in agreement insofar as policy, I’m just quibbling with some language.

  27. Brandy says:

    Very interesting perspective! I completely agree that we have to become more accepting as a culture for breastfeeding to work! There are just so many “natural” challenges presented to breastfeeding women to be adding on these cultural challenges!

  28. Christa says:

    Amen! Well said!

  29. Just to clarify a couple of things here. I’m not opposed to a public health message around breastfeeding – and whether you agree will depend on how liberal you are in your political values – I think the public health message worked, formula feeding had become the norm. But I do think there are limitations to its effectiveness as the primary strategy. This is because it is about individualism. That is, we try and change women’s views, as individuals, and not the world they’re trying to navigate.

    When I say I am against the individualism that is happening I do not mean that there’s anything wrong with conversations between mothers about their breastfeeding or bottle-feeding experiences, I think that’s highly valuable information sharing – but there is something wrong with it when the debate is stuck in this dynamic. Who is doing what and why and the very particulars of their decisions and what makes their decision right – that’s a fairly useless place to be having any kind of debate about breastfeeding rates. It just encourages judgementalism and policing and blaming of women. Much better if we think about the circumstances in which we make our decisions and how we would want to improve that.

    • Jill says:

      When I say I am against the individualism that is happening I do not mean that there’s anything wrong with conversations between mothers about their breastfeeding or bottle-feeding experiences, I think that’s highly valuable information sharing – but there is something wrong with it when the debate is stuck in this dynamic. Who is doing what and why and the very particulars of their decisions and what makes their decision right – that’s a fairly useless place to be having any kind of debate about breastfeeding rates. It just encourages judgementalism and policing and blaming of women. Much better if we think about the circumstances in which we make our decisions and how we would want to improve that.

      This, I think, is crucial. We seem to have figured this out (at least in feminist circles) when it comes to the choice to bear a child. We can support a woman’s right to choose, while still recognizing that there are a whole lot of factors constricting choice on all sides — pressure to give birth, anti-choice laws, pressure to terminate, financial constraints that make it impossible to have another child, financial constraints that make it impossible to churn up enough money for an abortion, physical complications that may turn a wanted pregnancy into an unwanted one, and on and on. Women have myriad experiences. We should be trying to open up as many options as possible so that our choices are as free as possible. And we can recognize that while experience sharing is valuable, and while an individual should have the right to make decisions about their pregnancy free of judgment, those decisions are often made under very constrained circumstances. Just talking about the right to abortion doesn’t cut it; women need abortion to be accessible, and they need to have it be affordable, and they also need to have childbearing be a realistic option if that’s what they want. I think most feminists get that it’s a bigger issue than just individual decision-making.

      Seems we could apply that fairly easily to childbirth and breastfeeding. There isn’t one universally right “choice.” There are major constraints on certain choices, and those constrains vary wildly according to socioeconomics, culture, race, location, etc etc. Removing those constraints is a wide social issue, not an individual one. It makes no sense to shame women for choosing whatever they choose. Etc etc.

  30. Owen Davies says:

    Isn’t the whole issue of breastfeeding pretty much an impossible one to “solve” (if, indeed, it needs solving)

    Breastfeeding is best for the child, in the vast majority of cases.
    This, correct me if I’m wrong, is FACT and it’s pretty hard to argue against it.
    So, health care providers, the ones who have read all the research, point out the benefits, as they should do.
    But, by doing this, they get accused of demonising women who can’t / choose not to breastfeed. They say that hearing these facts makes them feel like they have failed as a mother, which, clearly, isn’t good.

    So what do we do? Do we stop pushing breastfeeding, stop pointing out the benefits and then watch the breastfeeing rates decline, or do we keep on pushing it and risk making women feel like failures.

    • EG says:

      Did you read the post? This isn’t about individual choices. It’s about systemic problems.

    • EG says:

      Similarly, babies don’t exist in vacuums. What’s healthiest for a baby is a happy mother.

      • Owen Davies says:

        Honestly, I wouldn’t agree with that.

      • EG says:

        Really? A primary caretaker who’s depressed and unhappy isn’t going to have a negative effect on the baby? You have a very low opinion of babies’ capacity for empathy, as well as a low opinion of the effect of unhappiness on caregiving. Low opinions, and inaccurate ones.

      • Owen Davies says:

        My wife really struggled breastfeeding first time around. Crying with the pain when baby was latched, crying when baby was waking because she knew it would want a feed.
        Had mastitus 3 times, bleeding nipples.
        Very self aware when feeding in public, so would never do it.

        So not a happy bunny at the start.
        Did baby give a sh*t? Course not, it was getting fed with breastmilk, with all its benefits, and being settled by being on the nipple. It didn’t care if mother was crying when feeding.

        She got there though, a few months in it all changed.
        2nd and 3rd were breastfeed, this time without so many issues, wife enjoyed it from the start. Babies were no different to her though.

      • EG says:

        I don’t think you get what “unhappy” means here. It doesn’t mean “unhappy for a while and then things get better.” It means ongoing misery.

      • Owen Davies says:

        Unhappy for the first few months is a fair chunk of time in a babies development.

      • EG says:

        But the issue isn’t the baby; it’s the mother. Your wife wasn’t so unhappy that she stopped, or wishes she had, from what you say.

        But sure, I’ll counter your anecdote with one of my own. The earliest memory a close family member has is from before he was two years old, and it’s of understanding that his mother was sad and depressed, but he was not, and not knowing what to do about it.

      • Golden says:

        I was so unhappy I considered killing the baby. Breastfeeding was so miserable, I hated it so much – and everything else that was going on, that infanticide seemed not only natural in a profoundly animal way but impossible to avoid.

        I did get help. I had lactation consultants, I had support, I had a caring partner. It did not matter because due to a very traumatic birth, not only had I not bonded but my body was in severe shock with constant, agonising pain. Sixty stitches will do that to you. My body could certainly produce milk but I couldn’t cope with the pain of the latch (which wasn’t ‘that bad’ because it was ‘only bleeding a bit’) on top of all the other pain, and I ‘realised’ after a little that killing the baby was wrong so suicide was a better option.

        And what turned out best in the end, for me, was to stop breastfeeding, amongst other things. I desperately needed decent blocks of sleep to start healing. I’d had to have six units of blood. I needed stronger painkillers than were safe in breastmilk, I needed antidepressants that were NOT safe, but most of all, I needed sleep and time away from anyone touching me to cope with the massive feeling of violation that the birth had caused.

        So actually, yeah, a happy mother is important. Profoundly unhappy mothers can, have, and will commit infanticide because people driven to extremes have very poor decision making abilities.

  31. Pingback: Breastfeeding: some thoughts « Rainbow Pyjamas

  32. I agree with much of what you’ve stated here, and it is eloquently expressed. But I’m afraid it’s the same arguments that have been going on in the feminist community for ages now, and I worry that you are missing the point that so-called “defensive formula apologists” like me have been trying to make.

    I have never said that breastfeeding is not a feminist issue. It IS, for all the reasons you’ve brilliantly illustrated above. But I think for the most part, modern feminists have agreed with you, and have put their efforts towards systemic change that will help improve things. And this is an entirely different battle than the one I’m waging, which is to ensure that women are not convinced that they MUST breastfeed in order to be “real feminists” or real women or real mothers. I’m fighting to ensure that we are given real information, not “marketing” as you so rightly put it. Two wrongs cannot make a right, here. I think we are essentially fighting the same battle, and what frustrates me is that we’re letting it divide us rather than working together. Why couldn’t this post focus on the patriarchal society which makes it hard to breastfeed without the unnecessary digs on those of us who are fighting for formula feeder rights, and who may see the fallout from breastfeeding advocacy a bit differently than you do? It’s hurtful, quite frankly, because you had me on board up until the point you started comparing the plight of formula feeders to the plight of breastfeeders. We are held down by different forces – breastfeeders by an ignorant and basically family-unfriendly society (because quite frankly, I think the issue is more one of society not respecting parenthood or the value of child rearing than one of disgust with breastfeeding, although that is certainly part of it), and formula feeders by the medical establishment and governmental and pro-breastfeeding groups who have sacrificed us at the alter of advocacy. True feminism should mean fighting for the right for all women to be supported and respected in how they choose to mother, and I wish to god we could all band together and stop this pointless debate within feminist circles. This is patriarchal society’s wet dream- the busier we are fighting about what Good Feminists Should Support, the less energy we have to make things better.

  33. Pingback: Basically a Heap of Awful « Babes in Babylon

  34. Bint Manga says:

    I love most of what you’ve said here, particularly the part about making sure the workplace does not exclude those who don’t have a 1950s style housewife at home and to take seriously the fact that most adults will at some point have dependents. As a feminist, I am however a bit troubled by the subtext of what you’ve said about choice and institutional constraints – you seem to suggest that all women would, unfair workplace/cultural constraints removed, choose to breastfeed, and that we can assume it’s the natural, biologically determined preference. What about those who don’t want to? Would we make the assumption that all women, if not for the need to earn a living, would love to have many more babies and just stay home with them? It’s not just the patriarchal workplace that makes women decide not to stay home with or to breastfeed babies, there may be a number of other factors at play. I experienced a lot of the public hostility to nursing in public when I was BFing and general scepticism about BFing that you’ve described and am a strong advocate of BFing rights, public space nursing rights, pumping facilities and so on, but would really prefer to see advocacy for parental leave framed in terms that don’t focus on just the mother doing things that only she can biologically do, or assume that the well-being of a new baby lies primarily in being breastfed. Let’s fight for paid parental leave for both parents to divide as they wish, not assume that “good mothers” must be the ones to stay home with the baby.

    Also, BFing may be lazy and convenient for some women but is far from the case for others, and doesn’t work with a lot of career schedules, so let’s not assume that your personal experience is the norm.

  35. Bint Magna, thanks for expressing what I was trying to say in a far less hostile, more coherent manner. That was brilliantly articulated.

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