Friday, April 24, 2009

Tell it!

So, it's Friday afternoon, and I'm sitting at the dining room table pumping out some extra milk while checking blogs, and I come across this post on babble which almost makes me stand up at the table and shout YESSS! only I don't because that might wake up the baby and WE DO NOT WAKE UP THE BABY. Anyhoo, it's this essay about breastfeeding and cultural attitudes thereon, and you really SHOULD read the whole thing, but the part that made me want to jump up and yell was this:

We tell women that breast is best, we tell them to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months, we even tell them it will raise their kid's IQ (and we should give that a rest), and then we send them home with formula samples, or with a baby whose throat is too sore to suckle, or a mom whose milk is delayed because of surgery, and we don't teach technique, and we are offended when a woman breastfeeds in public, so we make her feel housebound, and we don't give a mother and her partner paid leave, and we send her to go back to a workplace without on-site childcare, and so her only alternative to formula is to plug her nipples into a machine, and if she's lucky she gets periodic breaks and a "non-bathroom lactation room" in which to pump, and if she's not she gets a toilet, and so on and so forth.

It's no wonder women are ready to burn their nursing bras.

But it's not that these public health recommendations are grounded in some return-to-the-1950s conspiracy, as Rosin suggests; they're grounded in physiology. And science is validating the physiology of the mother-baby dyad — that is, both are healthier when they remain close to each other during the first several months postpartum. It's not simply the milk that's inimitable; it's the mothering. (Indeed, "We actually don't know if feeding infants human milk has the same benefits as breastfeeding," says Labbok.) And mothering is something that our culture does not value enough to support. It is this dissonance between physiology and culture that has women so frustrated, and feminists like Rosin grasping at the bottle as a proxy for equality.

But is that really what we want? Powder rather than real power? In a brilliant New Yorker piece about the rise of the breast pump, Jill Lepore questions the direction of breastfeeding advocacy, which seems to be settling on the pump as a compromise to this conflict, with tax incentives for businesses with "Mother's Rooms" in which babies are explicitly not welcome ("pump stations," Lepore calls them) and Baby-Friendly hospitals sending women home with manual plastic pumps, and the president of the National Organization for Women calling for more "corporate lactation" programs. "It appears no longer within the realm of the imaginable that . . . 'breastfeeding-friendly' could mean making it possible for women and their babies to be together," writes Lepore. "When did 'women's rights' turn into 'the right to work'?"

What a great question. Why did American feminism evolve in such a way that we think of biology as destiny, and that destiny as a prison? Why are we so willing to surrender the parts and processes that makes us female rather than demanding that society support them? We've broken down doors and cracked glass ceilings, when what we need to do is redesign the building.

YEEEEESSSSSSSSSS. How can we get policy makers to hear this and understand it? How can we get the medical establishment to give breastfeeding and mothering in general more than just verbal support? (Did anyone ever mention to me that my c-sections were likely the reason my milk took so long to come in? No. And have I told you about the crazy night nurse who told me I shouldn't breastfeed my baby or hold it for too long?!!?) Breast is best: OK. We get it. But it's also goddamnmotherfucking HARD for a whole lot of us, for a whole host of reasons. Maybe it's time for the people pushing the breast-is-best message to stop using it to make mothers feel guilty and start using it to push for social changes that will actually enable families to breastfeed if they can or find optimal alternatives if they can't. For chrissakes.

Oh, and on the same topic - this post has some interesting information, too.