Throwing the baby out with the breast pump

Finally, an article on breastfeeding that's more informative than it is judgmental -- almost.

Published January 12, 2009 4:04PM (EST)

As I was reading Jill Lepore's piece about breast feeding from this week's New Yorker, I was going along for quite some time thinking, "How refreshing! An article on breast-feeding that doesn't seem intended to make a certain type of mother feel like a monster!" As a nullipara, I have no personal stake in questions of whether breast really is best, how long one should breast-feed, whether it's appropriate to do so in public, etc. -- all subjects that arouse considerable passion among those who do. (For the record, though, my answers are, respectively: Sure sounds like it; none of my business regarding any kid not my own; of course, and I can't believe this is controversial.) But as a feminist, I find the various controversies fascinating, because A) they so often provide yet more perfect examples of the media's manufacturing of "wars" between groups of women, and B) they also arouse considerable passion among people who have a personal stake only in their own desire to control women, as a general rule.

So I was delighted to read an article, which at first appeared long on information, and short on judgment, about the rise in popularity of breast pumps, the history of breast-feeding, how human beings came to be categorized in the animal kingdom on the basis of milk production, the classism and racism that have for centuries influenced whether a wealthy, white mother breast-feeding her own children was socially acceptable at any given time, and the contemporary workplace's response to the needs of lactating mothers. It just read like Breast-feeding 101 for Serious Geeks. That is, until I got near the end: "Breast pumps can be useful, even indispensable and, in some cases, lifesaving. But a thing doesn't have to be underhanded to feel cold-blooded." Wait, what?

Lepore continues: "Non-bathroom lactation rooms are such a paltry substitute for maternity leave, you might think that the craze for pumps -- especially pressing them on poor women while giving tax breaks to big businesses -- would be met with skepticism in some quarters. Not so." Well, OK, I'm all for longer maternity leave -- longer parental leave, actually -- so let's just see where this goes. Here's where: Noting that the National Organization for Women is pushing for more businesses to provide a "safe and private location" for employees to pump milk, Lepore asks, "When did 'women's rights' turn into 'the right to work'?"

Oh my god, are you kidding me? Even if I'm as generous as possible in trying to understand Lepore's point here -- which apparently has to do with the value of mother-child bonding and the resultant need for longer maternity leave -- implying that the hard-won right to work outside the home ought to be regarded as a comparatively trivial concern by the National Organization for Women is throwing the baby out with the leftover expressed milk.

Lepore's underlying "Mommy should stay home" argument becomes both more obvious and more dizzying as she goes on to state that breast-feeding provides unique social and emotional benefits, except for how they're not truly unique. "Pumps put milk into bottles, even though many of breast-feeding's benefits to the baby, and all of its social and emotional benefits, come not from the liquid itself but from the smiling and cuddling (stuff that people who aren't breast-feeding can give babies, too)." OK, so, if people who aren't breast-feeding can offer the same social and emotional benefits, and the health benefits of breast-feeding largely come from the milk itself, why is it a problem for a lactating woman to pump so that someone else can feed the baby nutrient-rich breast milk while she's at work, or while she gets some sleep at 3 a.m.? Why should a woman consider it "cold-blooded" to offer her partner or older children the opportunity to share in the baby's feeding -- or for that matter, even to foist it on them because she would like to be able to leave the house sometimes? (Please note that I'm willing to entertain arguments that the breast-feeding connection actually is unique and that other types of cuddling can't match it -- but Lepore doesn't explicitly make that argument.)

And this is exactly why the "breast-feeding wars" construct is such a load of hooey. There's not one side and another; it's a multifaceted issue, to say the very least. In an ideal world, both women and men would have an equal and free choice between working and staying at home with their children. In the real world, at least one parent usually has to work, often both do, and many parents like to work, no matter how much they love their kids. Supporting women who want to stay home and be on call for breast-feeding should not come at the expense of supporting women who want to get back to the workplace and find a safe and private lactation room there. And wanting to feed your baby breast milk shouldn't mean being trapped at your baby's side for at least six months (choosing to hang out there is a different story), while the technology exists for someone else to do it.

Among my friends and relatives who are moms, there are some who loved breast-feeding and looked forward to it, some who found it painful and not all it's made out to be, some who pumped routinely and bottle-fed their babies even at times when they could have done it the old-fashioned way, and some who had to use formula because their milk never came in. I have friends who felt liberated by spending months at home with their wee ones and friends who felt imprisoned by it; friends who dreaded ever going back to work, and friends who went back earlier than planned. I have a lesbian friend who's the non-biological mother to her son and who got rude comments about her "choice" to bottle feed (her wife's breast milk) whenever she did it in public. The one thing they all have in common is that they love their kids more than life and always, always have their best interests at heart. It would be so nice if we could get just one article on a subject as sensitive as breast-feeding that acknowledged the diversity of circumstances, needs, pressures and desires affecting different mothers, instead of inevitably taking one "side" of an issue that's shaped more like a geodesic dome.


By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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