Milk, Money, & Madness

In early August, I received a press email from Evenflo about their “in-law feeding frenzy” video. While I recognized they were attempting to be playful and funny, I chose not to share the video with my readers because I found several elements of it problematic. Rather than recognize the opportunity to create an internet stir over the video, I just wrote back to the company and told them, “I try not to encourage the notion of other people having a chance to feed the baby, so I do not plan to use the video myself—I would have been more pleased with it if somehow mom stood her ground and helped in-laws see that there are other ways to be involved with the baby other than by feeding it expressed milk. I don’t promote the idea that mothers need to pump, ‘just because.’” Considering what a controversy has now boiled up this week over Evenflo’s “funny” breastfeeding video, I confess I sort of feel like I missed my opportunity for a major wave of blog traffic by exposing the ad and expositing on the problems therein when I received it in August! 😉  However, when considering the controversy, I thought of some wonderful quotes I’d saved to share from the book Milk, Money, & Madness and so I’m sharing them instead.

Dia Michels is one of the co-authors of Milk, Money, and Madness and I’ve actually heard her speak twice—once in 2003 when I was pregnant with L and then in 2007 at the LLL of MO conference. I’m surprised at how thoroughly riveting a book about the “culture and politics of breastfeeding” can be and I highly recommend it to breastfeeding and women’s health activists.

In perfect response to the Evenflo video, we have this quote:

“Babies need holding, stroking, dressing, bathing, comforting, burping, and, within a short time, feeding solids. Dad can do every one of these. The desire to participate should not be confused with the need to give the baby the best of what each partner has to offer.”

I hear from people SO often that they want Daddy to be able to participate in baby care by giving the baby a bottle. There are LOTS of things that fathers can do for their babies, other than feeding—bathing, snuggling skin-to-skin, diaper changes, playing, babywearing, and just plain walking around holding the baby while mom takes care of her own needs.

And, here is an excellent quote with regard to public breastfeeding/breasts as sexual objects:

“When the attitude is taken that a woman’s breasts belong to her and no job is more important than caring for one’s young, the confusion between breastfeeding and obscenity goes away.”

And, then considering the argument that bottle feeding “liberates” women from the tyranny/restrictiveness of breastfeeding:

The liberation women need is to breastfeed free of social, medical, and employer constraints. Instead, they have been presented with the notion that liberation comes with being able to abandon breastfeeding without guilt. This ‘liberation,’ though, is an illusion representing a distorted view of what breastfeeding is, what breastfeeding does, and what both mothers and babies need after birth. [emphasis mine]

I’ve noted before that I am a systems thinker and I think this way about breastfeeding as well as many other experiences—breastfeeding occurs in a context, a context that involves a variety of “circles of support” or lack thereof. Women don’t “fail” at breastfeeding because of personal flaws, society fails breastfeeding women and their babies every day through things like minimal maternity leave, no pumping rooms in workplaces, formula advertising and “gifts” in hospitals, formula company sponsorship of research and materials for doctors, the sexualization of breasts and objectification of women’s bodies, and so on and so forth. According to the book, “…infant formula sales comprise up to 50% of the total profits of Abbott Labs, an enormous pharmaceutical concern.” And the U.S. government is the largest buyer of formula, providing it for something like 37% of babies. (I should have written that quote down too!)

I have a special interest in how women are treated postpartum and Milk, Money, and Madness has some gems to share about postpartum care as well:

An entirely different situation exists in societies where technology is emphasized. The birth process is seen from a clinical viewpoint, with obstetricians emphasizing technology. A battery of defensive practices are employed, some of which are totally irrelevant to the health of either mother or infant. Skilled technicians spend their time and the family’s money on identifying the baby’s gender and performing various stress tests. All the focus is geared toward the actual birth. After the birth, mother and baby become medically separated. The infant is relegated to the care of the pediatrician, the uterus to the obstetrician, the breast abscess to the surgeon. While the various anatomical parts are given the required care, the person who is the new mother is often left to fend for herself…All the tender loving care goes flows to the infant; the mother becomes an unpaid nursemaid. [emphasis mine]

When I do breastfeeding help with mothers, I always make sure I address the whole woman and do not  focus only on the mechanics of breastfeeding. Recently a mother told me, “I don’t know if it was your breastfeeding advice or just the encouragement that helped most, probably both.” Women need both—“technical assistance” and emotional support. Sometimes, all they need is the emotional support and they can figure out the rest with some undisturbed time with their babies. The pendulum in breastfeeding support is shifting from active, “education” based strategies, to the recognition that often the best we can do for mothers is give them time to get to know their babies. Rather than offering positioning “advice” and “breastfeeding management suggestions,” we need to give her space, stand aside, and offer encouragement as she discovers her baby and the biological dance they are hardwired to engage in. The Milk quote continues with:

This may appear to be a harsh evaluation, but it is realistic. In western society, the baby gets attention while the mother is given lectures. Pregnancy is considered an illness; once the ‘illness’ is over, interest in her wanes. Mothers in ‘civilized’ countries often have no or very little help with a new baby. Women tend to be home alone to fend for themselves and the children. They are typically isolated socially and expected to complete their usual chores, including keeping the house clean and doing the cooking and shopping, while being the sole person to care for the infant… (emphasis mine)

According to the U.S. rules and regulations governing the federal worker, the pregnancy and postdelivery period is referred to as ‘the period of incapacitation.’ This reflects the reality of the a situation that should be called ‘the period of joy.’ Historically, mothering was a group process shared by the available adults. This provided not only needed relief but also readily available advice and experience. Of the ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ child-rearing situations, it is the modern isolated western mom who is much more likely to find herself experiencing lactation failure.

I think these quotes are important because I think there is a tendency for women to look inward and blame themselves for “failing” at breastfeeding. There is also an unfortunate tendency for other mothers to also blame the mother for “failing”—she was “too lazy” or “just made an excuse,” etc. We live in a bottle feeding culture; the cards are stacked against breastfeeding from many angles–economically, socially, medically. When I hear women discussing why they couldn’t breastfeed, I don’t hear “excuses,” I hear “broken systems of support” (whether it be the epidural in the hospital that caused fluid retention and the accompanying flat nipples, the employer who won’t provide a pumping location, the husband who doesn’t want to share “his breasts,” the mother-in-law who thinks breastfeeding is perverted, or the video that promotes expressing milk so other people can feed the baby). Of course, there can actually be true “excuses” and “bad reasons” and women theoretically always have the power to choose for themselves rather than be swayed by those around them, but there is a whole lot that goes into not-breastfeeding, besides the quickest answer or what is initially apparent on the surface. As I said above, breastfeeding occurs in a context and that context is often one that DOES NOT reinforce a breastfeeding relationship. In my six years in breastfeeding support, with well over 600 helping contacts, I’ve more often thought it is a miracle that a mother manages to breastfeed, than I have wondered why she doesn’t.

For more about the relationship between birth and breastfeeding, check out my previous post: The Birth-Breastfeeding Continuum.

Check out those exclusively breastfed thighs!

3 thoughts on “Milk, Money, & Madness

  1. Beautifully said. I just blogged today about supporting women in their birt decisions, and what a gift it is to me. I respect your decision to avoid being the center of the debate over pumping for dad/MIL. I’ll be sharing this post on my page 🙂

  2. Pingback: 2011 Blog Year in Review « Talk Birth

  3. Thank you for your opinions about sharing feeding times. I have been feeling rather guilty for not letting Daddy bottlefeed my expressed milk. I know that breastfeeding is so much more than milk, thank you, I don’t feel guilty anymore.

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