On my original book blog, my tagline was, “resting and reading and nursing the child, trying to figure out enoughness.”
…when my first baby was born in 2003, I once again became a truly avid reader. Why? Because of breastfeeding. As I nursed my little son, I read and read and read. This became the rhythm of our lives: suck, swallow, read, and consider.
The entrance of the iphone and ipad into my life in 2011 had a marked impact on my reading-while-nursing time, increasing my ability to respond to students, keep up with online courses, and now, update etsy listings and customer communications, but I still do a lot of reading and nursing. However, I see from this list of 21 Books From The Last 5 Years That Every Woman Should Read that I’m woefully behind in that I’ve only read one book from this list of 21 (I have also read 74 books this year that are not on the list, so I won’t bemoan my behindedness too much).
I’ve addressed the notion of breastfeeding as a shero’s journey a couple of times in the past:
“Why have I never written about the bloody, messy, tearful, painful parts of breastfeeding in my own personal motherhood story?! They’re there…”
I was reminded of it again today, while reading this blog post on the theme of “I’m an OB and I ‘failed’ at breastfeeding,” with its accompanying subtext that if even an OB “can’t breastfeed,” then it must be okay if you can’t too:
But when we went home two days after Safiya’s birth, she was still not nursing well, requiring me to pump breast milk and supplement with formula early on. I was a fourth-year medical student, and I had one month to study for the second of three exams required to obtain my medical license.
However, as often happens in medical discourse about breastfeeding and why it “fails,” the systemic context is almost completely overlooked, the critical eye is turned towards women’s bodies and babies’ “demands,” rather than the often broken systems of support surrounding (or not surrounding, or even actively undermining) a family.
Elizabeth Grattan has written a very matter-of-fact analysis of how the personal choice narrative and a socially constructed idea that breastfeeding advocacy is somehow persecuting women who do not breastfeed:
…It is absolutely true that women facing this decision face unsolicited advice and shame. It’s also true that some white men get harassed for the color of their skin. It is true that some in favor of “traditional marriage” feel ostracized because the Constitution doesn’t side with them. Humanity is full of experiences in personal journeys that lead us to empathy on an individual level. But that gives us no right to pretend our personal anecdotes even compare to issues faced on an institutional level. It is not appropriate when the majority pushes back against minority advocacy. But that doesn’t seem to matter much to Jung, who treats both as pawns to gain her own notoriety.
She also has a good article about breastfeeding as a reproductive rights issue:
Because nutrition for our children isn’t really the argument. Reproductive freedom is.
Quite simply: Breastfeeding might very well be a decision women are making for a variety of reasons (nutrition notwithstanding), but lactating is not a choice. It is a biological process based on the anatomy of the reproductive system. Whether you deliver the child full term or not, pregnancy includes the production of milk in a woman’s body*. That milk is going to make its way to the mammary glands in the breast and if steps are not taken to stop the production or express the milk, engorgement, plugged ducts or mastitis are inevitable. A woman cannot will the production of milk away anymore than she could tell her body to go into labor at a certain time and place. Reproduction doesn’t work that way. And since lactating is triggered through the reproductive process, then every aspect of the discussion must be built upon the rights of women.
This exploration reminds me of my own look at breastfeeding as an ecofeminist issue:
Breastfeeding is a feminist issue and a fundamental women’s issue. And, it is an issue deeply embedded in a sociocultural context. Attitudes towards breastfeeding are intimately entwined with attitudes toward women, women’s bodies, and who has “ownership” of them. Patriarchy chafes at a woman having the audacity to feed her child with her own body, under her own authority, and without the need for any other. Feminism sometimes chafes at the “control” over the woman’s body exerted by the breastfeeding infant.
Why keep yammering on about breastfeeding? Because it matters. And, it goes way beyond being a personal choice, it is a public health issue with many long-lasting effects on mother, child, and society…
the longer a mother breastfeeds in her life (one or more babies and the collective number of months), significantly impacts her risk for breast cancer; the protective effect of lactation on breast cancer risk is cumulative…
…In addition to offering protection from breast cancer to the mother, having been breastfed has a protective effect. One study cites a 26–31% decrease in the development of breast cancer in females who had been breastfed as babies; if you or she takes no other preventive measures against breast cancer, breastfeeding her alone sets your baby girl up for a nearly 1/3 lower likelihood of developing breast cancer later in her life