I'm writing this post as part of the Breastfeeding Blog Carnival hosted by The Leaky B@@b. It's World Breastfeeding Week and the carnival theme is "Perspectives: Breastfeeding from Every Angle." So as a feminist with no plans for children in the near future, here's my perspective.

"How many of you are uncomfortable around a woman breastfeeding in public?" I asked my Intro. to Women's Studies class. Over half raised their hands.

"How many of you are uncomfortable around a woman in a bikini?" Only a few hands.

"Well, get over yourselves and let the woman feed her child," I told them, in my signature professorial tone.

The thing is, so long as women are in a situation where they can be sexualized, and they meet certain cultural expectations of beauty (i.e. they are skinny enough to look "good" in a bikini... which is ridiculous in my book, b/c I'm a size 12 and think I look great in a swimsuit, but I digress), we can accept it. Expose cleavage in a plunging neckline and it's great b/c people have the opportunity to ogle. But expose a little breast during nursing and people get grossed out, uncomfortable, or just plain weird.

Historically speaking, women have, of course, always breastfed. In the U.S. in the mid-1900s with the rise of child psychologists and baby boomer moms being encouraged to stay in the domestic sphere, formula was the only way to go. This was the age when women were told how to be mothers by male psychologists and taught to use technology for all their domestic duties by men. Breastfeeding was considered unhealthy and would cause psychological problems for the baby. By the time I was born in 1980 "breast is best" became popular again and women were fighting to explain to their mothers why they wanted to nurse, not feed their newborn with a bottle as they had been as infants. In other words, it's a cyclical debate.

The "Mommy Wars" that pit stay-at-home moms against professional moms extends to breastfeeding as well. People are pretty judgmental about those who don't do what they do/would do in general and nursing is no exception. I always want to say, "do you know that woman's story?" There's probably a good reason why she made the decision she did about it, so lay off.

I do feel that encouraging women to go into hiding to nurse, or to unreasonably cover-up is a way to push women into isolation. If a mother is most comfortable that way and/or enjoys the time alone with her baby, then ok. But pushing her to stay home or giving her looks that make her retreat to a back bedroom is uncalled for. She's more than a milk machine, she's a person with a full life who is most likely struggling to integrate herself and her baby into the world. So cheers to those who don't let themselves be pushed back.

I was fortunate to work in an office that encouraged work/life balance and extolled motherhood so I've seen firsthand how breastfeeding can work for professional women. I got used to breast pumps lying around the office and not being weird about knowing where to look when I talked to a colleague who was pumping. We also offered our office as a lactation room, so women on campus could come by and have some privacy and a sympathetic space to pump.

All that said, I confess I tire of women who act as though breastfeeding is the most important act on the planet. Just b/c I don't have a baby to feed at my breast doesn't make my life insignificant. I am most comfortable around women who proceed with it as though it's a natural, normal thing.

People much smarter than me have written on this topic from a feminist perspective. Here's just a few:

* An article at ProMoM, Inc. that argues "breastfeeding empowers women and contributes to gender equality." Hear, hear!
* "Judy Hopkinson: Passion to end world hunger becomes commitment to breastfeeding moms, infants"
* The National Organization of Women's "Open Letter to the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary"

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Elisa said...

Hey Lauran: Lots of good points here. I also asked my students about breastfeeding in public, and one of the men had a really great comment: "In Mexico, women do this everywhere; it's normal." I suspect that's the case in other countries as well! And, I totally agree with Hopkinson that breastfeeding is an important part of eliminating child hunger, especially since formula is outrageously expensive. But there are tons of other benefits as well, including improved health for the mother and child, immune system support, and prevention of obesity and diabetes. I'm going to read the ProMom article right now...

MamaStNick said...

Great perspective. I wish I had been enlightened as you BEFORE I had kids. Thanks for sharing.

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