June 15th, 2010
Here are two excellent pieces exploring the social and personal dynamics among breastfeeding, feminism, and class: “What does feminism have to do with breastfeeding?” from the Breastfeeding Medicine blog:
“After all, the conventional wisdom is that breastfeeding is a maternal duty that forces women to eschew their career aspirations to fulfill some ideal of motherhood, while feminism is about liberating women from exactly those constraints. Case closed. Or is it?….
Why do we accept that, if a woman devotes all of her time to caring for her family, she does not earn any social security benefits, whereas if she gets a paying job and sends her children to daycare, she and her day care provider earn credits toward financial security in old age?”
And from the International Breastfeeding Journal “Women’s liberation and the rhetoric of ‘choice’ in infant feeding debates:”
“…’choice’ in infant feeding method operates to distinguish women who make “good choices” from those who do not, as if those choices are unconstrained. Infant feeding choices – whether made by “heart” or “head” – are practiced in the context of the social, cultural, and economic forces that structure most people’s daily lives and intimate decisions. It is our responsibility, as feminists, to identify the constraints that reveal the “choice” itself to be not so much a choice but a class privilege, and then to figure out how to challenge the status quo that makes it so.”
Here’s one comment from the first piece:
“It is what we were built for, so is telling a woman that breastfeeding is something that holds us back not, in a round about way, telling us that the very core of what makes us female is, in fact, a fault?… is it really equality if we’re giving up what makes us female to fit into a world designed around men?”
I connect with these issues ideologically. I see them play out in the world around me, among clients, friends, the media, etc.. On a personal level though I have a harder time relating. I have been entrenched in the birth-midwifery-women’s biology world for almost all of my adult life and I do not acutely feel this incompatibility between breastfeeding (or instinctive mothering) and feminism. I have perceived breastfeeding to be a biological or social burden I must choose to suffer through or reject. I grateful that I do not suffer an internal double-bind faced by so many women.
I know what you are thinking: You must be a white, college-degreed, baby-wearing, stick up the ass attachment-parenting preaching, kombucha-making, breastfeeder of a five year old. Sort of.
I do have the good fortunate of having en employed partner, and as a self-employed midwife I have the privilege of keeping my practice small, flexible, and child-friendly — but it also means that I produce virtually no income unless I am attending births. We live off 1.1 incomes because we live modestly, and we struggle to pay the bills like other working and middle class families.
The family, the kids, the supporting all of us on one income, my beliefs around instinctive mothering — this all came well into my adulthood. The framework for my not feeling trapped, suffocated, disadvantaged, or fundamentally conflicted about my social and biological functioning as “mother” and “feeder” was created much earlier in my young adulthood by the presence of awesome, strong, creative, loud-mouthed, loving, sexual, primal women around me. Women who owned their biology AND derived their power from it. My womanhood, I came to know, was my magick.
Women grow human beings, in our wombs and as babies on the outside. Let’s stop selling ourselves short. As a society — and as women for whom breastfeeding is our biological and social domain– we must evolve our understanding and function of feminism to include and celebrate the biological wonders we possess.