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April 4, 2009

Judith Warner, we love you, but you’re bringing us down.

Oh, Judith. You and Hanna Rosin both bring up a lot of great points. Pumping may not be the perfect answer to a working mother and hungry baby's needs. Breastfeeding advocacy can go way too far. Women should be given some flexibility on the question of what to feed their babies. Pressure and guilt are bad.

But your piece was laced with such disgust! Words like "grotesque" and "undignified"? How do those sound to the man on the street? To a pregnant mother, who’s thinking about whether to nurse or not? Who cares if your argument was ostensibly about pumping, not breastfeeding? The image of a lactating woman as a cow will linger a lot longer than those tiny disclaimers about how much you loved nursing. You say you wouldn’t have traded breastfeeding for the world. But you may well have made that trade for the women who read this piece and think, hmm, dignity vs. breastfeeding… maybe not.

We know there’s a strident voice out there saying “breast is best,” and we know it can royally suck to hear it when you’re struggling. But there’s a reason for that liquid gold fetish you’re talking about. It’s a defense against the much bigger fetish: breasts. As sex objects, not food sources. It’s easier for people to think in terms of science and statistics than think about where that fluid comes from. And let’s put this into perspective: Formula has been the primary food for the majority of babies in this country for more than half a century. There’s still a very squeamish attitude about nursing from the sexist camp (Bill Maher) and the old schoolers (Barbara Walters). If our New York Times feminist hero is telling everyone breastfeeding is disgusting, what will happen next?

We are more than sympathetic to the plight of the pumping mother. We have enjoyed many a bovine joke. But the pump is more than just a tool of oppression to help women strive toward some impossible standard of exclusive bf perfection.
Pumping is part of the reality of breastfeeding for lots of reasons: a premature baby; a job that resumes while supply is still being established (within the first 6 weeks postpartum); a life that includes random time away from the baby during which the mother doesn’t want to ejaculate milk on flight attendants, develop mastitis or otherwise suffer through engorgement. For these people, and for other women who may just like the idea of sustaining their babies on the milk their bodies produce, your piece was offensive. Is it necessary to take down breastfeeding to make it okay to not do it some of the time?

Pregnancy and breastfeeding challenge how we define our bodies and their purpose, and force us to see ourselves dually as we move forward as both mothers and women; animals and citizens. Pumping can make us painfully aware of these dualities. It can be annoying, emotional, enraging. Oxytocin—the bonding hormone—floods a woman’s body when milk is released. To feel all that bonding with no baby present can be hard. So is the solution to throw away the pump? Or throw away the job? Or throw away the baby? Or write letters to your congressperson demanding more maternity leave? How about women are given the choice to pump and/or feed formula as they see fit while we wait/fight for all the maternity leave and flexibility we deserve. What we don’t need is a guilt trip from the “breastfeeding Nazis” in one ear and a sneer from the New York Times in the other.

Yes, the breastfeeding zealots are a nightmare, but so are the backlashers.

What about the real women caught in the middle of all this?

(for more critiques see here, here and here.)

Posted by rebecca and ceridwen at 10:47 AM | Comments (8)