Two weeks ago, Bahar Gholipour of LiveScience reported the findings of a new study that reveal that breastfeeding is associated with upward class mobility, but you probably didn’t read it. Should I have? Do mothers really care? Do dads? Does anyone?
Such testimonies to the immutable worthiness of breastfeeding have become commonplace. In fact, the alternative — choosing not to breastfeed — has become close to unspeakable. Um, totally untrue. This time it’s that breastfeeding will make you wealthier, (Tell that to the 3rd world nations who have no access to formula, but whatever) but every week there is some evidence to suggest that you would be crazy not to breast feed. If you're physically able and have the desire to, I agree.
So let me say it: Next time, I’d skip it. Oh, this should be rich.
Next time I won’t breastfeed because it sets up a gendered division of who does what early into parenting. WHAT THE F? It provides an infrastructure for an unequal distribution of the work (and rewards) of parenting. Let me guess, you're a democrat and everything is about total equality.
The burdens of breastfeeding are real and considerable including the restraints to women’s spatial mobility and time. But the other part no one every talks about is that breastfeeding also consolidates pre-existing biological tendencies that privilege the breastfeeding parent. No shit. That's why they are called pre-existing biological tendencies. Has anyone ever questioned that?
Breastfeeding is a burden (EXCUSE ME???), but it’s also a power trip. Breastfeeding sets up the breastfeeder as the expert, the authority and the primary parent in the life of the breastfed baby. I think it's called 'mother's intuition'. Not a power trip.
You can call me a bad woman, bad mother, (I do, don't worry) and you can say that it’s easy to speak in future tense. Perhaps there is something deeply selfish in me or incurably cruel. Let me make the case for why I would reverse my choice next time.
Breastfeeding creates an imbalance in the labor of parenting. Babies attach to the face they see, the body they rest on, the hands that touch them, and I was and had to be that face/body/hand much more often than my husband did because I breast fed. I hope your son reads this and realizes how much of a burden it was to nurture him.
For other “primary parents” it might be something other than breastfeeding that determines who does what, but for me it was breastfeeding.
I teach a college course on Gender and Society. OF COURSE YOU DO One year I invited three dads to come and talk about parenting. The college students adored the hour and a half session. It was such a rare treat to hear dads talking about being dads. One of the fathers said that after their first child they bottle-fed their children because it was the only way to work against the gender disparities in the parenting process. Did neither parent work? Did they both work and another non-gendered figure bottle feed the baby? If a nanny/daycare worker/babysitter is a female, they baby, hypothetically, would still prefer a female to feed them...making the dads argument null.
At the time it sounded kind of harsh – like social engineering in the face of the well-proven benefits of breastfeeding. I also considered it sad that his wife had given up breastfeeding to try to make things more gender equitable. It seemed too academic a choice for something so intimate as parenting. I agree.
But gender is reproduced in intimate places. What I didn’t understand then was that the mother was protecting herself (protecting?) and giving the father an incredible gift: she was sacrificing her biological “advantage.”
For birth moms, we have this physically grounded centrality to the baby-making process that carries through birth. If we breastfeed we deepen rather than disrupt that primacy. Why is that such a bad thing?
In my case, I was pregnant and carried our son to term. As a result, I was deeply connected to that little guy before he ever came into the world. His heartbeat and mine were connected, as were our digestion and sleep patterns.
As if that weren’t enough to tip things in my favor, I then had to grunt and scream and bleed and rest and contract to get that little guy into the world.
And then when that didn’t work, they had to cut him out.
So on his first day breathing oxygen, I had already sacrificed major changes in my body — pushing its elasticity, strange swellings, new wrinkles — and had literally gone “under the knife” to ensure his and my safety. Super glad it's all about you. Because that's what being a parent is about, right? All about you and not your child?
My little son already knew my smell, my voice, and my heartbeat. It was perhaps the moment when my gender was the most salient it has ever been in my marriage: these things that my husband literally could not do, I had done.
And then I breastfed.
Every time I got to breast feed him I was holding my son, singing, whispering, touching, and loving on my sweet little boy.
If I had not breastfed I would have missed all those beautiful quiet times with my son. FALSE!! Do you not touch and love your child when bottle feeding? Fewer people would have seen my breasts, which would have been nice. I would have felt less like a cow, which also would have been nice. But I wouldn’t give up breastfeeding for those minor humiliations. Humiliations?! The time with my son was too important. I had never known what it was like to be that close to another human. So baby number 2 won't be worth these self-imposed burdens you have?
If we really want to address and redress the ongoing inequalities around the work of making life — the work of raising the next generation — then we have to look at breastfeeding. It’s one thing our bodies do that reinforces the social differences between men and women, moms and dads, and boys and girls. Vaginas do that, too.
Now it’s a year later, and I don’t breastfeed anymore. But my son still prefers for me to read to him before bedtime, and to wake him up in the morning. Sounds like that's a daddy issue.
When he is feeling sick or skins his knees, it is me he rushes to for comfort. (because dad is not there? At work, perhaps?) I did the work and now receive the rewards of being the skin, the smell, the face, the touch that is closest to him — and it is to me he rushes. Who does he rush to when mom is gone? No one? Likely, he runs to his daddy for comfort.
Over the years, my husband and I will work to unwind this preliminary advantage, but we could have avoided solidifying it if we had decided to use formula, or to pump and bottle feed our son. Wow.
So in a pro-breastfeeding era, I say, “I’m out.” Not because I don’t benefit everyday from that “special connection” to my son, but because I do. Oh, such a brave woman...wait, that's gendered. Oh, such a brave person.
Breastfeeding sets in a motion a series of relations that may not fit with the values or the conditions of our family forms. I am glad we have good evidence to prove how valuable breastfeeding is and support for that choice, but we also need some voices to say that despite all the benefits of breastfeeding there are still some very good reasons to do things differently if that is what is right for the parents (the mother if she physically can't or just straight up doesn't want to...I truly believe dads shouldn't get a say in how a mom feeds the baby) or the baby (agree, and for MY family, the only true reason to not breastfeed) or the relations they want between them (no).
Sometimes we have to do a runaround our bodies to ensure equity. Sometimes we have to do some social engineering to help dislodge our social aspirations from the dictates of our glands and gonads. Why? WHY?
Sometimes, to make sure that the next generation has more wiggle room around the gendered division of labor, we have to tuck away those breasts and reach for a bottle instead. Are you f-ing kidding me?! Is that really your conclusion? To help future generations, tuck away your tits?! Are you talking to a mom or a stripper??
Karla A. Erickson is an associate professor of sociology at Grinnell College.