Sacrificing choice

So, I wrote this article for the F Word, and there have been comments (scroll down – that’s not all the comments I’ve had, though). Mostly, actually, supportive and pleased that someone’s talking about breastfeeding from a feminist perspective. A few have disagreed with my take, and this one I’d like to address:

On that, I can’t see how ‘battling through’ breastfeeding when it is agony is healthy, and it feeds worryingly into patriarchy’s ‘mother as martyr’ dynamic

And then, of course, there’s the now infamous Case Against Breastfeeding article. In that, too, Hannah Rosin frames breastfeeding as a “compulsory self-sacrifice”.

Okay, so, say I’d written an article about becoming a mechanic. I initially found the work really physically hard. Because I hadn’t yet gained all the skills I needed, I burned my arm on a hot engine.  I hated it.  I dragged myself into work every day for a month. But this is what I’d always wanted.  I was determined to stick with it. Gradually I gained skills, got strong, proved to be really good at this. Now I’m making progress in my career and my sense of self has been transformed. Who would have thought someone like me (a woman, someone who doubted herself) could do this? Wow! Feminist role model; personal triumph.

Or I was a doctor. Punishing hours; awful things happen; many skills to learn. But I got good at this, and people got better! All that early hard work has made me fulfilled, skilled and able to help other people. Isn’t it great that there are women gaining those skills and doing those jobs?

Say I was a nurse. Hard physical work; hard emotional work; lots to learn. But I learned, grew, and got huge emotional and intellectual satisfaction from my work. That’s a  bit sus, isn’t it? Emotional satisfaction from nursing? From doing a traditionally female job of looking after other people?

But in fact, I am not a mechanic, a doctor or a nurse. I’m a breastfeeding mother. I get huge emotional rewards from it; I feel like it’s a worthwhile thing to be doing; I know, also, that it is the best feeding option for my children, and a straightforward and healthy way for them to bond with their mother. But that’s suspicious. Going through difficulties to succeed at nurturing my own children is the wrong kind of narrative for a feminist to take pride in.

It’s got to  be a different story. We have framed so much of feminism as about choice; so much of feminism is about choice. But a narrative of motherhood can’t be like a narrative of a profession. Motherhood isn’t entirely abstractable – you have to be someone‘s mother. Motherhood is a relationship, or a web of relationships, not a qualification. It’s unfair: you just do  it, you just are that kid’s mother, whether you’re better than the infertile woman next door or not. Furthermore, since you are that kid’s mother, there are things you can do that nobody else (pretty much) can do. And breastfeeding is a key one there. So, to a degree, there is no choice: the best food for your child is one only you can make (wet nurses and milk banks being vanishingly rare options). Which is a bummer when it’s hard to do, because of work outside the home, because of pain, because of inhibition, because of hating it.

Yes, it’s every mother’s choice to breastfeed or not. But let’s not pretend it’s a neutral choice, or that it’s a choice made in a vacuum.  Let’s not deny evidence and silence individual stories in order to fit in with a currently orthodox feminist notion, any more than we silence feminist voices to fit in with the patriarchy. Let’s also be clear that demonising any broad sweep of opnion, be that breastfeeding advocacy or formula-feeding advocacy, is a stupid move. I’ve never said formula feeding mothers are “selfish” or that I “pity” them, despite both those words being used in comments to my article.

There are a lot of problems with the notion of “choice feminism” (oh, so many problems…). Breastfeeding brings some of those to the fore very actutely. Let’s react like a mature, self-confident feminist movement and examine those problems. Meantimes, I’ll continue to breastfeed and other people will continue to interpret that in ways that are about them, not me, and definitely not my children.

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4 Responses to Sacrificing choice

  1. Pollyanna Sunshine says:

    Thanks for this! So much of the pro-breastfeeding propaganda (at least in the US) is focused on badgering mothers into doing what a patriarchal medical establishment says is best for their babies (while simultaneously conflicting with the pressures from an equally patriarchal formula industry and culture that constructs breasts as sexual objects for male pleasure), and it’s great to read something that helps us understand breastfeeding as something other than suffering-for-the-sake-of-the-children martyrdom.

    My own experience of breastfeeding was similarly empowering–after a birth experience that was totally disempowering, having been caught between a medical establishment that told me my body was failing because it wasn’t following the prescribed course of labor AND a natural-birth establishment that made me feel like a failure for not a) having a perfect natural birth experience or b) being “strong” enough to refuse my doctors’ advice, it was very empowering to feel like my body was able to do what I wanted and needed it to do for my child.

    At the same time, I think it’s important to realize that there are many aspects of breastfeeding advocacy that are really disempowering and that seem designed to make women feel helpless and guilty and in need of intervention. The only really negative part of the experience was with the hospital’s lactation consultant, who basically came into my room when it fit her schedule and demand that I wake up my baby and force him to eat so that she could show me how to do it right (even though I’d already nursed him earlier and he was happily sleeping), grabbing me and the baby and jerking us around, making me feel like a prop instead of an agent, etc.) I can only imagine how much worse it is for mothers who do have more serious challenges with breastfeeding and have either crappy support, no support, or are made to feel like failures if they are unable to nurse their children as much or as long as they want to. I think it’s important to remember that breastfeeding advocacy and support needs to focus on empowering mothers, not dictating to them.

  2. Ruth Moss says:

    I think this is brilliant, I love the mechanic analogy, I really do.

    (I did warn you about the comments you’d get!)

  3. […] Sacrificing choice "Yes, it’s every mother’s choice to breastfeed or not. But let’s not pretend it’s a neutral choice, or that it’s a choice made in a vacuum. Let’s not deny evidence and silence individual stories in order to fit in with a currently orthodox feminist notion, any more than we silence feminist voices to fit in with the patriarchy. Let’s also be clear that demonising any broad sweep of opnion, be that breastfeeding advocacy or formula-feeding advocacy, is a stupid move. I’ve never said formula feeding mothers are “selfish” or that I “pity” them, despite both those words being used in comments to my article." (tags: breastfeeding feminism) […]

  4. […] Sacrificing choice “Yes, it’s every mother’s choice to breastfeed or not. But let’s not pretend it’s a neutral choice, or that it’s a choice made in a vacuum. Let’s not deny evidence and silence individual stories in order to fit in with a currently orthodox feminist notion, any more than we silence feminist voices to fit in with the patriarchy. Let’s also be clear that demonising any broad sweep of opnion, be that breastfeeding advocacy or formula-feeding advocacy, is a stupid move. I’ve never said formula feeding mothers are “selfish” or that I “pity” them, despite both those words being used in comments to my article.” […]

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