(Above: woodfired sculpture by Yolande Clark)
An image was shared recently through social media, of a woman sitting in front of a computer, grinning strenuously, with a pump attached to each breast–no baby to be seen. Maybe she is as happy as she looks in the photo. I hope so, and if so, that’s wonderful. I commend her. Breast pumps and bottles represent too much of a sacrifice for me. I see attaching oneself to a milking machine as being a very literal form of objectification. “Empowerment” as denatured as that term has become, still means, to me, independence from devices and institutions, and a reliance on, and celebration of, the interdependence of human beings.
The suggestion that female liberation lies in automating and outsourcing the primal needs of mothers and newborns to prosthetic babies (the pump) and prosthetic nipples (the bottle) doesn’t just strike me as misguided, but in my view moves humanity away from a state of real freedom and power–in particular, for women. Sadly, many women do not have the choices that I do.
I certainly don’t begrudge, or judge the individual women who choose to, or have to, pump breastmilk, and bottle-feed their children. Unlike the photo I describe above, the dear friends I know who have had to pump their milk to give to their nannies or partners or daycare workers who will feed their babies with it, tell me about weeping in the bathroom during an office break, trying to get the pump to work. They tell me about having to conjure up the faces of their infants in order to prompt the “let-down” reflex, which we know is dependent on the hormones linked to the emotions of love and adoration and connection. They tell me also of simply not being able to squeeze out a drop from the machine, although those same mothers can nourish and sustain their 8-month olds with no other foods when that baby is physically at her breast. Surprise surprise, we are not machines.
I acknowledge the privilege I have in being able to decide to stay home to feed and care for my children. I do work full-time (and more) from home (engaged in self-employment unrelated to, as well as in addition to, caring for my kids). Picture me, sitting at my computer, with a baby in arms. That’s not ideal either, but I’m very lucky to be able to to do it. And yet, because of the choices I have made, I’ve foreclosed on any possibility of having an officially acknowledged or socially acceptable “career”, and this creates, at times, immense financial stress and marginalization in several ways. Ultimately, I fully realize that the sacrifices I have had the freedom to make do not negate my privilege, but are rather an example of it. Women do not get to “have it all”.
I am also incredibly lucky to have been able to, mostly through fate and again, privilege, give birth to my babies outside of the medical system, spontaneously. This creates a foundation for the following stages of motherhood to be easy and pleasurable and almost guarantees (necessitates, even) the maintenance of a close physical proximity between me and my babies. This is simply the design of unhindered normal mammalian biology. I couldn’t possibly imagine feeding my babies with a plastic nipple, and the one or two times I have, for a few seconds, tried to pump my breast milk with a machine, I have felt repelled. No person, let alone thing, touches my breasts unless I am in intimate relationship with them.
This has nothing to do with being a great mother (which I’m not–I’m normal). This isn’t self-congratulatory. In fact, this isn’t about me at all. The opposite, in fact–I’m a rare example of a female human in the 21st century who has experienced the full range of the instinctive cascading hormones of reproduction that flow for the purpose primarily of survival: in the wild, infants who are not velcroed to their mother’s bodies for the first year of life will die–but that’s not all. (Learn more about how to create those conditions for your own birth, here)
As a culture, I believe we drastically misinterpret the breastfeeding relationship as simply the nutritional “best” whereas it is my profound conviction that the actual food infants receive from their mother’s breasts is only a small part of a countless number of aggregate needs that only nursing from an actual warm, living, conscious human being can meet, for a developing infant. These needs include touch, physical warmth, love, affection, a visceral sense of being cared for, humour, socialization, relationship, the basis for a healthy sexuality, the foundation of empathy, the bedrock of healthy eating patterns, and so much more. There is certainly nothing “wrong” with bottle feeding–it just doesn’t achieve the above in the same way. Humanity’s strength and simultaneously our tragic weakness is our ability to adapt to the most adverse, and often insane conditions. Living is not the same as thriving.
The reasons why many women can’t, or don’t breastfeed, are myriad, and include primarily damaging and horrific birthing practices, but also economic instability, lack of support, and the implication that in order to be “useful”, or “productive” to society, that we need to be participating in that which is recognized as “the workforce”. Care-taking, especially of those who are very very young (or very very old) is the very least valued of any occupation, and these positions, in a culture in which value is indicated through money, often go uncompensated entirely (i.e.: motherhood). This situation is not the responsibility or the fault of individual women, but a result of patriarchy and misogyny. Gender is a pernicious hierarchy, and “women’s work” is marginalized until men enter and masculinize those professions, as we see occurring in Nursing, as an example.
What I would love to see is a true acknowledgement of the importance and value of female labour (reproductive and otherwise) and authentic support given to mothers. This should of course, look like a decoupling of medicine, money and childbirth, but in the cold harsh reality of capitalist-socialism, a more immediately realistic and at least partial solution would mean significant funds paid directly into our (women’s) hands in the form of a guaranteed income and additional supplements for the childbearing years. Money means that all mothers could actually make real choices as to whether or not to care directly for our infants and young children ourselves, or to acquire the material infrastructure and outside support required (like nannies and breast pumps) if we decide we don’t want to.