Breastfeeding and Feminism

BY Reba Dory

One of the most common phrases I have heard thrown around when discussing breastfeeding is that it is natural. That nature gave women breasts, and therefore women should breastfeed. This attitude often coincides with the romantic notion that nature is beautiful and benevolent even though we know this isn’t always the case. Furthermore, many of us believe strongly that breastfeeding is beneficial to both mother and child, and a quick Google search will find the most current reasons for this. Yet women find themselves faced now with a painful question: how has a function we’re ostensibly “programmed” to do become challenging for so many?

The experience of breastfeeding is fraught with tension, with guilt, with advice from varying and sometimes contradicting medical professionals, not to mention the input of consumer-seeking formula companies and the judgmental and impatient eye of employers. There are too many voices from the outside telling women how they should approach this deeply personal relationship between themselves and their child. Low milk supply is over diagnosed, bad advice abounds, and breastfeeding requires a lifestyle that directly opposes our fast-paced American society. Many women trust in the answers they are given, but I could not accept them. And so I ask: why are so many women unable, or perceive themselves to be unable to breastfeed?

Has our love for tragedy and drama drowned out the wonderful stories of achievement? Stories of overflowing, abundant milk coupled with the ecstasy of rightness that comes along with it? Is it that the less successful stories are louder? Is the minority of women making itself heard while the majority that manages to breastfeed has no interest in speaking up? Or have women actually lost their touch and evolved into somehow lesser beings than their ancestors?

These are the questions that got me started on my first film, BREASTMILK. I chose to begin with the notion that many women want to nurse their children, but somehow do not achieve their breastfeeding goals. In following new mothers embarking on this first-time journey as well as mothers who breastfed in the past, I documented their changing ideas and practices as they faced the reality of their desire to breastfeed.

BREASTMILK explores our current cultural climate in which the idea that women can naturally breastfeed is deeply problematic. The fact is that we are not a culture that reveres nature anymore. Our cellphones aren’t natural, our keyboards aren’t natural, our cafes and Netflix and Facebook aren’t natural. We are surrounded by the products of science and technology and we rely on them. We worry about the future, about getting the right promotion, getting our kids into the right schools, getting the right doctor for the right procedure. Breastfeeding is not about the future, even as science espouses its future benefits. It is about the present moment. Women who breastfeed require time and flexibility, as nature does not measure hours and minutes the way we do, but rather relies on instinct, on what feels right. Ours is not a culture that appreciates slowing down. We look for fast-tracked answers in Googled science.

So we are told by the science that yes, indeed, breastfeeding is better. Science gives us language to back up our already-held beliefs: antibodies, gut flora, IQ, immune systems, allergies. In our scientific culture, the scientific evidence is appealing. But the movement towards empirical evidence is not necessarily the way to go for mothers either. The naturally-breastfeeding-mother has merely changed titles and become the evidence-driven-mother, still leaving women in a bind.

Neither the natural nor the scientific approach to breastfeeding is helpful in this culture, in our time. Both foster guilt in women who cannot breastfeed. Women are, in fact, set up for failure–they are told early on that they can’t do it, and as physiology is tied to psychology, is it really any wonder that they end up believing they can’t? Some women experience terrible pain, some have babies who don’t manage to latch on, some have a hard time supplying enough milk and some simply don’t have the time, space, or luxury to breastfeed, let alone a supportive partner or community. Yet most of these challenges can be addressed with the right social support and structural changes.

This is where mainstream feminism hasn’t caught up with the realities of most women’s lives. On the one hand, women are supposed to be just like men: free to be career-driven and sexual. But on the other hand, the female physiology is different than the male’s: women are leaky, they bleed and spout milk. The fluid nature of women’s bodies is not only about its wetness, but also about the dramatic changes it goes through during puberty, pregnancy and birth, as well as after, with postpartum and menopause. This is historically the way women’s bodies act, and yet the male gaze sees the ideal women’s body as static, unchanging, model-like, and available for his pleasure. The irony is that the ideal nature of women’s bodies in the male gaze has changed dramatically over the years: fat, round-armed, hourglass-shaped, skinny and flat-chested, these are all body types that have been seen as “ideal” throughout history. In other words, there is no essential ideal. There is only the fashion of the current culture. For mothers the ideal body is the one that is fluid and extremely un-male – able to nurture a baby both inside and outside itself. There is a battle being waged within feminism between the stay-at-home-mom and the career-mom, even though these roles can and do overlap.

Feminists have fought so hard for equality–which we haven’t achieved yet–and yet now here are breastfeeding mothers who don’t want to see equality as sameness. Sameness implies, unfortunately, that women should be like men, whereas equality speaks more to being able to exercise the same rights. Women are not like men, at least in terms of mainstream physiology, since men cannot provide the same nourishment that women can when it comes to their children. Feminism has taught us that women can have careers and express themselves in the workplace as well as in the domestic sphere, and yet businesses today are simply less likely to hire women of a certain age to professions that involve promotion and upward mobility (when they do hire women, of course, we have seen the salary gap that follows). Women are less financially viable options to these businesses–the assumption is that they will get pregnant and require not only maternity leave but time off to deal with their children’s illnesses.

Another taboo we don’t talk about and should is the pleasure a mother feels when she is breastfeeding successfully and it feels right to her. We can use other words to describe this experience: natural, the scientific oxytocin, sensual well-being or, dare I say, sexual. But the fact of the matter is that women who breastfeed their children feel a sense of incomparable rightness. And it is this rightness that we need to listen to.

Breastfeeding is a reproductive right. Feminism has helped us legalize birth control, but it has neglected and failed women in terms of the right to breastfeed by ignoring the fact that babies require their mothers’ care both inside and outside the womb. There are no federal laws in place providing maternity leave, there are no federal laws securing accommodations for breastfeeding mothers. This is pushing such mothers out of the workplace or causing them to turn to formula instead. Women should be accommodated within the workplace. Different women will prefer different options: getting breaks at work to pump milk, having affordable childcare in or out of the workplace, being invited to bring infants into the office or cubicle while nursing. Paternity leave is another option, one that can be combined with any of the other viable, logical options. But none of these systematically exist. This is where feminism is failing us. It’s all well and good to support women’s right to wear what they like and eat what they like, and it is definitely important to discuss the extraordinary rates of sexual abuse, but we are missing some of the core concerns that feminists focused on during the 1960s and 70s, which involved tangible policy changes regarding women’s role as mothers as well as workers.

Current feminist rhetoric also tells us that women have the power of choice. We must remember that most women do not, in fact, have choice. They should–but they don’t. Women who choose whether or not to breastfeed, who choose to take time off from work–these are the lucky ones. Until we change the way our society treats mothers, they will continue to be the minority.