Thursday, March 12, 2009

I haven't breastfed for almost 6 years, and I was never militant when I was doing it, but for some reason I get increasingly annoyed by what I consider to be anti-breastfeeding (BF) rhetoric. Discussions are going on at 11D and Crooked Timber.

Background: I breastfed both my kids, S till she was 14 months and E till 11 months. I supplemented both with formula. I pumped with S (I worked 3 to 4 days a week when she was a baby); I was a department head and had a door that locked and had no see-through windows. The first 6 weeks I breastfed by daughter were miserable. It got better. She slept 8 hours a night starting at 2 months or so. It was easier with my son, but I never felt like I had enough. This is all in the interest of full disclosure. I never got the happy hormones, I never lost massive amounts of weight while breastfeeding, I don't look back at those days as halcyon times with my infants.

OK, so Hanna Rosin publishes an article in Atlantic Monthly, and she is apparently such a brilliant reporter and analyst that this means she, not the American Academy of Pediatricians (PDF), is correct in saying that breastfeeding doesn't matter much. This revelation is accompanied by resentful attacks on the "breastfeeding extremists" who deliberately misled everyone!!!

So why am I so pissed off? Well, first of all, I hang out with those "breastfeeding extremists" on an online list for working moms who practice attaching parenting (which includes BF). They're not cariacatures, scapegoats for whatever parenting resentment you have. They're people, and they're complex. Some of them BF their kids past the age of 1, past the age of 2, past the age of 5. Some of them have nursed other people's children a la Salma Hayek. So on their behalf, may I quote Jon Stewart and say "f**k you."

Second, the comment on CT by Matthew Zuzma that "Breastfeeding is a natural and inherent part of the mammalian lifecycle and if there is any social construct that doesn’t mesh well with it, it’s the social construct that is inconvenient" really resonates with me and explains a good deal of my annoyance. Formula was devised as a solution to a problem, the problem being women who have problems producing milk and children who have problems ingesting it. What has happened is that the technology has become the be-all and end-all.

Harry threatened to mention c-sections. Bad idea, Harry. :) C-sections to me are like formula--a sometimes necessary intervention that has become vastly overused to accommodate people's (I think) unreasonable (or maybe the term is overreactive) discomforts and convenience. Yeah, childbirth frickin' hurts. I was a little luckier than most in that my labors were relatively short (10 hours and 8 hours), but it still frickin' hurt. But you know what? We are human beings designed to reproduce ourselves. I would never have considered having a c-section in order to avoid *potential* problems. To schedule it for my convenience. Because I was afraid of pain. Am I a birthing extremist? Yeah, I guess. Me, I just see it as letting my body do what it needed to do and saving the technology to deal with any problems.

Here's another example: poop. Sometimes you strain when you poop. Does that mean you should run off and take laxatives? Should you take laxatives every day to make sure you poop regularly? I mean, if you've had a problem in the past, BETTER YOU DEAL WITH IT NOW instead of having to waste your time sitting on the toilet TIME YOU COULD BE SPENDING WITH YOUR CHILDREN!!!!

(And if you have never seen Sarah Haskins, her piece on women and poop is an awesome place to start. :)

This evasion of life's unpleasant side (poop, childbirth, BF, pubic hair, leg hair, normal body smells, unpainted toenails, etc.) is that social construct I think Zuzma is talking about--this idea of what a woman is "supposed" to be. Well, life sucks sometimes. Sometimes it hurts when you BF, or it's annoying to be sucked on when you really just want to sit at the computer and play Freecell. Sometimes you have to strain to poop, or wait a little longer than usual to poop. Sometimes hair grows places and it makes you look less attractive than a porn actress. Sometimes it hurts like hell to push out a baby.

I'm not sure it's even really about pain and discomfort but about our idea about how we're supposed to be. Life is messy, but women aren't allowed to be messy. You know, it was *after* I'd stopped breastfeeding that my daughter became repeatedly sick, then repeatedly demanding of a bottle every two hours at night. When I had just started a one-year visiting position with a possibility of getting the tenure-track job. (I know the day care is the reason she started getting sick, not the stopping BF, btw.) The chair of my department wasn't the least bit sympathetic. Yeah, stressful.

I guess my problem is the idea of supporting someone by telling them to stop when it turns difficult. I have no patience for that. And there is way too much of that in the parenting community, and there is such a negative effect on people. You increase the fears that something will go wrong, then when something does go wrong, it seems like it was INEVITABLE and it will NEVER STOP and the woman might as well just give up right now.

Instead we should be saying "shit happens, then it usually passes." True on so many levels.


Timothy Burke said...

A lot of the people you're talking back to continued to breastfeed rather than just stop, and support breastfeeding as the main method for feeding infants. A lot of us insisted that breastfeeding in public was something completely normal and insisted on the right of mothers to do so. But many of us also made adaptations, and did what worked, found a pragmatism that many of us felt had to be wrestled back from fiercely non-pragmatic people who vested something in breastfeeding that was spiritual or political or transcended "what works".

So here you are standing in the way of what worked for many people, and in the name of what? I don't know, given that you concede that the evidence for strong intrinsic benefits to all children is weak. (Not the evidence that where water supplies are poor, breastfeeding is better: that's very well established.)

In the name of the notion that our bodies sometimes make us uncomfortable, but that's what our bodies are and so we must submit to the fact of what we are in material terms?

Human beings evolved in a dry savannah environment, and under those circumstances, lost most of the body hair that other primates have. We've used the technology of clothing for a very long time to extend the environments we can live in, given those bodies. If technological or medicinal supplements or alterations to our bodies are bad in the way you describe here, then we don't belong out of the environments that our naked bodies evolved within. We don't belong in places where the amount of sun on an annual place is badly matched to the amount of melanin in our skin, not if we have to use sunblock to compensate. We shouldn't wear sunglasses to protect our eyes from UV. That list of things we shouldn't do because they contradict, amend or alter our bodies and their processes with technologies or alien substances could go on for a long time.

So why in this one case is it of such transcendant importance to submit to our bodies and make no adaptations at all, to refuse even the partial or situational use of supplemental technologies? Or does this belief in submitting to the fact of our bodies extend further for you? How far, and why do you stop where you stop?

Wendy said...

"in this one case"

Tim, I made it very clear that it's not just this one case (i.e. BF). Why are you acting as if I said that and attacking my post on that basis?

My point is that we over-depend on these technologies because of social constructs that we really should be fighting, not adapting to. You disagree? Really?

Timothy Burke said...

Which technologies make your list and which don't? Are clothes ok? But surely nudity taboos are a social construct. The list goes on and on. We adorn ourselves in all sorts of ways--social technologies of embodiment--and have for our entire existence as a species. All of that wrong also?

Which specific things do you want us to do because they're natural and not social and it's wrong to use technologies motivated by social constructs? Which of the many many technologies of embodiment do you accept despite the fact that they have social roots? (Any of them?)

Wendy said...

"Which technologies make your list and which don't?"

The ones that are gendered, mainly. The ones that lead to social inequities/pressures on women.

A friend has written a really long and interesting piece on her FB that we're trying to get posted publicly somewhere. It's titled "Shame on You, Atlantic Monthly." :)

Ben W. Brumfield said...

The ones that are gendered, mainly.

But, umm, bottlefeeding allows men to feed babies. I guess that's gendered, but I'd always thought it was gendered in a good way.

Wendy said...

I'm not sure what you're trying to say, Ben. You're saying that the technology allows someone to overcome gender differences?

Via my friend Mer here:

"No, ma’am. Your breasts are not responsible for the fact that your husband doesn’t change any diapers."

Wendy said...

Tim posted a comment that I mistakenly deleted in an attempt to deal with spam. Sorry, Tim! I was able to back up in my browser to find it but I can't publish it. I'll try to retype here:

But one of the points about breastfeeding that Laura's thread makes is that the over-exclusive or overly intense argument about breastfeeding leads to social inequity (by putting all the responsibility and burden of feeding an infant on the mother) and to pressure on women (making women who find breastfeding exceptionally difficult feel guilty or inept or somehow inadequate in their femininity.

So here's a technology: bottle-feeding (whether from expressed milk or formula) that allows some mediation of that inequity and pressure, and you're angry that some parents have discovered that the judicious use of that technology created a better situation for mothers (and fathers)?

(All typos mine--Wendy)

Jody said...

The guts of Rosin's article isn't "breastfeeding with the judicious use of formula allows us to pursue a more equitable parenting arrangement and has limited or no negative consequences our baby." The guts of her article is "breastfeeding leads to an unequal division of parental labor, long-term gender inequality in parenthood, and by the way, breastfeeding advocates are a bunch of lying bullies." The latter sells magazines and gets Rosin a lot of attention, but it also allows for a lot more criticism than the nuanced article she could have written.

I'm not being faux-naive about why Rosin's article isn't judicious and considered. I am saying that I agree with Wendy: there are far more "aw, it was always going to be too hard, you might as well just do formula" arguments than otherwise in the major media, and those kinds of arguments are part and parcel of the environment that makes breastfeeding so tough for mothers in the first place.