(Image: Good lord, am I really posting pictures of my breast on the Internet again? And oh how he has grown since this photo was taken, which by the way was me breastfeeding on the beach. How sandy. I first posted this piece almost two years ago but a lot of these same issues are still being thrashed out in the media today.)
In responding to French author, Elisabeth Badinter’s new book, which argues that believing women must breastfeed is reducing women to the status of an animal species, I was tempted to write nothing more than You know, we actually are animals, right? But then I thought, that would be typical of you blue milk, you lazy sloth-like animal.
(I find the insinuation (which is not altogether uncommon) that the act of lactation is somehow degrading a curious thought. You mothers, you lactating mammals, how humiliating for you. Why exactly?)
She talks of an “underground ideological war”, of the “strong resurgence of naturalism”, of “guilting mothers”.
Badinter is right about the tyranny of motherhood. Beware of any new parenting trend that relies heavily on an already-over-stretched you for its achievement and which imposes almost no additional burden on anyone else (including the other parent). And be especially cautious of it if it also comes with a side-helping of guilt. Here is how Badinter sees it:
What is a “good mother” today?
She’s one who goes back to the fundamentals. She breast-feeds for six months; she doesn’t put her baby in a day-care center because a baby needs to be with her mother and not in a nest of germs; she doesn’t trust anything artificial and worries about the environment. For her, jarred baby food is a sign of selfishness: we’re back to Mommy’s mashed purée. A good mother is always there to listen, must watch over the child’s physical and psychological well-being; it’s a full-time job. I forgot to add, since she breast-feeds on demand, she’s supposed to let the baby sleep in the conjugal bed, which quashes intimacy for the parents and freezes out the father.
But equally, beware of the expert who tries to have you imagine that your baby is a tyrant.
Small as they are, babies hold their mothers prisoners: a mother is at the beck and call of her child, she has to accommodate herself to the child’s schedule, who sometimes gets to be prince/ss in the conjugal bed.
This is not only unhelpful but frankly, while we’re talking as feminists, it’s patriarchy-enabling. Babies are helpless little beings designed to fall in love and elicit love and just to, generally, survive. Really, however infuriating it gets caring for them, that is all a baby is trying to do – survive and love. (Sometimes it helps to look them in the face and acknowledge that to yourself). Whenever the tussle for fairness, for support, for scarce resources, for needs being met is waged between a mother and a baby somebody is being let off the hook, and I would argue that it is a whole society of somebodies. Take or leave ‘attachment parenting’ as you wish but raising human infants is not supposed to be done in isolation by a single caregiver, and yet overwhelming levels of individualism combined with conservative gender roles have positioned us in exactly that place. In our suburbs there is no-one else in the room when a mother reaches the end of her tether – there is no-one left to negotiate with – it is just an adult and a baby, crying in each other’s faces, desperate. No good or equitable negotiation is going to come out of that situation. It is this dynamic that makes “equality between the sexes and freedom for women impossible”, not a tyrannical infant nor a doormat of a mother.
But then you can’t entirely blame feminists like Badinter for being nervous about any ambitions to elevate motherhood either. They haven’t seen much good come out of the institution of motherhood for women – servitude, guilt, martyrdom, rampant biological determinism and invisibility. Still, given that most women end up being mothers, and given that a good deal of us even strongly desire motherhood, there is no point throwing that particular baby out with the bath water. We won’t elevate women anytime soon by denigrating motherhood. And for feminism, we are still trying to resolve that split: whether the path to true liberation is via refusing ‘caring work’ and fully incorporating ourselves into the market economy by emulating ‘male labour’, or whether liberation will only come when we instead put our energies towards agitating for full recognition of traditional ‘female work’ (ie. domestic and caring work) in the economy.