There is an interesting debate happening at the moment between a couple of the big name feminist mothers and it’s about breastfeeding, or rather the manner in which the breastfeeding ‘message’ is promoted to women. Is the breastfeeding ‘message’ heavy-handed? Yes. Is there a hurtful judgemental attitude towards mothers who bottle-feed? Yes.
But it’s more complicated than that, because is the breastfeeding ‘message’ also a political one? Yes. (And political campaigns are rarely all that nuanced). Is the shaming of breastfeeding mothers profoundly misogynistic? Yes. (And that makes the case for breastfeeding a feminist one, which also means that when done clumsily feminism can look like its taking sides). Is this whole debate a problem of individualism where we get side-tracked into blaming individual mothers for whichever ‘choice’ they happen to make – bottle-feeding or breastfeeding (too much/too publicly/too long) – instead of institutions for not allowing actual ‘choice’? Yes! and from Lauredhel’s still excellent post:
To mother-blame effectively, you’ve got to be all about the politics of individualism. To mother-blame effectively, you’ve got to convince yourself that women make decisions in a vacuum, that infant feeding decisions are motivated primarily by selfishness and women’s incomprehensible obsession with their own appearance, that the “convenience” of formula feeding is coveted by women in the same way that we trot off for “convenience” abortions. You can’t get to mother-blaming without embracing choice politics.
Despite the cultural and corporate influences on women, the vast majority of women still wish to breastfeed. So why are rates so low, if it’s not the fault of mothers themselves? Why is breastfeeding attrition so rapid and extreme?
You may as well as “How does patriarchy work?” You’re soaking in it. Women are offered stark options, forced to choose between a career and a social life or attached mothering. Women have no guarantee of access to paid maternity leave, so in the absence of extreme economic privilege, forgoing mother-infant separation means either poverty or dependence. Instead of living in a society where women work and play freely with a baby at their breast, workplaces are segregated and babies excluded, we are told that babies are anathema to fun, we are told that women have to CHOOSE. And no matter what we choose, it’s the wrong decision.
Then the male gaze kicks in. We’re saturated with the “yummy mummy” objectification of women. There are strong social forces compelling women to maintain the appearance of sexual availability even while their babies are neonates. Check out a celebrity mag: if a mother-celeb has any detectable bodily changes still visible at six weeks postpartum, New Idea is all over them. And breastfeeding in public predictably sparks flurries of outrage, as choosing to opt out of male-gaze-pandering is one of the worst crimes a woman in the Patriarchy can commit. And sustained breastfeeding? It requires a substantial commitment to bucking the patriarchy to get past the first tooth, the first words, the first steps. It’s not just funny looks and toddler milk ads; women are told that they are breastfeeding only “for their own selfish reasons” starting around nine months or so; that their milk has “turned to water” (complete rubbish); even outright told that that they are “perverts” for breastfeeding a talking baby. Breasts are so heavily sexualised that their nutritious function comes with a ticking alarm clock and a dose of sexual blame. What more effective way to condemn a mother than to be told she is a depraved sicko paedophile?