How the breast was won

mcboobiesFound by way of Jezebel, The New Yorker is featuring a really fascinating article on the cultural history of breastfeeding.  It’s been a long and strange journey to the current belief of breast being best, with the popularity of it wildly varying in just over a few hundred years.  Initially a task passed off to servants, like pretty much everything else in child rearing for upper class women of the 18th to early-19th century, breastfeeding gained popularity in the mid-19th century when the importance of the mother-child bond became emphasized, if not romanticized.  In other words, mothers were encouraged to actually get to know and show affection for their children as people, as opposed to evidence of their husbands’ virility.  Along with the Victorian notion of women being delicate creatures who couldn’t be expected to do such base things as feed their children like a common sow, Sigmund Freud quickly put the kibbosh on it with his inexplicably popular theory that seemingly innocent, not to mention unavoidable, interactions with one’s child, whether it be breastfeeding, toilet training or bathing, have sexual undertones to them.  Freud, it seemed, found it best to keep a polite distance from your children, perhaps offering a warm handshake as opposed to a hug, lest they grow up incapable of differentiating between maternal and sexual love.  It took much longer than it should have for Freud’s Oedipal and Electra theories to be debunked as twisted horsepucky that said more about him than anything else, and during that time breastfeeding was once again relegated to wet nurses and nannies.  With the invention of the first infant formula in the 1860s, it gave women who couldn’t afford such services, or who had difficulty breastfeeding, an alternative as well.

With some scientists insisting that human females were actually evolving away from breastfeeding, it fell out of favor almost entirely by the turn of the 20th century, despite other scientists, such as bacteriologist Francis Denny, discovering that there were certain properties in mother’s milk that just couldn’t be duplicated in formula, properties that strengthened an infant’s immune system.  Breastmilk was all but prescribed as medication to babies who were ill or failing to thrive, while formula and processed baby food distributors kicked up their marketing towards mothers as acceptable substitutes.  La Leche League published what is still widely considered the Bible of breastfeeding, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, in 1958, but it wasn’t until well into the late 70s and 80s, along with the increased popularity of natural childbirth, that it became popular again, and that popularity continues to be on the rise to date.

However, as the article points out, let’s not dislocate our shoulders by patting ourselves on the back just yet.  Despite the proven benefits of mother’s milk over formula, the United States has a surprisingly low number of women who breastfeed when compared to women in other countries, and that number decreases significantly when their children pass the age of six months, even more at one year.  The reasons why are less surprising: most predominantly, the ridiculously short amount of time women are given for paid maternity leave from their jobs, if that time is paid at all.  It’s hard to believe that in the 21st century most American employers still offer a maximum of three months maternity leave, sometimes as little as six weeks.  Further, only one-third of employers offer suitable facilities to pump breastmilk (and no, a bathroom stall doesn’t count), and generally those employers are white collar companies with six figure staff.  In other words, the new mothers who work at Target are probably ducking into the employee restroom on their lunch breaks to pump milk, rather than a cushy private break room.

Not exactly optimal conditions in which to prepare food to be given to your child, even if that food is going directly into a bottle or freezable bag, and yet it’s either that, stay out of work until your child is ready to wean, or forego breastfeeding altogether for most working mothers.  The lack of options is complicated further by the guilt trip mothers who formula feed get from other mothers or well-meaning lactation specialists.  Everybody seems to know what mothers in situations that make it difficult to breastfeed should do, without regard to if they can.  It’s easy to see how much said situations are rooted in sexism and classism.  America seems to be hopelessly behind the times when it comes to breastfeeding; hell, we’re still arguing over whether or not it’s appropriate for a woman to do it in public.  There’s always someone who will complain about trying to enjoy their Big Beef Burrito at the local mall food court and being repulsed by the sight of a mother nursing her child, insisting that it should be done either in the privacy of their own homes, or at least with a blanket covering the baby so no one else can see.  A simple retort to this would be “Let’s see how you like eating lunch with a blanket over your head, you knob,” but the belief that there’s something vaguely offensive about breastfeeding is more widespread than you’d think.  Facebook, taking a cue from LiveJournal, recently banned users from posting breastfeeding photos, deeming them “offensive content.”  One wonders if this is just part of an overall ban of any photos that show a bared breast, regardless of the context, or if a bunch of users got together to complain about them.  It seems to me that a breast with a child suckling at it pretty much desexualizes it, so who is it offending? Are these the same people who complain when someone lets their toddler run around bare-assed in their yard because that phantom pedophile might be watching them in some nearby bushes? These people need to stop for a moment and wonder if maybe the problem is that they see something sexual in the innocence of such things as breastfeeding and naked babies, and that projecting that sexualizing onto others isn’t going to solve what only years of therapy can do.

But I digress, long and often.  It’s pretty much agreed upon that breast is best, and that the best way to encourage women to provide it is by scaring them with somewhat embellished facts about how formula feeding will render your child into a sickly, malnourished nincompoop, but at what point do we demand that society make accommodations? Shrugging it off with “she can just stay home” isn’t a solution.  How much can it really cost a mid-level employer to devote one office or conference room into a comfortable, private space where a woman can pump her milk for ten minutes or so? Why in the present United States, when one of the top annual television programs for the past few years has been a Victoria’s Secret fashion show, is breastfeeding treated as something that should be kept hidden so as not to offend someone? This isn’t like smoking, breastfeeding isn’t a privilege, it’s a necessity to feed one’s child.  We can’t insist that it’s the right thing for women to do without giving them the facilities and support necessary to do it.

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2 Responses to “How the breast was won”

  1. Duuuuuude. I have so many complicated feelings about the breastfeeding advocates and the psychological torture new Moms go through. I nearly lost my mind when, mere hours after leaving the hospital, I had to supplement Eliza with formula. She had jaundice and she was refusing to latch. She had to be supplemented for days afterward in order to treat the jaundice. I kept hearing the voice of the nutty breastfeeding advocate on the message board I’d been reading who posted time and again evidence supposedly proving that formula is actually harmful.

    Then I tortured myself for weeks after I was forced to quit breastfeeding for good. That’s right. Not a choice. I had NO MILK. None. Even took medicine in an attempt to get it to come back. I pumped on a strict schedule. I forced poor Eliza to the boob when she had no interest. And still, I felt like a giant failure. Once again, I had those judgmental voices in the back of my mind taunting me for not trying hard enough.

    It’s just as well. I would have been tied to the pump if I ever wanted to leave the house. See, I’m one of those people who would never dream of feeding my kid in public. Nobody wants to see my boobs. To be fair, I have no interest in watching anyone else feed their kid, either. I think all public places should offer nursing lounges. That wouldn’t really calm the noise from La Leche League. They all want to feed baby Bob right at the dinner table. Yuck. Sure, beautiful, natural…blah, blah, blah. Also, REALLY intimate and personal. Blow jobs are natural, too. Don’t want to see that at the dinner table.

  2. Great post.

    I think the problem is that the voices advocating breastfeeding the loudest are not the same ones who make decisions that actually benefit mothers. Until policy makers can see the benefit of more support for breastfeeding (and there is benefit – breastfeeding mothers take fewer days off work to look after sick children, for example) then not much will change. Like everything, the onus is pushed back onto women to do the ‘right’ thing and conveniently, all the guilt for having generations of children largely missing out on breastmilk is also pushed onto mothers instead of where it belongs. It’s not enough for health authorities to tell us that breast is best – they need to put their money where their mouth is and provide ongoing support, educate doctors, train hospital staff better, and lobby employers and governments.

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