Breastfeeding: A social justice issue

Breastfeeding: A social justice issue

Breastfeeding-7

Much debate has transpired recently over the extent to which we can legitimately preference breastfeeding without shaming mothers who for one reason or another are unable to nurse their babies. Repeatedly, convincing studies have demonstrated that breastfeeding is both physically and psychologically beneficial for both mother and child, but the fact remains that not every woman is able to nurse her baby. Therefore, while nursing should be encouraged, recommended, and supported, as soon as we make it into a moral or categorical imperative we put impossible burdens on women and families who are already burdened – because, if a woman is unable to nurse her baby, this implies some pre-existing circumstance which already is likely to be causing stress.

This article from ABC News states that women in the United States don’t breastfeed for as long as the WHO recommends (six months). There are cases in which, due to health concerns, women can’t breastfeed (post-caesarian exhaustion, illness, masectomies, breast hypoplasia) and, as this article in Parenting explains, are made to feel guilty about it. This is certainly an issue for adoptive mothers, some of whom can lactate, but not all. Women who have been raised to think of their breasts in a healthy and de-eroticized way may tend especially to emphasize the purpose of the breast in providing not only sustenance, but bonding between mother and child; an inability to nurse can then lead to a sense of failure as a woman, inadequacy as a mother – and this in the difficult post-partum period when dread depression lurks around the corner always. Breastfeeding is one of the ways of minimizing the risk of severe PPD, and so a woman who has looked forward to nursing and finds that she can’t may be especially at risk. What she doesn’t need is anyone making her feel more guilty.

But it is also the case that women who probably would be able to breastfeed effectively often do not. Why is this?  This Wall Street Journal piece lists five reasons why women won’t breastfeed: historical precedent, unable to nurse because of their jobs, socio-economic inequality, formula is pushed in hospitals, and formula is heavily advertised.

Here once again, capitalism rears its head: capitalism is responsible for a species of liberal feminism that emphasizes only market productivity; capitalism has created an economy in which women have no choice but to work during pregnancy and immediately after childbirth; capitalism says of the socio-economically disadvantaged that it is all the fault of their own bad choices. Capitalism drives the market for baby formula, manufacturing artificial needs where often none pre-exist.

The irony of this is that, while a liberal capitalist market assumes the primacy of the isolated individual and the unerring accuracy of the invisible hand, this contradicts the way the community actually responds to pregnancy. Being pregnant and having a baby makes one suddenly become a sort of public property. I hated this, actually – hated the fact that when I was pregnant strangers not only offered unsolicited commentary and advice, but came up poking, stroking, prodding me. And I couldn’t even kick them, because I was too ungainly. A pregnant woman becomes everyone’s business, except for when the business entailed is that of making sure she has the support needed.

Yes, we have social welfare programs, for which I am very grateful, since without them I would still be paying off hospital debts. And there are various independent charities that provide breast pumps, and encouragement. But here’s the deal: as long as so many women are unable to take time off work and stay home with their babies, breastfeeding is going to remain very, very difficult for them.

I was able to stay home and nurse my first child, thanks to the kindness of friends. But for my second and third, I was immediately back to work. Part time work, theoretically, and much could be done from home, but it meant that I had to feed my baby as well as pump milk as well as prep lecture notes as well as grade exams, and somehow squeeze myself into ill-fitting cheap post-partum clothing, and go to teach with the illusion of being really on top of things. Pumping at work was not an option because I shared an office with several dozen people, some of them men, soe of them priests. Plus, my office has glassed walls, so pumping would have made an interesting spectacle for the passers-by. Even pumping in the women’s restroom was a difficulty, because any time a door opened anyone in the hall (and the hall was always busy) could see me sitting there with a contraption hanging off my boob, like a cow in an industrial dairy.

And my babies hated when I was gone. Several times in the middle of class my husband called me in despair because the baby had been screaming for hours and refused to be comforted. I hated the feeling of helplessness and lack of professionalism. I resented the fact that no male academic in my position would ever be subjected to that, but that some might judge me for ditching class to rush home to my baby, and others might judge me for working at all. Yet, financially, not working was not an option.

Having experienced that, I marvel at the endurance shown by mothers in low-income jobs, working forty hour weeks in retail or fast food. These women have no choice but to go back to work, often still physically exhausted, and psychologically overwrought at being separated from their children. If we take seriously the benefits of nursing, we must have paid parental leave, child care facilities on the premises, safe nursing spaces, absolute acceptance of nursing mothers (covered or uncovered). We also need to respect the privacy of the bond between mother and child, and realize that a woman who is purchasing formula possibly has no other option.

Breastfeeding is a moral issue, yes, but the moral responsibility lies with the society that tells women they must breastfeed, and then makes it impossible for them to do so.

image credit: http://www.breastfeedingmums.com/breastfeeding-art-breastfeeding-7.htm, Wikimedia commons, public domain

Read the source & comments: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/suspendedinherjar/2016/03/breastfeeding-a-social-justice-issue/

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