Breastfeeding, Feminism, & Choice: A Critique of Modern “Lactivism”

This was originally posted back on Domestic Chaos. I’ve chosen to include it on this blog because I love it. It has been minorly edited from its original form. Once upon a time there were many thoughtful comments on it from some awesome people, but they were lost in the Great Disqus Debacle when I moved from Blogger to WordPress many years ago. I’m very sorry for that, Awesome People. You can read more

You can read more about the loss of Domestic Chaos here.

You may have heard that in February 2012, a mother in Texas could be fired for breastfeeding, because “lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition,” and hence there is no cause of action for “lactation discrimination” under federal civil rights law protecting pregnant women […] .” Women, regardless of their feeding choices and parental status, should be absolutely pissed off about this. It’s just another way that we’re being brushed aside in the workforce as somehow less valuable.

I read a post on Facebook around the time it came out that responded to this by insisting that treating breastfeeding as choice was what allowed this to happen, including: “Lactation is a natural consequence of pregnancy, just as getting your period is a natural consequence of puberty.”

I disagreed that lactation and breastfeeding are the same at all, and that was that. But I thought about it more. I fumed about it because the very idea that we should look at breastfeeding as the natural imperative rather than an active choice just sits so wrong with me. I get what the writer was going for — that it ought not to be looked at as choosing but rather going with the norm — but the wording of it did not sit with me at all.

Picking Sides

I would hesitate to ever paint one choice as feminist; I am not going to end this post by saying that breastfeeding is or is not feminist. Saying that something is absolutely feminist or completely anti-feminist does nothing but estrange other feminists. It’s what led me to believe, as a teen and young adult, that I could not be feminist because feminism didn’t represent what I wanted from life.

The only thing inherently and completely feminist is the space and freedom to make your own choices. Full stop. 

What I am going to do is examine breastfeeding advocacy, as I’ve seen and understood it. From there, I’ll discuss the things that worry me in our approach to promoting breastfeeding as it pertains to feminism and how a woman makes her feeding choices.

The feminism of breastfeeding is tricky. While the overall goal of feminism — equal rights regardless of gender — is the same among feminists, the means and definition of that vary so wildly. Feminism for me is about personal choice without being treated like an ignorant or second-class citizen; feminism for other people is about the abolition of sex work; feminism for other people is about the glass ceiling; and feminism for Joss Whedon is about dressing women in skin-tight clothes and watching them kick men in the throat for an hour.

I’m pretty certain everyone who cares to has read Hanna Rosin’s article The Case Against Breastfeeding, which doesn’t resonate with me on a personal level. But reading it forces me to address a point:

How many mothers slog through breastfeeding because they’re coerced into believing that it’s what you do if you’re a good mom, instead of because they feel a genuine connection to it? And if that’s why a mother breastfeeds, are we actually creating an environment where breastfeeding is a good, respectful thing for both mother and baby?

Breastfeeding & Empowerment

I think a lot — I don’t know if I can say most — breastfeeding advocacy goes like this: breastfeeding is natural, most women are equipped to do it, and it’s empowering to trust and enjoy that our bodies can nourish our children. For many women, this is true. It was for me. I loved breastfeeding. Breastfeeding for me was easy, and it was a large factor in me realizing that my body is not broken or somehow imperfect. Breastfeeding was a positive and transformative experience for me.

But as breastfeeding advocates we can’t ignore the fact that for some women the act of breastfeeding is not empowering. Just a few reasons include:

  • It’s too painful or uncomfortable.
  • It forces women to relive past trauma.
  • It stops them from working.
  • It hinders them from enjoying their lives in some way, either sexually or socially.
  • They just don’t want to breastfeed.

My mother once shared with me that one of the reasons she didn’t breastfeed for long — and less with each child — was that she felt like she had to leave whatever was going on and sit alone to feed her baby.  After Miles was born I did that a couple times, sitting in a bedroom nursing and listening to my friends have fun in the other room. Luckily for me, it was completely acceptable to expose my breasts in front of my friends — and with the relative size different between my breasts and Miles’ head, I really did have to expose the breast in those early months.

For another woman, that may not have been acceptable for any number of reasons. For that woman, there may have been nothing empowering about hiding out in a room while her hungry nursling eats every one to three hours. No amount of telling her, “breastfeeding is empowering!” is going to change her experience.

On Belittling Choice

Chances are that in most discussions of breastfeeding and formula feeding, someone will criticize mothers who made the decision to formula feed. For as much advocacy that strives to be inclusive, there are as many that use language in a way that excludes and ridicules. For every version of the post The B(r)east of Both Worlds — Using Formula AND Breastfeeding, there’s the post 100 Reasons to Avoid Infant Formula Like The Plague.

We’re generally a sympathetic bunch when a mother lists her “qualifications” for choosing formula. If she tried every herbal and medicinal remedy under the sun, if she tried pumping, if she tried a nipple shield, if she did it for at least 6 weeks — well, she did the best she could. Good for her! She had nothing to be ashamed of. Maybe she’ll do better next time.

We are a much less forgiving group if a mother says, “I started formula feeding at day one.” Assuming that we’re in the position to do so — to say that if it is any of our business — we could just ask why. Instead, the conversations tend to become steeped in the idea that the mother is uneducated, that she’s selfish, that her doctor is shilling for formula companies. Or worse, that she doesn’t love her baby enough, or that she was tricked by formula companies.

My friend Ann had her daughter in 2007. During her pregnancy she made it clear that she had no interest in breastfeeding, despite the insistence of her family and friends.  Eventually she decided to give it a try — and then her daughter was born five weeks premature at just under five pounds. She pumped exclusively for two months before her milk supply dropped and she switched to formula. So I asked her about it.

I’m paraphrasing (I wish I had thought to record the audio) but the gist of her response was that there are wonderful things about breastmilk and she was glad that it was there in a case of emergencies, but she has no regrets about her decision to switch to formula. She knew her daughter was getting the nutrition she needed from formula.

Assuming Every Mother Will “Fail”

Breastfeeding advocacy needs to take a much harder look at one of our most basic staples of advice: never keep formula in the house. Refuse all samples. Never read anything given to you by a formula company.

By acting like every single mother is going to be tricked by formula marketing, we’re actually treating mothers like they have no capacity for reason or critical thinking. I’ve touched on this before in my post Give That Mom Some Credit, so I’m going to cheat and quote myself:

[… A]s breastfeeding advocates we’re sending the same message as the formula companies — from a different angle, under the guise of “I just don’t want you to give up because formula is easy,” but we’re still saying, “It’s so hard that I don’t think you’ll stick it out.”

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think this intentional. I’m pretty sure we all want new moms to succeed while knowing that breastfeeding isn’t always easy. It’s not. I’ve got no love for formula companies. I recognize that in some cases, new mothers really don’t get the support and information they need to know that the formula company is lying to them — but I don’t think that it should be assumed as the default scenario, especially in the age of the Internet. I think instead of telling new moms to throw out all temptation, we need to focus on proactive measures of breastfeeding education. […]

There’s so much more to helping a new mother succeed than just, “Remove all the temptation,” because I feel like it’s the wrong message. Give the new mother more credit than that; trust that if she wants to breastfeed she will do her damnedest, and if she chooses to formula feed don’t assume that she was duped by marketing or “gave in” because formula was easy and breastfeeding wasn’t.

If a man said to his wife, “Gosh, honey, we’re not going to have any bottles or formula in the house because I don’t trust you to give in when you’re tired. Just one bottle of formula can ruin your chances of breastfeeding forever,” we wouldn’t be giving him any awards for being good or respectful husband. When we say it to fellow mothers it somehow becomes “lactivism.”

Assuming Circumstances

A lot of breastfeeding advocacy is built around the idea that mom can stay home for six weeks to work exclusively on her breastfeeding relationship with her child. My decision to be home for six weeks postpartum was financially ruinous for my family. I knew a woman who could only afford to take two weeks postpartum, and worked right up until she went into labor.

Beyond the financial, that same advocacy assumes a certain style of parenting — most often attachment parenting — which I feel creates a false dichotomy between “crunchy” and “mainstream” parents when it comes to breastfeeding.

Advocacy says that breastfeeding mothers get more rest than formula feeding mothers because they can doze through feedings — assuming, of course, that the family co-sleeps and the mother doesn’t find breastfeeding distracting enough to wake her.

I’ve complained before that breastfeeding advocacy for the working mother assumes a corporate or clerical job in an environment that provides a space for pumping, without addressing the needs of mothers in hourly positions or jobs not suited toward breastfeeding.

Preying on Negative Body Image

You may remember in 2010 when the New York State Department of Health released a series of commercials promoting breastfeeding, including this one that parodies popular weight-loss commercials. It opens with, “I’m 40 pounds thinner!” This is a popular bit of advice used to sway a mother’s decision: breastfeeding burns calories and melts off that baby fat, no extra exercise required.

I think there’s a lot of problems with parodying the kind of commercial used to shill products that don’t work, but my bigger issue is that it’s misleading. I’m assuming those 40 pounds account for her pregnancy weight, since I’ve yet to meet a mother who lost that much weight in addition to their pregnancy weight just by breastfeeding.

It’s using negative body image problems forced onto women by society as a springboard into promoting breastfeeding. Pregnancy and motherhood is absolutely steeped in negative body image. We’re informed that we’re getting fat. Women spend their entire pregnancies decrying that their body has been ruined. We’re culturally obsessed with keeping our breasts and vaginas in peak, unrealistic post-baby condition — from “mommy makeovers” to “the daddy stitch.” Add to all this to the hysteria that being thin is absolutely good and healthy, while being fat is absolutely bad and unhealthy, and we’ve got what I think is a serious body image problem being used to convince women to breastfeed under false pretenses.

Modern body ideals are not designed for women, and do not serve to make women feel empowered or beautiful. Using these ideals and this obsession with losing weight to “sell” breastfeeding is horribly anti-woman. Consider this:

Breastfeeding contracts your uterus and gives you a flat stomach, protects you from obesity by burning 500 calories a day to lose your baby fat, shortens the duration of postpartum bleeding, suppresses ovulation and menstruation, provides surges of hormones that will calm you and help ward of postpartum depression, just to name a few cool benefits.

“The Primary Nurturer”

Okay, so I’m actually coming back to that link right there, a post written by Danielle Rigg, JD CLC, for Best for Babes called Prepare: The Learning Curve of Breastfeeding. Perfesser shared this quote from the post on a comment thread, and it raises the hairs on the back of my neck:

You see, your main goal with a newborn is to not just to get him/her fed – but to get him/her settled—which means, satisfied, calm, nurtured and content. The best way to do that is by surrendering to the role your body and your baby need and expect you to assume for now – that is, the role of primary nurturer. The more you fight nature’s design, the less settled and content your baby will be—which can continue into toddlerhood and beyond — and the more irritable and tired you are likely to be.

Rigg seems to believe that if you are choosing to formula feed that you are merely feeding the baby, as opposed to allowing your baby to feel “satisfied, calm, nurtured, and content.” What about the mother who struggles to breastfeed and doesn’t provide enough milk to keep her baby fed? How is that a better circumstance? It’s not providing a space where the baby it satisfied, calm, nurtured, content, or even fed.

But let’s home in on this line right here: “The best way to do that is by surrendering to the role your body and your baby need and expect you to assume for now – that is, the role of primary nurturer.”

In one sentence, Rigg summarizes the problem with modern society’s view of gender roles and parenting. She assumes that I, as a mother, am going to be my son’s primary nurturer, and assumes that his father is somehow a secondary nurturer. It doesn’t apparently matter if he stays home and I work, or if he’s up at every 2 AM feeding. If I’m breastfeeding, I’m apparently the primary nurturer.

Beyond that though, Rigg calls it a surrender. With one word, she frames breastfeeding as fight, a battle, and that I must surrender the predetermined role of my body.  And a lot of breastfeeding language frames it as a battle: I must fight society, fight outside influence that would suggest using formula, if I’m going to successfully breastfeed!

If this were just some rogue blogger on the Internet — whatever. It’s got some really icky language couched in assumptions about culture and gender, but it’s just one person. But this is on the Best for Babes website, a group that is so visible and high-profile that our WIC office in Lawrence, Kansas, has their posters plastered everywhere. And this group feels so good about this article that they offer an eight-page printable PDF so you can pass it on to new mothers.

In Conclusion

Like I said, I’m not about to make some big revelation. I am a single voice in feminism and breastfeeding advocacy, and it’s not my place to say that breastfeeding is inherently one thing or the other. Breastfeeding is personal and unique to each mother who chooses to do it.

I will say that more and more breastfeeding advocacy is starting to become suspiciously anti-woman in my eyes. We’re using more and more things that piss me off about of society’s attitude toward women. We risk body shaming, gender norming and minimizing both a mother and a father when we advocate for breastfeeding if we don’t watch our language. (Which is actually just a little bit impressive.)

We need to stop being so focused on the breasts that we lose sight of the woman.


Thanks to:

  • Ann, for letting me interview her for this post.
  • To the Fearless Formula Feeder, Teri and Perfesser for hosting the conversation and making the points in comments (respectively) that finally helped me figure out why I never felt like this post was complete.
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