Thursday, April 26, 2007

Conseula's Semi-Annual Breastfeeding Rant, or Why Mammies are Still a Bad Idea

Full disclosure time: I am troubled by the cult of breastfeeding. No, scratch that. The cult of breastfeeding culture pisses me off. When we had our first daughter we decided for very personal and very real reasons not to breastfeed. When we looked for information about formula feeding, we found very little that wasn't designed to induce feelings of guilt and inadequacy in mothers in didn't or couldn't breastfeed. Apparently our decision to use formula exclusively doomed our first born to be fat and stupid and lazy. When I came out of my new mother fog, I realized (as I did about so much of the American cult of motherhood) that breastfeeding culture (though not necessarily the act of breastfeeding itself) is a tool of patriarchy. "Tool of patriarchy" is a phrase that sounds archaic, as if it should only be used in an SNL sketch mocking second wave feminism. But the phrase exists for a reason. It exists because there are actual systemic forces that combine and conspire to keep women in proscribed roles that benefit men. Breastfeeding is one of these roles.

Breastfeeding is hard and exhausting. It is also, often, isolating and lonely. Breastfeeding makes going back to work full time more difficult than it otherwise might be. It makes getting a full night's sleep nearly impossible. It places the care of an infant squarely and necessarily on the shoulders of the mother.

That's just fucked up. I reject that the cult of breastfeeding. I reject the notion that I should breastfeed because doctors say it's best. Doctors once said giving a woman a hysterectomy would make her adapt better to her role as wife and mother. Doctors once said homosexuality is a disease. Doctors let my 16-year-old mother labor alone in a maternity ward for hours because "those women just pop them out like puppies." Excuse me if take what doctors say with a grain of salt.

I also reject the notion that feeding my child from my body is my duty and makes me a good mother. The greatest benefit of formula feeding, besides allowing me to hang on to my sanity and maintain some semblance of my life apart from my children, was that it allowed my husband and our friends the opportunity to bond with my daughters in a really fundamental way. I rarely got up for night feedings with my first daughter. 2am was daddy/daughter time and I am convinced that that time and my daughter associating her father with nourishment and comfort accounts in large part for the close relationship they share now. Formula feeding allowed my husband to participate fully as a parent in a way the cult of breastfeeding seems to think is unimportant.

This morning's breastfeeding rant was brought on by this article from Time magazine. It's about the rise of wet nurses in America. Here are some gems from that article.

"Advocates argue that milk sharing lets women be good moms while fulfilling other goals."
Because good moms breastfeed, you see, regardless of whether or not they can or want to. We might forgive your going back to work if you shell out the $1000 a week for a wet nurse.

One mother who cross-nurses with her neighbor says, "It takes female friendship to another level. You're trusting another person to nurture your child."
Because while hiring someone to care for my child while I work outside the home dooms me to a special place in hell (how often do working mothers have to answer to charges of paying someone else to raise our children?), we can forgive allowing someone else to breastfeed my child because it builds female community.

Here's the best part of the article, though:
Brenda (whose last name is withheld to protect her clients' privacy), 42, has wet-nursed 10 babies in the past seven years partly to help send her own two kids to college. She has mulled over the social implications of her work--because she's black and eight of the families she has worked for are white. "A friend asked me, Don't you feel like you're the mammy?" she recalls. But she finds her job fulfilling, and sometimes amusing. "If you're someplace with the family and the baby starts to pull at your blouse or put his hand in your bra, that can be embarrassing," she says, laughing.

Imagine this scene people. A nice middle class white family is out at dinner with the black woman who breastfeeds their kid. I bet the white couple tells friends that the black woman is just like one of the family. Am I the only one appalled? Remember those tools of patriarchy I mentioned earlier? Here they are at work. Poor black and brown women do not want to breastfeed privileged white women's kids. Yet they live in a society in which they feel that their most tradeable commodity is their bodies. So they scrub white women's floors and shake their asses in rap videos and, apparently, breastfeed other women's kids. That's the patriarchy at work. The same patriarchy that guilted all those white women into needing a wet nurse in the first place.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Of Nappy Headed Hos and Condoleeza

There's probably been more than enough said about Don Imus and the Duke rape case. And I have debated whether I should add my voice to the throng. I've drafted and deleted several posts. But this won't leave me alone. So here goes.

First there are two responses to all of this that drive me insane.

"What ever happened to free speech."
To which of course I might respond, what have ever happened to good manners or common decency. Putting aside for the moment the racist misogyny of Imus's remark, we have to recognize that calling somebody a "nappyheaded ho" is just rude. Yeah, the 1st Amendment gives you the right to be a dick. But having the right to do something doesn't mean that you should. Take this for instance.

"Why do people like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson always play the race card? We will never get over our divisions unless people learn to let things go."
See, the 1st Amendment allows me to call this racist idiocy. But I won't because I was raised right. I might ask though what the hell this even means. Does it mean that racism will end if we let racists be racist in peace? We can live in a less racially divisive society if only I can learn not to bother you with the circumstances and consequences of my oppression? Your need to live free of discomfort is more important than my need to be heard? And what exactly am I getting out of this? The right to be called a "nappyheaded ho" on national radio? The right to be gang raped at a lacrosse party? Thanks but no thanks.

But here's what's really bothering me about this whole thing. In the rush to defend the Rutgers women's basketball team, it's clear that they have earned our support precisely because they are not actually "nappyheaded hos." They are not the young woman in the Duke case. That nameless young woman--a single mother, a college dropout, a former exotic dancer, as every article reminds us--didn't deserve our defense. We could be outraged on her behalf. We could rail against the white male privilege run amok. But defend her? No. Her very existence proves what so many black women try so hard to disprove--we are not welfare mothers. We are not video vixens. We are not "nappyheaded hos." But getting yourself raped at party full of white men where you were the sexual entertainment doesn't really prove that does it? So there will be no defense of her, no meetings with her, no rallying around her now that North Carolina has decided she's a liar.

But the Rutgers girls, these girls, are on the Condoleeza Path of Success. They have struggled, worked hard, followed the rules, played the game and it's paying off. They have been trotted out on TV, not a nappy head among them, looking every bit the bright, high achieving women they are. And the implication, at least to my eyes, is that they deserve our protection because they are good girls. What would have happened if they had been less than good?

Maybe this all bothers me because I was placed on the Condoleeza Path of Success early in life. I learned, even though no one ever said these words, that being smart and well-spoken and modest would protect me from many of the degradations that so many black women have to live with every day. And I succeeded. I live with a certain amount of privilege that many many many black women don't have. It's amazing how people's facial expressions and body language change when I introduce myself as Dr. Francis or mention that I'm a college professor. A whole set of assumptions about me get thrown out because of that PhD. But Dr. Francis isn't exactly tattooed on my forehead, is it? I walk around in my brown skin, appearing very much the nappyheaded ho to the Imuses of the world simply because of that brown skin. It's small comfort to think that, apparently, my only defense against that is trying really hard to be Condoleeza.