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.


ct said...

I hear you. I'm glad that you distinguished between breast feeding as a choice, an act, and the Cult of Breastfeeding. I know lots of friends who pumped (still sounds unpleasant) and then their partners did the night--and other-- feedings similarly to how you describe. It's another option. For me, this issue is all about the right to have options and make free choices about your body, your children, and your life.

I think my most horrific realization of the power of the Cult was when my mother--who marched in countless NOW rallies in her 20's and 30's and has always championed women's lib--started critiquing another of my friends for not breastfeeding (and it was a medical reason to boot--not that ultimately it matters). 1. Not her business. 2. Are you flipping joking? Now I love my mom and I know she's well intentioned, but how scary. I looked at her as if she had three heads (Mom? Is that you?) and proceeded to defend said friend's choice.

Until women can make decisions about their bodies and not have other people jumping on their backs, down their throats, etc. (see, even the metaphors perpetuate things to an extent), we simply cannot say we live in a "free" society.

And I don't even know what to say about the wetnurse thing. It's all kinds of problematic.

Thanks for your rant.

claire said...

ok so the wet nurse story is just scary -- although i always thought being a wet nurse could have been a good alternative career. My warm fuzzy feelings about breastfeeding: it's free. The cultists sneer at those of us who are just plain cheap.

Conseula said...

But these women are paying $1000 a week for their wetnurses. Formula feeding is ay cheaper than that.

Alison said...

Yikes all around. Particularly about Brenda, whose clients' privacy clearly needs to be respected in a way that her own boobs do not.

I totally support your reclaiming of "tool of the patriarchy." It's a very versatile phrase that can be applied appropriately to so many different things: "This traffic jam is a tool of the patriarchy!" "The high price of organic milk is a tool of the patriarchy!"

AND I hope to god my mom doesn't innocently wander over to your blog and read this post, because she'll think you're talking about HER. And she'll really think that if she reads this comment.

Conseula said...


Oh no! I wouldn't want your mother to feel bad. She sounds like a perfectly lovely woman. This is exactly why my rant is semi-annual, despite the fact that I am annoyed with breastfeeding pretty much all the time.

claire said...

I didn;t mean wetnursing was cheap -- I meant breastfeeding your own baby is free.

Vera H. said...

When my youngest sister had her son, she felt guilted into breast feeding, but soon stopped after neither she nor the baby took to it, and both were much happier (and healthier)with bottle feeding.

There's much out there to make moms feel guilty. While I'm certainly not against breast feeding--another sister happily breastfed all three of her kids--The best thing for a baby is a happy mom.

It's all about choice.

Wow! I wasn't aware that there were wet nurses still out there. I think being a wet nurse can be a beautiful thing for a woman who wants to nuture life and to assist women who cannot breastfeed. The Yuppie/racial thing has a whole Pandora's Box of implications--Whooo Boy!.

Still, it's all about choice.

Margo said...

You're right, it is exhausting, but now that it's over I miss it oh so much. Time is fleeting, and it was well worth the time and effort. I can promise you that.

Conseula said...

I have no doubt that many women find breastfeeding fulfilling and wondrous, just as I have no doubt many women do not freely choose to breastfeed and find the whole ordeal tortuous. And my husband still misses his 2am bonding with our daughter who's now six.

joan said...

Looooord, I am old. The "men just want us to bottle feed because they want our breasts to be sex objects - we are going to breastfeed, darn it" days feel like yesterday to me.

Claire said...

I couldn't agree LESS - I have RARELY run into a doctor who told me I SHOULD breastfeed - the only one I did was my child's pediatrician, and she wanted ME to teach HER all about the benefits of breastfeeding. Most of the doctors today (that I've run into or heard from through my friends) still say that the Breasts are Daddy's, that BFing is dirty and low, and Science is SO much better than that. That's what they told MY mother, and she was so confused when I said I wanted to nurse my daughter.

Sleeping & Breastfeeding? I got more sleep once my daughter was born than I had when I was pregnant, what with having to get up to use the toilet all night long. With Cosleeping, she nursed when she wanted, and we both stayed asleep.

I'm sorry you see it as a "Tool" forced by the "Patriarchy" when I have yet to find a Male who thinks it's a good idea, outside my HUSBAND and the husbands of my friends who nurse...and our husbands/partners/boyfriends are VERY proud of us, and stick up for our right to give our children THE best. Breastfeeding isn't BETTER, it's THE STANDARD. Formula is not breastmilk, it is a dead substance, therefore it is Sub-Standard. Useful at times, but substandard, nonetheless.

Robin said...

I think that breastfeeding is far from a tool of patriarchy; I think it's an expression of feminism. By breastfeeding my child, I took back my power as a woman to do what my perfect feminine body was designed to do. I don't breastfeed because doctors or "experts" or whoever tell me too (I'm not too keen on doctors' advice myself). I do it because that's why I have breasts and it's the biologically appropriate thing for a mammal to do. And my husband was able to fully participate just fine by giving baths, changing diapers, and playing with our son.

Summer said...

I have to disagree. If my breasts were part of the patriarchy then they'd be double D's bouncing around in tight tank tops and used solely for selling beer and cars.

I use my breasts the way nature intended me to. I could give a flip what the male-center world thinks about breats being sexual or for men's please. Knowing that my breasts are able to feed and nourish a child all on their own makes me feel powerful as a woman. Personally, if I were lining the pockets of the formula companies that would make me feel like a "Tool of patriarchy" when my natural power as a woman is far better.

casey said...

so the breastfeeding culture is a tool of patriarchy? i find that a very laughable statement. as a breastfeeding mother I support the culture of breastfeeding somewhat. I think it's important for women to breastfeed their children because it's natural, it's what breasts are for, and it's been proven to be healthier and beneficial for both mother and child. yes it's hard as hell and it hurts, but that's what motherhood is. it's work. i think it's important to help women see breastfeeding in a good light. when i open up parenting and baby magazines i'm bombarded with formula ads and articles over how difficult and hard breastfeeding is and how it flattens your breasts and isn't worth the time. i have even received funny looks from people when i tell them i breastfeed exclusively. when i had him the nurses wanted to give him formula and looked at me oddly when i wanted to keep him in my room to breastfeed him. so there's feelings against both that i've experienced. i'm sorry you were made to feel guilty over your decision not to breastfeed. i find it hard to say that it being difficult is a good enough reason Not to breastfeed.

it doesn't palce the care of an infant squarely on the mother. my husband bonds with him in other ways and feeds him bottles almost every day of my expressed milk.

you shouldn't listen to what doctors say all the time,'s still "practicing medicine". but breasts are there for feeding. feed the babies your milk, not some other animals milk

dragonfly said...

I find it so interesting how our experiences form our belief systems. I fully support a woman's right to choose what and how she utilises her body.

In my experience, being encouraged NOT to breastfeed was a tool of male control. My mother wanted to breastfeed and was not allowed to by my father. Ditto with my stepmother.

Of course, I chose to breastfeed, but it took a good hard internal look at my boobs, and my attitudes about them to make that decision. I spent a long time reclaiming my body from the patriarchy, and choosing to breastfeed is one way I thumb my nose at the man.

Heather said...

I don't nurse because someone told me to. I don't nurse because the doctors told me to. I don't nurse because of the hundreds of medical studies proving the benefits. I don't nurse because of the pressures of society. I don't nurse because of some phantom guilt trip. I definitely don't nurse because of the patriarchy.

I nurse because I can. I nurse because it's the best possible food for my child (emphasis on my). I nurse because it's free. I nurse because it's a helluva lot easier than getting up in the middle of the night to fix a bottle. I nurse because it gives me a physical bond with my daughter. I nurse because my husband doesn't need to feed her to bond with her. I nurse because I want to. I nurse because it's an awesome, irreplacable experience, and because I worked too damn hard to get it to work not to.

I nursed for 17 solid months. And she still drops everything and ignores me completely when her father comes in the room. She's a complete daddy's girl, and she's only been weaned for a couple of weeks. They certainly didn't miss out. I was nursed. My mother was nursed. I nurse because it's the way God designed my baby to feed my child.

Having a baby makes it hard to get a night's sleep, not nursing. Hell, I got more sleep because I was nursing than I otherwise would have, because there was no waking up completely to fix a bottle, or even get out of bed. I just reached up, latched on, and fell right back to sleep.

I'm not a better mother than anyone else. Breastfeeding isn't what makes me a good mom. What makes me a good mom is the complete package; No mother should be defined by how she feeds her child. More importantly, she shouldn't define herself by how she doesn't.

No one can make you feel guilty but yourself. I chose to breastfeed in spite of all of my family and friends insisting that formula was SO much easier (I still don't see how), so much less work. That it was completely the same (not even close). That it was what everyone else did. If I chose to feed my child the way I was pressured to... I'd damn sure be spending a fortune on formula.

claire said...

The problem is that all the arguments about nature and god have been used to justify a lot of crappy treatment for women. So yes, i breastfed the one that would do it and I bottle fed the one that didn;t quite get it. And when he got it, he got breastfed too, and she learned at 6 weeks how to drink from a bottle. And everyone supplemented with soymilk when i thought there was nothing left and worried about both getting enough to eat (twins). But the patriarchy moves in ways both mysterious and not. i pretty much was a D cup when I was breastfeeding, and I also felt like a highly-tuned cow-like machine. My breasts were udders, which may have been what nature intended; but I was happy to give it up at 9 months. Too many women lord over their husbands with their natural breasty bodies that produce the magic milk. What it really all comes down to is getting science to work on male breastfeeding -- they have nipples and surely "nature" intended those for something.

Conseula said...

The "god made made breasts to feed my kids" and "it's natural" arguments only go so far with me. God made it so I have poor eyesight. I wear glasses to correct that. God made it so my daughter has a hole in her heart. She's going to get an operation to fix that (if necessary). That God made my body a certain way doesn't mean I have to stick with his/her plan.

But again, this is not about breastfeeding being inherently harmful or oppressive (and I don't think it is). It's about the culture of breastfeeding guilting women into making choices that may not be in their best interests. The Time article I linked to said that women are paying wet nurses $1000/week, which is about what it cost to formula feed one of my daughters for an entire year. Now maybe wet nurses are the new in thing for women with money to burn. Maybe they are untroubled by the racial/economic implications of hiring poor black and brown women to breastfeed their kids. Maybe.

Or maybe $52,000 for wet nurse is a really silly idea when there is a perfectly healthy and safe alternative in formula.

Gunfighter said...

Just say no to the Nipple Nazis!

Anonymous said...

The problem I see with some of these comments and the original post is that it's all about the woman. (preface: assuming all are healthy and able) What about the baby? The babe who, by nature (not God, thank you very much) has been designed to find her mama's breasts and begin to suckle? They have no choice in this matter. Instead, their mom chooses to stuff something plastic in their mouth and move on because "it's their body".

I know that particularly for African American women, the choice is sometimes squarely grounded on the fact that "mammies" existed. These women were not given the choice to nurse their master's babies but told to. The woman in the article has made a conscious decision to feed other's children and I would never relate to her as a mammy. Boy, this could go on and on about other avenues of such an income not being present for AA women (of which I wholeheartedly agree) BUT...the fact of the matter remains. Breastmilk is what nature intended. I mean, if you have such a lack of respect for doctors, why trust the pharmaceutical industry which manufactures the formula?

Conseula said...

I didn't choose not to breastfeed because slaves were forced to breastfeed white women's kids. And while the woman in the article made a conscious choice to breastfeed, I still maintain that the economic choices available to her are circumscribed by race and class. Mammy may have had genuine deep affection for the white children she nourished and raised. That doesn't make the situation any less fucked up.

Again, I didn't say that anything is wrong with breastfeeding or breastmilk. Breastfeed until your kid goes off to college. I don't care.

My problem with the culture of breastfeeding is that it induces guilt in women ("their mom chooses to stuff something plastic in their mouth") for making a perfectly valid, healthy, and safe choice (formula feeding). And that choice can be for many many reasons, including, but not limited to, being unable to breastfeed because of illness, being unable to breastfeed because you've adopted, being unable to breastfeed because of psychological or emotional trauma (as was the case for me), or simply choosing not to breastfeed because you have a choice.

And, yeah, it is my body. My kid doesn't have a right to it simply because I can make milk.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's time to get over it. Accept the fact that breast feeding didn't work out for you. Sure it's almost always better for a child's health. Yes, it even decreases a woman's chances of breast cancer and increases bonding between the mother and child. It doesn't work out for didn't work out for you for reasons that I'm sure are really valid. Let it go....this is like freaking out over the "culture of motherhood" if you couldn't get pregnant. Some things just have to be accepted. It's time to move on.

Conseula said...

There is no way to respond to this without sounding defensive, but here I go anyway. Breastfeeding didn't "not work out" for me. I *chose* not to do it, as many women do. I feel no guilt or anxiety about the choice. I have no doubt that both of my daughters are exactly as healthy as they can be, exactly as healthy as they would have been had I breastfed.

Yet this (from your comment)-- Sure it's almost always better for a child's health. Yes, it even decreases a woman's chances of breast cancer and increases bonding between the mother and child.--goes exactly to one (though not the main) of the points of my original post. Are you saying I should get over it knowing that I may have doomed myself to breast cancer, that I didn't provide my kids with all the health benefits possible, that I did't bond with them as much as I could? I should get over it, but still feel a little guilty? This is the culture of breastfeeding I spoke of.

Anonymous said...


So, I get your idea of the "cult of breastfeeding". I also get that some women can't/won't breastfeed because of trauma, physical conditions, etc. Sounds as if this might have been a factor in your choice not to breastfeed. But, to simply say "Hey, back-off kid, these are mine and aren't meant for you" is really just a selfish act. I thought part of the concept of motherhood was learning selflessness.

Anonymous said...

I have no problem with women breastfeeding. When they lined up in Charleston a few years ago to protest for the right to breastfeed in Victoria's Secret, I thought, "More power to you." I do have a problem with women trying to impose their CHOICE on me. How is that any different than trying to impose a no breastfeeding in public/workplace/etc rule on them? The very idea that these women try to guilt trip other women into breastfeeding is disgusting. It is none of their business if I don't want to, just as it is none of my business if they do. As to the poster who claims a mother "owes" her child access to her breasts, who gets to decide exactly what a child is due? Obligations to a child extend past physical nourishment. What if I said your child NEEDED spiritual nourishment, and not just any kind, but my particular denomination. Trying to claim your way is best when other viable and equally effective ways exist is very slippery, and it ultimately exposes the irrationality of your thinking. So chide away about bad mommies all you want--I take great pleasure in not bowing to your childish demands.

Vera H. said...

I'm all about a woman's choice.

Biology dictates that a women's breasts were mean to feed children and I'm totally aware of the benefits of breast feeding, and I also feel that all new mons should at least give it a try if they want.

On the other hand, I've seen too many women guilted into breast feeding, and they've been in pain and unhappy, and that cannot be good for the baby or mom.

New moms are guilted into too many things, and breast feeding, even though it is a good thing, should not be one of them.

Motherhood is hard enough without the guilt.

I've thought so much about the black woman breast feeding white children since my last comment too.

I'm very uncomfortable with this. Way too much lousy history--way too much abuse of power.

I just keep thinking--Eeeeewwwwwhhh!!! How can this happen in 21st century America?

I feel that being a wet nurse, to feed a young life can be a beautiful thing that can positively bind women, families, and generations. It's like a the whole village/child thing.

When it a use of power for one group of people to use over another group of people, not so much.

Melanie said...

I'm not fully gettin into the whole debate here! But....

I did nurse both of my children. My first until he was 6 months old when I found out I was pregnant with my second whom I nursed until 14 months old. I do happen to think nursing is ONE of the best options. However, if its not for you and your family then so be it... That doesn make you a bad mother! Everything we do that concerns the rearing of our children may not be best for others. That's one of the things that makes this a free country, the ability to raise our children the way we want!

As for the whole wet nurse thing... Yeah I think I would totally do it under the right circumstances! Before nursing my children I had really small breast. The time framed I nursed I loved my breast! Very full and nothing like I could have even dreamed to have.... So yeah I think I would continue to nurse under certain circumstances!!

But the whole point is to each his own... Do what's best for your family!!

Jennifer said...

*stands up and applauds*

I was just writing about this last night! I don't know when this whole thing got started, but it's ridiculous. I wish they would just tell the truth: if you are from a good neighborhood with excellent health care and you are on an excellent diet, then YOU MIGHT have a healthier child if you breast feed instead of bottle feeding. But if not, you're screwed! I spent years mentoring in a low-income neighborhood, and lemme tell you something. If the breastfed babies were healthier, smarter and had a better advantage over the bottle fed ones, I sure as hell didn't see it!