Breastfeeding and the Abject? by Sara Frykenberg

IMG_3269Once upon time formula companies and complicit medical experts launched a serious campaign to sell more formula, telling a generation of mothers that this product was both superior to breast milk and far better for baby and mother. Some were convinced, others found formula a good alternative to breast milk given their employment status, hormonal changes, their particular baby’s needs,personal choice, difficulty producing their own milk, or the like; and still others chose to breastfeed despite criticism, like my mother-in-law, who received scorn and derision from medical personnel as the only breastfeeding mother in the hospital in which she gave birth in 1970.

Despite this effort, science has finally “proven” that breast milk, when it is possible to give it, is better for your child than synthesized alternatives. Wow. Well, the politics of believability aside, women in the U.S. are now encouraged to trust their own bodies to feed their babies and give the breast a try. In fact, every new book, article, website and internet forum, birthing class teacher and hospital nurse will tell you that “breast is best,” repeatedly, for months, asking you about your breastfeeding plan, and urging you to keep trying until you and baby get it right. A counter-campaign, this vigorous encouragement is working to undo the attitudinal changes within popular culture that placed a stigma on the breastfeeding woman.

In my experience, attitudes have certainly changed towards breast milk itself. Power discourses about the sexuality and bodies of the women who are being milked? Well, not so much. Personally, I have received tremendous support from family and friends for my breastfeeding—but I have yet to try it in public. Many women are shamed for breastfeeding in public spaces, and, as documented in many popular videos and internet articles, are often called “disgusting” for doing so.

Disgusting is an interesting adjective here. It is often indicative of some perceived threat or even the abject nature of the object of the insult. So, what’s so threatening about breastfeeding? I asked my all female Sexual Ethics class this question and they gave me many good answers, most of which related to the idea that breastfeeding is about women’s power and is something that a man cannot control—but that doesn’t stop the dominant culture from trying.

Women are often told not so subtly:

  • Breastfeed, yes, but do it some place private, like in this lounge next to the bathroom.
  • Breastfeed for a long time—but not too long, because that’s just creepy or gross.
  • Buy this shawl, cover up or bib, and breastfeed in style!
  • Breastfeed in ways that do not violate the dominant culture’s sexualization of the breast.

The trappings of motherhood are all too powerful reminders that, as Catherine Keller reminds us in her book From a Broken Web, mother goddesses have to be continually slain for patriarchal heroes to be born. Indeed, she suggests that conceptions of Western selfhood are based upon this symbolic matricide—so it is no wonder that breast milk might be considered abject: a threat to the unity of the self, the boundaries of which are fiercely guarded by religion, the violation of which can cause actual physical revulsion (for more about the abject, please check out Julia Kristeva’s book Power’s of Horror).

In graduate school, I heard stories about feminist protestors who threw menstrual blood and wrote in their breast milk, reclaiming and harnessing this power. A woman I know once used the threat of period blood to deter male aggression, sticking a maxi pad stained with food coloring to a man, after which he walked around screaming, “she’s sick, she’s sick,” while the women in the room laughed at his shock and horror. These fluids are powerful, turning away even some allied colleagues who find themselves surprised and then uncomfortable with the idea that you may have been pumping just a moment before.

After discussing these powers with my class, however, I found myself considering my own experience as a breastfeeding mum. And, I have to admit that I have found my own milk, at times, somewhat abject as well.

I have refused to taste my own milk. Pumping and carrying bags of my milk down the hall to my office, I have felt like a cow. My boobs no longer feel like my own; and they definitely don’t feel ‘sexy’ to me either. Am I afraid of my own power? Perhaps, and sometimes, probably yes. However, I also realized that my feelings about my breast milk are also connected to my new role of being a mother—something that has ‘threatened’ and changed my understandings of self; and breastfeeding has been a particularly challenging part of this role.

My daughter, Hazel, spent the first week of her life in the NICU; so while I was able to try to give Hazel her first meal, she was also supplemented with formula early on. Competing with the easy to feed from bottle, I then found breastfeeding extremely painful, often nursing my baby with tears streaming down my face, breasts aching severely for the couple of hours at a time that she wasn’t feeding.

I have learned a lot in this process. For example, did you know that certain issues with sucking may cause milk to be pushed back up into the breast? Ducts can clog, your baby may throw up your blood at some point, and you can actually get “thrush” (the nice word for an oral yeast infection) on your nipples. I was lucky to avoid some of these potential pitfalls, but they are common problems.

I watched a particularly funny scene on the show “Jane the Virgin,” during my first month breastfeeding. Jane, a virgin expecting a child after being accidentally artificially inseminated, goes to her first birthing class where the dictatorial leader tells the women that they must continue to breast feed and remain dedicated to it despite the increasingly long and horrifying list of symptoms that she describes. All the women in the room nod their heads and smile, except Jane, who gazes around the room increasingly horrified both by what she is hearing and her sense that ‘this is what it means to be a good mother.’ I identified strongly with Jane.

I will say that breastfeeding has gotten MUCH better for me. I now find it minimally painful or even not painful most of the time. I am glad for the convenience of the breast, the health benefits it gives to my child, the way our nipple to mouth contact can both heal my baby and put her to sleep (by the way, did you know breast milk is an amazing curative for all kinds of things???), the comfort it gives her, and sometimes, though more rarely than I would like to feel, for the bonding that it brings us.

So, once upon a time, a new mother started to negotiate a new kind of power. While I do not yet love breastfeeding, I am glad that I have the support, my foremothers’ victories, and feminist counter-narratives that give me the opportunity to try.

Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.Sara Frykenberg: Graduate of the Women’s Studies in Religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

Categories: Body, Embodiment, Family, General, Motherhood

Tags: , , , , , , ,

16 replies

  1. Love your musings and your combinations of experience, theory, and politics. So sorry our world still cannot accept “seeing” breastfeeding. More power to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I saw this disturbing video of a man on the subway losing his nut at a young mother breast-feeding her baby… we have a long way to go before women can confidently feed their babies in public…


      • Why should his hang ups effect a child’s need? nourishment? He can look away, the baby can’t feed her/his self. Don’t say, ”she could bring a bottle.” Bottles are extra baggage, breasts are not!


  2. Thank you for the thoroughness and directness of this post. Yes, more power to you! I also enjoyed Jane the Virgin. I think there is no season two? I am going to imagine a happy ending for Jane and her baby.


  3. I did some research on this and it’s amazing how many advantages breastfeeding has for the child, if you can handle it, including longer lives and higher IQs. It also has some economic positives. It’s not only cheaper than buying formula, but breast milk also contains antibodies that help the child fight off viruses and bacteria, and thus avoid medical bills.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My ob told me that by breast feeding I could reduce my chances of getting breast cancer by 40%. I’m not sure about the science of that study, but I can’t help but wonder if the anti-breast feeding movement of the 60-70s created a population of women at high risk for developing breast cancer later in life.


    • I breast-fed both my children in the 60s when I was in my twenties, yet at 68 I had breast cancer resulting in a double mastectomy… Just enjoy breast-feeding your baby and do not invest too much in the long-term outcome…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I was one of those who breastfed in 1970 – 1972. I knew very little about breastfeeding, but thankfully, even less about bottle feeding. The hospital nurses actively tried to sabotage me, and the pediatrician was horrified, and ordered me to stop immediately. I didn’t, but I did change paediatricians. My daughter was not sick even one time until after she turned five, and she continues with relative good health today. Benefits for the mother include weight loss back to pre-pregnant levels, in most cases, and a cumulative lifetime breastfeeding time of four years gives protection against breast cancer. (That is if other harmful activities, smoking, etc. are not practiced). Breastfeeding for women in our society is problematic, but in other societies, 14 year olds nurse with ease. Breastfeeding is largely a visual art. When one grows up seeing lots of women breastfeeding, then all of the moves become second nature.

    Liked by 2 people

    • My question is when will we as a society recognize the abject in things like date rape, and react with the same kind of unfettered horror when “no means no” is violated? When will we react with disgust at shows that eroticize rape and sensationalize violence? Men keep putting out the abject and it sells; women doing things that are absolutely good for humanity are called abject. What a world we live in.


  6. I think that having a portable milk bar that doesn’t need refrigeration, is always the best temperature, contains healthy “additives” of the correct kind and amount, and is somewhat free, is totally awesome! Nestle was behind a lot of nasty promotion of formula, including in Third World Countries that had no safe supply of drinking water to mix their “free samples” of formula. I have an on-going boycott of Nestle products in my life!

    Thank you for sharing your struggles and success Sara. Lucky baby to have such a great mom btw! :-)

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I breastfed both of my children in the 1980’s, and after the initial adjustment period, I was amazed at how pleasurable it was! Many people seem to think that feeling pleasure while breastfeeding is abnormal, but in fact, it’s one of the reasons that mothers have breastfed their babies since the beginning of time. It feels good! Some breastfeeding moms actually experience orgasm while feeding their babies. Oxytocin, which is released while breastfeeding, is the same hormone that causes uterine contractions. It is the hormone that is also released during other loving behaviors that make us feel good about a person. The surge of oxytocin while nursing is one of the ways that the mother falls in love with her baby. I believe that if our society didn’t have so many hang-ups about sex and sexual feelings, more women would admit to experiencing physical pleasure from breastfeeding.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes, indeed. I understand what you are saying, Katharine. I do not see myself as a stereotypical “earth mother” person, but I loved breast feeding my children for the good feelings it all induced. The one downside was that I found breast feeding sapped my energy. Modern society has no patience with moms who have no energy for all the tasks that must needs be done. I think in days gone by, mothers had much more communal support and the lack of energy was “taken up” by other women in the tribe.


    • I breastfed babies from 1998 to 2004 and did not encounter criticism. Obviously, experiences vary, but many mothers I know had good experiences with nursing children, including in public. I’ve heard priests encourage mothers to feed their babies in church. I know mothers who nursed babies through movies and lectures and in the park. Sharing, because it’s not all bad news for us.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I publicly breastfed my sons in 1993 to 1999. Three years each, and rarely felt uneasy. When I did recieve shame intending gazes, both of my sons could feel my apprehension, (maybe the milk slowed in its flow) and would unlatch and look around and then glare at whoever they percieved to be affecting their meal. The infant or toddlers shameless reaction would cause the onlookers to quickly focus their attention elsewhere.

    Starting from around 2 to 3 months, they both also opposed being covered with a blanket or shal. Their natural reactions were to take their little hands and push the covering aside, and then gaze directly into my eyes with a puzzled brow.

    I agree with Katharine, about the pleasure, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I loved breastfeeding my daughter. And I learned a song that really talks about these issues in a humorous way. It’s by Kristin Lems:

    Would you like to pay to take a peak at what drives men insane?
    They’re in anthro books galore, and I’m sure you will adore ’em.
    Cave women have the same two simple….

    Mammary glands, whoa-oh
    Mother Nature’s dairy delight.
    You can make cream or butter,
    ‘Cause it’s just a human udder,
    A natural mammalian sight (chorus).

    The men decided that a certain shape stands out more than all the rest.
    They made such a major issue, women stuff their bras with tissue,
    Throw shoulders back to look their best, show off their…


    If you’re more than 36 then you’re desirable,
    So don’t be shy, they’ll pay.
    For once you’ve finally sold out, you can get a center fold-out.
    They dig your dugs, you’re on your way, with famous…..


  10. The Politics of Breastfeeding by Gabrielle Palmer is a riveting read! Very well done and fascinating.

    I’ve been a breastfeeding counselor for ten years. Breastfeeding is very often a heroine’s journey (unsung!). I have been a nursing mother for twelve years–continuously. There have been three months (not contiguous) in the last thirteen years in which I was not pregnant or nursing (and those months were due to recovery from two miscarriages). Sometimes my mind *boggles* at the physical investment of my BODY in my children. This is my milk, my blood, made flesh.

    You might like my Breastfeeding as an Ecofeminist Issue article:


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