Once 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.: 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.