Advertisements

Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

The Trap of Breastfeeding

Among all of the saccharine and useless articles on breastfeeding, it is next to impossible to find a rare gem that makes a useful point. Reader Evelina Anville, however, managed to alight on just such an elusive piece on the subject. Here is the important point that Karla A. Erickson, the article’s author, is making:

Next time I won’t breastfeed because it sets up a gendered division of who does what early into parenting. It provides an infrastructure for an unequal distribution of the work (and rewards) of parenting.

The burdens of breastfeeding are real and considerable including the restraints to women’s spatial mobility and time. But the other part no one every talks about is that breastfeeding also consolidates pre-existing biological tendencies that privilege the breastfeeding parent.

Breastfeeding does, indeed, function in a way that pushes the father away from the child and creates a barrier between them that it becomes very hard to break afterwards. Many women are more than happy to let this happen for the following reasons:

Breastfeeding is a burden, but it’s also a power trip. Breastfeeding sets up the breastfeeder as the expert, the authority and the primary parent in the life of the breastfed baby.

Women who are used to feeling less important, less competent, less intelligent, and less valuable than their husbands appreciate having one area in which they have supreme authority and can feel that nothing worthwhile will happen without their contribution and expertise.

Imagine a woman who has subsumed her entire identity in a relationship with a man. She has no money or profession of her own and has even abandoned her own name to mark herself as the man’s appendage. If she suddenly finds herself in possession of a skill that makes her more important than said man, she will hold on to the skill for as long and as hard as she can. This is what brings into existence all of those breastfeeding pride movements and attempts to prolong breastfeeding until a child is way too old to be sucking on Mommy’s body parts.

Of course, women who don’t need to prove their worth as human beings in such Byzantine ways can look for ways of letting fathers become as central in the children’s lives as mothers are:

I teach a college course on Gender and Society. One year I invited three dads to come and talk about parenting. The college students adored the hour and a half session. It was such a rare treat to hear dads talking about being dads. One of the fathers said that after their first child they bottle-fed their children because it was the only way to work against the gender disparities in the parenting process.

This is a brilliant article by a brilliant person and I encourage everybody to read it in full.

Thank you, Evelina Anville, for sharing it!

Advertisements

Single Post Navigation

35 thoughts on “The Trap of Breastfeeding

  1. “Breastfeeding does, indeed, function in a way that pushes the father away from the child and creates a barrier between them that it becomes very hard to break afterwards.”

    Gross generalisation, I say bollocks to that.

    Not breastfeeding because of worries about gender division of labour is just weird. We’re talking about a time period of probably 6 months. Can’t these parents just get over themselves?

    Parenting is about the frigging child not the parents. Breastfeeding is good for the baby and is free and easy. Why make life difficult? Get dad to bath the baby, change nappies, have other intimate moments. Hell, pump the breast milk and get dad give to the baby in a bottle if his role of dad is somehow compromised because he can’t feed the kid.

    Go ahead, deny the mother the very real pleasure of breastfeeding the baby cos daddy can’t and is such a sad case he thinks he’ll never have a good relationship with his child as a result. I’ve never heard such crap.

    Like

    • “Hell, pump the breast milk and get dad give to the baby in a bottle ”

      – This is exactly what is being suggested.

      ” Breastfeeding is good for the baby and is free and easy.”

      – Exactly. The benefits to a child of consuming breast milk from a breast rather than from a bottle do not exist. The benefits of having a relationship with a father are boundless.

      “Go ahead, deny the mother the very real pleasure of breastfeeding the baby cos daddy can’t”

      – Have you read the article? It isn’t about me denying something to a complete stranger. It is about a grown woman making this choice for herself.

      Like

      • You’re right, I hadn’t read the article but I have now and am even more gobsmacked at the writer’s antagonism towards Nature. She also draws huge conclusions from having had ONE child.

        Fie has got it right below. The relationship your child has with its parents depends on the child not on whether it’s been breastfed.

        Parenting should be about the child, not the parents.

        My favourite comment in the section was: ‘And frankly, if the only way you can think of to achieve gender parity in your parenting life is to avoid breastfeeding, I think you just haven’t tried very hard.’

        It’s also strangely repellent for a mother to not breastfeed because it’ll make her closer to her child. Of all the reasons not to breastfeed, and they are many and totally legitimate, this is the most unnatural. I can’t help thinking about all those comments you made, Clarissa, about the former USSR and the way social engineering was designed to separate the child from its parents. Setting out to prevent your own child from bonding with you takes social engineering to new levels which even the Communists couldn’t achieve.

        Like

        • The idea here is to avoid exclusive bonding with one parent while the other is lost somewhere in the background.

          I’m seeing many progressive, well-intentioned couples who set out completely dedicated to participate equally in child-rearing. And in spite of their best intentions they always end up in a model where mother and child become the couple and father is left to play the role of something like an older brother to his own child. The problem is real and it is interesting to see how people try to address it. As for nature, I personally am not very interested because I see nothing natural in the way we live in postindustrial societies and that, I believe, is a great thing. If I wanted to do what nature intended, I wouldn’t be having my first child at 37. 🙂

          Like

  2. Benoni on said:

    I’ve already found the definitive method to avoid gender roles in relationships, so I don’t invest much thought into this. 😛

    Although I will point out that there are services that offer bottled breast milk, so even those who believe breast milk is better for a child have no excuse.

    Like

  3. Breastfeeding is good for the baby and is free and easy.

    Dunno about easy. I breastfed all three and the sleep deprivation is a bitch.

    Like

  4. There ya are being nutty again. Simple solution: Mama is in charge of the inputs, Daddy is in charge of the outputs. I have changed very few diapers.

    Both babies have bonded with daddy just fine. DC1 considered him the primary caregiver. I also spent a lot of time on the internet or sleeping while breastfeeding. DH doesn’t have such leisure walking a baby who doesn’t want to sleep at 3am.

    Oh, but I forgot, you also think cosleeping is some sort of sexual child abuse. It isn’t.

    Like

  5. Both my sisters-in-law, who work, wound up sometimes breast-feeding and sometimes bottle-feeding, whatever happened to be convenient; and my brothers have been actively involved with their kids from the beginning. It’s not the breast-feeding itself that pushes the father away. I imagine that even if my sisters-in-law had only breastfed their kids in the early months, it wouldn’t have changed their underlying attitudes towards parental involvement, because they didn’t need it to compensate for an inadequacy.

    If a mother doesn’t want the father to be involved – or if the father doesn’t want to be – they’ll find excuses and hide behind things; breast-feeding can of course be one of them, as are other lame excuses involving gender differences. They can even proclaim that diaper-changing requires delicate feminine hands (I heard someone say this once in all apparent seriousness). Anything can be made an excuse (and if fathers want to feel desperately insecure they can wail about how they didn’t get to feel close to the child in utero for 9 months…).

    Like

    • “If a mother doesn’t want the father to be involved – or if the father doesn’t want to be – they’ll find excuses and hide behind things; breast-feeding can of course be one of them, as are other lame excuses involving gender differences. They can even proclaim that diaper-changing requires delicate feminine hands (I heard someone say this once in all apparent seriousness).”

      – Exactly. Such things always come accompanied by a bunch of others.

      Like

  6. This is silly. Infants require enough work that whatever and however you feed the baby, one parent could be exclusively in charge of this and the other parent could still do 50% or more of the caring.

    Like

    • Realistically, though, with no paternal leave and very punishing work schedules, what can a father who leaves at 7 am and comes back at 8 pm do? This is not a rhetorical question. I’m looking for things but find it hard to come up with anything.

      Like

      • To me, this is a problem with the lack of paternity leave, rather than what and from what the baby is eating. I think this is a huge problem, and there cannot be gender equality without it, no matter what. That said, if you are looking for practical suggestions given that this isn’t going to change by the time your baby is born, I would suggest the following:

        1) If your husband makes enough, he can hire someone to do his share of the household labor (and even better, yours too) thus freeing up that time for baby
        2) He could also hire someone to help you during the day, reducing your share of the work.
        3) He can take care of the baby in the evenings, when babies are often fussiest. Thus he will spend a lot of time soothing the baby, and the baby will know to look to him for comfort as well. Baby can have baths, take medicine, any extra things, in the evening. If you are breastfeeding, you can plunk yourself down in front of the TV or with a novel, and he can just bring the baby to you when he’s hungry. If you sit on the sofa, he can sit right there with you and baby, and talk to/play with baby, whatever. He could also give bottles, but I don’t think the difference between this and bringing the baby to you to breastfeed would make a difference in the division of labor (especially if you add in washing/sterilizing/preparing the bottles, this is just making extra work for him), so it will end up being whatever works for you.

        Personally, my experience was the opposite of the article–my husband did a lot more work initially because I was so traumatized by breastfeeding.

        Like

        • I couldn’t agree more about paternal leave! My niece’s father had a 2-month leave to spend with his newborn daughter and what an amazing thing that was for everybody. Here in the US we have to beg for several unpaid days off for the father to be with the baby. This is our “family values” society in action.

          Great suggestions, thank you!

          Like

  7. Titfortat on said:

    Lol, and there you go again. Choice is great for the woman when it is a choice you agree with. If no agreement, then not so much. Well, at least your consistent. As far as the breastfeeding goes I think the mother and father in the article seem, well, just a tad off, or just down right nuts.

    Like

    • “Choice is great for the woman when it is a choice you agree with. If no agreement, then not so much. Well, at least your consistent.”

      – Obviously. It would be pretty weird for me to take the opposite approach. Aren’t you tired of stating the painfully obvious?

      “As far as the breastfeeding goes I think the mother and father in the article seem, well, just a tad off, or just down right nuts.”

      – Envy is an ugly feeling.

      Like

    • There’s a difference between disagreeing with someone else’s choices, and wanting to take that freedom away from them completely.

      Like

  8. Evelina Anville on said:

    I’m glad you liked the article. I liked it too. I also liked how it began. Right now it IS indeed an “upper middle class white” thing to fetishize breast feeding. I understand that breast feeding may have some health benefits (although in a previous thread you pointed to some statistical studies that I had never heard of) but there are many good and valid reasons to NOT breast feed a baby.

    I also liked how honest it was. If a mother were to say: “Pregnancy and child birth was hard. I love to breastfeed because it makes me feel happy and close to my baby so I’m going to do it.,” I would think that it was a perfectly legitimate sentiment and be happy for the mother. But the hysteria surrounding breastfeeding is really bonkers. There are women who put themselves through extraordinary pain and misery because they somehow believe that it is the only way to give their child a “healthy start” in life. Other women viciously attack anyone who refuse to breastfeed. And the vitriol unleashed against this author, who has identified some real issues with how bf might affect paternal bonding, is unreal. I am glad that you posed a positive response to the article because everything has been almost uniformly negative in response to her. 🙂

    Like

    • A lot of the vitriol comes from uneasiness with their own choices, the inner dissatisfaction or doubts that they can’t express about themselves, so they dump it on others.

      I live in NYC, and while I know some easy-going, laid-back parents, I also see a lot of parents who compete using their kids. The “healthy start” you’re talking about is a fear that if they don’t do everything perfectly right from the start, the kid won’t start talking/walking at the “right age,” get into the right nursery school, then the right private school (or good public school), then the top college… and won’t have as many accomplishments as their neighbor’s kids… and the family won’t look perfect. That’s part of the reason there’s also tremendous anxiety around kids who are atypical in some way – even if it’s something like a slight language delay, for instance. The parents, especially mothers, put a lot of pressure on themselves to do everything right, so that on every choice hinges the success or mediocrity/failure of the kid and the family as a whole. And the kids pick up on the parental anxiety; they also get super-competitive among themselves over silly things, or afraid to try and fail.

      Like

      • “A lot of the vitriol comes from uneasiness with their own choices, the inner dissatisfaction or doubts that they can’t express about themselves, so they dump it on others.”

        – You are absolutely, completely, and totally right.

        “The “healthy start” you’re talking about is a fear that if they don’t do everything perfectly right from the start, the kid won’t start talking/walking at the “right age,” get into the right nursery school, then the right private school (or good public school), then the top college… and won’t have as many accomplishments as their neighbor’s kids… and the family won’t look perfect.”

        – I grew up inside this kind of approach, and I know first-hand how damaging it is and how long it takes to crate a healthy perception of the self.

        Like

  9. Titfortat on said:

    I think it is perfectly legitimate to question the psychological health of a father who feels breastfeeding could negatively affect his relationship with his child. I think it is also perfectly legitimate to question the psychological health of a mother who loved breast feeding her first child but wouldn’t breastfeed her second child because of the concerns of the father in question. I think this is probably the reason why the vast majority of opinions are negatively based against the mother or parents. For all who think that line of reasoning is ok, well, let me just give my freaking head a shake.

    Like

  10. Titfortat on said:

    Im just a father expressing his opinion on your blog post.

    Like

  11. “- I grew up inside this kind of approach, and I know first-hand how damaging it is and how long it takes to crate a healthy perception of the self.”

    I wish I had realized this earlier in my adulthood. I’m approaching thirty now, and for close to a decade lived with very unhealthy self-perceptions that I wasn’t even fully aware of, though they were eating me up, because they just seemed normal to me – also, I had so much anger in me that I turned on myself, again without realizing. Then a couple of years ago I had a major burn out, and floundered around directionless for a bit – but I came to some realizations about myself as a result. Now I’m slowly rebuilding my life and working on these self-perceptions. It will take time – it’s amazing how engrained or reflexive these mental and behavioral habits become – but at least I’m more aware of them now.

    Like

    • I’ve had very very similar experiences to yours. There came a time where I felt completely paralyzed and just couldn’t do anything at all. And there didn’t seem any real reason for the burnout – until I realized that running a rat race of looking and being perfect since childhood was too exhausting.

      The good news is that when you realize this, you begin inevitably to get better so it can only get better for us from now on. 🙂

      Like

  12. Oh my goodness finally!
    I think that the “breast is best” chirping has to be the biggest crock in early 21st century mainstream medicine (so far!) as somebody who wants kids some day, but has sensory issues related to my breasts being touched due to autism, I always knew I was going to bottle feed if I had kids. You wouldn’t believe the kind of reproachful, asinine things I’ve heard from people whom I’ve discussed this with, ranging from “maybe you should just not have kids” to “you should just give it a try, it’s a truly special one of a kind experience, I’m sure you could overcome that worry!” and, the worst one of all: “but breastfeeding is the only proper choice! It’s good for you, good for the kid, and the milk comes in cute containers!” (Had to fight the urge to punch the guy who said that)

    Like

    • OK, the cute containers comment was the most bizarre among the many really bizarre comments I have heard on the subject. There is some really disturbing projection of adult sentiments on infants going on there.

      Like

      • The worst part is, this was said in a group setting, where I was pretty much the only person who didn’t want to breastfeed; the other people besides the jerk laughed and acted as if the “cute containers” crack was checkmate over my highly personal reasons for preferring bottle-feeding.

        Like

  13. Shakti on said:

    It doesn’t seem to matter how you choose to feed your small infants; somewhere someone will attach some kind of piousness or lack of piety to the choice.

    This is what brings into existence all of those breastfeeding pride movements and attempts to prolong breastfeeding until a child is way too old to be sucking on Mommy’s body parts.
    Anecedotally, the only couple I’ve known that have had their children breastfeed into preschool are lesbians who both work.

    Like

  14. Fie Upon This Quiet Life on said:

    I breastfed both of my kids. To me, it started out as an economic thing. We couldn’t afford formula. It was also very convenient. We never had to make bottles. Eventually, we got a breast pump, and hubby was able to give bottles. All was well — both before and after pump usage. My first kid still prefers me to hubby, but my second kid frequently prefers hubby over me. You never know what kind of bonding is going to happen. It frequently has more to do with temperament of the people involved, rather than breastfeeding (or not).

    I do respect people’s choices in this matter though. Whatever is best for your family is best for your family. For us, breastfeeding was a great choice. For others? Not as much. Do what you want, and that’s that.

    Like

    • “I do respect people’s choices in this matter though. Whatever is best for your family is best for your family. For us, breastfeeding was a great choice. For others? Not as much. Do what you want, and that’s that.”

      – I agree completely.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: