Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Mother's milk

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

There is a fascinating exploration of the history of breastfeeding in this week's New Yorker. The author, Jill Lepore, traces the various forces that have shaped our opinions about breast milk; it's always been controversial, odd because everyone seems to want to see women's breasts - until they're performing their actual function.
Breastfeeding has been romanticized (Rousseau, who was admittedly not a model father, wrote that “When mothers deign to nurse their own children, then morals will reform themselves”) and dismissed; women first used wet nurses and then formula to avoid having to nurse children themselves. Today, breast milk's health advantages are touted by doctors and hospitals, but breastfeeding averages are actually at a low. This is not so much because women don't want to breastfeed, but because it's difficult to do so outside of the home. Women who want to go back to work after having children (and the tiny maternity leaves in this country certainly don't help) are forced to pump milk at work, often with insufficient facilities. Kim Gandy, the president of the National Organization for Women, says that “only one-third of mega-corporations provide a safe and private location for women to pump breast milk for their babies." And when they do, they are often sterile and somewhat unfriendly locations. It's also taboo for women to breastfeed publicly - but this is a complex issue, loudly illustrated when a Connecticut woman was arrested recently for breastfeeding in a bar.

This is all in addition to the fact that the equipment necessary to pump breast milk is shockingly expensive, making all of this as much of a class issue as when aristocratic women gave their babies to wet nurses in the nineteenth century. Lepore also brings up the issue of the increasing commodification and industrialization of breast milk. "Once milk banks replaced wet nurses," she writes, "human milk came to be treated, more and more, as a medicine, something to be prescribed and researched, tested and measured in flasks and beakers." The fact that breast milk was classified as "liquid medication" by the TSA after a woman cried in an airport when a security guard threw away two days' worth of breast milk (she later sued the airline) is significant. Women have also sold their breast milk on eBay. The question of whether "drinking and nursing" should be legal (i.e. breastfeeding with a certain BAC) is still up for discussion.

So what do you think? Breastfeeding is often a touchy subject, but Lepore seems to be pretty clear on the fact that pumping is not a good solution, at least not the way we're doing it now - the ideal situation would be a long maternity leave, but is that realistic? And what should mothers do now?


At January 15, 2009 at 9:51 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

If there’s a controversial issue here, it’s the lack of access to a decent place to pump for working-class women. This has been covered elsewhere, so I suspect Lepore is looking for a new angle in claiming that pumping is replacing nursing. I think not. From my extensive reading of the Yahoo Pumpmoms list serv (I nursed and pumped for twins for a year), most women who pump breastfeed their babies several times a day (including at night) and pump only twice at work to keep their milk supply up. For them, pumping is not replacing breastfeeding, but enabling it. Those women who pump exclusively only do so because their babies can’t nurse. Lepore’s conclusion that “we’re becoming our own wetnurses” seems overstated.
--Nancy Hurrelbrinck
Charlottesville, VA


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