The latest article on Breastfeeding Medicine confirms it: breastfeeding is a feminist issue. Breastfeeding advocacy is a feminist concern (although breastfeeding advocates are quite often not feminists, and feminists are quite often not interested in breastfeeding.)
Lactivism and feminism collide and collude in many ways: workplace rights for women hinge on reproductive rights (and breastfeeding is part of the reproductive process when we consider that it is physiologically normal for a baby to be fed from its mother’s body). The right of women to exist in the public sphere whilst still being able to choose activities that are specifically feminine, that have been traditionally relegated to domestic spaces, is at the heart of lactivism and also feminism. Asserting that our bodies can be functional and do not merely exist as eye candy is feminist, and part of the power of breastfeeding. Resisting commercial messages about the inadequacy of women’s bodies compared with the ‘scientific’ formula produced in a factory is resisting patriarchal messages. Caring for our babies as we see fit, in a sustainable way, in a gentle way, can be a radical act.
But isn’t feminism about choice?
Sure, it is. I fully support the right of all parents to choose how they feed their babies: and that means supporting their right to use commercial baby milk. That means accepting that some parents will always choose never to breastfeed, or to breastfeed for only a short, pre-ordained period. I may not always understand why someone would freely choose not to breastfeed but I will always argue for their right to do so.
The reality, though, is that most parents who don’t choose breastfeeding, or whose babies are weaned from the breast very early, aren’t making a choice without regret. There are a confluence of pressures on new parents. Returning to work is a common one (to be able to breastfeed on demand for more than a few weeks or perhaps months is still usually a marker of economic privilege). Physiological problems (and a lack of support to overcome these) account for a small but significant percentage of early terminations of a breastfeeding relationship. But what we really have, when it comes to breastfeeding rates, is an attitude problem. In Australia the vast majority of mothers attempt to breastfeed in the early weeks. But a lack of acceptance of not only breastfeeding but perhaps the parenting challenges – and delights – which accompany this choice, abounds in our community. If parents and grandparents and friends and even doctors or midwives are conflicted about infant feeding, overcoming common hurdles can seem impossibly hard. And when knowledge is limited and health professionals give conflicting advice, breastfeeding is probably not going to be easy.
Those who claim that mothers who ‘give up’ on breastfeeding just aren’t willing to try are misguided at best, downright nasty at worst. Breastfeeding problems like painfully cracked nipples or recurrent mastitis might be temporary and they might be solvable but for an individual mother they can be excruciating, demoralising, defeating. I know: I too have felt the tug of the deceptively simple ‘solution’ of artificial feeding in the early hours of a pain-filled night. I don’t for one instant underestimate the struggles that women who try, and fail, to exclusively breastfeed. I don’t for one instant assume the bottle they are offering their infant is any less representative of nurturing and love than the breast I offered to mine.
How do lactivists reconcile a commitment to respecting individual choices and accepting that feeding is only one part of a loving mother-infant bond with advocacy for higher breastfeeding rates? To me, the answer is quite obvious. Being critical of the forces which work against mothers to limit their choices is congruent with supporting individual parenting decisions. Better support for breastfeeding mothers: parental leave policies, parenting rooms, well-educated health professionals, a community that accepts and respects the needs of babies, will benefit all parents, not only the lactating kind.
Lactivism isn’t, and should never be, about making non-breastfeeding parents feel guilty. There is nothing to be gained by drawing the ire of women who tried to breastfeed. Rather, we should be encouraging those parents who value breastfeeding whether or not they were able to do it to direct their anger towards the systemic problems that constrained their choices. But first of all, we have to be decent human beings worth listening to. We have to stand up for all parents. We have to support women and their choices. You know, like feminists.