The eternal feminist problem: Lecture deficiency syndrome

Before we start: please read my disclaimer[1], which shouldn’t be necessary, but is.

I’ve had a nudge or two behind the scenes to write something in response to this fatuous piece from the Herald Sun: “Feminists fail to stay abreast with child feeding”. Panahi is rather frustrated at the attempts of breastfeeding advocates to examine the structure of society and the ways in which Australian culture as a whole makes breastfeeding difficult. She wants us to start blaming selfish mothers instead. Her main thesis is in the conclusion of the article:

There should be a heavier burden on women to breastfeed if they are able to. It’s a woman’s choice what she does with her own body, but when she is entrusted with the care of another life, whether in her womb or as a newborn, she has an added responsibility. The importance of this should be far greater than her own needs.
[…]
As a community we must determine what we deem of greater value, a child receiving the optimal nutrition, or a mother’s right to choose an option that is more convenient to her lifestyle?

So that’s where she’s headed. But how did she get there? Well, she started out here, with an eyeroll at those man-hating feminists:

THERE is an always predictable gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands when Australia’s poor breastfeeding rates are released.
[…]
Left-leaning feminists say the failure of mothers to do what should come naturally is the fault of an unsympathetic male-dominated society. Of course, this is as misguided as it is mischievous and will ultimately do little to improve what is a serious health issue for the country’s newest generation.

The endless rationalising by feminists of why women do not breastfeed is more to do with a political agenda than providing real answers.

Labelling a stance as “political” is a strangely effective way of calling it inherently untrustworthy and irrelevant to everyday life, to people who don’t actually know what “political” means. Politics is about societal structures, power, controls and freedoms. “Rationalising” is another oddly negative buzzword. Literally referring to a logical, thought-out argument, it has turned into a way of shrugging off a set of ideas as overthought or academic. And “agenda” – yes, she’s hit the trifecta of “I Don’t Want To Think About This” dismissive framing, with a bonus card of the polar “real” on the end there. So, feminists are up to no good, in Panahi’s world, because they have employed logic and reason to examine the power structures in society, and have decided that they need changing. Feminists are up to no good because they’re not conservative, and are therefore producing ideas and solutions that Panahi has evaluated as a sham.

Panahi goes on to employ a mishmash of half-truths and myths in her consideration of why some babies are not breastfed.

The unpalatable truth they do not want to acknowledge is that despite society being supportive of breastfeeding, many smart, educated women simply choose convenience over giving their child the optimal start in life. It’s not chauvinistic male attitudes, but female prerogative that is behind Australia’s poor breastfeeding record.

We have to accept that although breast is best for the baby, it may not be best for the mother. Bottle feeding allows a mother to leave a child with another carer, for longer than a couple of hours at a time, without the onerous task of expressing sufficient milk. It allows them to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner without a stern lecture from their GP. It allows them to take the contraceptive pill. It allows them to wear a sheer blouse without the fear they will leak halfway through the day and look as if they’re entering a one-woman wet T-shirt contest. They can also share all-important night-time feeding duties with their partner, while they get some much needed sleep.

Where do I start? Number one, “bottle feeding” isn’t “formula feeding”. Panahi acknowledges the existence of milk expression, then equates bottles with formula. Expressing milk? Sure, it’s a bit of a chore, but in the grand scheme of mothering tasks, it’s a relatively small one (assuming you’re someone who can express reasonably readily). While exclusive breastfeeding is the goal of breastfeeding advocacy, any breastfeeding is better than none; if a mother truly is unable to be with her infant or to express milk for periods of time, mixed feeding is possible, despite the health risks involved. There are also two sides to the out-and-about convenience argument; breastfeeding is vastly more convenience than bottle-feeding (of expressed milk or formula) when the baby is with the mother.

The wine myth is one I’m heartily sick of. Drinking a glass of wine while breastfeeding is perfectly fine, and any GP with half a clue knows it. A good general rule is “sober enough to drive, sober enough to breastfeed”. The breastmilk contains the same alcohol concentration as the mother’s blood, which will peak at around 0.02% if she slams that glass of wine down on an empty stomach and feeds the baby at the peak of the alcohol. Babies tend to drink a little less milk than usual when a mother has had a drink, so assuming the baby drinks around 100 ml, that baby can receive no more than twenty microlitres of ethanol (and likely a lot less). Refraining from breastfeeding for an hour or two after the drink is not necessary, but drops the exposure to zero. Alcohol is listed as compatible with breastfeeding by the AAP. To date, there have been no studies demonstrating any long-term adverse effects on infants from light drinking. The studies claiming that “moderate drinking” has an effect on the baby showed very small effects, and defined “moderate” as drinking at least two drinks a day, every day, throughout the newborn and early infant period – and didn’t effectively exclude drinking in pregnancy as a risk factor. I don’t know about you, but I have yet to meet a mother who drinks that way with a tiny baby, let alone someone who abstains throughout pregnancy and then starts tossing back a couple of drinks a day immediately the baby is born. Greater than light drinking in the newborn period is quite likely an indicator of other issues in the mother.

The contraceptive pill? Firstly, the progesterone only pill is perfectly safe during breastfeeding. So is the copper or progesterone-containing IUD, both more effective than any contraceptive pill, and any barrier method. Lastly, if ecological breastfeeding is practised in accordance with the Bellagio Consensus, contraceptive effectiveness is 98%, around the same effectiveness as the combined oral contraceptive pill. (The Bellagio criteria include exclusive breastfeeding, amenorrhea, and baby less than six months old). Breastfeeding makes a mother LESS likely to get pregnant, not more, so this “reason to formula feed” is a complete furphy.

The sheer blouse? Uh, whatever. Whack breastpads in your bra, just as you do with non-sheer shirts. You’ll have enhanced cleavage while breastfeeding, too, if that floats your boat. (And some people never leak; I never did, even while producing 1600 ml of milk a day.)

Night-time feeding? Breastfeeding involves no-one getting out of bed or even turning a light on. If a mother absolutely must have some unbroken sleep as a one-off event, she can choose to express or feed donor or formula milk for that one time. This isn’t a reason to wean. And I note that Panahi assumes the privilege of not only a two-parent family, but one in which the partner is happy to take regular night-time feeds; many, many women are not in that situation. The novelty of “But I can feed the baby too!” too often lasts no more than a few short weeks, leaving guess-who with the burden of now tramping up to the kitchen and heating up a bottle of formula in the middle of the night. To further put the kybosh on the “formula feeding mums get more sleep” myth, a recent study in the Journal of Perinatal and Neonatal Nursing, “Breast-feeding Increases Sleep Duration of New Parents”, found that the parents of babies who were breastfed in the evening and night-time had 40-45 minutes MORE sleep than parents of babies fed formula in that time. There are potential confounders in this study, but the results have surprised a few people, and debunk the formula-parents-sleep-more as not the truism some people believe it to be.

So. Panahi first argues that lack of accurate breastfeeding information isn’t actually part of the problem, then spouts off a pile of inaccurate breastfeeding information. Neat, huh?

Now. Where was I going with this?

There should be a heavier burden on women to breastfeed if they are able to. It’s a woman’s choice what she does with her own body, but when she is entrusted with the care of another life, whether in her womb or as a newborn, she has an added responsibility. The importance of this should be far greater than her own needs.

To mother-blame effectively, you’ve got to be all about the politics of individualism. To mother-blame effectively, you’ve got to convince yourself that women make decisions in a vacuum, that infant feeding decisions are motivated primarily by selfishness and women’s incomprehensible obsession with their own appearance, that the “convenience” of formula feeding is coveted by women in the same way that we trot off for “convenience” abortions. You can’t get to mother-blaming without embracing choice politics.

Despite the cultural and corporate influences on women, the vast majority of women still wish to breastfeed. So why are rates so low, if it’s not the fault of mothers themselves? Why is breastfeeding attrition so rapid and extreme?

You may as well as “How does patriarchy work?” You’re soaking in it. Women are offered stark options, forced to choose between a career and a social life or attached mothering. Women have no guarantee of access to paid maternity leave, so in the absence of extreme economic privilege, forgoing mother-infant separation means either poverty or dependence. Instead of living in a society where women work and play freely with a baby at their breast, workplaces are segregated and babies excluded, we are told that babies are anathema to fun, we are told that women have to CHOOSE. And no matter what we choose, it’s the wrong decision.

Then the male gaze kicks in. We’re saturated with the “yummy mummy” objectification of women. There are strong social forces compelling women to maintain the appearance of sexual availability even while their babies are neonates. Check out a celebrity mag: if a mother-celeb has any detectable bodily changes still visible at six weeks postpartum, New Idea is all over them. And breastfeeding in public predictably sparks flurries of outrage, as choosing to opt out of male-gaze-pandering is one of the worst crimes a woman in the Patriarchy can commit. And sustained breastfeeding? It requires a substantial commitment to bucking the patriarchy to get past the first tooth, the first words, the first steps. It’s not just funny looks and toddler milk ads; women are told that they are breastfeeding only “for their own selfish reasons” starting around nine months or so; that their milk has “turned to water” (complete rubbish); even outright told that that they are “perverts” for breastfeeding a talking baby. Breasts are so heavily sexualised that their nutritious function comes with a ticking alarm clock and a dose of sexual blame. What more effective way to condemn a mother than to be told she is a depraved sicko paedophile?

To put the icing on the cake, we’re then doused with corporate marketing. Forget the “But advertising never influenced my decision!” protests, advertising works. They wouldn’t do it otherwise. Nestle isn’t just killing babies in third-world countries, they’re doing it right here in our backyard. Any attempt to restrict unethical and WHO-Code violations inevitably sparks more ignorant outrage from people who on the one hand objects that marketing doesn’t actually do anything, and on the other argue that restricting marketing deprives women of “information” that they need to make an “informed choice”. But I’ve blogged before on the effects of formula company marketing, so I won’t go into too much detail here; go check out the Boycott Nestle blog for lots more.

So there it is. Women have access to very restricted options, coerced into formula feeding via a variety of social and economic sanctions for breastfeeding, drenched in advertising for “convenient”, “natural”, “healthy” artificial feeding, then blamed for making “the wrong choice”. And it’s all feminists’ fault, for not finger-wagging at women sufficiently about their responsibilities to their babies. Thanks, Rita Panahi; you’re doing a bang-up job for the Patriarchy.

~~~
[1] This type of discussion has a tendency to derail into “nasty do-gooders want to ban formula and make mums feel guilty”, so I’ll put a pre-emptive disclaimer here. Some women choose to use breastmilk substitutes. Some women are unable to produce enough milk to feed their child, for various reasons, and choose breastmilk substitutes in the absence of donor milk or in preference to it. Many, many women are poorly supported, poorly informed, have limited opportunities to avoid forced separations from their baby, and end up using breastmilk substitutes even if it wasn’t their original choice. None of these things happens in a vacuum. This post is not about individual women and their stories and how guilty they should or shouldn’t feel as individuals. It is about the system that fails women and babies, by failing to support breastfeeding, and by not having donor milk available for the women who need it, and about the larger structures that support and encourage the normalisation of massively high rates of artificial feeding. And it’s about blame, and where it belongs (hint: not with mothers).

Please also understand that my breastfeeding advocacy is not about legal rights. Just as a feminist can critique the patriarchal institution of prostitution without saying that prostituted women should be considered criminals, a feminist can critique patriarchal influences on motherhood without saying that formula should be banned or woman should be forced to breastfeed.



Categories: gender & feminism, health, work and family

Tags: , , , , ,

16 replies

  1. So. Panahi first argues that lack of accurate breastfeeding information isn’t actually part of the problem, then spouts off a pile of inaccurate breastfeeding information. Neat, huh?
    She’s so caught up in individualism she doesn’t see the contortions she has to go through to support her argument.
    I thoroughly enjoyed your takedown of this. Perhaps we should aim for a weekly Alleviation of Lecture Deficiency Syndrome post. Lord knows there should be plenty of contenders.

  2. That was awesome.
    Now can you please demolish the child-hating, but-breastfeeding-in-public-is-icky crowd who were vomiting bile all over Feministing earlier in the week? Starting with the question “Why is a woman’s right to breastfeed even a feminist issue?”, perhaps *bangs head on wall*

  3. Stunning piece, Lor’.
    Gosh, I have a pile of links I need to distribute. . .

  4. So where were you on the 4th of July when I, the only childless woman at my sister’s shindig, found myself defending another woman’s decision to employ a doula? Hmmm? (Not that my childlessness should have bearing on whether or not I (a) care whether another woman employs a doula or (b) can speak in an informed way about what a doula’s role is and why many women feel in need of an advocate during childbirth, of course . . . )

  5. Yep, society is supportive of breastfeeding, unless you want to put pictures of it on Facebook. Then it’s bad, obscene and enough to get you banned.

  6. tigtog: so true. Her article was almost incoherent; I had to read it a few times to get a sense of what she was trying to say, and she was still contradicting herself.
    Liz: I had a good read of that thread, and could see one tenacious non-feminist childfree troll with an almost complete lack of support from others in the thread. It was just a loud enough troll to nearly drown out the other points of view.
    Black Knight: thanks.
    MatildaZQ: clearly I need to be invited to more shindigs!
    Mindy: absolutely – if you click on the breastfeeding photo, it will take you to the SMH article on the Facebook carry-on, which is more or less identical to last year’s LJ consternation.

  7. I’m a fan of your work but your response to that article smacks of desperation….how long did it take you to write all that? Really are we in any doubt that bottle feeding is the same as formula feeding? To most people it is, I know when I express and my bub’s bottle fed, I don’t consider him a “bottle fed” baby!
    I think she was right in many ways and it was a very well written piece. So many women I know gave up breastfeeding cause its too hard, don’t know why they expected it to be easy?
    I don’t like the anti-feminist vibe she was giving off but agree with her on many things. As long as we blame society for mum’s refusing to breastfeed then the problem will never be sold. Its down to individual responsiility. I know in my case I found breastfeeding hard and wanted to quit many times…one of the reasons I didn’t was the pressure from society (maternal child health nurse, GP, friends and family, strangers giving you dirty looks if you are bottle feeding in public) This has happened to friends of mine who bottle feed, one even had a women tell her off, a complete stranger!
    I’m back at work full time and expressing 3 times a day at work (not fun!) and even now I have moments where I want to quit but I’m honest enough with myself not to blame others for what would be my own selfish reasons for wanting to quit.
    As for the wine issue, I don’t drink and none of the women in mother’s group who are still breastfeeding drink, just not worth the risk and I’ve had mixed advice from medical people about pumping and dumping.

  8. “In my own case, I persevered through tears and tantrums for weeks until I was finally able to breastfeed as nature intended, with ease and grace.”
    Actually, I wonder if this is where she was going with the article: “I’m a good mother and all you other slackers are not”. I’d never accept inaccuracies and personal examples as ‘evidence’ in an undergraduate essay and it peeves me no end when they are allowed to be presented by a ‘social commentator’.
    Thanks for taking it on. I wish I could be so clear but I seem to end up inarticulate with rage when faced with this kind of thing.

  9. Just wanted to add that this article was discussed at length on a forum I visit bubhub so if you are interested in the debate, have a look. I’ve posted a link to this blog on a bubhub page….didn’t get a good response though. Those mums can turn sometimes!LOL.

  10. “So why are rates so low, if it’s not the fault of mothers themselves? Why is breastfeeding attrition so rapid and extreme?
    You may as well as “How does patriarchy work?” You’re soaking in it.”
    Nice work. When will we recognise that ‘choice’, if not an illusion, is always limited, if not determined, by its contexts?

  11. I’m a fan of your work but your response to that article smacks of desperation”¦.how long did it take you to write all that?

    Not long, why do you ask? What do you imagine I am “desperate” about? It’s a blog – you’ll encounter writing here. Some of it is short, some is long.

    Really are we in any doubt that bottle feeding is the same as formula feeding? To most people it is, I know when I express and my bub’s bottle fed, I don’t consider him a
    “bottle fed” baby!

    I’m trying to translate this before I respond; did I get it right?
    – most people think bottle feeding and formula are the same thing
    – you don’t consider a baby receiving EMM (expressed mother’s milk) by bottle to be a “bottle fed” baby
    – but there is no doubt that bottle feeding is the same as formula feeding
    ?

    So many women I know gave up breastfeeding cause its too hard, don’t know why they expected it to be easy?

    Because women have been breastfeeding successfully since the beginning of time. Because women in countries where breastfeeding is truly supported achieve breastfeeding rates on the order of 98% initiation and more than half beyond six months. Because many women are told before their baby is born, “Oh yes, we support breastfeeding!”, only to be unsupported, badly misinformed, abused, and even outright betrayed (coerced/unnecessary or undisclosed formula feeding) and discriminated against (in public, in the workplace).
    My main thesis, consistent with my previous work on mother-blaming, is that framing the entire breastfeeding story as individual choice politics is superficial, trivial, and a cop-out to avoid looking at the real problems. Individual dirty-looks and attempts to induce post facto guilt are extremely poor tools for effective social change. When women who want to breastfeed end up not doing so and feeling awful about it, the problem is systematic, not individual.
    On bubhub – it is a cesspit of reactionary individualism and Catch-22 mummy-wars. I chat nappies there now and then, but that’s about it. If you’d prefer a more thoughtful, feminist-lens analysis of mothering issues, maybe try Joyous Birth.

  12. Actually, I wonder if this is where she was going with the article: “I’m a good mother and all you other slackers are not”.

    You may be on to something there.

  13. 1.
    You could add to your disclaimer: some mothers die. Or become incapacitated.
    2. I was a bit extreme-pro-breastfeeding up to the birth of my second child – and I nearly killed him. I’ll do a post sometime with a photograph of what he looked like. Finally I gave up in despair and started supplementing him with a bottle of formula once or twice a day. Guess what? It didn’t kill off my breastfeeding at all. We continued to breastfeed and bottle feed alternately, finishing up with the occasional breast once he was weaning (and we didn’t need to do that too early, either).
    What did happen is that he gathered strength and condition and was able to eventually learn to suck properly at the breast, because he wasn’t so hungry and furious and frustrated.
    He didn’t need bottles at night, either – it would really have given me the shits to tramp out to the kitchen as Lauredhel describes! Not at all “convenient”!
    Maybe “Sam” will have a further child which is like Boychild and then, like me, she’ll learn not to be so dogmatic. But of course your wider point is that people like “Sam” and Panahi just frame the decision as purely personal and ignore the societal pressures on women not to be seen breastfeeding. I mean, women given dirty looks because they’re bottle feeding? come on. Woment get kicked off planes for breast feeding.

  14. Helen: absolutely, and I’m sorry that happened to you. I don’t know the ins and outs of your particular circumstances, but it’s quite possible that it fell under what I would call inadequate or misinformed support: cheerleading for breastfeeding is only a small part of the story, and supporting it in an informed and clinically appropriate way when it goes wrong is essential.
    The situation you describe is well described in the lactation-consulting world. I’m a bit of a fan of ”Coach Smith” whose rules need to be repeated and repeated until they’re burned into memory. As you observed, when a baby goes into “fade”, she will also lose her appetite and ability to suck effectively. Getting food into her (be it expressed mother’s milk, donor milk, or formula, desirability in that order) is priority one. In my lactopia, it would always be EMM or donor milk, but we don’t live in that world. (Yet.)
    [Addendum: I had a very rocky lactation journey also, so I’m not speaking from a position of privilege here. I won’t go into the ins and outs, but I ended up having to exclusively express for my son. I managed it for fifteen months. Circumstances conspired to make it not possible to last my full goal of at least two years, but such is life. Another plus of EMM over formula is that fresh milk can just be left on the windowsill overnight – no tramping to the kitchen!]

    But of course your wider point is that people like “Sam” and Panahi just frame the decision as purely personal and ignore the societal pressures on women not to be seen breastfeeding.

    Yes, this.

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