Saturday, August 24, 2013

Beelzeboob, Booby Traps, and Artificial Wombs


When I was pregnant with Clare (my first), my husband and I had a conversation that went something like this:
"Oh, I'm definitely breastfeeding."
"I'm a little jealous."
"That you'll have to share them?"
"No...I kinda wish I could do it, too."
Just this morning, Clare (now 7), sat next to me on the couch while Zadie (2), was latched on and nursing happily.
"Hey Zadie. Try sissy's mammies instead!"
Zadie looks up, still latched, sees the sparkle in Clare's eye, and decides to play along. "Okay!"
She lets go, bends her head towards Clare's chest, and makes pretend suckling noises, and then looks up and giggles. "Milk! Mmmmm!"
Apparently, we are all possessed by the spirit of Beelzeboob around here.

Like any other nursing mom, there are times when I cherish the intimacy and the snuggling, and times when, like now, I wish that I could type out a sentence without having my elbow awkwardly positioned around the opportunistic toddler who believes that anytime I'm seated and still is an invitation to latch on. There's something sweet and also something exhausting and frustrating about being The Only One with the mammies. Sometimes I fantasize about making them detachable, so I could just hand one off to my incredibly devoted nursling--"Here you go kid, enjoy. Just don't lose it." Sometimes I fantasize about a Meet-the-Parents style man-boob harness. Or magic milk-making pills that I could supply to others so they could lactate and we could share in an equal division of labor and an equal dividend of joy. Or that I lived in a commune with my sisters and we could just trade off nursing duty...(that's not too weird, right?)

There's something similar to this in the way that Karla Erickson analyzes the burdens and blessings of breastfeeding, and the biological reality that only certain bodies lactate. But--as is obvious from my opening paragraphs--my experience of the unequally distributed burdens and blessings of breastfeeding my first did not result in my deciding, as she has, to give up breastfeeding:
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.
It's not that what she describes here isn't true in my experience--it is. And I appreciate her willingness to name it, analyze it, and take action in response. And, there's something fair-minded and noble about being willing to give up the blessings if you can't share them--as well as something honest about wishing the burdens were distributed more equally.

I just don't think that opting out of breastfeeding is the only possible, or the best, response to the issue.

Though I think Erickson's absolutely right in noting that "gender is reproduced in intimate spaces," our intimate spaces themselves are constructed within larger determinative contexts, and those contexts matter. If you want to breastfeed but you're not one of those women with the privilege of choosing SAHMing as your temporary or permanent vocation (in other words, most women), then you're faced with a real dilemma--one in which a breast pump is necessary but insufficient in itself to address. And this is, in my opinion, the very worst of all the "booby traps" lying in wait for mothers who choose to breastfeed--far worse than the mixed messages we receive from our health care industry where "breast is best but here's some free formula to take home with you" or all the public scandals of cover-up-or-else-we'll-kick-you-off-our-airplane. I can toss the formula. I can match the modesty police glare for glare. But I can't singlehandedly change the policies and expectations in place that make it impossible to make certain parenting choices and still keep a job.

What this means is, in short, is that bodies with wombs and lactating breasts are still treated as a deviation from the basic human bodily norm--moreover, a deviation we're unwilling, as a society, to do much to accommodate.

And this is why, despite the truth of Erickson's observation about the way human bodies become so particularly salient in the process of pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding, I can't agree that the solution is to "tuck away those breasts and reach for a bottle instead." Again--on an individual level, I find her reasons for this as a personal choice very poignant. But on a systemic level--if we all followed her lead--what would such collective action signify?

Erickson writes, "sometimes we have to do a runaround our bodies to ensure equity." But I want to ask, why? Why would having a certain sort of body be problematic? And what sort of equity is it, if we have to act like our bodies are different than they actually are to achieve it?

I believe Erickson locates the source of the problem in the wrong place. The problem isn't our female bodies. The problem isn't with having breasts that lactate, or breasts that don't. The problem is that we've left lactation, and all sorts of other parental and familial realities, out of bounds in terms of the kinds of bodily and social realities we're willing to recognize and accommodate as a society. The problem isn't biological. It's social.

Human embodiments are so much more interesting, and multiple, and fluid, and capable, than we've collectively agreed to define them to be--the paradigmatic able-bodied default male person, autonomous and self-sufficient and completely available at all times to his employer with no pesky familial obligations to interfere.

(I don't actually know anyone like that. Do you?)

Which bodies are being called upon to conform, in this prescription to tuck the breasts away and reach for the bottle? And conform to what? Any solution pretending to "equity" which requires bodies with wombs and vaginas and lactating breasts to perform more like bodies without those things is a reinscription of male normativity.

We might as well sign up now for those artificial wombs the transhumanists are so nuts about, so we can opt out of acknowledging female embodiments entirely. With technology's help, we can be just like men! And--bonus!--our boobs will no longer lactate and will simply be sexual objects for the male gaze, like God intended!

I'd much rather invest in researching some universal lactation pills, or a man-boob.


Richard Beck said...

Thanks so much for this. I'm a Department Chair who has to create an environment that accommodates and honors the bodies of my female faculty when they have their babies. I think we've done a decent job at this. The babies are held during graduate seminars, breastfeeding is common in offices, students have classes in the home of the faculty member.

Still, I'm sure there is much, much more that can be done. Because there is begrudging, shaming accommodation and there is joyous, celebratory accommodation. I think we do the latter, but I'm going to check with my faculty to see how we can do even better. Thanks for the push.

JJT said...

Thanks for the comment, Richard! Academic settings can be amazingly flexible and accommodating--or incredibly rigid and inhospitable. A lot depends on department chairs like you! I'm really glad to know ACU is thoughtful about this. :)