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The Madonna and the Whore: Navigating Breastfeeding in a Man's World

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The Madonna and the Whore

Navigating Breastfeeding in a Man's World

Breast is best!  Human milk for human babies!  Help your child avoid allergies, childhood cancers, respiratory illnesses, and the need for expensive orthodontic treatments!  Don’t be the cause of your child becoming an obese adult suffering from diabetes and a low IQ! 

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These are the messages that women are constantly exposed to throughout pregnancy and into the first days and weeks of their newborns lives.  The health messages are strong in breastfeeding promotion so it must stand that breastfeeding is a no-brainer, a decision made by women alone, in consideration of their babies’ health.

In reality that decision is still governed by the social confines of a male dominated society.  Fear of the male gaze, wanting to be a contributing employee while at the same time maintaining the role of good mother, and avoiding making a scene by potentially exposing a part of a breast are all things which women weigh up when deciding whether or not to take breastfeeding from the private into the public sphere.  In a patriarchal world women find themselves facing multiple double-binds with breastfeeding being the ultimate impossible ‘choice’.

The biggest barrier to continued breastfeeding is the attitude of others. In general it is sore, cracked nipples, mastitis, and frequent feeds which are the things most commonly spoken of when the issue of breastfeeding difficulties is broached (Schmied & Barclay, 1999).  Certainly for some women these things alone will be enough for them to turn to artificial baby milk.

The reasons for making this switch however seem to be far more about the way in which society views women. There is disapproval shown to women who choose to feed in public or at work. There is a feeling that women who choose to breastfeed for longer periods of time are somehow wasting education or career opportunities.  Remarks are made about women supposedly flashing their breasts to be provocative, or to make a point when they nurse outside the family home when in actual fact most of these women are simply nurturing their children.

Riordan and Auerbach state, “A goal for women should be to empower all mothers so that they are able to attend to all their duties, maternal as well as civic, religious, and professional” (as cited in Hausman, 2003, p. 255).

The World Health Organisation recommends exclusively breastfeeding for an infant’s first six months, and then into and beyond the second year of life along with the introduction of solids (World Health Organisation, 2013). Current figures show that although 84% of women are exclusively breastfeeding their babies for their first 2-5 weeks of life this rate drops off significantly by the time those babies reach 3 months of age to just 42% (Royal NZ Plunket Society, 2010). Simply knowing then that exclusive breastfeeding is an effective way of enhancing an infant’s health is not enough for the majority of breastfeeding relationships to occur for longer periods of time.  Race, age, ethnicity and many other social factors shape the way in which choices are made around infant feeding practices (Olesky, 2009, p 120). 

The classic, and rather romanticised, image of a woman breastfeeding her baby is a serene mother cuddling her infant to her whilst rocking gently in a special chair which has been placed in the child’s nursery.  Take that acceptable image from the private space of baby’s room and out into a more public place and the act of nurturing a baby at the breast is met with uncomfortable looks and often comments requesting that the woman move elsewhere or at least cover up.

Callaghan and Lazard (2012) argue, “To maintain the identity of ‘good mothering’, the breastfeeding body must be maintained as asexual” (p 941). To nurse in public is to risk losing the good mother mantel.  As Carter (1995) says “…breasts are specifically involved here as a site of both visual and tactile pleasure for men and nurturance for babies, with all the potential contradictions this brings” (p 154).

Breasts in Western culture have become overtly sexualised and this is one of the considerations influencing the breastfeeding journey.  This is particularly apparent when women breastfeed for extended periods of time, that is beyond the age of two, or when feeding in front of men either not known well, or at all.  To be both sexual and maternal at the same time is a task of epic proportions for most women, and breastfeeding can therefore be a time of confusion and personal conflict.  Women’s beasts have both a public and a private function.  On one hand breasts are viewed as sexual and on the other as a means of nurturing a child (Leeming, Williamson, Lyttle & Johnson, 2012).  In September 2013 a mother hit news headlines as a result of having a blanket tossed over her baby’s head as she was breastfeeding the infant in an Auckland Work and Income (WINZ) office. (3 News, 2013).  The female WINZ employee who threw the blanket used the excuse that there were men present in the office.  The mother of the child had clearly not been uncomfortable until that point and it would seem had much unnecessary attention drawn to her seemingly because men could see her nursing her baby.  

The concept of breasts being for the male gaze is one we see evidenced in daily life.  Calendars of topless women adorn workplace walls. Magazines such as Sports Illustrated and FHM carry covers of bikini clad models whose breasts threaten to leap from tiny triangles of fabric, and plastic-wrapped, soft porn publications peek out from the shelves of dark, dusty dairies.  Women with grossly exaggerated cleavages often feature in television advertisements such as those for Tui beer, and both Burger King and Carl’s Jr burgers.  The annual parade, “Boobs on Bikes”, starring topless women as pillion passengers on motorbikes takes place in the middle of Auckland’s CBD.  The private becomes public, yet breastfeeding in public is still taboo (Callaghan & Lazard, 2011).

A breastfeeding woman displays little of her breast yet that sexual overtone is still seen to be present.  Why?  Because sexual breasts are the norm.  Breasts being used for their intended purpose are not seen nearly as often in the public arena – indeed the majority of at least three generations of women have grown up having never seen breastfeeding happen in the family home let alone outside it.

As a facilitator of antenatal classes I encounter men’s attitudes to breastfeeding often.  Thoughts most commonly shared are around the length of time it is seen as appropriate for women to feed and how discreet their partners will be.  It is not uncommon to hear discussions which start, “I don’t mind if she breastfeeds - as long as she covers up.”  The sexual aspect of breasts is usually simmering under the surface and often comes out in a joking fashion with a comment from a dad-to-be indicating that his partner’s breasts are ‘his’ and now to be shared by a baby and at the same time hidden from the eyes of the public.

As if feeding in a public place is not fraught enough, making breastfeeding work when a woman returns to paid employment is an area of great angst.  Women are forced to schedule their lives, and their employment based on what works for a mostly patriarchal work environment.  In New Zealand the idea of the male worker model is the norm (Olesky, 2009, p. 119), so it is little wonder then that arrangements enabling women to fill dual roles as mother and employee are mostly paid lip-service rather than being put in place with any sort of conviction.  There are few provisions made which allow a woman to easily balance the demands of being a breastfeeding mother while also meeting those of paid employment.

It would seem an ideal employee is incompatible with the role of ideal mother.  This leaves many women in an awkward situation. Take a woman on a low income who must return to work when her child is young for example.  She faces the dilemma of how to keep up a breastfeeding relationship.  Does she express milk at work?  Will her employer provide a space for this to happen? Is there a crèche on site? Will her breaks be extended in order for her to pump or breastfeed?  Will there be somewhere for her to store expressed breastmilk?  Will baby even accept a bottle?  

In New Zealand since 1 April 2009, under Section 69Y of the Employment Relations Act 2000: “Employers are required, as far as is reasonable and practicable, to provide appropriate breaks and facilities for employees who wish to breastfeed their infants or express milk during work hours” (Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, 2010).  For most women this requirement is one that needs to be negotiated rather than it being a given.  In New Zealand many businesses are very small and employers cannot justify the time and therefore money that would need to be spent on changes to stay in line with their requirements under the act.

A patriarchal and capitalist society is responsible for low breastfeeding rates over the long term.  Medical and public health advice continually touts the message that breast is best but in reality current societal norms make breastfeeding difficult to navigate in public and the workplace (Callaghan & Lazard, 2012; Leeming et al, 2012).  There must be a shift in mind-set so that breastfeeding becomes a normal activity rather than a special one.  The double-bind would show that women are constantly making choices on the way they nurture their babies based on a desire to be a good mother and a sexual being, along with wanting to avoid offending anyone’s sensibilities.

Our communities are not supportive of public breastfeeding yet expect that it will be done.  Families and friends are often not supportive of the breastfeeding relationship and several generations of girls have grown up without having ever seen breastfeeding.  Currently women find themselves in an impossible situation.  For the majority a career and motherhood do not co-exist.  One must come at the expense of the other.  Breasts in public are fine if they are for the male gaze but should be kept out of sight if they are being used for the purpose of nurturing an infant.  Women must reclaim their breasts and the right to choose what to do with them.  It is more than just having the right to choose to breastfeed.  Society must ensure that women have the opportunities to make this choice.

References:
Callaghan, J. E. M., & Lazard, L. (2012). Please don't put the whole dang thing out there!: A          discursive analysis of internet discussions around infant feeding. Psychology and           Health, 27(8), 938-955. doi: 10.10080/08870446.2011.634294

Carter, P. (1995). Feminism, Breasts and Breastfeeding. London: MacMillan Press.


Hausman, B. L. (2003). Mother's Milk:  Breastfeeding Controversies in American Culture. 

New York, NY: Routledge.

Leeming, D., Williamson, I., Lyttle, S., & Johnson, S. (2012). Socially Sensitive Lactation: Exploring the social context of breastfeeding. Psychology and Health, 28(4), 450-468. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08870446.2012.737465

Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. (2010). Retrieved from                        http://www.dol.govt.nz/er/holidaysandleave/parentalleave/infantfeeding/

Olesky, E. H. (Ed.). (2009). Intimate Citizenships: Gender, Sexualities, Politics. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Royal NZ Plunket Society. (2010). Retrieved from http://www.plunket.org.nz/assets/News--research/Plunket-Breastfeeding-Data-Analysis-of-2004-2009.pdf

Schmied, V., & Barclay, L. (1999). Connection and Pleasure, Disruption and Distress: Women's experience of breastfeeding. Journal of Human Lactation, 15(4), 325-334. doi: 10.1177/089033449901500410

World Health Organisation. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.who.int/topics/breastfeeding/en/

 

Breast Milk: A woman-to-woman commodity  |  Whose Choice Is It Anyway? (A story of birth trauma)


 

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