Dear Ms. Fairyington,
Before we start, can I just say that you have an awesome last name? Your last name is totally rad. It has the word fairy in it! I bet you hear that a lot. Anyway, just wanted to get that out before we move on to the more serious stuff.
So. This article that you wrote for the New York Observer, Time for Feminists to Stop Arguing About Breastfeeding and Fight for Better Formula – I just read it, and now I feel like I have a few things that I want to say to you.
First of all, I should probably give you some idea of where I’m coming from: I am a breastfeeding advocate, who is still nursing her 19 month old son, and I am a feminist. Oh, and I also run a yoga studio, which, as you pointed out in your article, would totally be a pumping-friendly environment if I was pumping. Which I’m not.
Second of all, I want to tell you how wholeheartedly I agree with the first part of your title. It is time for feminists to stop arguing about breastfeeding. Boy is it ever.
I’ll be totally honest with you – I do truly believe that breast milk is superior to formula. I would be thrilled if every woman chose to breastfeed, and was physically able to do so. I think breastfeeding is the best start in life that you can give a kid (well, that and a killer wardrobe), and I really wish that there was more in the way of education and resources dedicated to breastfeeding.
But I realize that some women are physically incapable of breastfeeding. Some women aren’t able to pump at work. Some women find the act of breastfeeding triggering due to past sexual assault. Sometimes formula is actually better for the baby’s health, in cases with severe health issues or allergies. And sometimes women just plain don’t want to.
As a feminist, I respect any choice that you make with regards to your body. If you want to terminate a pregnancy, I respect that. If you want to earn money as a sex worker, I respect that. If you don’t want to breastfeed, I respect that. Know why? Because I believe in bodily autonomy.
Which means that you should extend the same courtesy to me.
Which brings me to my second point, namely the fact that you believe that breastfeeding “stymies the progress of feminism“.
The first thing you mention in conjunction with this idea are some concerns you have with regards to the Latch On NYC initiative.
You begin by saying that,
“Under the new rules, about two dozen hospitals will discourage new moms from formula-feeding by educating them on the benefits of breast milk … ”
This actually isn’t a new rule. According to this, it has been New York State law for the past three years that new mothers must be provided with accurate information regarding breastfeeding. So that actually has nothing to do with Latch On NYC, or Mayor Bloomberg.
You then go on to say,
” … [hospitals] will not provide formula unless medically indicated on the infant’s chart or requested by the mother. The rules will also prohibit formula freebies and ads in hospitals.”
I honestly fail to see how anyone could think this is a bad thing. Formula won’t be provided unless the mother asks for it – meaning that the staff can’t give the baby formula without the mother’s consent. Which does happen, believe it or not.
Furthermore, formula companies have no place advertising in hospitals or offering mothers free samples. Do you think that they do this out of the goodness of their heart, so that babies don’t starve? No, they’re looking for customers. I would think that you, as a future buyer of formula, would actually be happy that they will no longer be spending money on advertisements and freebies. Those “freebies” aren’t really free – they’re paid for by the company’s revenue, which comes from consumers like you.
Next, you say that,
“The notion that “breast is best” simply because it’s natural sounds ringingly similar to the arguments made by pro-lifers and even contraception opponents, all of which begin with the same basic premise: women should be shackled to their corporeal destinies.”
There are many scientific studies proving that breast milk is nutritionally superior to and more biologically advantageous than formula. But that’s not the whole reason I decided to breastfeed.
I also decided to breastfeed because I’m cheap and lazy.
Breast milk is free and, living in Canada, I had a full year of maternity leave and thus was spared the cost of a breast pump. That being said, even a one-time investment in a breast pump is less expensive than buying can after can of formula.
And as much as I hate getting up in the middle of the night to nurse my son, I would hate even more having to get up and make him a bottle. Plus, I don’t have to do any of the sterilizing and cleaning of feeding supplies.
So please don’t think that all the pro-breastfeeding arguments boil down to “but it’s natural!”, because there’s so much more to it than that.
Next, you bring up the idea that breastfeeding is anti-feminist because,
“A bottle positions men and women equally over the care of infants, while breastfeeding cements the notion that women are central to the process of nurturing children. Wasn’t feminism all about de-emphasizing our corporeality by arguing that our bodies should not define or limit our rights and responsibilities?”
No, my husband doesn’t breastfeed our son, but we do try to share our parenting duties equally. Yes, earlier on I was doing more work – all of the feedings were my responsibility of course (although we did decide that all of the diaper changes that happened when my husband was at home were his job). All of the gestating was also my job – shitty deal!
But, as my son grew older, my husband was able to take over more and more parenting duties. For example, he takes care of our entire nighttime routine – he’s usually the one to feed our son dinner, since I’m often working in the evening, and is always the one to give him his bath and put him to bed. It’s true that our roles in our son’s life remain somewhat different, but then “equal” does not mean “exactly the same”.
And, I’m sorry, but I thought that feminism was all about giving women choices – the choice to have children, or not to have children, the choice to breastfeed or formula feed, the choice to manage a yoga studio or be a children’s therapist who sees an exhausting number of clients. The point of feminism is that we work together to achieve equality, instead of tearing each other down over every little thing.
Finally, you complain that breastfeeding is holding women back because it reinforces women’s “parental centrality” and “undervalues fathers”. You say that this is holding women back in the work force. You also mention how difficult breastfeeding is because many workplaces aren’t equipped to deal with women who need to pump.
Wouldn’t a better idea be to work to change how society views motherhood, and to fight for better regulations regarding pumping at work? How is limiting women’s choices in any way, shape or form a feminist idea?
You write as if formula is somehow under attack when, in fact, it’s still the status quo. By 6 months of age, 52.8% of all infants are formula-fed. Trust me, you’re not a dying breed.
You write as if formula feeding doesn’t, in many ways, reinforce the patriarchy – for example, the idea that women shouldn’t expose themselves while feeding their child in public. Or how about the idea that a woman’s milk simply isn’t good enough or sufficient for a growing baby? In spite of the evidence to the contrary, this myth still persists. Or, my favourite, the fact that so many women and their partners want their breasts to remain exclusively sexual. If that’s not patriarchal conditioning, I don’t know what is.
And finally, I do agree with you that we should continue to work to improve formula, to try to make it more like breast milk. But I also think that we should continue to educate and encourage women when it comes to breastfeeding. Because, unlike you, many women go into parenthood wanting to breastfeed, and we should be offering them the support and resources they need to do that. I would hate to see a woman be forced to wean her child just because she lacked knowledge or support for her breastfeeding.
Anyway, I’m sure you’ll dismiss this whole letter as “nostalgia and conservative orthodoxy”, and that’s okay too. You can certainly believe whatever you want, just as you can do whatever you want with your own body. Just as I can do whatever I want with my body.
And that, Ms. Fairyington, is feminism.