Mixed Bag

Manual breast pump
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Today’s New York Times Opinion section included the article “Ban the Breast Pump” by Judith Warner in her weekly column “Domestic Disturbances.”

Inflammatory title, no?

Even more inflammatory to me are some of her basic assumptions. Warner begins by describing her feelings, and those of other mothers, that using a breast pump is “miserable,” “a grotesque ritual” that made her “feel like a cow,” and that it “brings together all the awfulness of being a modern mother.”

I’m fine with those feelings. They’re perfectly valid, as feelings always are. And having spent many hours with a breast pump myself, I can agree that it can be quite odd, sometimes painful, and almost factory-farm-cow-like. In my case, I was pumping because my newborn son was in the hospital for a month and had to be fed (when he wasn’t sedated and unconscious) via a nasal tube. For others, it’s part of the harsh reality of going back to work before their child has transitioned fully into eating solids.


Warner then goes on to contrast using a breast pump with a “semblance of [the mother’s] physical dignity” and says that we’ve “made such a fetish of breast milk.”

I think she’s taking her book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety a bit too far. Her perceptive observations —

Maybe we’re even at a point where it’s permissible to insist that the needs of a mother and the needs of her baby, rather than being opposed are, in fact, linked, and that the best way to meet both is to scale down the demands now put on mothers and beef up support for them.

Why, as a society, have we privileged the magic elixir of maternal milk over actual maternal contact, denying the vast, vast majority of mothers the kind of extended maternity leave that would make them physically present for their babies?

— are detracted from by her word choices throughout the article. I understand the desire to write a strong piece and to provoke the reader. But it’s an overly large leap from “I didn’t like it” to “It’s yet another device of patriarchal oppression.” And I don’t like the underlying assumption that my “dignity” was compromised by a free choice I made. Warner seems to assume that all women use breast pumps because they are forced to by society at large, either through financial considerations like not receiving sufficient maternity leave, or peer (and medical) pressure to breast feed at all costs. She wags her finger at second-wave feminism (something I might do as well in some cases), forgetting that feminism has brought us the ability to choose these things. And to choose whether or not to accept societal pressures in the first place — something people tend to forget while they cast themselves as bound slaves instead of free human beings.

I chose to breastfeed, and use a pump when necessary, for my two children because I thought it was best for all of us. Both Warner and journalist Hanna Rosin, who Warner quotes in her article, seem to think there is no scientific data to support the nutritional and child-development superiority of breast milk over formula. Whether or not that is true (and I doubt that it is), there are plenty of other reasons to choose breastfeeding and pumping. For other mothers, formula is a good decision — mothers unable to breastfeed, mothers whose workplaces or type of work cannot accommodate pumping, or mothers who simply choose not to for emotional or other reasons. (I once knew a wonderful mother who was literally disgusted by the idea of breastfeeding. She had a real psychological block against it, and if she had nevertheless chosen to breastfeed, I’m sure the situation would not have been beneficial for her or her children.)

I agree with Warner that we have not quite fulfilled feminism’s promise of equality as long as we assume women must conform to already-existing social structures like short, unpaid maternity leaves. But to cast using a breast pump in such a derogatory light does no woman any favors.

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Filed under Books, Family, Health, Parenting, Politics, Rants

16 responses to “Mixed Bag

  1. Interesting. I have not seen the article (I’m supposed to be writing a research paper!), but it would never occur to me to see a breastpump as anything but a tool that allowed me to feed my baby at all for the first month or so of life. I didn’t much like pumping itself, but allowing my child who was born with significant health challenges to get breastmilk was very important to me, and if I’d had to I would have expressed by hand! So in spite of the not all too pleasant experience of pumping itself, I have always considered these machines nothing but a blessing and not in any way tied to my freedom as a woman.

  2. myartemismoon

    Inflammatory indeed!! I smirked when I saw your choice of words… I could not have got through the occasional inflammation and mastitis bouts without the aid of my trusty breastpump! It was rarely used for supplemental feeding, but was I ever so grateful to use it when I did.

  3. Um. Yeah. That argument always seems a little bit…well…like – I couldn’t do it so I am going to attack everyone who does to validate my actions and cover my own insecurities. Whew.

  4. Good critique of this article, which I have not seen. I don’t get the argument, but then I loved breastfeeding…

  5. I felt like a cow in a factory farm when I tried to use the breast pump. What you quoted of her article I mostly agree with but I did not read the rest of the article to see what was really inflammatory about it, except for the part about no scientific research to support superiority of breast milk. What we do need to do is support the mothers choice whether to breastfeed or not, mothers have enough guilt as it is- lets not push the envelope any further.

  6. Nana

    the author sounds like she has a chip on her shoulder. my advice is to fuhget about it and move on too more important things than her opinion.

  7. My breast pump gave me freedom… I didn’t enjoy using it much and so didn’t use it very often BUT when I wanted/needed to be away from my children for a feeding (ie go to a movie, dinner, etc) my breast pump allowed me these small necessities without feeling guilty. My breast pump was liberating. My belief is that anything that allows us a greater choice, is liberating.

  8. Mon

    I see where she’s coming from. I have read blogs/articles about women, under the BFing pressure, who pump till the cows come home (heehee, sorry). They go off to work and pump morning, noon and night because otherwise they would be a horrible mother.

    And I have heard of women who choose pumping over BFing because of career choices. Having named BM as the elixir of the gods, they figure they’re doing fine. And most lactivists will support these mothers more than a bottle feeding mother who stays home and cuddles her baby during every feed. Skewed methinks.

    So I get it. But the problem isn’t the pump (just a tool afterall), it’s women’s attitudes towards one other.

    I disliked pumping, but it gave me a chance to get some BM into the baby who wouldn’t latch. Including the colostrum. I felt grateful for that. For a tool that gave me something, during a truly awful BFing situation.

    I’m totally behind her general assertion that feminism is about choice, but is she forgetting that some women use the pump solely on their own choice?

  9. David

    Good grief. If she doesn’t like the damned thing, she just shouldn’t use it.

    And I think I’d also say that whether she allows it to impact her dignity is pretty much up to her. There are plenty of undignified things people do on a daily basis, either because the end result is worthwhile, or because that’s just how life is. Ob/gyn exams are pretty undignified, from what I hear, but nobody seems to think they’re degrading. I’d say that modern fashion is much more degrading than a breast pump, but then, I’m a guy, so I probably don’t have a right to an opinion.

    For the women who pump madly in an effort to conform to society’s idea of motherhood … well, if you don’t like it, then don’t conform. Why is this such a difficult concept?

  10. David

    Sorry, the last paragraph in my comment sounded a bit more strident than I meant it to. 🙂

    I do realize that the idea of motherhood has an incredible amount of in-built expectations and pressures, from family and from peers. I have some semblance of this conversation regularly with a friend of mine who has two young children, and who is worried about doing everything right, but who also has some things she does her way, and so she seeks out the companionship of women who are like-minded.

    That’s what I don’t quite understand about pressure to conform, as a mother, or in any other way. I think it’s everyone’s duty to be as informed and educated as you can be, and after that, it’s your choice, and nobody else’s business.

    “You know — that’s private, and I choose not to discuss it socially,” is a perfectly acceptable answer to the unbelievably nosy questions strangers ask about child-rearing and/or people’s personal lives. People are as pressured as they allow themselves to be, and while perhaps that sounds harsh, it’s also, I think, true.

  11. I find that extreme viewpoints come about when the person has no *real* rounded experience of what they’re criticising. I thought I’d find using a breast pump horrible and demeaning. As it happened, I had far more important things on my mind and just found it vaguely useless and ridiculous because *no matter which one I used, electric or manual* – nothing came out of my boobs! I have had assumptions made about me because I exclusively formula-fed. That used to seem important but it doesn’t anymore.

    I like what David said: “if you don’t like it, then don’t conform”. I’m succeeding more and more these days with throwing the guilt away.

  12. I used a breast pump when Emily was born because she was in NICU for a while. I think so much that it should be a woman’s choice in how to feed a child. Myself, I breastfed one daughter for a long time, bottle fed a son and a daughter, and did both with another daughter. lol! I wish we (world in general) could just be more accepting of each other trying to do her best in life. What is perfect for one person may not work for another. Loved reading this and all of the comments!

  13. The article sounds like it must be from someone who likes to control what others do because of their own political or philosophical perspectives. That always turns me off.

    My wife used the pump because of convenience. She works, she didn’t like getting up at night to feed (so I could warm up the milk and feed), and after three months it was all pumped milk. The kids are healthy and happy, and it’s no big deal. I agree that too much emphasis is placed on breast milk being superior (the hospital had a specialist give a very stern lecture on this, insisting it should be fed, not pumped, and go on for a year). But after about six or seven months my wife decided that she’d had enough and we went to formula.

    As for dignity and the like — well, that’s what a person brings to it. I suspect that most people are self-confident enough not to feel that using the tool to get milk to feed the child (and also burn more calories to help weight loss, and save money from formula) diminishes dignity. It does if you let it, I suppose. My wife, being a very pragmatic, down to earth accountant probably would have given a puzzled look if someone suggested this at all affected her ‘dignity.’

  14. It is a bit wierd to demonize the pump. ONIONS has a silmilar view/experience to mine. And it WAS a godsend when dealing with mastits. But the bottom line is know your own values and choose accordingly.

  15. Eve

    I find the whole argument interesting here. The author appears to have set up the breast pump (and pumping breast milk) as a straw man, as you seem to think as well. She might have made her point (that women need more paid leave for nurturing baby) without attacking the breast pump or the action of pumping breast milk, but she didn’t. The fact that she didn’t is interesting, because it suggests that she has projected some of her own anxiety or aggression against what “breast pump” symbolizes onto the actual object.

    I see that you see that. It’s not really honest or real of the author, who also overlooks the benefits of breast milk over formula, which have been scientifically established.

    It reminds me of just how difficult it is for we humans to be real. It’s not easy at all.

  16. Not that long ago I was reading a thread someplace about how horrible it was that all these women felt that it was okay to breast feed their babies “in public” (Gasp!) Now, apparently, using a pump is demeaning.

    Geez. If I could have had a baby rather than being completely infertile, I guess I might have some experience in the subject. I have to divulge that I would have tried my darndest to get natural breast milk to my child no matter how many demeaning things I had to do because human breast milk is ideally formulated for human babies. Plus the colustrum and antibodies — critically important immune system support. Women who can’t lactate for whatever reason, babies that don’t latch on — thank heavens there is a viable alternative for them.

    The focus should be on raising healthy babies. My mother is involved in the cattle business. Sometimes mothers are dry, sometimes calves just don’t want to suck. Then we have milk replacer and a bottle and a (usually very tired) farmer doing what they can to raise a healthy calf. No one disses that farmer for using whatever means he or she has available to get the calf over the hump. Why are we making the mothers of America justify themselves?

    The article (which I haven’t read ) sounds on report to be using a non-issue to push the author’s agenda. And the need for proper maternity (and paternity) leave at the beginning of a babies life is very great. What a blessing it would be for the world if every baby got nurtured and held and cared for during the first critical two to three months of its life so it can develop all the neural connections that will allow it to have attachments and form relationships later in its life.

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