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.