Breast of Burden

The pump. The poop. The panic. A dispatch from the nursing wars.

There is, of course, an alternative to all this: Stay home with baby. If Chez Mommy never closes, well then, there's no need for all of this cumbersome equipment, is there?


In Minnesota, a law passed just a few months before I gave birth requires employers to provide breaks and a private space for women to express milk, theoretically ending the need to furtively empty your breasts in restrooms or in cars. And a handful of Twin Cities firms have taken the progressive step of setting up mothers' rooms complete with company-financed pumps--a workplace amenity being pushed nationwide by Medela, among others.

Craig La Rotonda

This is terrific, and it probably creates a system where everybody wins: The breastfed baby isn't sick as often as her bottle-fed buddies, so her parents miss less work, more than repaying the employer's investment--not to mention the recruiting benefits of family-friendly perks.

But this technology also makes it easier to expect mothers to do more--even as women are being counseled to let go of the idea of having it all. Linda Blum teaches sociology and women's studies at the University of New Hampshire and has spent the last decade researching attitudes about nursing. "It's amazing how fast breastfeeding is being redefined as pumping," she says. "It's just automatically become part of the process without really much discussion."

Blum dissects this conundrum in her book, At the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in the Contemporary United States. "[The] career breastfeeding Supermom... cannot follow the early or mid-century regime prescribed to nursing mothers, with all its time for sleep," Blum writes. "Nor would [she] likely have time for the 15-minute relaxation interludes Dr. Spock advised before each nursing to ease the let-down reflex" (the process of coaxing one's milk ducts into letting loose of the boob juice). Blum goes on to suggest that we can assume that Supermom is white, affluent, married, and might even employ an immigrant nanny.

"She has solved the dilemma posed by being at once exclusive and irreplaceable but replaced--at least during her hours working and working out. She has the 'lock' of breastmilk, 'Nature's cement,' to bond her children to her even if she has to rely on a breast pump to collect much of it.

"Moreover, any negative feelings about pumping might be resolved by new technological innovations--a new pumping vest has just been patented that allows working mothers to remain at their desks 'while the vest works discreetly.' In the end, the rewards for the mechanistic pumping are the few times when she can actually nurse her daughter 'in the flesh,' for, as several popular manuals put it, this 'reminds the baby who the real mother is!'"

Back up to that department-store quest for the perfect funeral outfit. My friend did succeed in helping me find a dress that wouldn't embarrass anyone, though in retrospect I should have suspected that no mere garment would keep my breasts from bobbing headlong into my in-laws.

It doesn't take little girls long to discover that their breasts are public property. Total strangers feel it's okay to gawk or to comment on their size or shape. Those folks, we've been taught, are rude. Yet when there's a human infant dangling from your chest, people will cross the room to vent either disapproval, or--less expected but just as intrusive--their zeal for breastfeeding.

I was prepared for the in-law who made a special trip to show me the easy chair she'd set up for me in a back room. The consummate hostess, she wasn't so much suggesting that I hide as letting me know there was privacy available if I wanted it. Waiting for dinner at the Olive Garden after the funeral I was irked, but not surprised, when another relative suggested that I nurse in the handicap stall in the bathroom. She clearly thought I should be more modest than I am.

The one that took me by surprise was the sister-in-law who followed me around spouting advice about how to enhance my breastfeeding experience. I should sleep with the baby in my bed, she said, so that he wouldn't miss any opportunities to suckle. While nursing in the dead of night, I should read classic plays (preferably Oscar Wilde) because they would put me in an intellectual state of mind that would in turn trickle down to Baby. And, her spouse chimed in, this practice of my husband giving Baby a single bottle of formula each evening so I could have three hours of uninterrupted sleep, was wrong, wrong, wrong. "You don't understand the importance of fresh milk," he started before we turned away.

Now that my kitchen is stocked with little jars of smashed vegetables, none of these folks would dare stick their noses in my cabinets and proclaim their disapproval. "Hmmm--organic. You must be dripping with money." Or, "Eeesh, puréed green beans. Mommy must not love you very much."

Of course, one reason this discussion is so charged is that human milk really is a miraculous substance. Another has to do with the fact that we still can't seem to talk about, much less display, a female breast without dredging up all kinds of social and psychological baggage.

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