“Breastfeeding and Work; Let’s Make It Work.” What comes to your mind when you hear the 2015 World Breastfeeding Week’s slogan? Most Americans think of women working outside the home who juggle nourishing their babies at their breasts with the demands of a boss. This calls to mind breast pumps, bags of frozen breastmilk, and bottles left for daycare providers; mothers striving to provide the very best both financially and nutritionally for their families. If you are a politically progressive American, “breastfeeding and work” may evoke images of paid maternity leave, perhaps even as long as some European countries, which provide 1 to 3 years! If you are a woman working in an office job perhaps this slogan sets you dreaming about pretty, private, lactation rooms with cozy chairs, baby photos, relaxing music, a clean sink to wash your pump parts, a refrigerator for storing pumped milk, clean counter space and electrical outlets to plug in your double, hospital-grade, hands-free, electric pump. Or you may be one of the many women yearning for a long-enough break from running a cash register, working the sales floor, making motel beds, tending the sick, picking vegetables, or flipping burgers to drain your full breasts often enough during the day to keep your body producing enough of a milk supply to match your hungry baby’s growing needs.
These are all valid dreams and desires, but as a community lactavist and modern feminist I have a broader vision; a vision better for all of humanity.
Who decided what IS work and what ISN’T work? Men did. Our modern chauvinistic culture decided work was what men did away from home. Therefore, women weren’t working when they stayed home and raised children. Anyone who has raised children knows this is ludicrous. Raising babies into well-functioning, happy, healthy adult human beings is incredibly demanding work. The hours are ridiculously long. Your job description changes every few months. Your day is filled with multitasking, negotiating, and strategic planning. Safeguarding the next generation, assuring the continuation of the species, is arguably the MOST important human endeavor. Regardless, men deemed raising children as less important than making money; therefore, what women did was NOT work.
The “Mommy Wars” are a direct outgrowth of this acceptance of the male construct of what is and isn’t work. The media plays into big corporations’ hands when they keep the conversation about women judging each other; “working” mothers versus stay-at-home mothers. Giant formula makers are happy the conversation stays away from the damage we are doing to the long-term physical and mental health of human beings by feeding milk proteins designed for baby cows instead of baby humans.
That shift starts by valuing women’s abilities to nurture and sustain life. Acknowledge that women have brains, and uteri, and breasts that lactate. We are the crucial link between the generations. This most important ability needs to be supported by every level of society if we want the human race to thrive. We need to support not only the women who are pumping behind closed office doors, but also the women who need to pump during a break from picking strawberries, and the women who are working at home to raise kids, and the women who are nursing their children while they take calls for their in-home business, and the women who are taking their babies to work. We need to tell all mothers through our laws, through our media representation, through changes in our language, through our politics, and through our economics that all women who are providing breastmilk for their children are doing important work for all our futures. I want us to move beyond the Mommy Wars, to move beyond normalizing breastfeeding, into a culture that values and supports the significant contribution every lactating woman is making for our country, our world and our species.
Jennifer Stover is the education chair of the Central Coast Breastfeeding Coalition, based in San Luis Obispo, CA. She has been a La Leche League leader for 5 years and a certified birth and postpartum doula for over 20 years, and founder of the Birth & Baby Resource Network.