There was a recent article in the Globe and Mail in which Elisabeth Badinter, author of The Conflict was interviewed. Badinter argues that women are in a no-win situation when it comes to motherhood and feminist values. She believes that women in Western society today are pressured by the tyranny (she even uses the term “ayatollah” to describe lactivists) of an ‘all-natural agenda’ to embody a form of motherhood that resembles an old-fashioned ideal, rather than an image that is informed by the feminist discourse of the past few decades.
I don’t want to rehash each of Badinter’s arguments here, so I’d suggest you head on over and read the interview before you continue reading… I can wait
OK, now that you’ve read Badinter’s take, here’s mine.
In general, I tend to disagree with her. I think that the majority of what she cites remain choices that mothers and their partners can take or leave as they wish, to a greater extent than ever before. Most parents tend to take a piece here, a piece there and do what works for them in their situation. Most doulas and birth advocates maintain that the most important thing when making decisions about your birth or your parenting style is that you have as much information as possible before you make your choices and that you make them without pressure from HCPs, peers, family, etc. Most of the women I support make choices at some point that I would not necessarily make for myself and my family – but I know that they are fully informed when they do so and I support them 100%. If they make a choice under pressure or without information – I hold that against the person who pressured them, not the women themselves.
In my opinion, choice is the fundamental underpinning of contemporary feminism. I once had a professor who said that he thought it was interesting that while women in North America were fighting for access to abortion, women in China were fighting for “the opposite” – an end to abortion (because of all the forced abortions and sterilizations that went on there in the 60s). I raised my hand and said, no, they weren’t fighting for “opposites”, they were fighting for the exact same thing – the right to choose for themselves what was best for their own bodies. He was a great prof but had clearly never thought of it that way and completely conceded my point. I think that what contemporary feminism is and has to continue to be about is the right to choose – to choose a career if I want one, to choose to be a full-time mom if I want to be, etc. I feel very strongly that Badinter is stuck in second wave feminism – I was not surprised to read that she views herself as the “spiritual daughter of Simone de Beauvoir”. De Beauvoir contributed much to feminist discourse, but it has come a long way since her time (her best known work, The Second Sex, was published in 1949). Much of what has changed in the intervening decades is connected to the realization that there are a multiplicity of experiences of womanhood. There is no one right way to be a woman, no one right way to be a mother and no one right set of desires and ambitions to have, whether you are a man or a woman. I reserve the right to want what I want even if what I want looks like it belongs in 1850 to some. I have never wanted to be a high-paid executive with a corner office, I would much rather have a garden and bake my own bread. This doesn’t make me a bad feminist or a weak woman – it makes me an individual with individual preferences.
Modern technology has made doing things the old fashioned way a lot easier in recent years and that has made the option of doing things that were once arduous more available and less time-consuming or difficult. In some cases, that is beneficial – more people use cloth diapers now than did in the 80s and that is a bonus for the environment. In other cases, it’s can be a bad thing – more women die in childbirth in the US now than did in 1996 because of unnecessary Caesareans. I question doctors who perform elective C-sections, but I would be very surprised if I ever met a woman who chose an unnecessary Caesarean who was fully informed of the risks and benefits. If ever I meet one, I will happily support her Caesarean birth. There are lots of reasons why people make the choices they make regarding birth and babies and I support all that come from an informed and thoughtful place.
A comparison: washing cloth diapers today is hardly what it once was. I know one couple who use cloth because they care about the environment, not because they feel that “all-natural” is the only acceptable parenting strategy (they do not do attachment parenting or feeding on demand, for example, they dress their baby in synthetic fabrics from time to time, he has plastic toys, etc.). The diapers they use have a flushable insert and then they toss the cloth parts into a container with vinegar before washing them in their energy efficient washer (uses less energy and water than washing by hand). Furthermore, the mother in this family works in an office as a lawyer, while her husband takes care of the baby at home. They find cloth less disgusting (to borrow Badinter’s term), economically sensible, easier and more environmentally responsible – they made an informed decision. Another couple I know live in a place with a shared washer and drier – they too care about the environment, but they live in a region where disposable diapers can be composted and in a house where cloth would be a big hassle and unfair to their neighbours, so they made their own, very different, yet equally informed decision, to use disposables. I think that given the specifics of both cases, each couple made the decision that was right for them based on all available information, not based on the tyranny of an all-natural agenda.
Now, all that being said, I think that breastfeeding is another story. I personally think that someone who feeds their kids and themselves McDonalds or other junk food every day is being irresponsible (leaving aside for the moment the issue of food deserts and things that pose real obstacles to accessing good quality food). They are burdening themselves, their children and the healthcare system by choosing something that they are either ignorant about or that they know is bad for them and is increasing their risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer and other life-threatening ailments. Formula is junk food (it also increases the risk of diabetes, obesity and cancer, among other things). Except in true cases where people cannot breastfeed (like those whose babies have galactosemia, for example, or women with health conditions that preclude breastfeeding) it is the healthy choice for babies and it has huge health benefits for moms too. If a woman has psychological barriers to breastfeeding (e.g. she feels like a cow as in Badinter’s example) I believe that she needs and should be entitled to support and counselling – maybe she has body image issues (most of us do on some level) or is unable to overcome the notion that her breasts are sexual objects or maybe there are other concerns (perhaps a partner who is not supportive of BFing, or who is jealous of her BFing relationship with the baby) that are affecting her ability to breastfeed confidently. I don’t think she should be judged, but I do think she should be helped and/or given the tools to help herself.
Whoopi Goldberg recently went on a televised tirade about lactation consultants being “boneheads” who, she claims, attempt to force women to breastfeed even when they don’t want to (this was in response to a program in NYC aimed at helping moms get over BFing challenges in the early postpartum stage). She claimed that she couldn’t be bothered to breastfeed her son and she doesn’t think anyone should be forced to breastfeed. I agree that no one should be forced to do anything they don’t want to. If you simply “don’t want to bother” with breastfeeding at all (after being fully informed of risks & benefits), I think most lactation consultants would accept that and leave you be. If someone is bullying you or giving you a guilt trip for your informed choices, you should consider filing a complaint with their certifying body – that is not professional or compassionate behaviour and you should be able to expect both. I would say though, to bring up the junk food analogy again, that if someone felt judged when they told people that they didn’t want to breastfeed, they should consider what their reaction would be if someone told them that they took their kids to McDonalds every day because they didn’t want to have to shop and cook for them. (As for Whoopi, check out this blog post for the video clip of her rant and what I think is an excellent and very measured response to her tirade).
Getting back to Badinter, lots of moms who BF also work (which, it would seem, makes them good feminists, if not good mothers in Badinter’s terms) and make a commitment to doing both as best they can. And lots of moms don’t – don’t work, or don’t breastfeed after they return to work, or don’t do either. Most moms make choices in concert with their partners based on their personal needs and ambitions, their wishes for their children and their family’s economic reality. Another anecdote: I know a woman who has a 10 month old baby; she is still BFing (now in combination with solids, but no formula) and mama works full-time as a highly-paid professional. Her husband is on parental leave. Their baby sleeps in her own crib in another room (and has since she was 6 weeks old) and sleeps through the night. I would not make all of these choices for myself – I would not want to go back to work with a four month old baby as this mom did. I want my baby to share my room for at least a year. I want to practice attachment parenting and feed on demand. Those are my choices though, not theirs and I don’t judge them, not in the slightest. They are great parents, no ifs, ands or buts. They have made the choices that work for them and their baby and that includes breastfeeding because they know how good it is for baby and for mom.
I find it difficult to believe that a fully-informed person, who is fully supported by their family, their partner and their employer would make a choice that doesn’t include at least trying to breastfeed for at least a short while after birth (even a week or two is better than not at all), but my having trouble believing it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. For women who really, truly have a problem with breastfeeding – i.e. someone who really does not want to try, despite being fully informed of the risks & benefits and being supported by those around her – or who is unable to breastfeed for some physiological or health reason (other than one where there baby was unable to tolerate breastmilk) I believe that we need to have ready access to breastmilk banks. There are many women out there who have far too much milk and who are willing to donate it. The plan to launch breastmilk banks in Canada has been slow to develop but it is on the way (there is one in Vancouver and possibly one in Calgary now too). Even where there aren’t banks yet, there are online services that connect moms who need milk with moms who have too much (I am connected to one on facebook – Human Milk For Human Babies – that is organized by region. They post updates like, “Annie in Barrie has milk to give.” or “Christine in London needs milk.” and people connect with one another directly.) Being fully informed includes being informed about the possibility of breastmilk from another mother if you aren’t able to or don’t want to feed your baby with your own breasts.
As for pressure to have a drug-free childbirth, this is not something I have witnessed. I believe that most women are capable of drug-free childbirth if that is their choice, but I have never seen a healthcare practitioner try to talk a woman out of an epidural. I have seen them try to talk women into them though. Even when the birth plan stipulated “no mention of epidural during labour”. I think that if Badinter did any kind of research about pain and childbirth and women’s feelings about their experiences, she would see that women report greater satisfaction with their births no matter whether they experienced pain or not as long as they felt supported and “in control” (i.e. free to ask questions and make decisions without social pressure). I don’t care if my clients want drugs or not – as long as they are informed and treated with care and respect, it’s all good. I have never met a doula who felt differently. Every woman should feel proud of how she gives birth and that can only happen when she is given the information and tools to make decisions about how it will happen.
Ultimately, whether we’re talking about diapers, feeding plans, sleep scenarios, birth goals or anything else related to parenting, I fully believe that parents should make these decisions as a couple before their baby comes. The importance of one’s marital relationship is a completely valid part of all parenting decisions. If my partner was opposed to, for example, bed-sharing, because of concerns for our relationship, and he had read all of the research and talked to other parents from both sides of the spectrum, I would be willing to relinquish that even though I believe in it. I’m not saying it would be a quick and easy discussion, but I would be willing to make that compromise because I believe that couples who function as a team make better parents (in addition to better, happier people who are more fulfilled in the long run).
I think that Badinter is wrong in saying that the “good mother” is a myth – I think that there are as many kinds of good mothers as there are women. The only criteria for being a good mother are loving yourself, loving your baby and loving your partner. As long as you’re making informed decisions out of respect for those people, they are the right decisions for you, even if they’d be wrong for Badinter, or Simone de Beauvoir.