Monday, January 19, 2009

On righteous indignation

obamacon, originally uploaded by toyfoto.

So The New Yorker runs this extremely interesting essay on breastfeeding last week called "Baby Food," wherein historian Jill LePore ponders the suckage that is human suckling, and in the end asks the primordial question "If breast is best, why are women bottling their milk?"

Now, as I was reading the piece, a particular parenthetical point struck me as being a little flip, harsh and kind of, well, incorrect -- "(When did women's rights turn into the right to work?)" -– but after I stopped blinking I decided to ignore the sentiment and read on to the end.

Salon's Kate Harding didn't ignore it. She wrote a somewhat blistering retort in the online journal, lambasting LePore for not allowing the mommy wars to rest under the starched white flag of diversity.

"Even if I am as generous as possible in trying to understand LePore's point here -- which apparently has to do with the value of mother-child bonding and the resultant need for longer maternity leave -- implying that the hard-won right to work outside the home ought to be regarded as the comparatively trivial concern by the National Organanization for Women is throwing the baby out with the leftover expressed milk."

She goes on to say that "LePore's underlying 'Mommy should stay home' argument becomes more obvious and more dizzying as she goes on to state that breast-feeding provides unique social and emotional benefits that aren't really unique."

As Harding reads it, in addition to the work debate the article completely ignored daddy’s role in feeding and cuddling the baby at night with mother's milk so mom can go out on the town ... or have a little extra shut-eye ... as possible benefit of breast pumps. Where is the village it takes to raise this child?

To fly the white flag again at full mast, Harding looks to her friends' experiences ... some who loved breast-feeding, others for whom it didn't work out: We are diverse individuals, she explains. We don't need to take only one side of an issue that's, in this case, shaped like a breast.

I didn't read LePore’s initial piece quite like that, though.

Maybe it's me, but I didn't really get the whole 'women should stay home' vibe Harding mentioned.

In my reading, I saw a simple point: American women's long history of breast-feeding has been influenced by everything from science to style, and even with pediatric recommendation, celebrity sightings, fancy gadgets and special rooms, CDC breast-feeding targets haven't been reached.

Now I'll agree that the sentiment inside the parentheses of The New Yorker piece might have been better stated to friends during the haze of cocktail party banter, but the question -- if you accept the idea that the right to work is NOT balanced on the imposition of being barefoot and pregnant against one's will -- seems valid. Why shouldn't we accomodate women at work in a way that would allow them to successfully breast-feed their children?

And as unpopular as this thought may be, I'll ask the question it spawns anyway: Have equal rights protections for women run its useful course?

At the very least it's unpopular to suggest that women should do anything with respect to her body and her life that she herself hasn't agreed to do, but why should we demand they follow the rules of business? Why should a woman appear any less professional with a baby strapped to her body than with a Bluetooth wedged in her ear?


Womanhood, afterall, doesn’t mean any one thing to any one woman.

Stay home.
Have a baby.
Don’t have a baby.
Nurse your baby.
Don't nurse your baby.

What I got from my reading was the question "If this is best -- and with the uncertainty in the marketplace, tainted products and the like, I have no doubt that it is -- why aren't we making it a priority as a society to ensure that women who have to work or choose to -- have enough leave to do it successfully. Or at least accommodations so that baby can be with mom at work?

Every time I look at this problem, all I see is that we look at ourselves and everyone around us and stack up who's got what ... as if some mathematical accounting will decide what is fair.

It won't. We have to decide for ourselves and let the rest of it roll off our chests.

The fact is we women are replacing the human race. The first six months are huge in the development of these new humans. Equal rights to work like a horse, be thankful for a refrigerator in which to store our liquid gold, and the fifteen minutes allotted to the smokers in which to pump it isn't really all that equal in the end.


jasi said...

It's a trap. If you nurse, you belong at home, nurturing your kids and deserting any personal goals. If you don't, you should rush to work, forsaking bonding time.

Personal wish list:
-substantial family leave to be split between parents as they wish, resume partial pay, return to an equal job
-coffee/smoker/pump breaks with their own lounges. (I despise smoking but I hear coffee is bad for you, too)
-public nursing tolerated
-more family restroom/ lounges (so parents may more comfortably change/ potty kids of the opposite sex, also nursing)
-daycare on the job for kids of all ages.
-more telecommuting

Productivity is key. I just happen to be more productive in my jammies at 2am.

ssm said...

Oh, I have two screaming kids and would like to write more back to this, but in short: YES. I totally agree.

down side up & right side in said...

Ah, yes.... Even being a student I have to chose, because you CANT breastfeed in an auditorium full of students, or attend career events with a newborn here: they WILL and by will, I mean do, ask (or tell) you to leave.

kittenpie said...

I am all for longer mat leaves - in Canada, we get a year. It's a wonderful thing, because by the time a year is up, it feels like they are ready to g out into the world, and there is so much less guilt and worry involved than when they are tiny and fragile and moms are still healing ourselves. Honestly, I think the 4-6 week leave is just criminal.

and the thing is, with a year, you have choices. Not everyone takes the full year, if they can't financially or don't want to or don't feel they can leave their career for that long. They can go back early, or the other parent can take the last 8 months of it instead, leaving the door open for whichever parent can better afford it in terms of salary or time off or whatever. It's flexible that way, so that families can configure their leave in whatever way suits them best. And that to me spells the ideal of progress.