Breast. No Bottle.

To nurse, or not to nurse: that is not a question!

Society That Separates Women and Children

with 3 comments

This is the third post in the series about the context of human milk research. In the earlier post we discussed the issue of devaluation of women in the process of breastfeeding. The next issue to consider is the society that is organized in such a way that women and children are routinely separated. Separation of women and children is a multifaceted problem that stems from the first issue we discussed – women are not valued.

  • Women are not valued in nurturing children.
  • Women are not valued during the process of breastfeeding-as-complex-system.
  • Women are not valued to be considered in their own desire to be with their children.

Separation of mothers and children often starts at birth. Symbolically, it may be a ritual to socialize the child as a product of society rather than a child coming  out of a woman. (For more detailed analysis of these concepts refer to Robbie Davis-Floyd Birth as an American Right of Passage). Practically, it sends a strong message that women are not important in nurturing children and prevents women from breastfeeding. Or in case of premature children, it renders women utterly obsolete in caring for their own children at the time when have solid research that incubators do not maintain stable temperature, heart rate and breathing in sick and premature children as well as women do it. News like the story of a mother reviving her son shows that separation of vulnerable children from mothers kills children.

Of note here, advocates of the presence of mothers for the care of the children postpartum are forced to name women all kinds of scientific terms such as “skin-to-skin” or “kangaroo mother care” to conceal the actual word “woman” because of the historically unfriendly attitudes to women in society at large and medicine in particular. Today many mothers are prevented from being with their premature children on the grounds of safety – incubators and healthcare providers are safe, women are contagious and dangerous. There are many instances when mother’s own milk is withheld from premature and sick children under the same guise of protecting children from dangerous mothers.

infants in maternity hospital Russia

A Russian maternity hospital nursery


A solitary infant struggling for life in an incubator that cannot maintain stable temperature, heart rate, or breathing.

TED Talk by Jenn Anderson on breastfeeding shows from the first minutes of the presentation that what looks like support of breastfeeding women by helping them extract milk in fact is an obstacle to breastfeeding-as-complex-system where a mother was separated from her child for four days. She is not part of the nurturing the baby to maturity and health. She is only the source of milk to be used or discarded as the medical provider deems appropriate. Notice the tears and the trembling of the narrator’s voice as she tells the story. Separation of a woman from her newborn child is the most heartbreaking experience women describe.

Separation of children from mother during sleep is pervasive in Western societies as well as non-Western culture families that are immersed in Western countries. Much of breastfeeding happens at night, thus nightly separation of women and children places a burden on the woman to interrupt her sleep by nightly risings to breastfeed, then struggle to fall asleep from a completely awake state to only wake up a short time later to nurse again. Women who sleep separately from children suffer from lower quality and quantity of sleep than co-sleeping mothers. Hence we can conclude that cultural ideas separate sleep quarters for women and children  further complicate the possibility of easy and pleasurable breastfeeding that allows for good  restful sleep for the mother.

The idea of separate sleep in Western countries has many underlying reasons for it, but I would like to focus your attention on the very specific gender relations between men and women as they fit into feminist theory. During the course of 17th and 18th centuries Western Europe saw the emergence of ideas about a special bond between a husband and wife, where children were seen as a direct threat to the patriarchal authority of the man in the family. Later this non-scientific but cultural belief solidified in Freud’s Oedipus complex theory and snuck into a lot of pseudo-scientific theories in psychology, psychiatry, and pediatrics of current day parading as some other explanations why sleeping with children is harmful. Further such ideas as independence, freedom of will and feelings led to the ideas of marriage for love not economic or political alliances, as well as notions of romantic love in marriage (explore the subject further in Trevathan, W. R. and J. J. McKenna. Evolutionary environments of human birth and infancy: insights to apply to contemporary life. The Manner Born: Birth Rites in Cross-Cultural Perspective edited by Lauren Dundes). The sanctity of marital bed and easy access of a man to a woman for sexual gratification is one of the factors that make breastfeeding harder.

Co-Sleep-Danger_WomanAnother repetative motive in separating mothers  from children – the same patriarchal idea we have seen before with premature children: women are dangerous. Scare tactic is the prevailing strategy to prevent women from doing something that current health authorities consider dangerous. It is worth mentioning, that American Academy of Pediatrics attempts to change the old school stance on separate room sleeping for children to a variant of co-sleeping – rooming-in as research have shown that physical separation from mothers endangers children during sleep and kills few of them as they forget to breathe without the mother’s lead. Simultaneously the campaign against dangerous mothers continues instead of shifting sights to unsafe sleeping conditions rather than focusing on unsafe mothers. In the poster on the left a mother is compared to a sharp butcher knife.

Peculiarly, American mothers who sleep with their children site physical and emotional safety and needs of children as top to reason to sleep together. This is sharp contrast to medical perception of women. Among other reasons are improved sleep for both children and mothers, ease of nighttime breastfeeding, and pleasure for the mother. Again, we see the theme of pleasure arise in closeness of mothers and children, making us think that current societal imperatives prevent women from enjoying the pleasures of intimacy with their children.

Breastfeeding 2011. Breastfeeding 2050.And last but not least we reach the dearest child of feminism and breastfeeding debate – separation of women and children at work. The main takeaway point on this matter is “industrialization of the late 19th-early 20th century in the West separated mothers and children and gave rise to mass cow milk and later formula feeding”. We see the same process taking place today in developing nations that move from agrarian to industrial economies. Separation of home and work effectively leaves women torn in-between their own desires  to be with children and needs or wishes to work for money and participate in public life. Western solution to the dilemma – leave children behind. The only catch here is that when women and children are apart, breastfeeding cannot happen. The only thing that can and does happen is mass propaganda and enforcement of highly ineffective milk extraction with breastpumps. Women’s return to work is one of the sure and leading factors in termination of breastfeeding or even not starting to breastfeed. This issue is so eloquently described by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker article Baby Food. If Breast is Best, Why are Women Bottling Their Milk? (the following emphasis added by me)

Pumps can be handy; they’re also a handy way to avoid privately agonizing and publicly unpalatable questions: is it the mother, or her milk, that matters more to the baby? Gadgets are one of the few ways to “promote breast-feeding” while avoiding harder—and divisive and more stubborn—social and economic issues. Is milk medicine? Is suckling love? Taxonomical questions are tricky.

Meanwhile, mamma ex machina. Medela’s newest models offer breakthrough “2-Phase Expression” technology: phase one “simulates the baby’s initial rapid suckling to initiate faster milk flow”; phase two “simulates the baby’s slower, deeper suckling for maximum milk flow in less time.” These newest machines, the company promises, “work less like a pump and more like a baby.” More like a baby? Holy cow. We are become our own wet nurses.

The stress of expressing milk at work adds to the burden of already complicated lives of women, adds the displeasure of pumping, and takes away the pleasure of the breastfeeding relationship. In addition, a poll of breastfeeding mothers shows that forced separation of women and children because of work is cruelty towards both women and children and causes high amounts of stress.

Stress level forced return to work breastfeeding Forced return to work during breastfeeding cruelty

So in the US in particular we are asking for a maternity leave as well as more affordable childcare when women go back to work, which will leave us again with the separation of mothers and children. More so, the social engineering efforts in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe have shown that women want to spend time with their small children. When Swedish Fathers’ Commission mounted a campaign to give fathers non-transferable parental leave, women fought back to protect their time with children (breastfeeding was mentioned as one of the reasons). In communist Eastern Europe women welcomed an opportunity to stay home with children with a sigh of relief after years of forces full-time work and universal childcare and maternity leave. Many women preferred to work part-time. Women’s own childhood experienced being raised at daycare became a catalyst for changing working patterns with their own children, preferring to care for their own children at home (for the more comprehensive discussion of the issue refer to Anne Manne Motherhood. How Should We Care for Our Children? – HIGHLY recommended  reading).

In the West women face, figuratively speaking, the question which leg they would prefer to chop off – to care for their children in the isolation of their homes and suffer the financial punishment for life or leave children behind and go to work and be part of the world of adults, protect themselves financially today and in old age, and often, not die from starvation. The segregation of women with children in the United States can rival segregation of Negroes in the South. Women are not given any options to combine work and motherhood. Even to gain the right to express milk takes an enormous effort on the woman’s part. Women get ostracized and harassed when they mother and  breastfeed at work even if this does not interfere with work at all. As Professor Andrienne Pine elaborates:

So-called lactation rooms – which I think of as capitalism’s menstrual huts – are necessary for breastmilk-expressing workers who prefer not to pump or feed publicly. But they are insufficient guarantors of the developmental health benefits of breastfeeding (many lactation rooms don’t even allow babies inside) and of labour equality; women whose only breastmilk-feeding option is to pump in private may be excluded from participating, for instance, in a meeting that their non-lactating colleagues can attend. Having the option to breastfeed a baby in a meeting or classroom would level the field for many of us.

Today, mothers are left on our own to negotiate the moral intersection of feminised labours such as breastfeeding and our often masculinised professional work. Since most mothers lack institutional support from our employers and governments, these negotiations put us at a disadvantage. This is even more true for working-class women who fall largely outside of the present debate (a woman working at McDonald’s doesn’t spend most of her day in meetings where breastfeeding is a comfortable option).

There are legitimate reasons why women may not be able or may choose not to breastfeed. But no woman should be prevented from breastfeeding her child in order to succeed at work. Professionalism and motherhood are only incompatible if we as societies say they are, and woe be to us if we do (emphasis added by me).

Professor Pine so succinctly explained why feminists like Elizabeth Batinder are so concerned with new generation of mothers “falling victim to sociobiological fictions that reduce them to the status of female mammals, programmed to the “higher claims” of womb and breast.” It is a warning that in today’s world women continue facing discrimination because of their reproductive roles and work.

What are some solutions?

1. When planning legislation and policies consider keeping women and children together. It is possible in majority of circumstances. Alloparenting options should be as available as daycare.

2. Expand options for combining work and motherhood to more than depositing children at daycare. Parenting in the Workplace Institute is a good initiative to check out.  La Leche League is another example where the organization have shown that women can effectively work and parent. This volunteer model can be implemented in businesses.

3. Advocate for hospital policies that keep mothers and children together, including sick and premature children. Outfit NICUs with proper beds for mothers where they can stay 24/7.

4. Avoid public health campaigns that send messages that women are dangerous.

5. Be honest about current support for milk expression (the capitalist menstrual huts, as Professor Pine said) not breastfeeding at workplaces. Lactation rooms are not for breastfeeding. They are for milk expression. Differentiate between milk expression and breastfeeding at the breast.

6. When you think women are dangerous, look at the environment where women live and look for clues there. Solutions around women are usually the answer.

Breastfeeding friendly society


Written by Medical Nemesis

November 16, 2014 at 22:18

Posted in Other

3 Responses

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  1. I would really like to share this article in our LLL FB group – what do you think? Thx


    November 18, 2014 at 16:01

  2. […] feeding fits perfectly in any society that routinely separates women and children, separates public and domestic spheres of life, forces women to choose between children and public […]

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To nurse, or not to nurse: that is not a question!

Breast. No Bottle.

To nurse, or not to nurse: that is not a question!

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