Friday, January 16, 2009

The Breast & The Milk

I finally read Jill Lepore's New Yorker article about breast milk and breast pumps. In the end, after wading through the overly precious styling, she makes a reasonably interesting point that in this country the experience of breast feeding (for mother and child) has been conflated with the delivery of breast milk (to the child). The result, as far as policy is concerned, is the easy out of creating space (or time) for women to pump milk but not on-site day care so they could actually nurse their babies. In essence, the breast pump/breast milk/breast feeding matrix is yet another example of American food policy, rhetoric and trends failing to meet the complex emotional demands of a family while patting itself on the back for satisfying the simple nutritional needs of individuals.

This, to me, seems the point and the problem. The pro-pumping, pro-breastfeeding argument goes something like this: Breast milk is healthier than formula so babies should get breast milk. (LePore left off any discussion of the chemicals now found in breast milk that are pulled from the nursing mother, for that happy news see Having Faith, by Sandra Steingraber.) Let's not, pumping/breastfeeding people seem to be saying, mention the sensual or emotional satisfaction of nursing. Too icky. (And let's not mention those who don't have the option to breastfeed -- not only those mentioned by Lepore, the "few," like me, with low supply or those who died giving birth, but also mothers who adopt or gay men who have kids.) Instead, we'll just say breast milk is healthy and babies should have breast milk, and the pleasure of the breast is nice and all, but won't contribute so much to IQ, well, maybe IQ, but not the bumped-up immune system.

Here's the quote from Lepore's article that I like: "No one seems especially worried about women whose risk assessment (vis a vis breastmilk vs formula) looks like this: "Should I take three twenty-minute pumping breaks, or use formula and get home to my baby an hour earlier?"

This whole it's good for you-who cares-if-it-feels-good split reminds me of how we think about food in general. How many times must we read articles like this top-10 in popularity offering from the New York Times: The 11 Best Foods You Aren't Eating. The post wasn't about butter, which makes everything taste good, it was about beets, which according to the post should be eaten raw to get the most of the nutrients. Well, I like my beets roasted, thanks.

Fundamentally, and very broadly speaking, I don't think our food culture wants to think about pleasure unless the thing that gives pleasure is seen as naughty. Naughty is thrilling, but it's not everything. Good for you is good, but it's not everything, either. And breast milk is good for the baby, but it's not the whole kit 'n kaboodle of breastfeeding, and it's not the only way to feed and nurture baby. Not by a long shot.

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