If you had told me when my son was a few weeks old that I would still be breastfeeding him at 22 months, I would have laughed hysterically. And then I probably would have cried. Or possibly done both at the same time. Like many moms out there, I had didn't love breastfeeding at first. For me, breastfeeding was challenging and stressful. Much of the angst I felt stemmed from major nursing challenges that were frantically and tearfully dealt with in those early weeks. I was determined to make it happen, and even now, I’m not quite sure I could fully explain just why that was. My best guess is that a lot of it had to do with the fact that it was a very black-or-white problem that I could overcome as a shaky new mom, when everything else felt uncomfortably gray. Was my baby happy? Was he thriving? Was I doing OK? Was my partner feeling all right? There wasn’t really much information available to us with which to form answers. But breastfeeding? That was a yes or no answer. To me, at the time, that was a clear problem that needed fixing and I was determined to fix it.
The very fact that this was a conscious choice I could make speaks to the inherently feminist aspects of breastfeeding: It was my body, and my decision to share it in whatever way I felt inclined to share it. In other places, in other eras, with fewer options, it might've certainly felt like less of a choice, but nowadays, with technology and formula on our side, moms can decide what’s best for them and for their families. That said, there's something about offering up your body (especially the oft-objectified, sometimes contentious boob-zone of your body) for use by another person in a way that, for most women, doesn't yield any real personal benefit to the woman who's literally being milked for all she's worth... Well, it's a tough gulp to swallow for some people, from a feminist standpoint, and like, I get it. But I also disagree with the idea that breastfeeding is anything other than a completely feminist act, and here's why:
It’s Not About You
As lovely as it would be for breastfeeding to include some sort of reward or prize for me personally (like, oh, I don’t know, a perfectly made cappuccino waiting for me at the end of every session, or perhaps feeling like I’d slept eight hours, or paid maternity leave that’s on-par with other developed countries), it’s just not the case. Yes, there are some physical benefits for the mother, but for the most part, it’s about the kid.
It’s A Thing That Most Women's Bodies Can Physically Do, So What Could Be Un-Feminist About Doing It?
Does getting pregnant make you a bad feminist? Or delivering a baby? How about owning a set of breasts? Or a pair of feet? No? Great! We’re on the same page. Let’s take it one step further. Do you use your feet how they were meant to be used, like, you know, to walk? Let's assume that you do. I would venture to say that using a particular part of your body in the particular way it was meant to be used doesn't really have to affect your personal beliefs about a political, social, and economic issue. That's just me, though. And to be clear, feet can also run and jump off cliffs, but that doesn't mean you're a bad foot owner if you choose not to do those things; No breastfeeding doesn't make you a "bad feminist" either. Somehow, that feels more thoroughly established and defended these days than choosing to breastfeed.
What Even IS a Bad Feminist?
Ah, that age-old question, often uttered alongside other classics like, “What is the meaning of life?” and, “What does it mean to truly love another person?” and, “Why didn’t Harry end up with Hermione?” Who’s out there determining what makes a feminist good or bad? Isn’t feminism, at its very core, a way of supporting women through whatever choices they want to make? Including, but not limited to, how they choose to exercise their feminist beliefs? I would argue that it is. While I don’t speak for every women, my own personal belief is that pretty much the only way you can be a bad feminist is by, like, secretly sabotaging Beyoncé’s record sales.
To Say Breastfeeding Makes You A Bad Feminist Is Like Saying Changing Diapers Or Singing To Your Baby Makes You A Bad Feminist
Let’s look at the facts: babies need nourishment. Breastfeeding provides nourishment. Boom. It can really and truly be that simple. Do we ask these same questions when a mother responds to a baby’s other needs? I certainly hope not.
Not Everything That's Associated With Restrictive Conventional Notions Of Femininity Are, Unto Themselves, Oppressive
So, sure, taking all the conventional definitions of what a women should be or should do, or should not be or not do, and wrapping them all up into one set of ideals, and then trying to force all women to conform to those roles and ideals lest they be viewed as less than... That mess is hella oppressive. But that's about the total package of that scenario; it's about intention. Each of the little pieces therein are not, believe it or not, inherently tainted and worth chucking entirely. Like, my hands are smaller than my partner’s. Does that make me less of a feminist because I’m embodying something stereotypically associated with womanhood? Or how about the fact that I’m shorter than he is? Or that I occasionally wear skirts or dresses? No, obviously all of that is ridiculous.
The same thing goes for breastfeeding: Just because I'm sitting in a rocking chair, suckling a newborn babe, that doesn't mean I'm not about to stand up, hand that babe over to its other parent, walk out of that room, and continue being a full human being. Let's not let our fear of oppression make us imagine chains that aren't there.
Let’s Not Forget That Some People LIKE Breastfeeding. Some People WANT To Breastfeed.
For some women, from start to finish, breastfeeding can be a pleasant journey down a sparkly path lined with unicorns and baby panda bears. For me, it certainly didn't begin that way, but it has become a highlight of my relationship with my son. Isn’t supporting other women who are doing what they enjoy one of the basic principles of feminism?
Breastfeeding Is Not All Or Nothing
Yes, it’s restricting and time consuming and requires commitment, but you can breastfeed and live the rest of your life. You can do it as much as you want (or are able to), and you can supplement with all the formula your heart (and baby) desires.
The Choice Can Often Be About Health Or Finances Or Convenience Or Any Number Of Factors
Sure, I could explain why I chose to breastfeed, and what led to that being the best decision for our household. However, I can’t assume that the reasons that led to my choice are necessarily the same ones that influenced other women. Sometimes, it’s less of a choice, and more of a requirement.
The Very Fact That It IS A Choice Supports Women’s Autonomy
Let’s imagine, for a moment, that we live in a different place where perhaps you don’t have w-fi access to view this on your phone, and you don’t have a freezer to store the milk that you pumped, or income to buy as much formula as you want. What would we say about breastfeeding then? Is it still a choice? Or let’s consider a woman who opted not to breastfeed, or who couldn’t breastfeed, and had to make other arrangements to feed her baby: Should her personal beliefs about feminism, whatever they may be, be subject to scrutiny just because she has fewer options? I don’t believe so, no.
Let’s Repeat: Using One’s Body However One Pleases Is GOOD
Do you want to breastfeed? Great! Do you want to formula feed? Great! Do you want to find a combination of both that allows you and your baby to thrive? Awesome. You do you. Feminism: Accomplished.