I see labor and breastfeeding as tiring, painful, sacrificial, tedious, and gross. But that doesn’t mean it’s not also beautiful, miraculous, incredible, life-changing, joyous, and sacred. It can be all of these things, says Khadijah Costley White.
Recently on Facebook, I shared an old article about the tax breaks the IRS gives to women who breastfeed. Annoyed that singling out one type of feeding seemed like an unnecessary jab at women who continue to use formula, I posted the article on my wall with the following comment:
OK, I guess people really want women to leak baby fluids. This is great for women who nurse, but I guess those who can’t, for physical or work reasons, are just left on their own? Seriously, why can’t the government show support for ALL versions of motherhood? Non-nursing infants have to eat, too.
Now, if you ever watched the film Alien, you pretty much understand my feelings about pregnancy. Sharing my body with another human being feels like a major sacrifice—giving up my independence and privacy in the most concrete and literal way possible. The idea of having another being inhabit me is terrifying, and the knowledge that it will push its way out of my body in a room full of strangers—well, that’s not alluring to me, either. Then after going through such an experience, the plan to take my tender, sore breasts and offer them to this creature for sustenance sounds overwhelming. Not impossible, but a feat for which I’m not sure I’m prepared to handle.
One of my college friends disagreed with my Facebook post and pushed back:
I agree with respecting all kinds of motherhood, which is exactly why I kinda have to call foul on “leak baby fluids,” Khadijah. That stings. Women’s bodies do incredible and important work; there’s no requirement to be dismissive of that in order to stand up for those who can’t or choose not to nurse (or any other choice related to motherhood).
But you know what? I’m right, too.
I’m the oldest of four and the first grandchild, so I’ve seen a fair number of women I love go through the cycles of gestation and recovery. There’s been lots of joyous moments, laughter at first words, quiet wonder as tiny chests heave up and down during a contented rest, and my mom’s satisfaction at calming my brother with one yank on her shirt. But I’ve seen other things, too.
I’ve seen a relative’s nose spread and her hips grow wider, and I’ve watched as she endured the discomfort of the creature kicking, moving, and pressing inside of her. I saw her painful recovery from pregnancy and watched her weep after the doctor told her he couldn’t hear her son’s heartbeat. I’ve seen a woman wince as she carefully massaged tough, dry nipples with Vaseline. I watched my aunt’s frustration with breastfeeding and listened to a friend express shame and guilt over her child’s inability to gain weight on breastmilk alone. I’ve seen the pain, the suffering, and the loneliness of producing children. And I’ve watched as women have hidden and masked the depression, sadness, isolation, stress, and disappointment that can come with bearing and raising kids.
I’ve also seen some folks deem any woman who voices her repulsion or discomfort with pregnancy as strange, abnormal, or unnatural.
We’ve come a long way since the days in which women of a certain class would hide away at retreats during the months closest to delivery. As feminists, we rushed to bring broader recognition to the sacrifice, complexity, and labor of birth, and reclaim its beauty. Maternity leave, breastfeeding, formula, birthing plans, maternity clothing, and childcare became tools that helped women move from the margins of society and claim space for their labor, bodies, and goals. Out of such efforts came two dominant ideologies that tend to twist us feminists into knots: that birth and childrearing is beautiful and sacred, and that birth and childrearing is hard, difficult work.
Both of these concepts are true. And they each give meaning to the other. But somehow, in all of the mommy wars and family planning debates, we’ve forgotten that we’re not just engaged in a PR game of talking points and volleys. We don’t need to cling to a single mommy archetype that is challenged any time one person’s experience is different than another. We don’t need a Time magazine cover that asks whether we’re “mom enough” because one woman chose to nurse her kid until elementary school.
We need a way to be in these bodies, but not reduced to them, in these roles, but not defined by them, and embrace all of the paradoxical and contradictory things we feel, believe, and do.
In the west, we discuss our world in languages that tend to turn everything into rigid binaries: you versus me, black versus white, boy versus girl, breastmilk versus formula. Difference is read as provocation, not as diversity. We cling so precariously to our own choices and life paths that they turn into dogma, challenged whenever anyone else chooses or lives in a completely different way.
I see labor and breastfeeding as tiring, painful, sacrificial, tedious, and gross. But that doesn’t mean it’s not also beautiful, miraculous, incredible, life-changing, joyous, and sacred. It can be all of these things. If we refute one piece, we deceive ourselves. And we undo our work.
We’re all in the struggle together, and there’s got to be a way to acknowledge our varying experiences and perspectives without tearing each other down.
In the end, these types of conversations require trust. We need to trust that women make the best choices they can for themselves and their families, particularly in a society where people’s health and life quality often come at the expense of the bottom line. We need to trust that we don’t always know best. And we need to trust that our complexity is a virtue as much as it is a weakness.
I’m not trying to undermine the importance of challenging one another to be healthier or more loving, to fight hegemony and domination, but to make room for the many ways it can be done. And even more room for the many ways we might feel about it.
Khadijah Costley White is a faculty member in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.