Breastfeeding As an Ecofeminist Issue - Page 2

Author // Molly Remer, M.S.W., ICCE, CCCE

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Breastfeeding As an Ecofeminist Issue
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They go on to explain:

According to the U.S. rules and regulations governing the federal worker, the pregnancy and postdelivery period is referred to as “the period of incapacitation.” This reflects the reality of a situation that should be called “the period of joy.” Historically, mothering was a group process shared by the available adults. This provided not only needed relief but also readily available advice and experience. Of the “traditional” and “modern” child-rearing situations, it is the modern isolated western mom who is much more likely to find herself experiencing lactation failure [emphasis mine].

There is a tendency for modern women to look inward and blame themselves for “failing” at breastfeeding. There is also an unfortunate tendency for other mothers to also blame the mother for “failing”—she was “too lazy” or “just made an excuse,” etc. We live in a bottle-feeding culture; the cards are stacked against breastfeeding from many angles— economically, socially, medically. When I hear women discussing why they couldn’t breastfeed, I don’t hear “excuses,” I hear “broken systems of support” (whether it be the epidural in the hospital that caused fluid retention and the accompanying flat nipples, the employer who won’t provide a pumping location, the husband who doesn’t want to share “his” breasts, or the mother-in-law who thinks breastfeeding is perverted). Of course, there can actually be true “excuses” and “bad reasons,” and women theoretically always have the power to choose for themselves rather than be swayed by those around them, but there are a tremendous amount of variables that go into not breastfeeding, besides what is initially apparent. Breastfeeding occurs in a context, and that context is often one that does not reinforce a breastfeeding relationship. In my seven years in breastfeeding support, with well over 800 helping contacts, I’ve more often thought it is a miracle that a mother manages to breastfeed, than I have wondered why she doesn’t.

The Ecology of Breastfeeding

A breastfeeding baby is the topmost point on the food chain (above other humans who consume other animals, because a breastfeeding baby is consuming a human product) and as such is deeply impacted by the body burden of chemicals stored by the mother. In the 2003 book Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, Sandra Steingraber closely examines these factors in both an interesting and disturbing read. The body of the mother during pregnancy and breastfeeding is the natural “habitat” of the baby and our larger, very polluted environment has a profound impact on these habitats. Mothers have pesticide residues and dry cleaning chemicals, for example, in their breast milk. The breastfeeding mother’s body is quite literally the maternal nest, and a motherbaby is a single psychobiological organism.

At an international breastfeeding conference in 2007, I was fortunate enough to hear Dr. Nils Bergman speak about skin-to-skin contact, breastfeeding, and perinatal neuroscience. The summary version of his findings is that babies need to be with their mothers following birth in order to develop proper neural connections and ensure healthy brain development and proper brain “organization”; mother’s chest is baby’s natural post-birth “habitat,” and is of vital developmental and survival significance; and that breastfeeding equals brain wiring.

A baby has no concept of the notion of independence. Even though we live in a culture that pushes for independence at young ages, all babies are born hard-wired for connection, for dependence. It is completely biologically appropriate, and is the baby’s first and most potent instinct. Mother’s body is baby’s home—the maternal nest. If a baby cries when her mother puts her down, that means she has a smart baby, not a “dependent” or “manipulative” one.

What happens when society and culture pollute the maternal nest? Is that mother and baby’s problem, or is it a political and cultural issue that should be of top priority? If we valued breastfeeding as the birthright of each new member of our species, we would not continue inventing new breast milk substitutes that encourage mothers to abandon breastfeeding. We would not continue to pollute the earth, water and sky, and in so doing increase the body burden of hazardous chemicals carried by mother and child. We would not treat as normative workplaces that expect and champion mother-baby separation after a few scant weeks of maternity leave. We would not accept broken circles of support as “just the way things are.” And we would not settle for a world that continues to sicken its entire population by devaluing, dishonoring, dismissing and degrading our own biological connection to the natural world. As Charlene Spretnak writes in 1988’s The Womanspirit Sourcebook:

In a broader sense, the term patriarchal culture connotes not only injustice toward women but also the accompanying cultural traits: love of hierarchical structure and competition, love of dominance-or-submission modes of relating, alienation from Nature, suppression of empathy or other emotions, and haunting insecurity about all of those matters. The spiritually grounded transformative power of Earth-based wisdom and compassion is our best hope for creating a future worth living. Women have been associated with transformative power from the beginning: We can grow people out of our very flesh, take in food and transform it into milk for the young. Women’s transformative wisdom and energy are absolutely necessary in the contemporary struggle for ecological sanity, secure peace, and social justice.

As Glenys Livingstone stated: “It is not female biology that has betrayed the female…it is the stories and myths we have come to believe about ourselves.” The stories we have come to believe are many and have complicated roots in both patriarchal social structures and in feminist philosophies that fail to recognize the potent and profound sociocultural legacy represented by the transformation of women’s blood to milk to life.

Originally published in Restoration Earth: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Nature and Civilization (2012), volume 2, issue 1.

Pathways Issue 37 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #37.

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