The New Yorker magazine has a sprawling and provocative article this week by Harvard historian Jill Lepore, which raises the question: "If breast is best, why are women bottling their milk?"
The article's premise is that as more women pump, and has pumping technology has improved, we are entering uncharted territory in which breastmilk is increasingly an entity apart from the mothers who produce it. We don't know what we think about it. Is it good? Dangerous? As good as breastfeeding? The article concludes:
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.
A good part of the article is a walk through infant feeding history, and at times it felt more to me like an inventory than an argument, but it's worth reading if you're into this stuff. You know you are. I particularly liked this parenthetical comment: "A brief history of food: when the rich eat white bread and buy formula, the poor eat brown bread and breast-feed; then they trade places."
Here are a few sprawling observations of my own about this topic:
It's hard to argue against the idea that we as as a society are confused about breastfeeding, but I don't think that mothers spend too much time futzing around with questions of process vs. product. Why do women pump? Mostly because they have to. For most women, the story looks like this: "I want to breastfeed my baby. Uh oh, I have to go back to work. Hey, there's a pump company that says I can still give my baby breastmilk. I'll try that. Well, this isn't very fun. Is that door really locked?"
Of course this necessity is a result of a national choice. We lug pumps to work and through TSA security lines largely because our maternity leave policies compare miserably to the rest of the world, as the author recognizes. And some women don't get a chance to choose at all. Pumping has become the "privilege" of those of us with white collar jobs.
Yes, it's all new turf in a way, but we've really been in uncharted territory since the Industrial Revolution - the first time that large numbers of babies spent infancy separated from their mothers. That's when infant feeding began to change, out of necessity. Next stop Pump in Style.
Which, by the way, is only a little more than ten years old. I'm often amazed that pumping at work has become such a 'normal' concept in such a short time. And I think that the assumption that it's possible sets many women up for a nasty surprise. Our bodies haven't had thousands of years to evolve to respond to a plastic baby, and it doesn't always work the way we want it to.
From the outside, it probably does look as if we've gone nuts. We make milk, but we use an machine to take it out, and then we put it into the baby with a piece of plastic. But this is not something we really want to do. I've never met a mother who liked to pump. Most women hate it, and the best it gets is grudging acceptance. I pumped at work and the best I can say about it is that I liked that I could take the phone off the hook a few times a day.
Of course, there are other reasons why mothers pump. Sometimes babies don't latch. Sometimes there is an experience of pain which pushes mothers to pump (that's when you want breastfeeding and breastmilk to be different entities). Sometimes women just choose it. And then there's the often overlooked cause: prior sexual abuse. Abuse survivors sometimes find the control and more impersonal nature of the pump makes producing milk bearable. For these women, the machine is a bit of a miracle.
Here's the thing that makes me nervous. As breastmilk-not-in-the-usual-packaging becomes an increasingly common sight, and as increasing numbers mothers believe (due to advertising) that formula is as good as breastmilk, and as cows are engineered to produce human milk components, where does that leave breasts? Besides billboards.
And now for your thoughts.