Thursday, September 20, 2012

boob interlude (kind of): judgey mcjudgershein

Yesterday, I went to one of the city's breastfeeding meetings, and, as the student who just kind of showed up and started following my supervisor around, I was in the position of explaining myself to a number of different people, one at a time, as they trickled in -- not because they were running late, but because, at 9 am, most of them had already been in the hospital, checking in with new moms about their babies. (I love nurses.)

Thinking about breastfeeding in the context of the kind of health problems I'm studying in Med-Surg, I'm like: do I believe that breastfeeding is literally The Issue, the way that I believed education and college access was The Issue when I was working in charter schools?

Maybe not. The wonderful thing about being a nurse is that you don't actually have to decide The Issue by yourself. You figure it out from your patients, and it changes -- both from one patient to another and, if you are lucky and effective, for the same patient over time.

But breastfeeding is a huge issue to me because 1) it is a big issue for a lot of the moms I saw on OB clinicals: their babies are already at risk for a number of diseases and problems, and breastfeeding seriously reduces that risk; 2) the moms are similarly at risk for a lot of health problems, and breastfeeding reduces those risks, too; 3) I have had such a positive experience with breastfeeding in terms of my relationship to my body, and to my son, and while I understand that this was probably easier for me because my body is written on differently than are the bodies of most of my patients, I still believe this experience can be made accessible to moms of all colors, in all situations.

Mostly, of course, low breastfeeding rates is not an intractable problem. It's a created problem. And it's a simple, if not easy, problem to solve: if we give mom the resources they need to breastfeed, the way Enfamil gives moms what they need to formula feed, then breastfeeding rates go up. We're not touching on problems of big kids going hungry, here -- problems in which someone like Mitt Romney has to give up tax dollars and cry over his $50,000 plate over that one in five American kid who is hungry and thinks he's entitled to food and whose parents will be voting for Obama. The food this baby needs is right there, inside his mom, who, however "shiftless" she is otherwise, is growing food for little babies inside her body (shouldn't that be a Republican symbol of some sort?)

Anyway, the personal-and-feminist parallel that I am seeing in my own life right now is the tendency of everyone in the entire world -- from Paul Ryan to Rachel Maddow to myself -- to capitalize on the national/global pastime of judging women. This is not to say that any of us exclusively judge women, but that passing judgement on women is so much the craze, now and pretty much since always, that you can make an entire Times cover about how an otherwise-ordinary mom is breastfeeding her pre-schooler -- which is the norm and a total necessity in much of the world.

And, in that sense, Pine was totally right: it's ridiculous that her breastfeeding was considered news, and whoever is advising those students should probably address that with them -- not so much because Pine was somehow victimized by the story, but because it's a stupid story, and we need to be moving in the direction of fewer, not more, stupid stories in the media.

Speaking of created problems: instead of reading an entire newspaper to gain an understanding of what's going on In the World, most people direct their browsers to Yahoo and are presented with individual headlines to glance over and then evaluate: what do you think about Obama, now that you've read Romney's secret speech? What do you think about this illegal alien wanting to go to college? The focus is less and less on the actual story and more on what everyone and their Twitter feed thinks about its subject.

One of the amazing things about reading is that it can challenge the reader to imagine how other people live and feel, and, by doing so, it can develop compassion and empathy. But when "new stories" are developed in order to encourage readers to project their own feelings onto their subjects, they play to one of our lowest common denominators as people: the sense of accomplishment and assurance we derive from articulating the failings of those around us.

This judgey-ness has been identified as a divisive factor within feminism and among women, specifically -- but I think it's a larger, and growing, problem in our culture and society as a whole. In fact, I'd trade a fistful of searing commentaries and witty asides for a few more deliberate actions, taken to assist others or to correct the systemic problems that play into the behaviors we're judging.

All this to say that, in my own life, kvetching about how Pine had other options is itself a distraction, and I shouldn't have let it distract me. Either the difficulties of privileged and education single parents in academia are worth addressing or not. It would be very helpful if sick leave policies for professors didn't interfere with parents' getting tenure. It would be great if adolescents were less scandalized by the realities of babies and boobs. The fact that that's not where I choose to focus my energy doesn't really necessitate a critique of those who do. The fact that I felt drawn into one reflects a bigger problem in the way public discourse is functioning now -- and that (like formula feeding!) is a created problem, one that every reader has absolute power to correct, at least for him- or her-self.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

rich boobs, poor boobs

In case you were busy following the crisis in the Middle East, a professor in DC was having some serious (boob-related) First World Problems last week.

Pine's take on the situation is up over at counterpunch, but honestly, I found her essay difficult to read. I prefer Inside Higher Ed's coverage, particularly those reader comments focused on the fairly reasonable point that you shouldn't take your sick infant to work with you, especially when -- unlike a lot of working moms -- you enjoy benefits such as paid sick leave. I had a sanctimonious little rejoinder about that very point, but in deference to a certain Mitt Romney, I'll leave the total failures of imagination regarding others' circumstances to the master.

Anyway, while this was happening, I've been volunteering with the breastfeeding coordinator at a public hospital here in New York, where Bloomberg has made it his business to get poor moms nursing, injecting himself in between hospital postpartum units and Similac executives like a chaperone at a middle school dance.

Bloomberg's agenda is a much bigger deal than Pine's, whose situation had resolved itself the next day (in the sense that she now had a baby sitter and her employer wasn't threatening to fire her, as you'd expect of your average Family Dollar manager, for example). The biggest deal of all is probably the laundry list of more effective measures that haven't been taken to get New York moms nursing -- like pushing the nurses and administrators on these units to provide correct information and support to new moms; like insisting that all employers allow working moms time and opportunity to pump*; like raising disability caps so that moms can afford to stay home with their newborns; like getting insurance companies and Medicaid to cover breast pumps and ensuring that moms know how to access these benefits.

But the moms on my unit mostly don't blog. They're more likely to be the workers at the kind of day care center where Pine sends her daughter than they are to be tenure-track faculty at private universities. And so they are less likely to have correct information about how and why to breastfeed and more likely, as far as I can see, to be welcomed into a new and awesomely impossible situation: you're a failure as a mom if you don't breastfeed, but it seems that your (poor/brown/female) body's not working right, so here's your formula.

The thing is, Pine had a lot of options in this situation that the majority of women don't. It's one thing to be afraid that taking a sick day may jeopardize your tenure -- and it's a stressful thing, and a thing women tend to worry about more than men. But it's another thing entirely to worry about taking a sick day because you might lose your job, or because you will not get paid if you don't go to work, which is the case for many, many moms (and dads).

Moreover, Pine chose to make her body (more) visible because it is doing something unexpected (babies don't belong in college classrooms; teachers, regardless of gender, should be focused on their students, not their own children) and then frame the situation, not as an opportunity to work for change, but a chance to complain that the work hasn't already been done.

That's absolutely not to say she shouldn't have made herself visible by breastfeeding; in my mind, it was unprofessional to take her child to school, regardless of how she fed it. It is to acknowledge that white female bodies, professional bodies, in college classrooms of expensive private universities, enjoy more control over how visible they are than do a lot of women's bodies. It seems that, rather than launch a tirade about the particular injustice done to her by acknowledging that what she had done was unusual in the context of her classroom (though not so unusual, of course, in the context of, you know, biology), Pine could have leveraged the fact that her body is largely protected by its whiteness and class to encourage a conversation about breastfeeding, sexuality, and women's bodies. This is a conversation that she is especially well positioned to have, and that is difficult and dangerous for most of the women who really, really need for it to move forward.

Pine's feeling she shouldn't have to have that conversation is understandable, I guess -- though it seems a little disingenuous given that it presumably would have been fairly easy to give her daughter a bottle of breastmilk, since the kid much be taking a bottle in day care, and that Pine, lest we forget, is a gender studies professor of some breed and gets paid to talk about sexuality and gender. It's also disappointing: if Pine publicly breastfeeding her child is not yet the non-issue she wants it to be, she enjoyed much less fallout than would many women, as she acknowledges herself in counterpunch. A conversation about her decision might have made her more visible than she wanted -- but it also might have done a lot to at least make breastfeeding visible.

Pine had a forum to advocate for others; she chose, instead, to focus on the "backlash" she experienced personally -- a backlash that didn't threaten her well-being or that of her child and that was resolved so fast as to be a non-issue (she had a sitter by the next day; her university seems not to have censured her actions beyond releasing a statement reiterating the options it gives faculty members with sick children).

The fact is, breast milk is healthier for children than formula, rich or poor, and parents of all backgrounds are being pressured to breastfeed because of this (like they are being pressured to read to their kids and to immunize their kids, because, like those choices, breastfeeding isn't the choice between two equally beneficial options; it's the choice between giving your child what she needs, and, you know, not doing that). At the same time, all of us experience obstacles: even when breastfeeding is amazing, it's harder to incorporate into the non-parenting aspects of life.

For some, though, these obstacles include things like:

"I'm being told I'm starving my baby because I don't know how to get him to nurse, and I don't speak the same language as the staff at the hospital where I am staying, alone,"  or

"My body feels targeted every moment of my life, and everything about it seems suspect," or

"I have to go back to work in six weeks and there's nowhere for me to pump,"

--  and for others, like Pine, they include "I was able to take my child to work rather than dipping into my paid leave, and when I chose to breastfeed rather than give my year-old child a bottle of pumped breast milk, my college-aged students wrote a newspaper article about me".

So: kind of a breastfeeding fail, I think. It has, however, got me thinking more about how my own awesome experience of breastfeeding is itself a reflection of the privileges I enjoy because I am white, because I delivered in a private hospital with my parents and husband nearby, because I'm raising my baby on the edge of Park Slope rather than the edge of Brownsville. More on that soon.

* This would simply mean working to enforce federal law here in the city, since Obamacare includes a provision that employers have to do this.

Friday, September 14, 2012

boobs! part I

So, I've started volunteering at one of the city's public hospitals with the lactation coordinator, who is trying to get the hospital's breastfeeding numbers up, as per Healthy People 2020. This is both a result and an exacerbation of the large amount of time I spend thinking about boobs. 

I feed my son from my boobs. It is so awesome; it's like I'm the breastfeeding equivalent of all those women on The Business of Being Born who are strumming acoustic guitars over the wonders of their natural vaginal lacerations. I'm that crunchy over breastfeeding.

See, before, I hated my body so much. I hated it for being too fat, so I starved it, and then I hated it for being all weak-toothed and weak-boned and irregularly-ovulating from the starvation, and then I lost my first pregnancy and hated it more. And I had a mental illness, yes, but a large part of the appeal of that mental illness is that it's also a snarky little subversive reiteration of the way everyone else feels about my body, by virtue of it having a vagina and therefore, apparently, being everyone's business.

(Incidentally, if you were wondering, that right there is why a lot of women like me, women who hate the idea that anyone would choose to abort a potential baby, are committed to preserving that choice. Because it is exhausting and obnoxious to have your body be everyone else's business and then be blamed for that unwanted notoriety. Because it is infuriating, this idea that to properly be the person I am, the gender that I am, I am in need of constant correction, from the first instructions to sit with your legs closed, wait your turn to speak, and ignore the boys who are talking over you and feeling you up at the swimming pool, to the last instructions to cover your breasts when you're feeding your child, but don't expect to be able to keep them covered if someone with a penis wants to touch them and he's bigger than you.)

I get this attitude sometimes, this bizarre admiration for breastfeeding, still (!), when my son is already almost nine months old (!) Moms who quit sooner talk about "wanting their bodies back" and give the impression that breastfeeding was a big sacrifice for them. And I feel like a fake because maybe if it were a big sacrifice for me, I wouldn't still be doing it.

But really, it's not. I've never felt like my body was mine: if it were, why did I start being ashamed of it for not being sexy enough when I was seven? I didn't want to have sex with anyone at seven. Why was I fielding helpful blasts about how to "lose the baby weight" from my first trimester? Who am I getting my "pre-baby-body" back for?

My experience, being female, has always been one in which there are an endless supply of consultants ready to help me ameliorate the embarrassing mess of a body that is never good enough -- both because it is not a man's, though they rarely say that, and because it is not Christie Brinkley's/Kate Moss's/Jessica Alba's/Beyonce's. The gold standard changes, but my obligation and subsequent failure to meet it -- even when meeting it would do nothing at all for me, personally -- never does.

In this sense, breastfeeding feels subversive, not because half of the Crown Heights-Bed-Stuy-Fort Greene trifecta has now seen my boobs, but because my boobs have been commandeered by my son. My boobs are no longer up for discussion, because now your critique will inevitably be met with: I walk around generating food to sustain a human life out of this inferior body; please, tell me more about how your belittlement of women and their bodies justifies your space on the planet.

It's possibly the biggest act of self-determination regarding my body that I've made. It's even better than getting married. When I got married, I got to reject everyone else's claims to my body because they were superseded by the claims of a particular man. My body wasn't fully mine; it's just that it wasn't everybody's anymore.

But even my husband -- who I love and also resent for having the "right" to evaluate my worth, by virtue of being male -- can't say shit to me now. Even if my body isn't good enough for him -- itself a much more comfortable standard for me than the one I spent twenty years trying to attain -- my body is good enough for me, because it feeds my child, and while my child isn't literally my entire life, he's much more my life than trying to be sexy ever was.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

st. francis

I was in Park Slope yesterday, walking with a friend, and we crossed a flyer for a Blessing of the Animals. I didn't check the church -- I wish now that I had, since naturally, I can't find it online. Until then, I'd almost forgotten that, in addition to cider spices and oatmeal and new erasers, autumn tastes a little like your absence, now.

You study nursing and you talk about medical futility and you believe -- the way you once believed in Jesus -- in life, in a good death. And when you are believing these things, you don't think that no matter how good the death and how much better you know, you'll have days when the sky is perfectly blue, when, for once, it's not too hot, and when you're reminded that you are living in a world in which people bring their animals to churches to be blessed.

And in that moment you'd give a lot of what you have for him to be in the rented hospital bed in your growing-up bedroom, murmuring words you know, but don't actually understand. To be massaging his shoulders through the paper his skin has become; to be dipping lemon swabs along his lips like you're lighting candles. You wouldn't want that very long, but you want it then, fiercely, more than you want him back for real, almost -- because in those moments you almost believe that those last few minutes might not be too much to ask.

And people lose their children, you know. They lose their spouses and their parents, and who I am to grieve over you, when you lived almost a century? When you held great-grandchildren? When this time three years ago, just a few weeks before you died, you were perusing library books and walking your dog around the small town where you spent your last few years?

There's nothing tragic or wrong about my grandfather's death. In fact, his death is the sort of thing that makes me believe in God: after so much pain and loss, he died deeply loved, comfortable, on his terms. It means enough to me that I often think it's why I went into nursing -- to help others die that way.

But I feel like I can't know what I believe about God, now, because I want so badly for you to be with Him. When we're carrying our animals into churches in Brooklyn -- a city you never saw and would have hated -- making a beautiful moment in an inattentive space, I like to think of you. Not so much that you're there: though I miss you deeply, and often, so much that missing you is a part of who I am now, it's okay with me if I never properly see you again. I just don't want you to miss this. At the very least, I like to imagine that you had consulting privileges.