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.

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