Feminism: Won't Someone Think Of The Children!? and the Seductive Allure of Mom-Shaming

[Content Note: Children, Pregnancy, Breast Feeding, Child Abuse]
[This article originally ran as a Slacktiverse Special.]

I wanted to start this post saying that I think "trusting women" to be a basic and fundamental point of feminism, but I suppose that in the interests of pedantry, this isn't strictly true. If we define feminism as believing in, supporting, looking fondly on, hoping for, and/or working towards the equality of the sexes -- and I think there are good arguments in support of that definition -- then I suppose in the interests of fairness, it's possible to be a 'feminist' and feel that all peoples, regardless of sex or gender, have inferior judgment to one's own. But I'm assuming, if you're on this blog, that you're probably not starting from that position. Still, in the interests of pedantry, I'll make the following 'me' statement:

For me, "trusting women" is a basic and fundamental point of my feminism.

I'm not the only one; the NARAL Blog For Choice 2010 theme was one of trusting women: trusting women to make choices that are good and logical and wise for their situations, trusting women to know best what their own needs are, and trusting women to not be the hysterical, straw-people they are so frequently portrayed as in the media.

Fertile Feminism writes:
To me, trusting women is the crux of the abortion issue and all of women’s reproductive rights, really. Because if we can’t trust women to make their own decisions about their own bodies and lives, what in the world is the government and our society doing even pretending that they consider women fully sentient human beings who should be afforded the same rights as men?

[...] Trusting women to make the best choices for themselves, their health and their families extends not only to abortion, though, but to all aspects of their reproductive processes. [...] Trusting women means trusting them to know whether they’d like to or are able to become mothers, and when, and how many times. It means keeping public scrutiny and laws and judgment off their pregnant bodies. It means providing them with the tools, knowledge and support to make their own decisions in childbirth and allowing their instincts to flourish and guide them, with confidence. It means accepting that sometimes people will make choices that we wouldn’t make ourselves and trusting that they were the right ones for them at that time.
(Emphasis mine.)

And I couldn't agree more.

Now, "trusting women" doesn't mean that we take a leave of absence from our senses. "Trusting women" doesn't mean that we automatically believe everything said to us by a woman. "Trusting women" doesn't mean we live in Strawman Land where it just takes one woman to say the sky is green, the grass is red, and she is God in order to throw us all into a tumult of confusion. That's not what "trusting women" means.

No, what "trusting women" means is that I extend trust and respect to other women and I start from a position of assuming them to be logical, rational, good people. What "trusting women" means is that while I may not always agree with the choices other women make about their lives and their families and their careers and their spouses, I trust that they know more about their lives and their families and their careers and their spouses than I do. And that gap between their knowledge and mine, when combined with the aforementioned trust in their logic and rationality and goodness, means that their personal choices are not my business to question and probe and condemn.

But here's the thing. We live in a society that loves to question and probe and condemn women. We, each and every one of us, have been raised from childhood to question and probe and condemn women. And that training to question and probe and condemn women can be so hard to root out. We understand, for example, as a feminist group that "trusting women when it comes to their sex lives" is a good thing and that "trusting women when it comes to their pregnancies" is a good thing, but we still sometimes struggle with "trusting women when it comes to raising the product of their pregnancy". We've moved proudly past slut-shaming and yet too often trip and fall into mom-shaming.

Mom-shaming is so easy to do, if only because most of us are genuinely decent people who care about children. And that's a good thing -- I'm glad that most of us are genuinely decent people who care about children. But a problem arises when we question and probe and condemn women's choices under the guise of righteous anger and social justice, and we do feminism in general and women in specific a very severe injustice when we forget that choices not like our own are not automatically child abuse.

"Child abuse" is a slippery term. Wikipedia defines "child abuse" as "the physical, sexual, emotional mistreatment, or neglect of a child," and while the pedants among us could point out that that particular definition is rather vague and could encompass a variety of benign behaviors, most of us would probably argue that people know child abuse when they see it. I mean, reasonable people can be reasonable, right?

Maybe not. Probably a fair few of you are familiar with Richard Dawkins' sensational claim that teaching children religion is a form of child abuse, and a form of abuse potentially more harmful than systematic sexual assault. (Cite.) But it's not like Dawkins has a great track record on feminism anyway, so maybe it's too much to expect that he would trust people in general to love their children and to make choices that they believe will provide their children the greatest benefit in the long run and perhaps to recognize that he doesn't have all the answers and that parents should perhaps be verbally attacked less and supported in an open dialogue more.

So I don't expect Richard Dawkins to be perfect, or even to use the word "abuse" in a responsible manner that doesn't dangerously cheapen it into meaningless rhetoric. But it was with the greatest sadness that a few days ago I caught up on posts at Feministe and saw this thread on nursing-past-infancy. (Trigger Warning: Extensive mom-shaming in the comments.)

Nursing-past-infancy, for those not up on the lingo, is the process of breastfeeding a child for the first several years of life, usually continuing until the child chooses to wean itself. Nursing-past-infancy is actually (NSFW Warning: includes a breastfeeding picture) recommended by quite a few health organizations when mutually desired by mother and child. And let's real quick back up and re-read that sentence: mutually desired by mother and child. If the mother can't or doesn't want to nurse, she shouldn't. If the child can't or doesn't want to nurse, then it won't. This isn't about strapping all women down and forcing them to become automated milking machines, this is about choice.

But if a woman chooses to nurse her child until the child is 3 or 4 or 5 or whatever and if the child chooses to nurse until it is 3 or 4 or 5 or whatever, then (a) in most general cases, that's a pretty healthy situation and it gets a cheerful thumbs up from your Friendly Neighborhood Nutritionist and (b) in most general cases, it's a personal parenting decision that is undertaken with a great deal of careful thought and with a great deal of invested interest in the welfare of the mother and child involved. I, as a feminist, trust that the woman involved is a smart, logical woman who is able to weigh her needs and her situation, and those of her loved child, and make intelligent decisions for her unique situation.

And yet, you have already seen for yourself (or guessed from my trigger warning) that this was not the general reaction on the Feministe board to the idea, the very thought, that some selfish mother might be insisting on breastfeeding her 5-year-old child. Indeed, it wasn't but a few comments in before at least one member recommended calling Child Protective Services and forcibly removing such a child from its home, because any mother who refuses to wean her child before its fifth birthday is probably a hardened child abuser.

Or -- oops! -- feminism! Any first-world dwelling mother who refuses to wean her child before its fifth birthday. Because obviously you can't judge all those mothers in third-world countries. They've got, like, a different culture or poverty or something. (Because you can be a card-carrying feminist and think that women who breastfeed differently from you are child abusers who shouldn't be allowed near children, but god forbid you be a racist or an elitist.)

What was interesting and fascinating and extremely distressing for me were the reasons why nursing-past-infancy was cited as child abuse. No one was able to provide any factual evidence that nursing-past-infancy hurts children, and indeed quite a bit of evidence was provided on the contrary: that when deemed by mother and child to be mutually beneficial, nursing-past-infancy can have a great deal of health benefits. But despite being unable to come up with evidence of harm, the detractors still labeled the practice as 'child abuse' because it is obviously:
  • "Creepy"
  • "Inappropriate"
  • "Hinders independence [in the child]"
  • "The child’s maturation could be slowed"
  • "[Discourages the child] to develop abilities outside of the mother’s circle of care"
  • "Builds a cycle of dependency"
  • "[Suggests] boundary issues [on the part of the mother]"

And at least a dozen comments noted that, okay, sure, breasts don't have to be sexual, but they clearly are in our society, so women need to shape up and realize that and keep children away from their breasts because otherwise the children will realize they were fed by a socially-designated-as-such sexual organ, and they'll be damaged for life. Or they might grow up to think breasts aren't solely for sex, which would of course make them weird outcasts of society, because goodness knows that's the first thing I ask anyone when I meet them for the first time.

Ana: Nice to meet you, Bob. Do you think breasts are solely for sex?
Bob: Well, despite being raised in America, no, I don't. Primarily because my mother breastfed me.
Ana: Alas, I'm afraid we can't be friends then.

If I had a nickel for every time that happened.

What was particularly sad to me was the number of commenters who had clearly put no thought into the issue beyond oh my god, icky. There were "guidelines" suggested of "well, not once the child can ask for milk", which sort of blew my mind because a child asks for milk from Day 1. A newborn baby will suck on whatever comes near its mouth and will screech until milk comes out of something. At a few months of age, a baby can start tugging on shirts and waving and pointing and gesturing. Before the first-year mark, most babies are using meaningful babbles to get what they want; babies who learn sign language are often able to communicate their desires 'linguistically' well before that. The point here is that babies are very, very good at expressing desires and saying "once it's old enough to ask" doesn't really make a lot of non-arbitrary sense.

Other guidelines were things like "well, not once the child can get nutrition elsewhere", which technically argues in favor of no breastfeeding, ever. I mean, babies can "get nutrition" from Day 1 without a breast. We can argue over how comparable the nutrition is or isn't, but the person suggesting the guideline wasn't, because then it wouldn't have been a good guideline in terms of the oh my god, icky. Indeed, discussing breastfeeding from a nutrition angle might force the discussion to acknowledge the varieties of individual needs and experiences and once you've allowed for the variety of the human experience, you have to fall back on trusting the person who knows the most about their individual situation, and suddenly you can't call a woman abusive just because she breastfed her child for a different length of time than you would for yours because maybe there were special nutritional needs to consider. And where would be the fun in that?

One comment in particular by tmc highlighted this problem:
All of the things that people are saying about breastfeeding 5-year-olds – that it’s unnecessary, needs to be hidden, shows a weakness or neediness on the mom’s part, etc – are things that people said to me when I was nursing a newborn. ALL of these things. So since I’m damned if I nurse a toddler and damned if I nurse a baby…well, fuck it. Me and my little one will just do what works for us and to hell with anyone who has a problem with it.
(Emphasis mine.)

I've been a feminist for going on a long time now, and I've been on more than a few boards. I've been on boards where the community understood that it was Not Cool to call a woman mentally ill for having 'too many' lovers. I've been on boards where the community understood that it was Not Cool to call a woman a liar and a fraud for saying that she'd been raped. I've been on boards where the community understood that it is Not Cool to call a woman an emotional abuser for raising her child to be included in her Catholic community church.

And yet it's apparently a rare and special thing to find a board where the community understands that it is Not Cool to call a woman a physical abuser for nursing her child 'too long', where 'too long' is pretended to be defined not by the arbitrary biases and prejudices of the community, but rather by the emotionless, logical robots who infest the board and are free of all consideration except their burning, righteous fury on behalf of suffering children everywhere who might be nursed a few months longer than the average in the first-world country du jour and thereby damaged for life.

Maybe I'm being pessimistic. Maybe it's a good thing that we live in a society that takes child abuse so seriously and which is willing to rigorously defend the rights children everywhere. Maybe I should be relieved that we're seeing a cultural shift such that parents are encouraged to raise their children healthily, and where an open dialogue can be found almost anywhere on how to best accomplish that.

And yet... a part of me doesn't see an open, healthy dialogue in defense of children. A part of me just sees the eager questioning, gleeful probing, and heady condemnation of women for their choices. A part of me just sees an unwillingness to trust women to make the best decisions for their lives and their families and their careers and their spouses, and instead take every opportunity to use our own biases and our own prejudices to hurt women for being women. A part of me recognizes that for every "breastfeeding too long is child abuse" proponent, there's an equal-and-opposite "breastfeeding not long enough is child abuse" accuser waiting in the wings.

A part of me recognizes that women, no matter what they do, can't win. Breastfeed or bottle-feed; homeschool or public school; work or stay home; cook from scratch or order out; own a television or not; it doesn't matter. No matter what choice a woman makes, she's still going to be demonized for every choice she makes. Not because the detractors tearing them down hate women, of course, but because they love children.

And who could ever disagree with loving children?


Nathaniel said...

Often when people disagree with me, I can see where they are coming from, even if I don't reach the same conclusions.

Then there are times where I am simply gobsmacked by the utter out of left field qualities of an argument. Where I just simply cannot understand the other person's view, no matter how hard I try.

This is one of those times.

Nina said...

I really appreciate posts that are non-judgmental about breast-feeding, and this is an especially good one. I breastfed my child for about 7months before finally giving it up. Kiddo may or may not have been ready, but I definitely was. It took us awhile to get the hang of breastfeeding and then it was just never that comfortable for me. I hesitate to bring up my experiences in most contexts, though, because I feel like I get it from both sides: assertions that breast-feeding isn't all that great anyway from formula-promoters, which made me feel belittled for my efforts, and assertions that breast-feeding really isn't uncomfortable if you are dong it right, you must have been doing wrong, did you try x, y, or z? from breast-feeding promoters. Both responses basically made me feel like a terrible mother, which I suppose is the point. After all, if you're a mother, you must being doing something (probably everything!) wrong, amirite?!?

Anyway, thanks for the (re)post of this deconstruction, Ana. It's very validating and a wonderful expression of what feminism means to me, too.

Ana Mardoll said...

Both responses basically made me feel like a terrible mother, which I suppose is the point. After all, if you're a mother, you must being doing something (probably everything!) wrong, amirite?!?

This, absolutely. No matter what you do, you can't Win The Patriarchy. That's why it's so important to carve out safe, non-judgy spaces. *feminist high fivez*

gyroninja said...

I've definitely made mistakes on this topic in the past, so I want to tread pretty likely here, but for me...

What was particularly sad to me was the number of commenters who had clearly put no thought into the issue beyond oh my god, icky.

This is pretty much my whole reaction. If there were actually some hard evidence that late breastfeeding was psychologically damaging to children, then, well, bring it. Now, that wouldn't mean that a mother who did it was a bad mother, just that she was mistaken, because she was probably making difficult decision on incomplete information. Now I can see that the line between saying a mother made a mistake and mother-shaming is pretty blurry at time, but I think it's important to draw that line, because it's entirely possible for a person to generally be logical, rational, and good, and for them to do things that aren't logical, rational, or good.

But if your objections are entirely based on puritanical views about lady-parts, well... shut up.

Also I agree that comparing religious upbringing to child abuse is going too far for the sake of sensationalism, there is something about more or less deciding what a major part of a child's identity when they're too young to think critically about it that makes me uncomfortable. But I know that it's unreasonable to ask parents to not involve religion in their child's life, and I sure as hell have no idea how I'm going to handle any kids I might have in the future, so... yeah.

Nina said...

*return feminist high fivez!*

Fluffy_goddess said...

Equating a religious upbringing with child abuse sounds dangerously hyperbolic to me, too. There are "religious" upbringings that are abusive -- reading about the way children are raised in the quiverfull movement, for instance, really emphasizes the justifying-abuse-with-the-bible problem -- and then, of course, there are not. Taking a child to church is not necessarily a problem, but refusing to allow a child to question what they hear/experience, or forcing a child to go past the age where it would be safe to leave them at home while you go, and it gets trickier.

I think the only hard rule concerning breast feeding should be something like: base your decision on your situation. Which is pretty much my hard-and-fast rule for everything, so I'm not a terribly helpful person in this debate.

Makabit said...

I was weaned when I was three, I think. Mom was/is a staunch La Leche League lady. Didn't do me any noticeable harm. I plan to breastfeed my own, body willing.

As I think I've said, I'm currently taking psychology classes toward a counseling license, and really, family therapy in its current form owes its existence in large part to the idea that families, for which read 'mothers' cause schizophrenia, which could therefore be fixed by fixing the family dynamic. (Turns out, no, not so much.) During the same era, moms were told they caused their children's autism by being emotionally cold. I read an interview with a psychiatrist of that generation some time ago, who talked about hearing Bettelheim spout this nonsense at a conference, and taking notes. Now, he says, he wonders exactly why everyone believed this, given that it was based on absolutely no research whatsoever. It was just understood that if women didn't act just so, their children would develop mental illnesses because of it. That was the 50s/60s era of 'blame mom', but we haven't gotten so far past it as we'd like to believe.

The whole 'raising children in religion is a form of child abuse' thing makes me so mad I spit tacks, and red lightning bolts come out of my eyes. I am so goddamn tired of hearing that tripe, and I don't think that people who parrot it know what they sound like. I grew up around formerly Soviet Jews. I know too much about where a society goes when it decides that religion is a pathology.

If there's anything that makes me madder than that, it's when I unload on such a person only to be told that as a Jew I get a pass, or as someone they know isn't a Biblical literalist or a social conservative I get a pass. Thank you. No thanks.

"But a problem arises when we question and probe and condemn women's choices under the guise of righteous anger and social justice, and we do feminism in general and women in specific a very severe injustice when we forget that choices not like our own are not automatically child abuse." This. THIS.

April Marie Gilbert said...

would you mind terribly if I linked this onto tumblr for a few of my friends whom I'm fairly sure don't follow your blog can read it?

Also, this was brilliantly put together. Personally, I wouldn't want to breast feed a child until they were 5 but if someone else wants to, let them. Its their own damn business.

Ana Mardoll said...

Sure! Go right ahead. :)

gingerandlime said...

I love this so much. So. Much. May I link to you from my blog? My readers (both of them!) may love it too.

Ana Mardoll said...

Link-backs are encouraged, appreciated, and thoroughly enjoyed. :)

Yonmei said...

I am a child-free feminist who had - until 2006 - no particular feeling about breast-feeding one way or another - well, I guess I had the same mildly approving feelings which I generally have of Things Which Are Good For Children Are Good For All Of Us (since we all started out as children, after all). As a sometime childminder I have a horror of helicopter parenting. Having two good friends who both breastfeed had given me a new appreciation of how untroublesome to the happily-childfree breastfed babies are. (I mean, obviously as a feminist I support women being supported to bring their babies with them anywhere and everywhere, but that doesn't mean a grizzling baby isn't irritating, just that I accept the irritation as part of living in the world).

And then in 2006 over several weeks something happened to me and I guess I'm now about as passionate a supporter of a woman's right to breastfeed her child in public anywhere and any time that suits her and her child as you can be without actually ever having been in that position.

Because I got confronted with the kind of sexual abuse that can be visited on a woman who asserts that right, I think the opposition to breastfeeding is a really seminal kind of patriarchal erasure - women's breasts are sexual, was the message I got, and if they're not sexy, then they have to be covered up. I mean, yes, obviously breastfeeding is feeding a baby and that's that, in an ordinary world that would be the most ordinary thing. But it's clearly not.

(I have been banned from Feministe for some time, or I'd probably have made this comment there.)

April Marie Gilbert said...

thanks darlin :]

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