In January, The New Yorker published this piece, titled "Baby Food." It is about breast milk; or, more specifically, the history of breast feeding in the United States. The article is interesting, but near the end she makes a rather pointed critique of our culture too: many places have begun providing almost lavish amenities for working mothers who wish to pump at work, while simultaneously making it more and more difficult for them to actually be HOME with their babies. Her criticism is not levied merely at employeers, however. She is equally dazed and confused by mothers who will take an extra hour's worth of breaks to pump rather than formula feed and spend an extra hour with their babies. She laments, "When did women's rights turn into the right to work?" I couldn't agree more.
I really like this author. Her way of viewing the world is honest and blunt, but with the barest whisper of humor that makes you realize that she doesn't take herself to seriously. Her last few paragraphs read thus,
"Pumps put milk into bottles, even though many of breast-feeding’s benefits to the baby, and all of its social and emotional benefits, come not from the liquid itself but from the smiling and cuddling (stuff that people who aren’t breast-feeding can give babies, too). Breast-feeding involves cradling your baby; pumping involves cupping plastic shields on your breasts and watching your nipples squirt milk down a tube. But this truth isn’t just rarely overstated; it’s rarely stated at all. In 2004, when Playtex débuted a breast pump called the Embrace, no one bothered to point out that something you plug into a wall socket is a far cry from a whisper and a kiss. . .
"It appears no longer within the realm of the imaginable that, instead of running water and a stack of magazines, 'breastfeeding-friendly' could mean making it possible for women and their babies to be together. Some lactation rooms even make a point of banning infants and toddlers, lest mothers smuggle them in for a quick nip. At the University of Minnesota, staff with keys can pump their milk at the Expression Connection, but the sign on the door warns: 'This room is not intended for mothers who need a space to nurse their babies.'
"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? . . . Medela’s newest model promises [that it]. . . 'works less like a pump and more like a baby.' More like a baby? Holy cow."
After reading her excellent piece, I wrote the following letter to TNY's editor:
Ms. Lepore's article is a fantastic voice of reason in a baby culture gone mad, and will no doubt be raked across the coals if for nothing else than her statement, "When did 'women's rights' turn into the 'right to work'?" I had my first of three babies just over seven years ago. I have worked full time, part time and also stayed home full time. I have nursed, pumped, formula fed, counted days until I could supplement my ravenous boys with mush and told countless lies to pediatricians from Houston to Eugene. I have friends who home school, nurse their children on demand day and night into their third year and think bottles are akin to child abuse; at the opposite end I have friends who would never consider nursing, feel repulsed by the whole exercise and think there is nothing more appalling than a woman nursing in public; not to mention all the women in the middle. And, truthfully, I think that every one of us is just doing the best we can. No modern convenience can ever change the simple fact that parenting is just plain hard (punctuated, of course, by moments of wonderful).
I am young enough that the battle over ERA is a distant echo from my childhood, yet am in the first generation of women to live an entire lifetime in the post-feminist era. To me, the great gift of feminism is that I can choose the kind of life I want to live. It does not mean that because I can have it all that I am less of a woman if I do not want to have it all. It also does not mean that I am free from the consequences of my choices, nor is society at large. In not too many more years, an entire generation of children raised on a steady diet of text messaging, video games, day care and fast food will come of age: I am with Lepore in asserting that all the breast milk in the world, pumped or otherwise, cannot counteract the effects of all else they have been fed.
Science Teacher Mommy
Well, well, STM, that is all very nice, you are thinking. I've written letters to the editor before and they never get published, so I was mostly hoping that Ms. Lepore would see my response. I'm just needy enough to think that all writers are just like me--they MUST have feedback or feel like failures. Then, today, I opened my email to find out that they are actually going to publish my letter in next week's issue. A fact-checker is going to call me tomorrow to confirm a few details.
I know, I know, I could get published in the flippin' newspaper every week if I wanted to, but the letters generally published in TNY come from professionals in their fields with 12 letters after their names and titles before them. To even see my name in print in this magazine pretty much makes my whole day. Or maybe my week.