News & Politics

Tough Titty: On Feminist Mothering and the Breastfeeding Doll

Is the breastfeeding doll that has conservatives in a tizzy perpetuating sexist notions about natural gender roles and "good" mothering practices?

Dolls and doll-play have been a long-standing point of entry into discussions about the social construction of race and gender. My mother and grandmother certainly invested in all of the latest doll trends of the 1980s when I was a child—I had Cabbage Patch, Kid Sister (though he’d deny it, my cousin Chad had a My Buddy doll and lots of masculine “action figures”), Black Barbie, anatomically correct newborn twins, and the coveted Betsey Wetsey, which peed all over my bestfriend Amanda’s bedspread at a sleepover.

 

In my Intro to Women’s Studies classes, pointing to the gendered implications of toy choice—i.e. little girls are given dolls and little boys trucks or trains—opens my students eyes to just how early gender socialization starts.

Enter the breastfeeding doll.

My first reaction when I saw the video was “Oh, hell no! My future daughter will not be socialized to think about her breasts’ mothering potential before she even grows them.” Just like I won’t teach my daughter that the sole function of her period is to make her capable of becoming someone’s mama. Her breasts tell her things about her own health and development. They also can be a source of pleasure, both cosmetic and sexual. Her menstrual cycle, not just her period, is about the whole of her sexual and reproductive health. Her vagina both eliminates waste and facilitates pleasure. I don’t want my future daughter’s self-conception to be reduced to or primarily shaped by her female anatomy and its biological functions.

More than my ambivalence about the gendered futures we create for our children while they are still in utero (hence our obsession with knowing a baby’s sex), the doll also speaks to my general ambivalence around breastfeeding (and perhaps mothering). During a rousing FB conversation about this the other day, while there was no consensus about the doll– Some mothers thought it would be an excellent way to help their daughters understand what they saw their mother’s doing for them or younger siblings; Others shared my concern about socializing their daughters too early—there was a resounding consensus that breastfeeding is preferable.

All the feminist mamas I know breastfeed. For that matter, most of my FB friends breastfeed, no matter race or political belief. What most mothers indicated was that breastfeeding had various health and emotional benefits for their children and them; the challenge many of them suggested was being employed at places that didn’t allow them to pump, or dealing with family members grossed out by the sight of their breasts, or other clearly sexist social taboos.

But the question I’m asking is really a more basic one: “What if I simply don’t want to do it?” I have the creeping suspicion that for those of us, including myself, who are now clear about the completely undeniable health benefits of breast milk, particularly in light of the healthy and organic food movement, our assent to this fact is supposed to be coupled with our automatic consent to breastfeed. It’s like the same problematic logic among Black women in the natural hair debate–”You know how damaging the “creamy crack” is. So why would you continue to get expensive perms (relaxers)? You must hate yourself.” Well, what if the answer as many of my permed-out homegirls continue to argue is simply “convenience. Manageability. Personal notions of beauty.”I rock a natural, but I’m not hatin on the sisters who don’t; nor do I automatically think they must hate themselves. In the same vein, the breastfeeding convo sounds something like, “You know it’s healthier for babies, and it’s healthier for you. And it’s much cheaper. Good mothers do what’s best for their children. ” By implication, bad mothers make choices out of convenience. After offering nine months of free rent, bad mothers selfishly want their kids off the titty so they “can have their bodies back.”

One FB commenter explained to me that motherhood wasn’t on her five year plan because she doesn’t feel she can make the sacrifices in terms of body and career in order to do it. I share this attitude, which is why B.C. does not only refer to the initials in my government name.

(Perhaps after these latest recommendations, it won’t continue to cost me a grip.)

But there was a not-so-subtle implication in her comment that if I wasn’t ready to breastfeed, then this probably means I’m not ready to make the sacrifices required for my child, and hence unready to mother.

I’m not ready to mother (other than the communal mothering I participate in with the CF babies). But even when (and if) I get ready, I reject the notion that my readiness will be signaled by my willingness to breastfeed.

Feminists have long questioned the all encompassing premise that motherhood is about sacrificing one’s own self to “do what’s best for the child.” We have rejected this notion when it comes to the prosecution and incarceration of drug-addicted mothers. We have rejected this logic in the abortion debate. But we have been curiously silent of late on the resurgence of this logic in the national breast-feeding conversation.

But social policy is actively being shaped to both support breastfeeding (which is not a problem) and compel breastfeeding (which is a problem.)

The new Obama healthcare law mandates that employers provide non-bathroom based lactation stations for nursing mothers. The IRS has ruled that breast pumps and other lactation materials are tax write-offs. These moves should be lauded.

Michelle Obama has made breastfeeding a tenet of her anti-obesity campaign, arguing that breastfed children have a lower tendency toward obesity.

One of my students informed me that the WIC program, which provides infant formula, has started to reduce the cans of milk given to mothers in order to “encourage” mothers to supplement with breast milk. Any time the state regulates motherhood based on notions of what is natural and normal and in ways that require increased bodily labor for women, it gives me pause.

Gender socialization, uncompensated bodily labor, and maternal sacrifice are all heady topics that must be a part of the feminist mothering conversation. It goes without saying that I want any future children I have to be healthy. so I’ll definitely consider breastfeeding. But even as I acknowledge that food is a feminist issue, I would caution us to figure out ways to support the healthy food movement and be in coalition with it, without reinscribing dangerously gendered (and sexist) notions about natural gender roles and good and bad mothering practices.

So a few questions, Crunk Fam:

What are your thoughts on breastfeeding?

Would you give your daughter this doll?

Can you be a good mother and admit you may not want to breastfeed?

And more to the point, though I never thought I’d have to ask this question, can you be a good feminist and admit you may not want to breastfeed?