Incompetent? Moi?

Why do I go searching for trouble, looking for ways to get myself worked up? I don’t have an answer for that question, but I can try to combat the craziness here on Mom, JD.

The latest source of irksomeness comes courtesy of KJ Antonia over on Slate’s XX Factor blog (now of Motherlode). Seems like a year ago she blogged about a couple of “studies” looking at perceptions of breastfeeding mothers that led her to question her earlier choice to breastfeed three of her children for around one year each.

The blog post looks at two very small studies that seemed to suggest that people view breastfeeding mothers (or just people with breasts, i.e. women) as less competent. Apparently some of either 30 or 55 people would be less likely to hire a nursing woman. (I think the studies were so small that they hardly deserve to be called “studies” in any scientific sense.)

(For a much more reasonable look at the studies, see Jezebel’s take, which concludes that it’s actually the sexualization of breasts that led to these results & that normalizing breastfeeding is the appropriate response.)

As a nursing mother I’ve graduated law school, passed the bar, gotten hired for a pretty nifty job. Hmm… Not feeling so incompetent over here, even when my shirt is open & my nursling is attached.

In fact, while literally nursing my son I have worked out the particulars of my law school thesis, practiced in my head for a moot court competition & sorted out all types of legal issues for work.

Oh, and there’s this other minor little thing: I have provided nourishment to a small human being, helping him to grow physically & emotionally, in a way that has worked fore & my family. That makes me feel so not incompetent. It makes me feel like Wonder Woman.

(Not to downplay the tough times… Sometimes it makes me feel like screaming. Sometimes it makes me wonder if it will ever end. And, yes, sometimes it made me feel like a zombie. We all have those days… Whether we’re nursing or bottle feeding. But not once have I thought about how the, uh, finer points of breastfeeding might seem to a stranger.)

In a world where it’s still news that my breasts have the potential to make people think differently about me, the useful response would seem to be not to play into the stereotype.

But this is exactly what Antonia does. Buying into these prejudices by viewing ourselves as less competent, even if just adding a little light fluff to a blog post (as I imagine Antonia was doing) doesn’t help. As the researchers concluded (if you want to give any credence to these two tiny studies that probably involved only college students as “subjects”) women should breastfeed more, & more openly, to combat the stereotypes.

Antonia glosses over this point & concludes that maybe she should have just weaned her three breastfed infants sooner. Maybe… But I’m skeptical of this outcome as a general response to these types of “studies.”

According to the XX Factor blog post, breastfeeding mothers should take the prejudices into account. Really?! Since when did my decision to breastfeed have anything to do with anyone other than myself & my child?

Not to mention that Antonia completely overlooks the elephant in the room: Who is judging me? The jerk gawking at me across the restaurant? Some psych 101 student filling out a survey for $20? Forgive me for not caring.

My boss, my teachers, my clients, most of my colleagues… They have no idea of whether or not I breastfeed my son. Nor do they seem to care one way or the other.

What I do care about is how employers view pumping mothers (you, know, for those of us nursing mothers lucky enough to have gotten hired in the first place…). How do employers & colleagues view that “do not disturb” sign on the office door? What do they think when a nursing mother asks for a clean, quiet space to pump? How do they respond when a mother asks to break up her union-mandated lunch break into shorter pumping breaks?

If these people think a nursing, pumping mother is incompetent as a result of her exercising a statutory right, then I care. Then I think we need do do something. And I think the more our bosses & colleagues see nursing women, at a friend’s home, at a restaurant, on a park bench, the more normal nursing & pumping will seem (… though I’m not sure hooking one’s self up to a breast pump can ever seem or be “normal” to those of us who have had to suffer that fate…). And if they can see a nursing mom simultaneously nursing & holding an intelligent conversation, then, watch out!

I take Antonia’s point about the costs of breastfeeding (& also raised it in my response to Elisabeth Badinter’s Harper’s article). Weighing those costs led me to rely on pumped breast milk when it was time for me to continue my studies. Weighing those costs also led me to stop pumping short of T’s first birthday when pumping began to interfere with my school work beyond an acceptable level for me. (I long ago accepted that breastfeeding doesn’t have to be all or nothing… I only wish I had realized it sooner…) But Antonia doesn’t analyze “real” costs… She analyzes perceived stereotypes & insecurities.

When writers like Antonia declare that they think breastfeeding was a huge waste of their time, they just feed into the stereotypes. And they actually devalue the role a mother plays in the infant-child relationship (& by extension the work of raising children).

Like Badinter, Antonia seems to assume that she has better things to do with her time than nurse her babies (I use the term “nurse” to include breastfeeding & bottle nursing, since both require the time & partial attention of a caregiver). Sometimes I have had more pressing things to do. But slowing down enough to nourish my son when I can has been pretty darned important work. Not the end-all, be-all of our existence, but important nonetheless.

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Filed under Breastfeeding, Feminism, Lawyering, Mothering, School, Working

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