The photo of Jamie Lynne Grumet and her 3-year old son, Aram, on the cover of the May 21 Time magazine seems to have inspired an almost endless amount of commentary about how we in the US feel about breastfeeding beyond the first or second year, children sleeping in the family bed, and (implicitly) the related questions of sex and desire. I hesitate to think what would have happened if the Time photographer had photographed her with her oldest son, Samuel, who she is also still breastfeeding–who was adopted from Ethiopia. Can you imagine? For all the hoopla about whether Grumet is thinking clearly about the effect on Aram of this kind of (over-)exposure in a sexualized pose, she’s clearly setting some limits on how her family is going to channel the national Id (Samuel wasn’t on the Today Show, either). She’s willing to be a provocation for a conversation about extended breastfeeding, but not adoption or race.
In spite of myself, I find I like Grumet. She may be a gun-owning, evangelical Christian, stay-at-home, transracially adopting mom who is trying to save children with an NGO, the epitome of the kind of people I think are engaged in a culture war against feminists, queer folk, working moms, those of us who believe that the state has an obligation to people, and the postcolonial and anti-racist account of how intercultural adoption is both potentially exploitative and definitely produces impure and hybrid families, but she won’t stay true to type. She’s smart, sexy, and often vaguely feminist. She celebrated “Ethiopian Christmas” on January 6. She blogs against racism and homophobia. She posts drink recipes, refers to her husband as a stud-muffin, and worries about people deciding to adopt because they were inspired by Angelina Jolie. She has an edge.
Interestingly, I don’t like Elisabeth Badinter nearly as much, the self-described feminist whose book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, recently translated from the French, argues against exactly the kind of mothering Grumet stands for. Badinter argues that French motherhood, long protected from the very US American idea that “the ideal mother is enmeshed with her child bodily and mentally,” is under threat from a “new essentialism” that exalts breastfeeding, cloth diapers, and maternal instincts. Where French mothers have long been able to enjoy smoking, drinking, sex, and careers unencumbered by this kind of emmeshment with children and maternity, this standard is now endangered.
I’ve never personally wanted to breastfeed–I was horrified when our reprotech doctor suggested I consider taking hormones so I could breastfeed after my partner gave birth to our baby (what is the point of being a lesbian if not to divide that labor according to who wants to do it?). Still, what has struck me about breastfeeding since our son was born is how very difficult it is to do–that everything from hospital practice to obscenity statutes to workplace culture mitigates against it. I’m sympathetic to Badinter’s complaints about what she calls “the ayatollahs of breastfeeding”–though I would pointedly rephrase that in a less racist way as “the fascists of breastfeeding.” But it seems to me that this perfectly emblematic of the double-bind of motherhood: you have to breastfeed whether you want to or not or you’re a jerk and a bad mother who is going to consign your child to a lifetime of bad health, obesity, and cancer, but you can’t because you have to work and will get chided for doing it in public because breasts make us think about sex especially when your child is older and breast pumps suck (in every way) and the only place you can pump is in the bathroom which is unsanitary and possibly so horrifying that your milk won’t even let down.
In fact, both “sides” of the Grumet vs. Badinter debate reek of the double-binds of maternity. Since the 1970s, declining real wages in the US have meant that for a steadily increasing percentage of the population, having a middle-class existence (or sometimes even bare survival) means having two adults in the workforce. While by 1980, the majority of mothers of preschoolers worked out of the home, the US American work place has not changed to accommodate mothers, or parents in general. In fact, US Americans on average are working more, not fewer, hours than we were in the 1970s. So we have a lot of small people who need full-time attention to manage basic safety and bodily functions, a society that benefits from the unpaid labor of parents–we do collectively have an investment in reproducing ourselves, after all–and what is our plan for who is going to watch the children? With a few interesting exceptions (see Madeleine Kunin on Oklahoma and California), we haven’t publicly subsidized daycare since World War II (when Roosevelt did), and daycare costs are astronomical–the not-great one down the street from me, the one with hardly any books costs more than my tuition, room, and board at a fancy private college did in the 1980s. And Jerry Brown is proposing to end subsidized daycare in California. We don’t even have federally mandated paid sick days. So, basically, the expectation is that it will all come out of mothers’ hides–in unpaid days off, jobs lost, not enough sleep. Or, mothers will work part-time or be underemployed while their children are young–which many have argued is the underlying cause of the drastic difference between men’s and women’s wages, to say nothing of the appalling rates of female poverty at all phases of the life cycle, but especially in old age, when all those years of not contributing to a pension or earning Social Security really bites you. And given that school gets out at 2 or 3, and half-days and school holidays are as common as dirt, have “young” children encompasses the entire period until they are old enough to look after themselves (which I think is actually 30; let me tell you about my 24-year old…).
Basically, we’ve privatized the reproduction problem. Increasingly, mothers are delaying childbearing until their late 20s, 30s, and even 40s, hoping to be established enough in a career or even a job to have some flexibility to have a child…which in turn has given us rising rates of infertility and impaired fertility. The other common “private” solution is the nanny, whose wages are lower (or more “competitive”) if she’s an undocumented immigrant who has left her children in her home country. We’ve not only privatized the problem, we’ve transnationalized it. Should it surprise us that our family policy resembles our corporate culture?
So while I agree on some level with Forbes guest blogger Helaine Olen about attachment parenting being the opposite of something one could do with a job, I also think we should be furious about the impossibility of combining work and children. I don’t think Badinter’s clarity and polemic on the subject gets us where we want to be. What I keep thinking about in all of this is early 20th century feminist advocates of the eight-hour day and an end to child labor. People like Jane Addams, who imagined eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for family and community. Not just parents but everyone has, or ought to have, an investment in leisure, in work and activism to build better communities. We need to find ways of saying “enough” to the demand that we work all the time, and begin to imagine a world where decent wages AND motherhood, health care, pensions, AND leisure, can coexist. That, it seems to me, is the core issue about the cultural politics of breastfeeding.
Happy mother’s day.