A Fool and Her Gender Studies

Here's a quietly dismal essay by a woman who teaches a "course on Gender and Society" at Grinnell, "Explaining why, next time, I won't breastfeed."

This woman breastfed her child for (as far as I can tell) a year, but has come to the conclusion that the price her family paid for that year was too high -- not because breastfeeding was too hard on her, but because not breastfeeding is too hard on her husband.  Breastfeeding, she says, gave her an unfair advantage where their son is concerned:

Now it’s a year later, and I don’t breastfeed anymore. But my son still prefers for me to read to him before bedtime, and to wake him up in the morning.

When he is feeling sick or skins his knees, it is me he rushes to for comfort. I did the work and now receive the rewards of being the skin, the smell, the face, the touch that is closest to him — and it is to me he rushes.

Over the years, my husband and I will work to unwind this preliminary advantage, but we could have avoided solidifying it if we had decided to use formula, or to pump and bottle feed our son.

I find it hard to even commit these words to the page, but I think she's saying that, because she spent so much time feeding, caressing, and snuzzling her little boy when he was a baby, he now runs to her when he wants comfort.  He likes her.  He finds his mother . . . motherly.

And this disturbs her.

She says,

For birth moms, we have this physically grounded centrality to the baby-making process that carries through birth. If we breastfeed we deepen rather than disrupt that primacy.


If we really want to address and redress the ongoing inequalities around the work of making life — the work of raising the next generation — then we have to look at breastfeeding. It’s one thing our bodies do that reinforces the social differences between men and women, moms and dads, and boys and girls.

What an overwhelming task, to unpack the many foolish errors presented here.

First, she assumes that a child's preference for one parent over the other, at any particular stage of development, is a sign that someone is the victim of sexism, rather than evidence that men and women are different -- and that kids need both.  (What will happen when her son gets a little older and turns to his dad for advice about bullies, or girls, or the indignities of puberty? Will Mr. Gender Studies pen an essay ruing those disastrous hours he spent playing football with her son, because of the socially imbalanced connection they formed?)

Second, she believes that, when someone enjoys an advantage over someone else, the solution to this inequity is to take the advantage away from everyone.  (In normal families, when the dad wants to feel more connected to his children, he goes ahead and spends more time with his children.  In this woman's world, though, the obvious solution is for the mother to spend less time.)

But what grieved me most about this essay is what she didn't say -- or, rather, what she didn't realize she was saying.   She begins sounding exactly like a gender studies professor, and she ends that way.  The writing is stilted, angular, and full of jargon:  she speaks of an " infrastructure for an unequal distribution of the work" and "restraints to women’s spatial mobility" (in layman's terms:  you have to sit down).

But somewhere in the middle of the essay, when she describes the actual experience of breastfeeding her little boy, she begins to actually compose.  Her writing takes on a rhythmic, lyrical quality -- just for a moment!  

Every time I got to breast feed him I was holding my son, singing, whispering, touching, and loving on my sweet little boy.

And then it descends back to jargon.

She is telling us, with her tone, so much more than she realizes: that she feels comfortable with motherhood, that nurturing comes naturally to her, that she enjoys taking care of a baby, and the baby loves her with all his baby heart, because she is his mama.

But all of her training tells her that these things add up to error.  She's been implanted with all sorts of false sensitivities, which tell her something is wrong -- even when everything is, by the standards and instinctive delights developed over the entire course of humanity, going just like it's supposed to go.

This is what happens when you study gender in isolation, like a bug in a petri dish, rather than approaching it in its natural habitat, which is a world oriented toward something higher than equity:  love.  Gender is not some kind of evolutionarily developed genetic strain that shifts and transforms according to the demands of society.  It's deeper than that.  The day-to-day specifics of gender roles can legitimately shift and change.  But when a mother feels guilty for feeling like a mother, then we've engineered the kind of problem that causes civilizations to fall.