Breast is Best Fundamentalism, Take 1

21 Nov

I read this article at work this past Saturday about a topic that has been bothering me on and off for the past 6 months or so:  the so-called “Breast is Best” movement.  I am going to treat this as the first of a series of posts on this topic with the hope that I come back to it on other occasions.  No promises.  Also, I get there, as usual, via a rather winding road so bear with me.  Okay, here goes.

In the article, titled “After Hurricane Sandy, Helping Hands Also Expose a New York Divide,” author Sarah Maslin Nir discusses the post-Sandy emergence (or really highlighting), of a racial and financial divide between those largely seeking help and those providing it.  In Nir’s own words,

Hurricane Sandy, the cliché of the moment goes, created a city of haves and have-nots; those New Yorkers with power and heat and the many other assurances of modern life, and those without. But the storm simply made plain the dividing lines in a city long fractured by class, race, ethnicity, geography and culture.

We are a diverse city.  We are a city that has come a very long way.  But we are no means existing in some utopia I have heard people describe as a “post-racial society.”  So here we are, a few weeks out of Sandy, looking at who needs help and who is in a position to provide it.  Help.  It’s an interesting conundrum and one worth thinking about.  I remember taking a class in high school that talked a lot about aid and charity and wondering why, if we have it we can’t just give it.  Why should donating my time and money be such a weighted issue?  Why can’t it just be easy?  As I got older I started thinking about all the different nuances of help.  What’s the difference — racially, culturally, geographically, financially, historically — between those who need and those who provide?  I started realizing that I have to put the idea of help into a much larger conversation, one about race and class, about access and opportunity, about history.  I also realized I had to start thinking about motives.  For some, donating time and money might just be about responding to the obvious.  It might be about acknowledging a need and addressing it.  For others, though, it’s all about what helping says about you, how it can help you, what you can gain from it.  For some, it’s about some sort of incredibly problematic curiosity.  Again, in Nir’s words:

Those coming to (the volunteers) for relief worry that their helpers are taking some voyeuristic interest in their plight, treating it as an exotic weekend outing, “like we’re in a zoo,” said one resident of a Rockaway project — echoing a complaint often heard in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina — as volunteers snapped iPhone photos of her as she waited in line for donated food and clothing.

I honestly can’t even talk about this paragraph.  Okay, I sort of will.  First of all, who does that?  And what do those people do, run back to their friends and show them pictures of those “poor, poor people?”  Then they talk about how, “oh, it was just so awful how those people are forced to live but I mean, look at the lines in her face?  Isn’t it also sort of beautiful?”  I just made myself throw up in my mouth a little.  Sometimes I think that in this world of technology and smart phones and Instagram and whatever else we all just think we are observers rather than active participants.  Or that when we are looking at our phone, when we are doing things in our personal internet space, that we are no longer visible to others, that our actions no longer impact those around us.  Well, I can tell you that just because you are looking at someone through the lens of your camera phone does not mean they cannot see you.  They see you and they think you are an asshole.  You’re there to supposedly help, not to help yourself to images of people’s lives.  Get a clue.

Anyway, I got off topic.  To the point! So, this:

As she gave out diapers and cases of infant formula to storm victims, Bethany Yarrow, 41, a folk singer from Williamsburg who has been volunteering with other parents from the private school her children attend, said she was shocked by the many poor mothers in the Arverne section of the Rockaways who did not breast feed. The group, she said, was working on bringing in a lactation consultant.

“So that it’s not just ‘Here are some diapers and then go back to your misery,’ ” she said. (Bold text mine.)

(Deep breathing exercises.)  I want to start by saying the following thing:  fuck you, Bethany Yarrow.  Seriously.  Bethany Yarrow, you have no idea what you are talking about.  How dare you presume to know anything about how the residents of the Rockaways live.  How dare you assume that, without your help and your “lactation consultant” that they live in “misery.”  That sort of thinking is exactly the problem.  Let me just travel down here in my big, fancy SUV and wave my magic milk wand and make your lives like mine, which is so wonderful and blessed.

So there are a few things.  Women, in general, are smart.  IQ smart or not, there is a desire, within most parents I would say, for their children to do well, to have all the possible opportunities available, to be happy and healthy.   Women care about their children and they want the best for them.  That means that they make the best decisions for them based off of their lives, their information, their opportunities.  To assume that poor women do not consider different options is simply incorrect.  But also, to assume they have the same abilities and constraints to come to the same conclusions as their financially wealthy peers is also incorrect, woefully so.  Bethany Yarrow is a folk singer.  I imagine that in her specific career, for the most part, she is able to make her own schedule, meaning the ability to be around to breast feed her children when they are hungry.  If she isn’t able to be around, I imagine that she is able to pump.  Good for Bethany Yarrow.  The conversation about breast feeding is contingent on other things than simply personal preference.  It exists within a bigger context.  (Let’s put aside the women who are unable to produce enough milk to sufficiently feed their children.)  A lot of women have to work in order to provide for their families.  A lot of jobs don’t provide maternity leave, pumping rooms, child care.  So is it your belief, Bethany Yarrow, that women should forgo their paycheck in order to breast feed their children?  That doesn’t seem like a particularly realistic solution.  Is your lactation consultant somehow going to change the perception of women in the workplace?  Not only is the system not set up for women generally, but it is not set up for poor women and it is certainly not set up for pregnant and nursing women.  Being the giver of life gets in the way of productivity and efficiency.

I am going to make a maybe unpopular comparison.  When all of us talk about a woman’s right to choose in the abortion context we are operating under a certain set of assumptions.  We are assuming that women are capable of making important decisions.  We are assuming that women know what is best for them, their bodies, their families.  We are assuming that women have access to clinics, for the making of a decision to even be possible.  Those assumptions should hold true regardless the topic at hand across the board, no matter the color of skin, the god(s) worshiped or not believed in, the economic position.  That means that all women, yes, even poor women of color Bethany Yarrow, are capable of making a decision about whether they want to breast feed and, perhaps more importantly, whether it is even possible for them.  Maybe they, like women living in North Dakota with its lack of abortion clinics, aren’t in a position to even make a choice about their own bodies because the resources they need to make those choices are not available to them.  I just don’t see how women being condescending and forcing their own values on other women in the sphere of breast feeding is any different, on an intellectual level, from male politicians forcing their pro-life agenda on all of us.  It takes away control over our own lives and bodies and it ignores realities of the world.

So, Bethany Yarrow and friends, think before you decide to help.  Think before you assume that your lactation consultant is either welcome or appropriate.  Maybe use your “good intentions” to advance the conversation about requiring break rooms for breast feeding women, protecting the rights of women working in minimum and hourly-wage jobs, and listening to those around you.  Your approach to parenting might be the best for you, but it isn’t the best, or even possible, for everyone.  Look around yourself and figure it out.  Because, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

7 Responses to “Breast is Best Fundamentalism, Take 1”

  1. creatingcarrie November 21, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

    And the Bethany Yarrow’s of the world don’t even have to think before they act; they just have to ASK. have a conversation. find out if these women want to breastfeed, and if so, what prevents them from doing so. i am guilty of this too, but we of privilege have got to unlearn “finding the problem” (based on our lives) and then “providing the solution” (based on our lives). we probably have to unlearn that for the rest of our lives.

    • FranklyRebekah November 21, 2012 at 2:24 pm #

      That is fantastically said. And so incredibly true. I know I also am guilty of this same thing at times, it’s hard not to be when we are raised in a specific context with a certain appreciation of our own, for lack of a better word, exceptionalism. I also, thankfully, have had enough presence of mind (or luck) to not have my lack of awareness immortalized in a newspaper. Let’s hope it stays that way.

      • creatingcarrie November 21, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

        let’s create a 12-step program for overcoming imperialistic thinking!

      • FranklyRebekah November 21, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

        Franksgiving project!!!!

      • creatingcarrie November 21, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

        we would spend frankgiving figuring out how to stick it to the kyriarchy. 🙂

  2. jillhru November 24, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    Great post! This was pretty much my reaction when I read that article that you put so beautifully into words. Like, go fuck yourself, Bethany Yarrow, you condescending yup-tastic bitch.

    • FranklyRebekah November 24, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

      Yea, and you know what I found out that makes it even better? She is Peter Yarrow’s daughter, as in Peter of Peter, Paul and Mary. Guess it makes my reluctant assessment that she has money seem slightly more likely, huh?

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