I am now 8.5 weeks postpartum (with a 2 month old baby)! I am making this post Part 3 of The Pregnant Feminist Series, although I no longer pregnant (obviously). Perhaps I will become one of those “mommy bloggers” and do my next series on diapers or something (that was a joke…sort of). Meanwhile, I invite you to see also Part 1: The Feminist’s Pregnant Body and The Public and Part 2: The Pregnant Feminist and her Social Life.
Part 3: The Postpartum Feminist and the New Normal
I said it in Part 1, but there is no better time then when you actually have a baby in hand to reaffirm that motherhood is feminism’s final frontier. The gender-typing started when I was pregnant, which I mistakenly assumed was a transient state, like the pregnancy. Oh, was I disheartened to find that it was greatly exacerbated once my little bundle of joy graced us with her presence. The New Normal.
I had taken it badly when I was told that the men in my family weren’t going to be interested in coming to the baby shower. It’s a woman thing, I was told. I protested and insisted that if calling it a baby shower meant that the men wouldn’t come, let’s call it a family baby party or something – find a way to make the arrival of a new member of the family something that would actually concern the whole family and not just its female representatives. I was thrilled when the men showed up! Well, most of them at least (all the ones that counted, for sure).
I had managed to break free from the shackles of gender roles! Temporarily…
While pregnant, my partner and I had often lamented the fact that it had to be me that was pregnant. Not that I didn’t want to be pregnant – in fact, I ended up loving the experience and can’t wait to do it again – but rather the frustration stemmed from the lack of choice in the matter. Silly, I know, but feminists are big on choice, you see.
Now that our daughter has been born, traditional gender roles have been sneaking up and tackling us, in spite of ourselves.
The first visit to the pediatrician felt strange until we realized that every time my husband asked a question, the doctor looked at me and answered. I thought she was going to report me to the DPJ (Child Protective Services here in Quebec) when I mentioned that I was not taking the full year of maternity leave that we have the right to in Canada. In fact, I am going back to work 2 days after my daughter turns 3 months old. WHY, she asked me emphatically, to which I found myself frantically attempting to justify reasons that are personal, individual, and frankly, none of her business! And she has not been the only one to have this visceral response at what I feel is a private family matter. I have explained over and over that…*gasp*… my husband is the one who will be staying home with the baby.
One could claim that taking a “short” mat leave is a cultural thing, or merely a matter of perspective. Millions of women in the USA go back to work mere weeks after giving birth – although it could be said they have no choice. Since I have the choice, it must be because I don’t want to spend time with my baby. My maternal mechanism must be somehow skewed or altogether broken.
But that’s not the only new-baby-ism that has confounded my couple’s feminist values. Do breastfeeding and feminism have anything to do with one another?
I asked this question to my husband just the other day. His reply was categorical: “No!”
While pregnant, my partner and I had discussed at great length our plans for feeding our daughter once she would be born. I wanted to try nursing for a variety of reasons. Research-based evidence in hand, I easily convinced him that breastfeeding is the best possible option for our child’s health (with health benefits for Mom, too! – I will post a feminist-approved resource list one day). The decision was an intellectual one, based primarily on health. My husband was concerned about the bonding part of things, and so we agreed that I would express my milk some of the time so that he could participate in feeding and connecting with our child as well. It all made so much sense.
Nursing my daughter has been one of the biggest challenges and most rewarding experiences of my life. It blows my mind.
It blows my mind because it came as a big surprise to me – that it would be challenging…or rewarding…or anything, really. I’m not sure why, but I hadn’t really even thought about how I would feel about it. It was just an action that I was going to perform, for health reasons. Well, it turns out that I have a LOT of feelings about nursing. In fact, I feel that it has changed me as a person.
My nursing relationship with my daughter started out with a lot of difficulty. I have since learned that this is an experience common to many women. In spite of the fact that there is a ton of information out there, the majority of what you find is anecdotal. In my frustration while googling about one day, I exclaimed, “Why is there no good information on the internet about breastfeeding other than all these grammatically offensive forums!” My husband noted that we live in a “mother knows best” culture. I’m supposed to know everything I need to know by instinct. Which is the hugest motherhood myth ever.
My body and spirit were ravaged by our initial attempts at nursing. My morale was seriously flagging as I dealt with the discomfort of recovering from a vaginal birth, and the blinding pain of bruised and bleeding nipples during the relentless feedings every 2-3 hours around the clock, day in and day out. I hadn’t slept longer than an hour or two at a time for weeks on end. I felt so isolated and exhausted in the middle of the night all alone with this little being that was losing too much weight and just wanted to eat – causing me toe curling pain – and I was the only one who could do it. What’s worse, I was starting to feel terrified of my baby, when everyone around me was saying, “How are you enjoying being a new mother? She’s such a joy!” When feeding time came around, I wanted to run and hide! Mixing up some formula and having my husband get up in the frightening wee hours seemed like a brilliant idea. Feedings turned into a team effort. My husband would accompany me with each feeding, cheering me on and offering support.
Fortunately, in Quebec, free access to a lactation consultant is included in your health care coverage. Without the guidance provided by the wonderful nurses and LCs at my local CLSC (community medical clinic), I am nearly positive that I would have given up on breastfeeding within a few weeks of my daughter’s birth. In fact, I’m not sure what kept me from preparing that bottle of formula. Sheer stubbornness, I guess, that did eventually pay off. We devised strategies to enable us to keep at it – using an electric pump to increase my milk supply, feeding her with a cup or spoon or finger-feeding when I was too painful or exhausted to nurse, introducing a bottle with Papa and my expressed milk one feeding per day so that I could recover.
It worked. Nursing has since become a pleasurable experience for everyone involved; a great source of love, tenderness and intimacy. We have even revised our objectives to try to continue breastfeeding for a year + instead of the initial let’s give it a whack for six months and see how it goes. Right now I can’t imagine not nursing my daughter! I plan on expressing my milk after going back to work and hope to continue our nursing relationship and providing her with the best possible nutrition for as long as possible.
At first blush, I thought that my husband was right: breastfeeding and feminism have nothing to do with one another. It does force us into certain roles in the eyes of society and certain members of our entourage. Also, formula is often seen as a way of “liberating” the woman from her traditional role as primary caregiver of the child. Anyone can prepare a bottle of formula and thus provide for one of the most important basic needs of baby. In fact, Mom isn’t even required at all in the formula-fed baby’s life structure.
But is simply removing the mother from the picture really liberating her?
Perhaps for some women having the ability to not be required for baby’s care is empowering. To me, breastfeeding is incredibly empowering. I alone have the power to nourish my child with my amazing body. It is a way to assert control over my body and reclaim my breasts, sexualized by the patriarchy, and render them purposeful and essential. I feel powerful in the face of a consumer culture that wants me to believe that a commercial preparation could be anywhere near as healthy and appropriate for my baby as my own perfect free amazing milk. Going back to work and continuing to nurse is also an inherently feminist act, and not simply by virtue of role-switching with my husband: I can have the career that I want and care for my child the way that I want.
The Postpartum New Normal
It is no lie when they say that having a baby changes everything. You formulate an entirely new identity in relationship to all of the newness. Now to just keep reminding myself that the new normal does not have to mean abandoning all of the old normal. You just try things, go with what feels right, and trust yourself!