Less than two years ago and a mere handful weeks after our son was born, my partner and I took our new baby to a faculty potluck. As might be expected, we were tired, we were struggling to figure out all the surprises of first-time parenthood, and we were learning daily the strange ways of being a same-sex couple with a baby in a very conservative small town in a very conservative state. This is a place that doesn’t recognize our marriage of nearly eight years and it is certainly not a place that recognizes my partner’s status as a parent, much less a mother (without the biological ‘connection’), or would consider granting her a second-parent adoption, which she should never have to seek in the first place as the only other parent our son has had since conception (and even before). So leaving that hostile environment outside for a safe faculty space inside seemed like a good idea. My partner strapped on our baby carrier, we loaded up the diaper bag, and we headed out for our first social function since our baby was born.
We had not been at the party five minutes when my partner ended up in a conversation with another female faculty member who had had a baby a few months before ours arrived and who also had her child nestled in a sling around her that evening. I went away to get us some food and came back to find my partner with a strained (and pained) look on her face and clearly eager for any excuse to leave the conversation. Part of me is glad now that I was not there to hear this other female faculty member turn to my partner as she got out our bottle of expressed milk and gasp in self-righteous indignation, “You aren’t breastfeeding?!” This might seem like a small statement (or accusation, to be more precise), but behind it lies a whole sea of nastiness and judgment and petty abuse from other mothers like this one. I have since daydreamed of having been there at that moment and punching this entitled, obnoxious woman in the face. No, my partner isn’t breastfeeding. She can’t. And thank you for reminding her of this fact when she is told every day by our culture, by our parents, by a tiny voice in her head that she isn’t really a mother without that biological tie. Of course, I’ve imagined many (what I think of as) biting comeback lines since this incident: “I know, why do you take your pre-Oedipal bliss and shove it up your tightly wound ass!” or perhaps the more direct, “I’ve got an idea; let’s say you mind your own fucking business.”
It boggles my mind to think of all the reasons why a new mother might not be breastfeeding and, therefore, might need you to keep your fucking mouth shut. Maybe she got an infection and can’t breastfeed because of the pain. Maybe she’s not producing enough milk and has to supplement with formula. Maybe her baby rejected her breast for whatever reason. Maybe she’s a single working mother who either cannot or chooses not to breastfeed and pump because of the incredible constraints on her time. Maybe (if you can wrap your tiny head around this) she’s an adoptive mother and is bonding with her baby though bottle feedings. All of these reasons and more cause so many women whom I know personally or have met through their writings to feel incredible sorrow, shame, and self-loathing. They feel less than women, less than mothers, or failures at the very start of the long, challenging road of parenthood. Many of them are professional women and/or academics who waited because of career goals to have a baby and who struggled just to conceive in the first place, much less take the baby to term. I know many academic women who wanted to have children and have lost their chance or who are still waiting, hoping. And now to top it all off, they have to listen to your blind ignorance, your ridiculous insensitivity, and your just plain cruel, self-involved bullshit. Maybe this new mother just didn’t want to breastfeed or pump and is giving her child perfectly good formula. Isn’t that her decision to make? I can’t believe I’m saying this in 2013, but isn’t it her body to do with as she sees fit?
In the short time I’ve been a parent, I have gotten unsolicited and, frankly, unnecessary advice on breastfeeding, on car carriers, on what I eat, on what the baby eats, on when the baby should sleep, on when I should sleep, on how to carry the baby, on where to send the baby to school. And all of it, I mean all of it, is meant to discipline me through shame, senseless competition, and insidious ‘well-meaning’ disapproval. Is the woman who said this to my partner and who has since offered innumerable pieces of unwanted ‘advice’ and ‘expertise’ an academic? Yes. Is she an avowed feminist? Yes. Was she, in that moment, more of a harm and antagonist to me and my partner than any person we have met on the streets or in the doctor’s offices and shops of our small, conservative town? Yes.
Somewhere, somehow, they have managed to divide us yet again with this bankrupt and many times deconstructed myth of motherhood. Mother and child union. The perfect bliss that only a mother can know. An attachment that is more important than your partner, than your job, than you. It’s like not being able to wake up from some patriarchal wet dream of the ‘appropriate’ relationship between mother and child with a voiceover narration by a supposed female ally. Or, someone’s cast me unwillingly in the role of Steinbeck’s Rose of Sharon and my director is one of these hellish, arrogant sanctimommies. How did this essentialist nonsense come back with such a vengeance? And shouldn’t we be committed with every atom inside us to destroy it once again. For my partner. For my friends. For women, period.
Barbara Jane Brickman teaches at the University of Alabama where she will begin an assistant professorship in Media and Gender Studies this fall. Her book, New American Teenagers: The Lost Generation of Youth in 1970s Film, was published by Continuum Press in 2012.