Breastfeeding and Capitalism: A Provocation


National Breastfeeding Month ended yesterday. So did Black Breastfeeding Week. World Breastfeeding Week was apparently at the beginning of August. Over the course of the month, I read and heard a lot of stuff that made me angry and sad and confused: medical professionals promoting breastfeeding with a disturbing prescriptive zeal, mothers pointing to their bleeding nipples as evidence of a glorious martyrdom, other mothers and doctors claiming that breastfeeding is already mainstream, that it needs no further promotion or celebration, that to do so is to shame parents who feed their infants formula, white mothers claiming that Black Breastfeeding Week was unnecessary. In the middle of all of this I sort of started to wean my daughter, who turned two smack in the middle of World Breastfeeding Month, and I cried a lot, and I sort of stopped weaning, and felt weird about that, too. I wanted to write something about these thoughts and feelings. A manifesto, or a well-researched, well-reasoned essay about how we’re living at a historical moment when parents are shamed for formula feeding and for breastfeeding; the precise level of shame may vary by region or race or ethnicity or socioeconomic background, but in my experience you can feel deeply ashamed of both of these choices in the same city, the same neighborhood, the same pediatrics practice. (Oh wait, did I say that this is a historical moment when an issue primarily affecting women results in the shaming of women’s bodies and the removal of their agency? Ha ha ha ha. Sorry, I meant to say, Infant feeding is primarily a women’s issue, so of course it’s a fucking nightmare.) I always stopped, too daunted to grapple with the tangle of social, cultural, emotional, biological, economic, and public-health issues surrounding infant feeding. Now Breastfeeding Month is over and I’m swamped with work and I definitely don’t have time to work out a nuanced response to “The Skeptical OB”’s kind of horrifying dismissal of breastfeeding advocacy, or the weird structure of the Wikipedia page about breastfeeding (they start telling you The Way You Should Do It in the second sentence). I just have time for a provocation, followed by a rant. Here it is:

DID YOU NOTICE that breastfeeding was only allowed to return to the mainstream when it could be fully integrated into capitalism?

But really it could be just that as soon as breastfeeding became socially and medically acceptable again, it had to be assimilated into capitalism. Either way, breastfeeding, which can seem like a kind of escape from the market, from consumerism (there’s no schedule! there’s nothing to buy!) is now philosophically and materially woven into the fabric of American late-stage capitalism. No, wait, woven sounds too gentle and supportive. Breastfeeding is jammed, invisibly but uncomfortably, into the gears of late-stage capitalism, getting a little crushed and a little shredded, but basically part of the machine, not necessarily slowing down the works, but maybe making it even more uncomfortable for the workers to operate.

Forget my terrible analogy. Let’s move on to a Short and Biased History of Infant Feeding as Understood By Me as a New Mother in 2013:


Human breastmilk was the only food available for newborn babies until the middle of the nineteenth century. Before that, babies who had lost their mothers and didn’t have access to a wet nurse could be “brought up by hand,” or spoon-fed gruel, but their mortality rates were extremely high–one reason everyone in Great Expectations is so impressed that little orphaned Pip was raised from infancy by his older sister. So the development of the first workable infant formulas in the nineteenth century saved the lives of countless children. Of course, it also made it even easier for everybody to decide that women’s bodies were gross, at least when they were doing stuff and not being sexily or artistically nude, and that breastfeeding was unrefined, and that Male Doctors And Scientists Were The Best and Everything Your Grandma Told You Was Wrong. After World War II, women were discouraged from breastfeeding and encouraged to feed their babies space-age, scientifically-balanced formula. And then in the 60s all the hippies wanted to go back to nature, so they started breastfeeding again, and more and more of our hippie-turned-yuppie-thirtysomething moms were doing it in the 70s and 80s, but by that point the Evil Formula Companies had a stranglehold on maternity wards and were bribing obstetricians and pediatricians and sending mothers home with gift bags full of formula, and also the culture of breastfeeding had been destroyed so nobody knew how to do it, and everybody was embarrassed to breastfeed in public because 1) breasts had been newly sexualized by porn and 2) women were used to doing things in public now and not just hiding in parlors and bathing machines and stuff like they did in the ages before formula was invented. But our pioneering hippie moms and older sisters worked hard to normalize breastfeeding again, and meanwhile a bunch of New Science showed that the Science of the Past Was Arrogant and Wrong, that although breastmilk was no longer the only food for babies it was still the perfect food for babies, that breastfed babies were healthier and happier and smarter (which in new-parent talk means they will grow up to go to Harvard) (which is good, I think, because it means they will become rich?) and skinnier, which, oh my God, do you remember what Wallis Simpson said? That a baby can never be too rich or too thin? Also breastfeeding makes the moms thin, even, and rich, because formula is expensive, and also breastfeeding mothers are less likely to get postpartum depression and breast cancer, and wow! If you aren’t breastfeeding your baby you should basically admit to yourself that you want you and your baby to be poor and fat and dead, said the lady who taught my prenatal breastfeeding class (I paraphrase). Anyway, the conventional wisdom is that now we understand that Breast is Best. Everyone understands. Your obstetrician will tell you to breastfeed. Your pediatrician will tell you to breastfeed. Mommy blogs will tell you to breastfeed. Well-meaning Facebook friends will tell you to breastfeed. “Hang in there, mama!” Random strangers who see you feeding your baby with a bottle will apparently tell you to breastfeed. We have all seen the light, and we have driven back the evil forces of Enfamil and Similac, with their Bad Science and their Profit Motive.

Which is true, kinda. I’m sure Enfamil and Similac are evil corporations, because corporations tend to be evil. But what’s concealed beneath the surface of this narrative, in which the natural goodness of a mother’s breast defeats the artificial powders and plastic accessories of Corporate America, is the fact that if we’re experiencing the apotheosis of breastfeeding, it’s an apotheosis carefully and discreetly packaged for its implementation within the white-collar workforce, accompanied by a slew of consumer products, billable services, and entrepreneurial opportunities.


To breastfeed successfully today, you need all kinds of equipment and accessories: A comfortable rocking chair. A nursing pillow. Several nursing bras. Convenient nursing tanks and dresses and blouses. A nursing cover, so you can discreetly nurse in public. Disposable nursing pads to absorb leaks. Various soothing creams and lotions to help you recover from chapped nipples. Nipple shields, in case you have flat nipples. A hospital-grade pump. A bag for your pump, with a power cord and built-in milk cooler. Bottles and bags for your pumped milk. Ice packs. Bottles to feed the baby your pumped milk. A pumping bra, for hands-free pumping when you go back to work. A car charger for your pump, so you can pump when you go back to work. Mobile apps to help you keep track of how long the baby nursed at each breast, and how frequently, and how much she weighs, and how long she naps. Books, books, books, books, books. Before you have the baby, you can take breastfeeding classes to practice holding your baby to the breast in the correct position. You can hire a postpartum doula to help you give breastfeeding the best possible start. If breastfeeding isn’t going well, you can hire a board-certified lactation consultant to help you figure out what’s wrong. If your nipples are bleeding and the baby isn’t gaining weight, you can take her to a pediatrician who will happily snip the frenulum under her tongue.

Even more than this vast apparatus of stuff and services–some of which is covered by insurance (home insurance, partially, too), much of which provides valuable support and relief for women who really want to breastfeed–it’s the language with which we talk about breastfeeding, the philosophy we attach to it, that ties it to capitalism. The language of mainstream American breastfeeding in 2015 is a language of alienated labor, of self-denial, of production goals and deadlines and returns-on-investment. When you breastfeed your baby, you invest in his future. In the early weeks of breastfeeding you’re supposed to trade your discomfort, even agony, for the requisite number of ounces gained and diapers soaked with pee, for protection from childhood illnesses, and the promise of an easier breastfeeding relationship later on. Later, when you inevitably Go Back to Work, you trade the inconvenience and embarrassment of pumping three times a day at your desk or in a closet or the bathroom or the car in order to Keep Up Your Supply and have enough expressed milk for your childcare provider to feed to the baby while you’re at work. If you can’t pump enough at work (of the mothers of my acquaintance who worked full-time, I don’t know a single person who could), you can wake up twice in the middle of the night and pump then, like a friend of mine did. If that doesn’t work, you can supplement with formula until your child turns one and can safely drink cow’s milk, and you will feel kind of bad about it, because you should have been able to produce milk and money at the same time, at the same rate. The endgame, in theory, is a rich, skinny baby who lives forever. The endgame for capitalism is that rich, skinny mothers continue to pump money into the economy even as they pump milk into freezer-friendly bottles, that they Lean In and not Opt Out, that the rich, skinny babies will grow up to do the same thing, to live forever and never retire and check work email on their vacations and work hard and play hard until we break the world and it swallows us whole.


And, seriously, thank God breast pumps exist, because of course women should be able to have jobs and babies at the same time, and feed their babies breastmilk if they want to, and women who manage to pump three times a day are amazing and accomplished, and thank God there are lactation consultants and postpartum doulas, and they deserve to get paid for the work they do, and in my feminist socialist utopia they will be richly compensated for their labor, and so will parents, and everybody will have the amazing job they love best, and there will be a basic minimum income anyway. All I’m saying is that breastfeeding is now compatible with capitalism, and breastfeeding feels like capitalism. It feels like a new way in which white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy–not individual working parents, not individual healthcare providers, not even individual corporations–can control women. There was a time when middle-to-upper-class women were supposed to stay home and feed their babies breastmilk–their own, or, if they could get it, someone else’s. There was a time when they were supposed to stay home and feed their babies magical science formula. Then they were supposed to go to the office and feed their babies formula. Now middle-class women are expected to go to work and produce lots of income for America and produce lots of milk for their baby out of their body while producing income for America. Barf!

Did you notice that this whole system of Capitalist Breastfeeding–what Carrie Murphy, when she responded to my original tweet, called the Infant Feeding Industrial Complex–centers around women who tend to be white and relatively wealthy? It takes as its primary subject women with reliable and disposable income, predictable-yet-flexible work schedules, access to breastfeeding-friendly health services and communities, and other privileges which are disproportionately available to white women. So it should come as no surprise that when pundits talk about the oppressive ubiquity of breastfeeding they aren’t talking about women of color; as the Center for Social Inclusion reports in this structural race analysis of first food, Black and second-generation Latina women who want to breastfeed often face significant lack of support and resources, even direct resistance, from medical providers, employers, and the community. Efforts by breastfeeding advocates to correct these disparities often end up replicating them, or creating new ones, because breastfeeding advocates–who are predominantly white–so often fail to understand the economic, cultural, and historical contexts in which mothers of color are raising their children. So you get healthcare providers chastising mothers for feeding their babies formula and lecturing them on the benefits of breastmilk, even if that mother has clearly decided that formula is the best choice for her and her child. Or you get programs like this one from MedoLac Laboratories,  in which an “initiative designed to increase breastfeeding rates among urban black mothers” was actually a campaign targeting Black women in Detroit as paid breastmilk donors. As my friend Tasia Milton commented when she posted this article on Facebook in January, “rather than encourage women to breastfeed their own kids first,” MedoLac went “straight to ‘And if we could get some of that milk as well.'” Further, Tasia pointed out, the practice “hearken[s] back to an awful history of forced nursing” in the United States. These examples indicate the ways in which seemingly well-meaning people invisibly perpetuate our country’s history of structural racism; they’re also another illustration of the control that gets exercised over Black bodies in an economy where everything must be monetized. If low-income Black women aren’t a promising enough market for the services and accessories promoted by capitalist breastfeeding culture, they–or their bodies and labor–are recruited as products and services themselves; failing that, they become scapegoats for the failure of breastfeeding culture.

So, like, I guess I do agree with The Skeptical OB (grudgingly–she’s kind of the Camille Paglia of the breastfeeding blogosphere) that there’s a problem with mainstream breastfeeding culture in the United States. But I don’t agree that it’s because we already provide enough support for mothers who want to breastfeed. Even within the context of Capitalist Breastfeeding, a mother who wants to breastfeed faces potential sabotage at every turn: from misinformed doctors, nurses, and family members who tell her she must not be making enough milk, from a government that doesn’t mandate paid parental leave, from employers who won’t give her parental leave and/or won’t accommodate her nursing or pumping schedule, from an economy that makes unpaid leave unfeasible. That needs to get easier for everyone, and it needs to get much, much easier for parents who aren’t white and wealthy. An anti-capitalist critique of breastfeeding culture might make some of those difficulties more visible and easier to talk about. (Give all your employees family leave, Netflix, come on.)

But I also hope that an awareness of the connections between breastfeeding and capitalism can help redirect our attention from the “mommy wars” to the ways in which white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy makes parenting, and life in general, worse for everybody. Not simply because I think we should all do what we want and stop judging each other–sometimes things need to change, and change requires judgment, and evaluation, and thought. Not simply because as women we need to stand together against patriarchy, or capitalism–we have to leave room for competing problems and claims. I think that attention to the capitalist rhetoric surrounding infant feeding will show that those feeding practices, and the debates about them and other parenting practices in general, are not always centered upon on the experiences and needs of parents, but on maintaining systems of power that have nothing to do with families’ best interests.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feed our babies, obviously. It means that we can work to develop, as best we can, an anti-capitalist culture of infant feeding and parenting, one hidden (for now) inside capitalism but not quite of it, one in which the focus is not necessarily on setting goals (six weeks, three months, six months) or quantities (three ounces, five ounces) or making investments, but on convenience, on ease, on pleasure. On laziness. I, personally, bought all the equipment and read all the manuals, but the reason I breastfed and the reason I continue to breastfeed was that it was pretty easy for me, and kind of relaxing, and kind of fun. I liked cuddling up with my daughter and binge-watching Scandal as she fell asleep at the breast. I liked running out with a couple of spare diapers and maybe a sun hat and being able to take care of her for hours, in the park, at a party, at a bar. I liked not having to buy anything, not having to be anywhere. I knew my kid was going to be smart and wonderful and lovable, and hoped she would be happy, no matter what I fed her. But I liked breastfeeding. I like it. You’re not supposed to like it. You’re supposed to suffer through it for precisely one year–no more, no less–so your baby can be rich and thin and immortal. Meanwhile I know other women who hated breastfeeding, who were miserable, but who felt it was their job to keep trying through the pain and the baby’s hungry screams and the constant pumping, and who felt ashamed when they gave up, like a failure. As if they didn’t have it in them to make that investment, that sacrifice, to produce.

An anti-capitalist breastfeeding culture would be about pleasure, unremunerative pleasure, and nobody would do it unless they wanted to. And if they wanted to, but it was difficult or uncomfortable at first, the ultimate goal would be pleasure and ease, however the nursing parent wanted to get there, whatever kind of help she wanted to get there. My breastfeeding utopia is feminist pleasure, feminist sloth, feminist picnics where you eat whatever you want, feminist daycare where you can show up and nurse, feminist jobs you can leave for months or years, feminist jobs where you can bring the baby, feminist parties where you can bring the baby, feminist jobs and parties and sleep where you don’t bring the baby because your partner is feeding the baby formula in your living room, and you’re feeling your separate body in its high-necked dress, not leaking milk, leaking milk, wasting time, not making money for anyone.

Obviously breastfeeding isn’t going to get us out of capitalism; nor is blithe, guilt-free formula feeding. We’re still stuck in the gears or whatever. But, like, let’s not blame our boobs or our bottles for getting us here. Blame this machine we’re all caught inside, dreaming that our poor, fat, rich, skinny babies will grow hungry and angry enough to break.


Here are just a few; let me know about more and I’ll add them here!

Black Breastfeeding Week Toolkit and Resources

Seven Ways Lactation Consultants Can Support Black Breastfeeding (Week) 


Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *