Breastfeeding - It's Difficult To Be A Woman

rani's picture

Breastfeeding as Enlightenment

Breastfeeding for me is an enlightenment. Breastfeeding is a "source of thoughts", as quoted in Breastwork (Bartlett 2005 pp. 21-22)

"The bosom" is regarded as the seat of thoughts and feeling. ... Lactating breasts become fertile grounds of wisdom, active organs producing food for the mind as well as the body.

I called it "enlightenment" because I started to think about things that I didn't think about before, both positively and negatively. Positively, I began to be enlightened on the difficult task of mothering, and I learned to appreciate mothers even more. Negatively, I began to be angry at the society and the social constructs that undermines femininity.

This is an on-going writing because there is so many things I want to write about this issue and I have so little time and limited eloquence to jot it down, to properly line it out in a coherent manner.

Naturalness of Breastfeeding and Its Difficulty

I did not know that breastfeeding is not easy and that it is something to be learned.

Many people refuted the naturalness of breastfeeding by saying that, "if it has to be learned, then it is not natural". They also say, "If breastfeeding is indeed natural, why not all people are able to breastfeed, and why babies who are not breastfed alive and well?" Further, Maher (1992) argued that breastfeeding is simply a cultural construct, and extended breastfeeding is just a vehicle in traditional societies to keep women under control.

However, I personally felt that the naturalness of breastfeeding does not lie in the necessity for it to be learned or the ability to survive without it. Every step that human babies are taken to progress is learning process, through analyzing its context and observing others. Even when one has sex for the first time, he or she won't find it very easy. Palmer (1993) even says that primates initiated breastfeeding through communal learning process between the females.

Nevertheless, in Breastwork, Bartlett (2005) tries to detach herself from the naturalness question, because, quoting Klassen, "constructing the natural is a political act". Yet Bartlett tries to simplify the naturalness debate in a more philosophical level:

I remember on day after I had been breastfeeding for a while when I experienced a moment of epiphany because I finally felt that I felt that I knew what the word "natural" meant, and yet I struggled to define it. It was something to do with me liking breastfeeding, that it had an important place in my life and my relationship with my baby, that it felt "right". The actual word, though, was an empty sign, capable of carrying whatever meaning I wanted to fill it with.

I can totally relate with Bartlett's feelings during breastfeeding. The naturalness of breastfeeding as I felt it, and how mothers and children have survived for thousands of years just with breastmilk, have fostered my perseverance to keep breastfeeding despite many problems that I was having.

Femininity and Contradictions

Breastfeeding in Guanajuato City Square, Mexico

The enlightenment also made me angry. Angry towards societal norm and how my feminine body contradicts the society.

I began to hate the situation where I had to struggle to be discrete in breastfeeding, struggle with my crying baby to look for space for breastfeeding. Why can't I just breastfeed whenever and wherever my baby wanted to? From my anger, I began my silent protest to breastfeed whenever my baby want to and wherever we're comfortable with. From my anger, I started to ask and rethink about the current social norms.

Despite naturalness of breastfeeding, and the scientifically proven benefits of breastfeeding, women are still receiving mixed message.

Breastfeeding is highly encouraged, but current social norms govern that it has to be confined in an enclosed space or as long as it is as "discrete as possible". Basically, the segregation of breastfeeding into private sphere has marginalized women and children from the public sphere. As much as I hate to use slippery slope argument, this segregation has implicated into domestication of women and has formed the current perception that breastfeeding and breastmilk are lewd, perverse, and disgusting (Bartlett 2005). Therefore as women tried to "liberate" themselves, they avoid childbirth and breastfeeding to level themselves up with men, not realizing that the social norms that they're in are the ones that are flawed. Many feminist also see breastfeeding as a vehicle to confine women in private sphere, without seeing further that the private-public dichotomy is created by male-dominated social construct.

Let's began to read Yalom's 1997 work "The History of Breast". One needs to be aware that the gender segregation of private and public space is relatively a new phenomenon, beginning around 2500 years ago, and is mainly western / semitic culture. Compared to millions of years of human history, 2500 years is minute. Further, sensualisation (and hence the taboo) of breast is an even newer phenomenon, and again it is a western/semitic concept. For many societies, the breast is not at all sensual (Yalom 1997). The so-called-primitive culture does not have a clear-cut definition of privacy based on gender, as can be seen in primitive tribes where women bare themselves in the outdoor, breastfeeding their babies while doing their daily work.

Therefore, I just began with myself in breaking down the wall that segregates women, by breastfeeding in public, and I'm doing it for my hungry baby. That's why, when there was a suggestion to create a separate MRT compartment for women and breastfeeding mothers, I totally oppose it because segregation will only strengthen the notion that breastfeeding is really something to be ashamed or embarrased upon, and that it should not be done in public. If other people are disturbed by me breastfeeding, it is their problem. Philosophically this is my stance.

Working Women

Pumping at Work

Further delving into the issue of public space, the contradiction is apparent in the working environment. Recently, since the industrial revolution, the working environment has become a "male/public" space, that is created and regulated by norms derived from the predictability of male's body. There is no room for the unpredictability of women's body such as female period, child bearing, and breastfeeding (Bartlett 2005). I was lucky to be able to work in a place where the boss understands my need by providing time and space for pumping. But majority of working women do not have such luxury. Women had to return to work out of financial necessity or other reason, without adequate support from the working environment to maintain breastfeeding. This is not at all the women's fault, but a larger flaw in the working environment. Hence, the idealisation of breastfeeding does not translate into the reality that many women are now working. This has begun to change for the better, however, I'm skeptical that positive change is happening in third-world countries.

Female Body Awareness

Obsessed with Breast Shape

Through breastfeeding, I started to ask and rethink about my female body. The breastfeeding process taught me to be aware of the natural signs in my baby's body language as well as my own body. It is just amazing to see that my body will "know" when my baby's hungry and will have a leak. I started to believe that women's body is really amazing, and I started to ask, do we really need to buy all these formula milk and baby feeding gadgets, that had just been created recently?

It is sad to see that in the current society, women are not aware of their own body. Women have very low self esteem of their own body, dictated by the male concept of beauty and decorum. Bartlett 2005 and Palmer 1993 highlighted that in many case breastfeeding failures are attributed to male pressure, from husbands who detest wives with saggy breast to the notion that women should prioritize to keep their husband at her household. Eventually, women becomes subjected to corporate domination as consumers, where women are convinced that their self-worth is measured by the things they could afford, even having to go through painful procedures.

  • I need to buy new clothes / shoes / bags / , as my old ones are outdated (need vs wants)
  • I'm not beautiful, so I will get breast augmentation operation (breast as beauty object is defined by male)
  • I have to get birth control pill to regulate my period or avoid pregnancy (in the western world this has become norms for teenage girls rather than medical necessity)
  • I want to do caesarian delivery with total anasthetic so that my vagina won't become too wobbly (not because of medical necessity)
  • I have to get expensive breastpump in order to breastfeed (women does not yet know about pump-free marmet technique of milk expression)
  • I don't have enough milk, so I have to supplement with formula and bottle (relactation is possible except in a special medical case)
  • I want my child to be smarter, so I have to keep buying this special formula. My milk is not good enough (special infant formula is not necessary unless medically indicated or when situation forces women to use it as a last resort)

Basically, the message women have been receiving from the social norms and pressure is that women as themselves are never good enough. This is made worse by corporate pressure, plus the male-oriented medical sciences that is detached from the traditionally midwives-based childbirth and breastfeeding knowledge (Palmer 1993).

Women Should not Be Blamed

At the end, Breastwork (Bartlett 2005) avoided to demonize formula feeding because the negativity attributed to formula is often aimed at the women and not the corporate marketing that shaped the pro-formula social construct. To some extent I agree with her. There is a danger that the war between breastfeeding and formula put women into a dichotomy of good and evil. This should not be the case because one needed to address the contributing factors behind the success or failure of breastfeeding. Those are the availability of information, husband's and family support, communal support, the corporate power of formula companies, and the social norms. A struggle against unethical formula promotion should not put a mother into a judgment that she's a bad mother, because in almost all cases, mothers wants to be the best for their children. In all manner, whether she is breastfeeding or formula feeding, she is a good mother. She, with her noble goal to raise children, may have just lived in the wrong time and in wrong social norms.


  • Bartlett 2005. Breastwork
  • Maher 1992. Anthropology of Breast-feeding
  • Palmer 1993. Politics of Breastfeeding
  • Yalom 1997. The History of Breast


very beautiful writing Rani

very beautiful writing Rani :-)
one thing tho.. I agree about not wanting to segregate breastfeeding as if it is something to be ashamed of. I think we should be able to feed pretty much anywhere the baby is hungry. but I don't think wanting to be somewhat "discrete" about it a sign of being oppressed/oppressive. There are quite a few things that aren't shameful but we don't do them in public (err.. like sex). yep, just a social norm :-)

yeah natasha, "discrete" is

yeah natasha, "discrete" is i think a delicate issue. In reality, I myself am being discrete for just being practical and not to stir havoc to my immediate surrounding when I breastfed in public.

However, philosophically, I'm trying to also deconstruct the meaning of breastfeeding, one way is to cut away its parallel to sex (sex which is intimate, bestial, private, hence people also start associate breastfeeding to porn). To draw parallel between breastfeeding and sex/porn is a common argument posed by opponent of breastfeeding in public.

well some people draw parallel between breastfeeding and peeing / pooing as an argument against breastfeeding in public. I don't think you would agree with them. :>

Re: yeah natasha, "discrete" is

i strongly agree, breastfeeding is the same as urinating/defacating, there both natural functions which shouldnt be conducted outside

love your writing

A very good writing, nicely done…
Am totally agree with you, i myself sharing the same frustration of how women have to be confine while breastfeeding, as if it was something inappropriate as well as taboo when doing in public. I’ve been experiencing a lot of setback (even from my dear husband) since I choose to do total breastfeeding to my daughter, who now is nearly 7 months and have to given up on total breastfeeding when she was 5 months old because her daddy wasn’t very supportive of me only giving her breast milk (she gained only 200 gr), was given a strange look from people when breastfed her in public (food court, benches, etc).
I’ve read your email in asiforbaby mailing list, and I hope women who read your writing will eventually understood that you didn’t put the blame on women, it’s the environment to which cultivate this problem.

Marvelous, Darling!

Marvelous writing, Raniku!

I love you! :)

Breastfeeding? Yes

Hidup breastfeeding! Bersyukur sekali saya tinggal di negara Norway yang menempatkan breastfeeding adalah diatas segala-galanya. Demi tercapainya ini, maka kami ibu bekerja diHARUSKAN cuti hamil oleh negara dengan gaji penuh selama 1 tahun terhitung dari lahirnya bayi. Hal ini dimaksudkan agar minimum setidaknya selama 1 tahun penuh bayi mendapatkan asi.

Natasha, i think you're

Natasha, i think you're right when you said that I jumped too hastily in my argument, when I connected the "discrete-ness" with "gender segregation". I better smooth out the argument with more background information to make my points clearer.

Elok, you're lucky that you

Elok, you're lucky that you live in a country where women have empowered themselves ;> yes maybe Norway it's not a perfect country, but we Indonesians have a lot to learn from Norway.

nunjukin dada dengan baju

nunjukin dada dengan baju belahan rendah......itu mode

nunjukin dada (tanpa sengaja) karena pantes

dunia dah kebalik ya?

u feed me

No doubt women need to and should breast feed. Most babies crying and public simply want to be fed. Go ahead and do it! However, please don't treat public space like a shit space either.

Some related links

Beberapa link yang menghujat kegiatan menyusui di tempat umum karena membahayakan birahi pria. Semua yg menulis artikel di bawah ini adalah lelaki, dan semua sepakat bahwa daripada menyusui anak di tempat umum lebih baik wanita berada di tempat tertutup:

It should be allowed in

It should be allowed in pubic, because it's nature's way for mothers to feed their infants.

Urinating and defecating is completly different, they can cause disseae and need to be kept away from evetone.

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