Breastfeeding and work: babies need more than just (pumped) milk, they also need their mother’s bodies
In this article Dr Bueskens explores one of the key issues facing mothers as they return to work; breastfeeding, and whether or not they will be able to feed while they are working.
One of the key issues concerning breastfeeding and work is women having the flexibility to feed while they are working. This calls for a radical transformation in the culture of work. While most women manage this combination through pumping, as maternal scholar Julie Stephens notes, this relationship superimposes neo-liberal work norms onto mothers, by separating maternal and infant (or toddler) bodies (2010). With pumping, it is the mother who adjusts to an individualist work culture rather than the other way around. Mothers remove their milk and remain separated at the bodily level from their babies – keeping up the “supply” of both milk and work - while maintaining a façade of the disembodied worker.
But, of course, “breastfeeding” isn’t just feeding, it is also about nurturing, bonding and pleasure. The older term “nursing” captures that “breastfeeding” is a relationship not simply an act of milk provision. While breastmilk is readily understood as a superior, even magical, nutritional (and medicinal) substance, and therefore babies must have it for optimal health, the physical act of feeding – the suckling, cuddling and gazing – is conveniently forgotten. I would argue that in fact the relationship involved in “breastfeeding” or nursing is as important as the magical milk. Love is magical; it transforms the baby into a psychologically healthy, socially connected human being. This is what is missing in the new culture of work where women “pump”, or in other words extract their milk, while they are at work.
What is missing is the real time nursing relationship between mother and infant, mother and toddler, mother and child. This is the challenge that breastfeeding really brings to the workplace: the challenge to reorganise around the (actively) mothering body. Sure, women can pump at work to maintain supply, but how can women nurse at work or during work hours or while working? This is the key to integrating breastfeeding women into the workplace. Mothering women need flexibility and the capacity to integrate their working and maternal lives in the ways that also work for them. This requires the workplace to adapt to mothering women, not only the other way around. For some, this might involve a lengthy period of leave (for jobs that cannot include babies on-site); it might involve bringing an infant into work for feeding breaks; it might involve on-site childcare; or it might involve working with a baby in a sling like MEP Licia Ronzulli who has taken her baby (now child) with her to the European parliament since she was four weeks old. It might involve working from home, as have I through the first few years of each of my children’s lives. But these opportunities should not only be the preserve of privileged women and their babies as is so often the case now.
This ties into another point I have made elsewhere. While “breast is best” remains the dominant ideology, and women feel increasing pressure to conform to this, in fact very few changes to the culture have taken place that would facilitate comfortable feeding of babies in, what breastfeeding scholar Fiona Giles calls “multiple publics” (2015). How can women feed their babies in public – including at work - when there are still so many taboos associated with lactating breasts? (Bueskens, 2015) Nursing is considered a private act, and breasts are still primarily understood as sexual objects, which obstructs the free and fulsome feeding of babies anywhere but the confines of the home.
Over the last 40 years women have entered the work force en masse in contemporary western societies, but most women radically reduce their paid work after motherhood. One of the central reasons for this is the incompatibility between work and care. A radical reconceptualisation of work calls for the inclusion of mothering women as women rather than as hypothetically genderless workers.
Written by Dr Petra Bueskens - Lecturer in Social Science, The Australian College of Applied Psychology
Petra Bueskens, “Breastfeeding in Public: A Personal and Political Memoir”, Porter, M. J. Jones and L Reith, Mothers at the Margins, Cambridge Scholars Press, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, 2015, pp. 204-224.
Fiona Giles, personal communication, 2015.
Julie Stephens, “The Industrialised Breast”, Overland, Summer 2010, pp. 77-80. Available online: https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-201/feature-julie-stephens/
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