by Kari Swanson
For the love of all things holy, breastfeeding is not sacred. It is simply a fact of anatomical structures, physiological processes and biological circumstance that female mammals produce these nutritional substances we call milk to sustain the lives of their offspring through infancy, preparing them in uniquely appropriate ways for their future existences. While I certainly appreciate the wonder that is nature, whether it was designed by some Intelligence or not, I do not think it serves women or infants particularly well to proceed down the rabbit hole that is defining what should be a commonplace, normal, and natural part of child-rearing as a sacred activity that requires devotion on the scale of a full-fledged religious experience.
Milk is the liquid substance produced by the mammary glands of female mammals upon which young mammals feed. For each species the quantity and quality of the life-sustaining substance varies to support the specific needs of that species. Like other mammals, human females produce milk from their mammary glands in what some might describe as a complex, yet elegant process. Except in cases where glandular tissue is insufficiently developed, all human females possess the anatomy and physiology to produce milk. Quality and quantity are dependent on numerous factors (e.g. the woman’s nutritional status, stimulation of supply from suckling, etc.), but the capability is there simply by the existence of the glandular tissue itself and exposure to the cascade of chemicals that result following pregnancy and childbirth. Whether or not there was intelligence in the design it is a factual characteristic of our membership in the class Mammalia that we as human females can and do produce milk. Given the right circumstances it can even be stimulated in females who have never given birth. Yet despite the decidedly universal nature of this capability among all mammals we are arguably the only species that both maligns and elevates this activity.
It is the elevation of this somewhat mundane activity that is my primary concern here. The term sacred is variously defined by Merriam Webster to include, that which is “dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity”, or that which is “worthy of religious veneration” or that which is “entitled to reverence or respect” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sacred). In the profane world in which we live elevating breastfeeding into the realm of the sacred marginalizes women. Women are not deities. Setting us apart for special treatment based purely on the fact of our anatomy is a set up for social exclusion and it is a set up for segregating women into categories of those who “do it right” and those who do not. Dichotomy is not supportive. It is divisive. It is a privileged perspective.
Cult-like worship of a biological activity that requires significant social support, in a culture that has largely forgotten that the activity is normal, does little to improve the integration of the activity into the everyday lives of all people. It also does not present a broad range of what constitutes success, which will certainly not increase rates of breastfeeding. It will alienate women who cannot achieve the ideal. Women need to create their own standards for breastfeeding success and they need to be supported in so doing. It behooves us as supporters of breastfeeding women to provide the kind of support that increases the number of women who breastfeed. Classifying breastfeeding as a sacred activity does not do that.
Breastfeeding is not a sacred activity. Breastfeeding is everyday, commonplace, normal, flexible, and beautiful for what it is. This is breastfeeding:
Nothing more. Nothing less.
Kari Swanson is a daughter, sister, wife, mother of two, librarian, member of Generation X and an admin for The Leaky B@@b Facebook page. Kari blogs occasionally over at Thoughts from BookishMama.