Privileged women exclude the childbirth and breastfeeding experiences of the less privileged

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Lactation professional Prof. Amy Brown was apprised that one of her slides at a recent conference on “holistic” infant sleep could be construed as racist.

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Brown predictably responded as she does to any criticism: with fury. But she’d been called out on a tendency that it is all too common in birth and breastfeeding communities: exoticizing poor indigenous women, particularly women of color.

As Alison Phipps has written in The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age:

Complementing [the] focus on the ‘natural’, there is a tendency to search for authenticity and origins in the discussion of alternative birth practices. This … often involves the Orientalizing of ‘traditional’ cultures, whether prehistoric or from developing countries.

Natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocates are channeling Grantly Dick-Read’s notions of “primitive” women, but:

… Like the claims of many contemporary activists, however, Dick-Read’s points were made despite the fact that he had not spent extensive time in non-western countries. The lack of an evidence base to corroborate such assertions is particularly problematic when non-western birthing practices are appropriated in the service of authenticity rather than effectiveness.

Which raises the questions:

Privileged, white natural mothering advocates silence less privileged women who have different experiences.

Whose experience counts?
Is it appropriate to use the (imagined) experience of others to advocate for oneself?

In a separate paper, Whose personal is more political? Experience in contemporary feminist politics, Phipps attempts to address these questions.

She argues that the way that privileged, white women use experience — their personal experiences as well as the experiences of others — serves to perpetuate their privilege at the expense of others.

…[P]rivileged feminists, speaking for others and sometimes for themselves, use experience to generate emotion and justify particular agendas, silencing critics who are often from more marginalised social positions.

Specifically:

…Rhetorical use of distressing experiences by the powerful and privileged … turns them into a kind of ‘investment capital’ in what Sara Ahmed terms ‘affective economies,’ by mobilising them to generate feeling and create political gain. In the process, structural dynamics are masked; the privileged are able to capitalise on the personal and deflect critique by marginalised groups whose realities are invisibilised or dismissed, even as they are spoken for.

We see this over and over again among natural parenting advocates. Powerful Western, white, well off women ASSUME they speaking for EVERYONE. They use their own personal experiences and hijack the imagined experiences of others to secure what they wish to have. Even worse, they silence less privileged women who have different experiences.

Both the natural childbirth movement and the lactivist movement are made up nearly entirely of white, professional women and their white, privileged acolytes. They seem to believe that their personal experiences are the only experiences that count; their wishes around birth and breastfeeding are the only ones that are legitimate; and that to the extent that other women have different experiences and wishes, they must be silenced if possible and ignored if they dare to speak up anyway.

We are continually treated to the spectacle of white, privileged midwives convening conferences, attended nearly exclusively by white, privileged audiences, telling the birth stories of white, privileged birthing women for the express purpose of ensuring that the entire medical system to cater ONLY to them. In the process, the imagined experiences of black indigenous women (it’s natural!) are mobilized as justification for ignoring the preferences of contemporary non-white and non-privileged women. How dare they want epidurals, interventions of C-sections? They are either ignorant or have been alienated from their natural instinct.

And should any of those less privileged women with different experiences of childbirth and different needs dare to contradict them on social media they are first treated with smug condescension and then shut down entirely by deleting, blocking and banning.

We are continually treated to the spectacle of white, privileged lactation professionals convening conferences, attended nearly exclusively by white, privileged audiences, telling the breastfeeding stories of white, privileged breastfeeding women for the express purpose of ensuring that the entire medical system cater ONLY to them. In the process, the imagined experiences of black indigenous women (it’s natural!) are mobilized (as in Prof. Brown’s slide) as justification for ignoring the preferences of contemporary non-white and non-privileged women. How dare they want formula? They are either ignorant or have been alienated from their natural instinct.

And should any of those less privileged women with different experiences of breastfeeding and different needs dare to contradict them on social media they are first treated with smug condescension and then shut down entirely by deleting, blocking and banning.

What is the Baby Friendly Hospital Iniatitive if not a spectacle of white, privileged lactation professionals ignoring the lives experiences of indigenous women and substituting a mythical “natural” experience that never existed in nature? In reality many indigenous cultures supplement their babies with prelacteal feeds, and mandate days or weeks before new mothers are required to fully care for their babies and themselves. These are the women whose “experiences” are used to support the BFHI policies of avoiding supplementation at all costs and mandated 24 hour rooming in and the closing of well baby nurseries.

Worst of all, as Phipps writes:

This also has a polarising effect which inhibits connections across differing experiences: indeed, we often participate in selective empathies where we discredit the realities of those who articulate opposing politics.

Natural childbirth advocates discredit the reality of women who suffer agonizing pain in labor and severe childbirth injuries. Lactation professionals loudly and obnoxiously discredit the reality of many women who (along with their babies) have suffered from insufficient breastmilk. They have the temerity to sneer that “fed is minimal.”

Phipps analysis is long and complex but the conclusions are straightforward:

…The injuries felt by those who are more privileged, while certainly painful, are not commensurate with the experience of oppression. Ventriloquising another’s personal story is an act of power, especially when the oppression of this Other is wielded against another Other with whom one
disagrees.

In other words, using the (imagined) experiences of indigenous women is an act of power, especially when those stories are used to oppress other less privileged women in one’s own society.

Disclosing one’s experience of violence in a bid to construct and exclude the Other is violence in itself.

There is nothing wrong with privileged natural childbirth advocates discolosing their experience of disappointment at having an epidural, interventions or a C-section. There is something very wrong with privileged women using their disappointment to discredit the reality of women who welcome epidurals, interventions or C-sections. In a very real sense any “campaign for normal birth” is a form of obstetric violence against women who are less privileged.

There is nothing wrong with privileged lactivists disclosing their experience of lack of breastfeeding support. There is something very wrong with privileged lactivists using their disappointment to discredit the reality of women who don’t want to breastfeed, or worse, to discredit the reality of women who had insufficient breastmilk or other serious breastfeeding problems.

It is always an act of power for birth and breastfeeding professionals to use social media to pontificate about AND then silence (through deleting, blocking and banning) women who have different experiences.

  • Mel

    There’s a second form of silencing for moms who have medically complicated babies – and I’m guessing that the same rationale to shut of women of color or women living in poverty is used.

    The theme is “Feeding choices don’t matter when your kid is screwed.”

    When you kid is already slotted into an undesirable underclass, the privileged class can admire your feeding methods because you have already failed in performative mothering.

    When I write that up, it sounds grim – but I’ve found it liberating.

    My family of origin grew up with all sorts of marks against us – poor-ish! disabilities! dead sibling! – but my parents were involved in our lives and the lives of our friends. Not having to keep up with the Joneses allowed us to do our own thing and that’s been nice.

    I’m glad that my son is learning that he can just do his own thing and we’ll love him and be crazy proud of him because he’s Spawn.

  • demodocus

    The closer you live to nature (to use their language) the more you realize that Mother Nature does not give a f. She’s as happy to feed the worms your bones as to feed you.

  • TsuDhoNimh

    “exoticizing poor indigenous women, particularly women of color.”

    Ah yes, the “lost tribal wisdom”, the “wisdom of our foremothers”, “mother instinct” and the rest of that crap.

    Babies DIED of starvation. My father, who was premature in the 1910s, survived only because they found a wet nurse for him.

  • mabelcruet

    The women in developing countries would crawl over hot stones to access the health care that Brown and her cohorts are decrying. As 4th year medical students (age 21-22 ish, 1 year before graduating, 2 years before becoming registered doctors) we did elective periods in other countries. Many of my friends chose to go to various medical facilities in Africa run by charities or religious organisations, and some of the stories they came back with were truly horrifying. Mothers in labour walking for days to get help, horrible fistulas caused by obstructed labour, necrotising mastitis causing sepsis-these were places with ‘western medicine’ support, and even there the resources were limited. My colleagues were expected to perform sections, and administer basic anaesthesia (as 4th year students in this country you’d be allowed to assist at surgery, but mostly just holding retractors or something, not actually getting in there, but there they were expected to get on with it, because they were ‘it’ and these women needed help).

    I’d imagine if you told a woman from a deprived area, say, in sub-Saharan Africa, that women were trying to emulate her pregnancy (no scans, no tests, no obstetric intervention, seeing non-qualified non-professional homebirth midwives); delivery (at home, no obstetric support, no pain relief, no instrumental delivery) and post-natal care (no vitamin K injection, breast feeding with no use of formula, no vaccinations), she would be absolutely horrified. Mums everywhere are the same-they want the best for their children, and I suspect that the ladies in sub-Saharan Africa have a far better idea of what is best for their kids than some of the lactivist weirdos do.

    • fiftyfifty1

      I never did a rotation abroad, but the hospital I trained at had a large refugee population from 3 different east African countries. I remember my first OB rotation as a resident, and a long grueling trial of labor that ended in CS for an OP baby that wouldn’t budge. I remember “debriefing” the mother and father the next day, and the MIL telling me that she was happy with the outcome of the CS and healthy baby and healthy mother because “When my babies got stuck they cut their bodies up with a sharp wire and took them out of me in pieces.” ( I knew what she was talking about because I had read the All Creatures Great and Small series.) She had only one child that lived.

      • mabelcruet

        Our electives were almost 30 years ago, but I can still remember the stories some of my colleagues came back with. We had to do a presentation about the elective, what we learned and compared and contrasted it with the health care system we have. Some students went to places like Canada, New Zealand etc so it was interesting to see how health care is provided elsewhere, but the sort of thing they were facing was so outside the normal that we were used to, even as students. Women with pelvises so distorted by rickets that they couldn’t deliver, women with sepsis from retained products because they had no access to a D&C, women with prolapsed uteri that had been prolapsed so long it was fungating. Just awful-if you make the choice to deliver at home without pain relief or obstetric care because its ‘natural’ and because ‘native’ women do it is frankly repulsive-it belittles and insults the women who go through this because they have no alternative, it belittles their suffering.

        • rational thinker

          I was watching a spanish documentary a few months back called the birth reborn and it may have been brazil. Anyway they went to a village that was about 2 days journey from nearest hospital and they of course mostly had home births due to the distance. So they interviewed the old woman who delivers all the babies and these stupid priveliged film making assholes were told by the old woman and the rest of village that they would rather have hospital births but they cant cause of the distance so they have to do the best they can but wished they had hospital access. So they completely missed the point and kept saying home birth was so much better. They have no respect for these people whatsoever they just use them as part of their natural fantasy.

      • Caravelle

        That’s horrible, but also, I’m a bit relieved to learn that they do manage to save the mother in those cases? I had trouble imagining how mothers could survive babies that wouldn’t come out without modern medicine otherwise.

    • One doesn’t have to go to hi-tech. One of my nieces by marriage is married to an Ethiopian, and her mother-in-law was frankly shocked by baby strollers “You can carry all the groceries in it, and the baby on your back” shesaid. “In Ethiopia, we had to carry all the heavy stuff AND the baby!” She also thought it ridiculous to put a baby that could soil the beautiful stroller’s upholstery.

      • demodocus

        I can testify to the carrying all the groceries on the baby stroller. Because I had one of the giant kind, I could tie grocery bags all over and underneath and still have Boybard in the seat.

      • mabelcruet

        Where I live its fairly common to see moderately large children still in pushchairs (3 years old or so). I suppose its a way of making sure the child doesn’t get away from you in the shopping centre or whatever. Plus it means you go at your pace and not have to wait for a dawdling child to catch up, but it does look odd. My ex’s niece had three babies in 3 years, so she got a triplet buggy-at least that way she’s got them all under control and no-one will run off.

        • demodocus

          My 5yo still rides sometimes. He’s still a bit of a runner, though he’s getting better.

          • Amazed

            Sometimes, I do wish the Intruder and SIL had kept that stroller. Usually when we have to cross some four lanes of traffic and all I can think is, Please don’t run away, please don’t run away. I’m quite sure all she can think is, Please don’t squeeze my hand so tight, please don’t squeeze my hand so tight. But she tried to escape once – she saw a kitten and just had to go after it. She doesn’t remember the incident but I do. She’s three yo.

      • Caravelle

        I’m trying to come up with the best way to go shopping with my baby, and the best solution really would be to put my shopping in the stroller and carry my baby on me. An even better solution would be if I just stole a supermarket trolley or something except for how noisy they are. The key is having something with wheels I can put some of my weight on, and it would be more efficient space and weight-wise to load that thing with groceries while I carry the baby rather than the other way around.

        I probably won’t do it and continue putting the shopping in a backpack and hangings bags off the stroller because at the end of the day the stroller isn’t designed to contain groceries and doesn’t have the best shape for it, but I’m surprised nobody has created a product that could be used for this.