Saturday, March 12, 2005

This Week's Second Adventure

Me and L. Alone together. For 36 hours.

That may sound like no big deal for a veteran stay-at-homer such as yours truly. But L still nurses at night (more for its emotional than its nutritional value, at this age) and this was to be our very first experience of being overnight without Mommy, her comforting presence, and her oh-so-useful skill in lactation.

Would he awaken at 3 AM, freak out at the absence of milk, and roar for the rest of the night? Or would he sleep, a blissful little angel from set-down to wake-up? Our one ill-starred attempt at night weaning, back before Xmas, provided horrifying precedent -- a miserable night of anger and sadness on his part, and altogether too little sleep for all of us.

Turns out, thankfully, last night wasn't much of an adventure after all. There were a couple of instances of restlessness that were enough to wake me, and one full blown awakening which resulted in some crying and required cuddling and soothing words to remedy. But soon enough his eyes closed again. Sure, when he woke halfway at 6:30 and sleepily demanded nursing, its absence caused him to wake up the rest of the way, which in turn forced me to wake up rather earlier than I like, but if you haven't learned to function on too little sleep after 19 months of parenting then you haven't learned anything at all.

What's interesting to me about all of this is that it is another reminder of the role of practical, physical limitations in shaping our experience. That may sound like a silly thing to need to be reminded about, but I think those of us who live in industrialized societies, particularly those of us with a certain amount of privilege, have developed ways of being in the world that don't really appreciate that fact. Such limitations are sorted into two categories: "natural and inevitable", in which case they are not even really seen, and "irritating and solvable", and we expect technology to take care of them for us. Gravity is natural and inevitable, and it is so integrated into our ways of being in and perceiving the world that we hardly see it at all. The fact that person A wants to watch the game while person B wants to watch Law & Order is irritating and solvable by either purchasing a second television or perhaps by putting the game on frame-in-frame if you've got a snazzy TV.

The key is to see limitations that are grounded in physics and biology and cannot be easily transcended technologically, and then really think about them. How do they shape our experience? How can we really see the ways in which they enter our experience in socially mediated ways? Should we accept those limitations? If we choose not to accept them, how do we want to respond to the biological or physical facts in behavioural and social ways?

So...yeah...all of that is a long way of admitting that, 19 months ago, I really had no concept of ways in which the biological realities of nursing shape the experience of parenting. Which is not some fancy way of conceding to the right that biology really is destiny. It just recognizes that biology presents certain facts, and the ways in which those are dealt with socially at this time causes the parenting experience to be quite gendered in subtle and profound ways, though nothing about those social aspects is immutable. Which means that though my partner and I try to resist sexism in our parenting practice, it was still a big deal, with L almost 19 months old, for him and I to be spending a night without Mommy. There's something kind of ridiculous about that.

I think truly dealing with the ways in which experiences of parenting are gendered requires social change, not just behavioural choices at the level of individuals and household units. But I also think we need to write and talk more about the ways in which, for example, the biologically-based division of nursing labour is translated through social practices and behaviour into a gendered experience of parenting. That sort of material is probably out there somewhere, but in my fairly modest amount of pre-natal reading about parenting I didn't find it treated in ways that really helped me get it beyond a purely intellectual level -- and to you naysayers out there, I think text is actually capable of creating understanding that goes beyond just the mind. Anyway, those kinds of stories/analysis need to be easier to access, to allow us to make behavioural choices in the space that we have to do so, and to allow us to set agendas for social change.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I tried to write something along these lines about breastfeeding & feminism & parenting for Kathryn's zine a few months ago, but I didn't do a very good job of it. You've done a much better job here.

One thing that really struck me as we were preparing for my night away, was that in the same 19 months that I had spent every single night with Liam, I think you had probably had at least 15 nights of sleep somewhere else....either while on interviewing trips, or crashing at someone else's place, or sleeping on the couch due to illness. Even with our attempts to divide parenting in an equitable way, the breastfeeding is definitely an issue that makes certain kinds of divisions difficult if not impossible.

For example, during the first year, when Liam was really dependent on breastmilk for calories and fluids, I couldn't go ANYWHERE for more than an hour or so without (A) taking him along, or (B) pumping milk, sometimes for days in advance, to leave for him. For me, something as simple as going out for a few hours to dinner & a movie became a 3-day saga of pumping. However, having a baby didn't really restrict your mobility as an individual.

So why not use formula, one might ask. Because breastmilk is better for babies, and it seems to me that when I chose to have a child, it was with an implicit committment to give that child the best that I could. That's not to say that I'm one of those self-sacrificing mothers who would do positively anything for her child no matter the cost to herself -- I'm not!! But when it comes to feeding, I believed (and still do) that the benefits of breastfeeding for Liam (and for me, for that matter) outweigh the problematic aspects of it.

But yeah, breastfeeding IS problematic, in terms of trying to divide parenting responsibilities in a non-sexist way. I don't think it serves women well to romanticize the breastfeeding relationship, as I see a LOT of women doing in my La Leche League group and other mother-centered social spaces.

Odd place to stop, I know, but I have other things I ought to be doing!!