The P Word

Earlier this week I employed the P Word in my posts about the “breast is best” campaign. Privilege. It’s a hot button word these days–you see it everywhere. In 2013 the term “check your privilege” blew up on social media, when people started using the term to remind others where they come from, that their position in society might make it difficult for them to understand where someone else is coming from.

In December of last year, Schrodinger’s Catbox wrote a two part installment on fertility privilege that I found very fascinating, and I think anybody in the ALI community could relate to. I was also impressed with her understanding of privilege. Here is how she defines the word:

Privilege is any societal advantage you hold because your skin color, your gender, your sexual identity, your able-bodiedness, your age, your class, your education, your language, or your religion are accepted and prioritized by dominant culture. Privilege means that there are benefits you enjoy – whether consciously or unconsciously, and that part’s really important – because of something about you that society values more than something else. Frequently these are things you were born with, or into. People get very upset when it is pointed out to them that something that is not their “fault” carries implicit potential to harm and dehumanize others. This is usually the place that most folks shut down and say, “I didn’t own slaves, so I don’t know why Black people are so angry at ME”, or “Hey, things are hard for me too!” or “Some of my best friends are (fill in the disenfranchised identity blank).” It is uncomfortable to confront the ways in which we unintentionally contribute to suffering.

She goes on to itemize the privilege “she inhabits,” including being white, educated, middle-class and straight. Of course, one kind of privilege she does not enjoy is “fertility privilege,” a term she created herself to describe what it’s like to walk through the a fertile world as an infertile.

If I try to talk about the differences between my body and those of people who can reproduce, my experience is often patronized and minimized, even by thoroughly well-meaning people. I am told that someday, I might just be normal. If I just have hope. It’s like telling someone with cerebral palsy that they should just buck up and one day they’ll shake it off. Or that really there’s nothing different about me, I’m just like everyone else, which is essentially telling me that the thing that makes me different is so aberrant and intolerable that you can’t even allow yourself to see it.

I’m quoting these passages because I would venture to guess that most of the people who read this blog inhabit some forms of privilege, but that we may not realize it. My assumption is that most of my readers are educated, middle class women, who at the very least have a stable internet connection and the time to read my blatherings on a regular basis (and having the time to waste on this blog signals a significant amount of privilege in and of itself 😉 ). In fact, I assume a significant number of you inhabit most, if not all, of the privilege that I occupy. And lord knows, I enjoy an extensive amount of privilege.

Seeing that many of us are quite privileged–and probably spend a good portion of our lives taking that privilege for granted (because that is one of the tenants of privilege, that it is overlooked by the people who inhabit it)–I think it’s valuable to identify with a way in which we are not privileged. And since most, if not all of us (I’m not sure what the reproductive histories are of the many, many women who read but never comment) are part of the ALI community, we can all recognize “fertility privilege” and understand what it feels like to NOT identify with that particular advantage.

As I mentioned before, in my posts a few days ago, I referred to women who enjoy the privilege of a positive breastfeeding experience. I used the phrase in passing, to make a point, but I realized later that I didn’t examine that idea in the way that I should have, and I was especially remiss in neglecting to acknowledge my own breastfeeding privilege, of which I enjoy plenty.

I mentioned breastfeeding privilege in my previous posts because it seems like most (but definitely not all) of the women who defend the “breast is best” rhetoric have experienced success in breastfeeding (and I don’t mean specifically on my posts, but anywhere the conversation takes place). That’s not to say that many of them did not struggle significantly to get to a positive place (and I am absolutely not trying to belittle or disregard anyone’s struggle to achieve a successful breastfeeding experience), but most of them ultimately achieved a rewarding breastfeeding relationship that they enjoy, if not cherish (and at the very least appreciate). I think it’s hard to understand how damaging the “breast is best” rhetoric can be if your experience has ultimately been positive, or at least advantageous.

Of course, people could argue that I have been successful in breastfeeding, because at 4.5 months old, my son is still exclusively fed breast milk. And those people would be right. I enjoy all sorts of breastfeeding privilege. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t still be breastfeeding today. I have the choice to continue providing breast milk for my son, and at the foundation of that choice, is my privilege.

Here are some of the breastfeeding privileges I inhabit:

– the time and resources to work at my breastfeeding relationship with my son, and eventually exclusively pump (including almost four months of maternity leave)

– access to lactation consultants and La Leche League leaders.

– access to treatments for breastfeeding-related maladies like thrush and mastitis (including health insurance to cover my hospitalization due to mastitis and the antibiotics used to treat it)

– the education required to research and advocate for myself

– a (more than) ample milk supply

– a good quality pump

– a schedule that accommodates exclusively pumping

– the financial resources needed to purchase pump parts, nursing pads, nursing bras, and other breastfeeding accoutrements

– a husband who supported me during my breastfeeding difficulties and continues to support me in my commitment to exclusively pump

– the ability to stay off my non-breastfeeding compatible medications for an extended period of time

{I’m sure there are more that I’m forgetting, or don’t even recognize. That is the thing about privilege, it’s so easy to look past it, to not even acknowledge it’s there, informing everything about our experience.}

Yes, I enjoy a great deal of breastfeeding privilege, but there is much breastfeeding privilege that I don’t enjoy. In the end I toe the line, the razor thing line separating breastfeeding success and failure. I am able to provide breast milk for my son, but I do so at (what I deem a) great cost to myself. (I also am not able to provide breast milk in a way that is recognized as positive, or even “normal” by society). In order to feed my son breast milk: I endure constant physical pain, and discomfort; I deprive myself of medications that allow me to function in a way that feels normal; and I sacrifice huge amounts of time to pumping. Absolutely no part of my breastfeeding experience is positive, except for providing my son with breast milk. I have just enough breastfeeding privilege that it’s assumed I will continue to provide breast milk, even when doing so makes me unhappy. In the eyes of the majority of LCs and LLLs who espouse “breast is best,” my suffering is not ENOUGH to warrant me quitting. Providing my son with breast milk is more important than sparing myself physical, mental and emotional suffering.

So that is why I take issue with “breast is best.” But I understand why other women support the “breast is best” campaign and worry that studies like the one I celebrated might damage its message. And ironically, I think their concern comes down to privilege as well, but in a different way. What those women want (at least the ones who are not militant lactivists who think every woman should breast feed, no matter what challenges they face), is for as many of the privileges that are now required for women to have successful breastfeeding experiences, to not be privileges at all, but basic rights. They want adequate maternity leave, access to breastfeeding support or the assurance of space and time for pumping at work to not be privileges, but rights, rights that all women have. They want women to have the choice to breastfeed without prejudice, just like I want women to have the choice to not breastfeed without prejudice. Ultimately we want the same things, we just see them through different lenses–different lenses of privilege, in fact.

There will always be some form of privilege inherent in a successful breastfeeding experience–the privilege to have a milk supply that meets your baby’s demands, the privilege of having a baby who can learn to latch and suck productively, the privilege of not requiring medications that are unsafe while breastfeeding, the list goes on and on. But there are even more privileges that don’t need to be privileges at all. Those privileges, like access to information, support and resources, are what the “breast is best” campaign was created to break down. So while I may not support what the “breast is best” campaign has become in my area, for women like me, I will “check my privilege,” and hope that we can stop fighting with each other about which is best–breast milk or formula–and work to create a world in which not only the privileged get to choose how to best feed their kids.

Do you recognize your own privilege, and the ways in which it informs your understanding of the world?

5 responses

  1. “What those women want (at least the ones who are not militant lactivists who think every woman should breast feed, no matter what challenges they face), is for as many of the privileges that are now required for women to have successful breastfeeding experiences, to not be privileges at all, but basic rights. ”

    Yes, this. I disagreed with some parts of your Breast is Best post and agreed with others, but it was your use of the word privilege that really hit me hard. Every part of me cries out: “but it shouldn’t be a privilege! It should be a right! A true choice!”

    And yes, I’m acutely aware of my privilege in being able to successfully breastfeed my two kids (one still, the other is weaned) as a working mother, and it makes me sad that it’s a privilege. I feel incredibly blessed and grateful, but sad.

    Thanks for following up with this post.

  2. I was happy to see the study too. I despise the breast is best campaign, it puts all who can’t in a corner. We already feel guilty, as infertile women we have already been through so much. And to fail again when we can’t feed our children the way we want….
    I love your stance.
    I admire your stance.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. I love this post SO much- have been thinking about it all day. I have always looked at being able to breastfeed Charlotte as a privilege- the main privilege being she is healthy and is able to do it. But I also stay home, have access to great resources and medical care, and have support. I’m planning to write about this tonight- thank you for this post 🙂

  4. I love this interpretation of privilege. It’s made me think about privilege in a lot of different ways. I’m still thinking, and really have little to add, but wanted to thank you for raising this.

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