The woman in that room is threatened. Breastfeeding rates are low, and getting lower among some groups. If it is not the sanctity of motherhood and women's ultimate feminine roles that persuades me to try to keep her safe, and it is not the emphasis on "healthy babies," that persuades me, what is it then that I value about that image of a woman with baby at breast? We were asked to think about that in this meeting, and I have been thinking hard.
I find myself thinking about it in terms that might seem quite unrelated. I have become interested in food studies, and attended some meetings of late. At one, I found myself listening to a panel of artisanal food makers, people who were treating the production of food as something of deep cultural and social worth. They were a bit unclear about what specifically they were valuing: the individualized small production? Not necessarily. The classic, traditional techniques? Not always. As I listened to them try to decide what was the "essence" of artisanal food production, what made it meaningful, I was reminded of the ways that midwives talk about birth. Some work in big impersonal hospitals, and yet still claim to be practicing something that should be called midwifery. Some use newer technologies and interventions. Some work in groups and find themselves attending women they never met before. What is it that they are clinging to that marks the essence, the essential truth of midwifery?
And that is the question I hear at this conference, and among the breastfeeding community in general – lactation consultants, La Leche League people – what are we clinging to? If we lose breastfeeding, they are saying, something precious will be lost. This is, I do believe, not all about rationality, though we cling to that, as do the artisanal food makers and the midwives. We can make good strong arguments from the perspective of health, of outcome, of good scientific data. And yet, if they perfected commercial industrial food products, if they perfected cesarean sections, if they perfected artificial breast milk supplements – if all of these were made just as safe and healthy as the "natural" alternatives – I would be left without some of the good arguments I use, but I would not be satisfied. We can make claims to health and to choice: but they are rationalizations we are using because – at root, fundamentally – we believe that the woman in that room with the baby at her breast represents something precious and valuable. We need to make what arguments we can; we need to draw on whatever works in our society; but I think we also need to be honest with ourselves. We need to think hard about where are we coming from and what we are hanging on to, what we can use but not be used by as we move ahead, as we try to make that room a safe space.