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The hardest part of my early
motherhood was mastering breastfeeding. Not only did my nipples ache, crack and bleed, but I was constantly terrified that my baby wasn't getting enough
milk. Those were some dark days.
As dark as they were, I was
surrounded by helpful mom friends who cheered me on. When I was about to give
up, I looked up a La Leche League International meeting and let a room
full of strangers give me advice. Other than a
few uncomfortable stares when I would nurse in public, I did not experience any
hostility from the people around me. I felt that whole communities of nursing mothers were invested in my success.
First, not all nursing parents are
mothers, a truth that cuts against the iconic image of a mother
nursing her newborn baby. That picture is all over my OB's office, on the bus,
on the books I bought before I gave birth and all over social media. Because I
identify as a woman, I've never once questioned those images or the language
surrounding breastfeeding as something exclusively done by mothers.
But the truth is that a growing
number of transgender parents are nursing their children. For
nursing parents who no longer identify as female, the images and ingrained
language we use around nursing excludes them and their experience. For them, not only do they have to deal with the
physical and emotional challenges of learning to breastfeed their babies, but they also
operate as an invisible minority that does not always feel welcome in the same
places that welcomed me and my baby with open arms.
It's worthwhile to strive for inclusion so that all nursing parents have access to the support that is so critical to a successful and nurturing breastfeeding experience.
The changes that have enlarged our
understanding of gender beyond the traditional male-female binaries also require us to adapt
our birthing communities to include the nursing parents who do not identify as
a woman or a mother.
But there has been some resistance.
For example, in August 2015, Women-Centered Midwifery issued an open letter to
the Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA) expressing concern over MANA's
use of gender-neutral language designed to include nursing parents who a
transgender. The signatories to the open letter criticize
MANA for erasing the word "woman" and replacing it with "pregnant individual"
and "birthing parent." The heart of
their argument hinges on their belief that "there are two distinct biological
sexes, female and male, with each having particular primary and secondary sex
characteristics that allow us to make a distinction between the two." And their concern is that "[f]emale liberation from patriarchal oppression, including brutal
and demeaning birth practices, cannot be achieved if we are forbidden from
mentioning female biology."
The challenge, then, is to find a way
to enlarge the conversation to include the trans parent's experience,
while also advancing female liberation from patriarchal oppression. And while this is a tall order, it's
worthwhile to strive for inclusion so that all nursing parents have access to
the support that is so critical to a successful and nurturing breastfeeding
La Leche League International has taken steps to include trans
parents, including issuing a press release noting that it has "refined its
eligibility qualifications for its volunteer breastfeeding counselors to
include men who otherwise meet the prerequisites for becoming a volunteer
applicant." This is a good start.
But more steps are needed to enlarge the
circle of nursing support systems to include trans nursing parents. Inclusive language and materials are a critical beginning, as they signal to
those who may not identify as mothers that they will be welcomed and supported. While the aim of freeing women from patriarchal oppression is important for us and our children, the success of that mission is undermined if we don't include the people who are nursing along side us.