Others’ Milk: The Potential of Exceptional Breastfeeding

Susan Falls

Others’ Milk: The Potential of Exceptional Breastfeeding. Kristin J. Wilson, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2018, 296 pp.

Kristin Wilson’s well-conceived ethnography, Others’ Milk, shows how exceptional breastfeeding casts hegemonic cultural categories into relief. The book illustrates the multiple ways in which transgressing norms about breastfeeding can work to change those categories. Others’ Milk is thus a work of scholarship on breastfeeding as much as it is an act of activist writing. Smoothly integrating the many disparate structural forces that underpin contemporary parenting—race, class, gender, reproductive rights and technologies, adoption, feminism, legal practices, science, identity politics, kinship, medicine, and the politics of labor—Wilson explores how we can “free ourselves from the essentialist ideological booby traps that surround breastfeeding and begin to move toward a more supportive, less alienating, less judgmental, perhaps even more communal, experience of raising the next generation” (p. 23).

It is exciting to see an increasingly robust ethnographic literature developing on breastfeeding in the United States. Much of this work focuses on mothers who choose (or do not choose) to breastfeed their own babies within the context of technology (e.g., the availability of pumps), medicine (e.g., pharmaceutical products that support or stop milk production), reproductive practices (such as the rise in surrogates), and ideas about the importance of breastmilk to children’s health and well-being (advanced by a number of institutions such as La Leche League, the AAUP, and even the insurance industry). Others’ Milk represents a significant contribution to this literature by focusing on the adoptive, gay, genderqueer, surrogate, male, grandparents, and/or foster parents who also practice breastfeeding.

By working with breastfeeders who themselves deem their practices exceptional, Wilson is perfectly positioned to use wisdom from the margins to identify, critique, and expand convention. And in writing from her own experience as a white, middle-class, feminist scholar who was also a breastfeeding adoptive mom, Wilson is able to add her own experience to the collective resistance to restrictions on breastfeeding. In addition to deftly interrogating how her own identity impacted the interviews she conducted, she includes a single image of her own pumping journey, which works to illustrate her sense of vulnerability and humor. An appendix depicts her pool of informants by age, sexual identity, gender identity, partner status, occupation, political affiliation, religion, and race/ethnicity. This appendix reinforces the strong sense of ethnographic authority created by the extensive use of quotations throughout the text. In fact, Wilson makes language her ally throughout the book.

For example, in demonstrating how breastfeeding is constructed, misunderstood, medicalized, or magicalized through various lenses, Wilson highlights informants’ use of language. Women may refer to milk as “liquid love” or “liquid gold,” or even talk of milk’s transubstantiation from bodily fluid to life-giving elixir. The language surrounding breast milk, she shows, is often borrowed from economics (supply, demand, shortage, stockpile, quality, and so forth) in ways that position milk-giving caregivers as both labor and management within a quintessentially American neoliberal milieu.

But she does more than track ideologies revealed by labeling practices. When language fails to account for performances or even identities, people get creative. They question the concept of breastfeeding itself and present new terms. Wilson describes, for example, how cisgender males or transmasculine fathers might “chestfeed” using donated milk, while others might “mixfeed” (suckling at the breast and supplementing with formula as needed). These terms both play with and appraise the limits of medical establishment vocabulary.

Medical service providers encourage breastfeeding. Doing so, they secure their own financial well-being. The medicalization of breastfeeding means that doctors, at times unwittingly, exert a set of moral values surrounding gender, the body, and sexuality. Wilson argues, for example, that the restriction around foster parents breastfeeding their children belies not only a rather unscientific and irrational squeamishness about bodily fluids but masks a desire to punish homosexual caregivers. But the hegemony of the baby–industrial complex can be challenged when parents and caregivers go outside of institutional recommendations. Exceptional breastfeeders subvert medicalization in all kinds of ways—from dissembling to social workers and doctors, to milk-sharing, to using medicine itself to induce lactation. Exceptional breastfeeding highlights the rule by breaking it while discovering alternative ways of living together.

Meanwhile, a network of lactivists counter the pathologization of babies’ feeding practices, an activity integral to the medicalization of breastfeeding, by critiquing scientific motherhood, supporting experiential knowledge, reassuring new parents of the unpredictability of feeding adventures, asking them to be intentional about not measuring and keeping track of weighing and feeding schedules, and encouraging breastfeeders to explore all options. At times, lactation consultants and exceptional breastfeeders might use terms like the more open-ended “journey” rather than the more teleological “milestones” to shift understandings away from an evidence-based narrative of breastfeeding. Wilson herself presents new terms that allow her to work her way through exceptional practices as an ethnographer: her own neologisms such as espousers (p. 101), those who launch their breastfeeding journeys from preexisting political platforms, or intrinsics (p. 105), those who experience their feeding practices as incidental to political commitments, help forge a wider theoretical landscape for other scholars looking at (exceptional) breastfeeding. These new terms entail the dynamics of risk and power as they intersect with love, embodiment, and “othermothering.”

One of the most surprising findings presented in this book is the impact of exceptional breastfeeding on caregivers themselves. Wilson convincingly argues that the often-unexpected healing power of breastfeeding can encourage breastfeeders to continue despite the substantial pressures they experience to stay within normative, medicalized boundaries. Exceptional breastfeeding and nursing can thus be a form of self-care, a path for self-discovery, a tool for healing childhood traumas, and a kin-making practice. Here Wilson presents the milky care of others and self as embedded in a complex landscape of science, race, class, sexuality, and gender just as they are experienced in real time.

The book is logically organized. It sets up the range of circumstances that might lead to exceptional breastfeeding (including anxieties, the treachery of bodies unable or unwilling to produce sufficient milk, weak labor laws, and/or family issues) and then examines why and how breastfeeders respond to these limitations with ingenuity, willpower, and access to resources. These parents are paradoxically aided and hindered by cultural institutions, such as La Leche League, and the everyday workings of neoliberal capitalism. Likewise, the book embraces the construction and experience of breastfeeding as natural and feminine while presenting it as an object of deconstruction: Some informants understand breastfeeding as the ultimate expression of feminine biopower, while others actively disassociate breastfeeding, breasts, and breastmilk from gender norms. The inviting readability, stand-alone chapters, and quotation-rich ethnographic engagement make this book ideal for professionals as well as introductory and advanced undergraduate students in courses on gender and sexuality, family and kinship, medical anthropology, ethnographic methods, and the anthropology of North America.

In exploring individual acts and grassroots social movements that help exceptional breastfeeders develop and share strategies for navigating the ideologies, technologies, institutions, and medical interventions that characterize the hegemonic breastfeeding landscape, Wilson shows us that exceptional breastfeeders not only challenge the status quo, but bend it toward making mothering, and indeed parenting, better and more satisfying for all.

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