I made the classic media mistake last week: Read a story with a clickbait headline and forget that the truth might be more nuanced.
What I read (and the flurry of outcry that followed) suggested that we are now to speak of “chestfeeding” instead of “breastfeeding.” Which does make sense, in certain cases. Medical science makes so much possible now: Lactation can be stimulated in breasts we once thought of as male, pregnancies can be accomplished in all sorts of nontraditional ways, and “mother’s milk” can come from someone who would not refer to themselves as a “mother.”
I did find it ironic, though, that the organization supposedly mandating this terminology, the British National Health Service, issued the new rule to “midwives” with no apparent thought to the female connotation of that word. Midwives they are, and they must avoid automatically referring to someone giving birth as a “mother” or teaching them to “breastfeed.”
At the risk of incurring the wrath that fell upon Voldemort’s creator when she objected to the phrase “people who menstruate,” it seemed a little odd to take something so intimately connected to the female body and assign language that negates that. There is a basic biology to the natural, unassisted production of breast milk. Besides, men have breasts too; they are just flatter. No one has yet figured out how to feed a baby from a chest that is entirely smooth, devoid of nipples. So the preference for “chest” must be because of the sexualization of the female breast? When we think of breasts growing fuller, purple-veined, and heavy with milk, we do not think of male breasts. We think of the sort of breasts that give us a little thrill of unease and fascination, because our connection to them is primal.
Here in the United States, we have long treated the female breast with the simultaneous attraction and repulsion you would expect from a horny but traumatized adolescent. Images of a woman breastfeeding have been blacked out of films that left scenes of lurid, splattery violence intact. When a commercial steals Nina Simone’s “I’ve Got Life,” with her joyous recital of all her body parts, they invariably leave out “got my boobies.” And people in public places ogle or tut if a woman discreetly puts her baby to her breast. Will they still freak out if someone presses an infant to a flat chest? Or will that somehow feel less troubling, less related to the fecund mysteries that have made men need and mistrust women?
If we were truly okay with every possible permutation of gender, sexuality, and anatomy, language might cease to be a minefield. Someone who was male or nonbinary but had the anatomy for childbearing could give birth and lactate and call it either breast or chestfeeding, as they liked. Child-rearing might be eased by the understanding that anybody can do it—and in fact, the whole village ought to be participating. But in our attitudes toward birth, it is hard to separate what is primal, what is habit, and what has been romanticized by our culture. And that is complicated by the advances of medical science, which have made it possible for us to have every experience, regardless of our anatomy, age, or gender. Grandmothers act as surrogates, bearing children for their daughters. Men chest-feed. Cisgender couples go to incredible lengths, at great expense and considerable emotional and physical hardship, to conceive a baby that carries their own genes.
Deep down, I think what bothered me was not so much the awkward new language as the technological imperative that seemed to be driving it. My dad died when I was eight months old, but I still remember my mom telling me how he would cuddle me close and give me my bottle and burp and rock me and we would both doze off, me nestled into his neck. The image warms me far more than the thought of Dad taking medicine so he could muster up some milk. But our culture is so anxious about childrearing (at least until we pawn it off on screens and hired services) that the slightest health benefit becomes dogma.
Changes in language are healthy; our words need to keep up with us. And it is high time cisgender women ceased to be the high priestesses of childrearing; it has been a heavy, often burdensome joy, and babies need more than one sort of caregiver. But when milk comes from a breast, calling it breast milk does not feel cruel to me. On the other hand, if having breasts was traumatic for you, and you hated them and bound them tight and wanted them cut off, maybe the word would be painful. We should make room for that.
But beyond such individual needs, there is a tendency to perpetuate the old ways even as we try to expand access. Because a certain arrangement has been centered and idealized, there is an assumption that everybody should have the ability and right to participate in just that way—which then requires a layer of high-tech intervention and an inelegant vocabulary, if we wish to be inclusive. Would we replace “walk” with “ambulate” because not everyone has the use of their legs? There is a loss of precision—and those who cannot walk are not likely to be soothed by renaming the rose. Language is shorthand, taking off from the most obvious place and letting us fill in the nuance. It never includes every permutation. It is our job to bend it, find new layers of meaning.
I guess it is in that spirit that people in same-sex marriages keep the terminology “husband” or “wife,” simply pairing off as two husbands or two wives. This has always puzzled me: Why would you want to take those words as normative, even as you are making the point that the old cisgender procreative male-female union should not own committed love? “Husband” comes from the Old Norse húsbóndi, or “master of a house,” and its original sense as a verb was to “till, cultivate.” So two farmers get married and they both get to make all the decisions? “Wife” has blurrier origins, mainly just meaning a female person, but in the 1880s, it was used to mean “a passive partner in a homosexual couple.” What? Now that I have looked all this up, I am not sure I want the words myself.
We no longer think of husbands as farmers or assume wives are passive. But we do think of husband-and-wife as a particular sort of relationship, one in which the two terms define each other. There can be no husband without a wife, no wife without a husband. That might be the best reason for keeping those terms: They insist on a partner, taking their shape from the other person. “Partner” does not insist; you can have many partners and partners of many kinds. But at least in this culture, you can only have one husband or wife.
In the end, the answer to a lot of these questions, it seems to me, is to have more words, not substitutions. Breastfeeding, chestfeeding, mother’s milk, dad’s milk. Choose by the situation. We have plenty of pronouns now, plenty of ways to be a person. And yes, it takes more thought to vary the vocabulary; you have to know who you are talking about and what their life situation and preference are. Which is good to find out anyway, and as it turns out, that is exactly what the National Health Service was advocating all along.
I jumped easily to the wrong conclusion; a lot of us did. We forget there is more than one answer.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.