Perhaps there is no such a thing as a beginning in writing in the same way that there is no one way of becoming a mother, as once suggested by Spanish philosopher María Zambrano (2012). So, allow me to start with a brief anecdote. My typical academic work engages with the domestic space, relations of labor, both formal and informal, and their role in the historical marking of Spanish modernity (roughly from the late nineteenth century through our contemporary moment). More specifically, my current book manuscript, looks at the space of the home through the lens of Spanish literature and film. However, the topics that I delve into in the context of Spanish modernity do not stray far from those I write about in this particular article that deals with the contemporary North American university and its flawed equating of maternity and paternity. When I came across the Museum of Motherhood, I had also just read a series of articles from The Chronicle of Higher Education on parenting during the pandemic and I was shocked with how far from reality the articles strayed in attempting to engage with the very real and contemporary issues of raising children while in academia during a global pandemic. For example, I read Maggie Doherty’s 2021 article, “The Quiet Crisis of Parents on the Tenure Track” which outlines very important and valid complaints by academic parents that suffered working from home while raising children during the global pandemic. In this particular piece, the author spoke with more than twenty parents from across the country who were tenured or on the tenure track and discussed their experiences of parenting during the pandemic, specifically while in academia. In all of the diverse experiences narrated in the article, accessible and affordable childcare came up the most as paramount to allowing academics the flexibility to continue performing in line with their colleagues who were not parents.
As a breastfeeding mother who was working from home with my then-infant during the height of the COVID pandemic, both the article and its very real and important responses skirted around a glaring difference between breastfeeding mothers and non-breastfeeding caretakers, the main one being that breastfeeding mothers do not need (and in many cases do not want) to be separated from their nurslings. More so than childcare, these mothers needed someone to care for them! In fact, I was so stunned with the complete lack of acknowledgment of breastfeeding mothers altogether that I sent an opinion piece to The Chronicle of Higher in response to this article. Of course, my piece was rejected. The result of said response is what I have expanded in this article. But I present this article, not in the spirit of critiquing an academic newsletter that rejected my work, insofar as one could argue that “criticism” lurks smugly under the patriarchal project of rationality and obedience, but rather as a written acknowledgment that the neoliberal workplace’s quest for equality across genders refuses to grasp the complexity of experience that is inherent in becoming and being a breastfeeding mother.
One lazy summer afternoon, I found myself chatting with two colleagues while our children played. One colleague had welcomed his second child into the world in early February of this same year. When I asked about his upcoming classes, he nonchalantly reminded me that he chose to take his paternity leave during the fall semester, that is, almost seven months after his daughter was born. My other colleague jokingly prodded, “what will you do with all your free time?” As if this were the blanket norm for new parents, my colleague laughed and said, “You know. The usual. I will catch up on work, put the finishing touches on my manuscript, take my oldest son to the park,” and yes, he said it: “relax.”
I held my tongue. While listening to my dear colleagues’ back-and-forth banter, my eyes began to twitch. When my daughter was born, I did not get the choice to take my maternity leave when I pleased. I definitely did not-I could not-meet my publication deadlines during those first seven months that my daughter was breastfeeding around the clock, seven days a week, every forty-five minutes on repeat, twenty-four hours a day. Those first weeks and months postpartum, my body was a train wreck. I was dangerously sleep-deprived. My vagina was so sore and bleeding that it was hard to sit, and yet, I had to sit all day long and all through the night, learning how the symbiotic breastfeeding relationship with my new nursling really works—because it wasn’t working. My baby was always hungry (as newborns tend to be) and needed to be on my breasts at all times. But her ferocious sucking chapped and cut my nipples, a sensation that to this day remains more painful than my natural labor. In my singular experience, it wasn’t until four months postpartum that my vagina stopped aching, my breasts were in somewhat less pain, and my daughter and I found our breastfeeding rhythm. This all happened just in time for me to go back to work, though I was still running on about three hours of choppy, extremely interrupted sleep a night.
Any well-intentioned reader could be wondering why a mom in this position wouldn’t just give her baby a bottle, or supplement with formula, or let her partner feed the baby at night. These are common pieces of advice that, especially within the Western ideal, permit mothers who are also professionals a relatively good night sleep. And why wouldn’t a new mother jump on the opportunity when she has to prepare to go back to work? As I will attempt to relay in this article, these suggestions are not only ignorant, irrelevant and even harmful to the singular experience of becoming a mother, they inherently uphold the deeply sexist, discriminatory, and dangerous severing of mother and nursling for the maintenance and functioning of the neoliberal system of power. Breastfeeding is the only time during the day of a new mother’s life that she is forced to lie down and rest, which should be the primary goal for a new mother, especially during the initial postpartum months. Afterall, carrying a child for nine months is, well, extremely grueling on the body and mind, to put it gently.
Breastfeeding is so much more than a timeout for mom and a quick snack for baby. It also provides important immunities. According to La Leche League International, breastfed babies and toddlers tend to experience illness far less than those who are fed formula (Importance of Breastfeeding). This was incentive enough to continue offering my daughter my breast during the COVID pandemic. While the American Pediatric Association recommends breastfeeding from six months to a year (Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk), the WHO acknowledges the natural weaning process for a toddler to occur two years and beyond (Infant and Young Child Feeding). The latter is inconceivable for most Western women in academia, and forced weaning is a common practice across the Western world. Unbeknownst to many, extended breastfeeding significantly lowers the risk of breast cancer, while early weaning does the opposite. Not to mention, cutting off breastfeeding is detrimental to the mother’s mental health. While the intersections of postpartum depression and bottle feeding remain a burgeoning field in medicine, multiple studies point to a rise in postpartum depression cases in non-breastfeeding mothers. According to a 2013 article published by Figueiredo & Canário & Field, mothers that do not engage in breastfeeding may have increased risk of postpartum depression. There is evidence that breastfeeding protects against postpartum depression and can aid in a faster recovery from symptoms of such (Breastfeeding is negatively affected).
At the same time, it behooves us to remember that the experience of breastfeeding exceeds biological quantification and must not be reduced to this framework. Even more interesting than the empirical evidence that points to the physical health benefits of breastfeeding on the body, the indescribable, unquantifiable joy and calm that a mother can receive from her nursling as they nestle their body under her arm and their face into her breast while mom’s and baby’s fingers gently caress one another, dopamine blanketing over the unified duo, is worth exploring. This serene and symbiotic act of rest is arguably the deepest, most singular expression of love a parent can experience, as it is a love of absolute freedom that lets things be in their proximity. Throughout modernity, however, our Western tradition has understood freedom as a set of normatively guaranteed rights and obligations that are parasitic to this more ‘original’ sense of freedom that only ancient thinkers and poets understood, a freedom deeply rooted in love of a harmonious existence of being. In fact, in modern times, freedom from women’s biological role as mothers lies at the core interest of much of the second wave of feminism, more specifically, in that of Liberal and Radical Libertarian feminism. As feminist theorist Shulamith Firestone famously wrote and as is quoted in Andrea O’Reilly’s keynote address and induction into the Motherhood Hall of Fame,
No matter how much educational, legal, and political equality women achieve and no matter how many women enter public industry, nothing fundamental will change for women as long as natural reproduction remains the rule and artificial or assisted reproduction the exception. Natural reproduction is neither in women’s best interests nor in those of the children so reproduced. The joy of giving birth- invoked so frequently in this society- is a patriarchal myth. In fact, pregnancy is barbaric, and natural childbirth is at best necessary and tolerable and at worst it is like shitting a pumpkin.
In this keynote address which took place in New York City in 2014, O’Reilly offers a compelling explanation as to why liberal feminist thinkers in line with Firestone understand pregnancy and motherhood as deeply rooted in the patriarchal institution that causes women’s oppression and therefore seek to reject motherhood both in theory and practice. For O’Reilly, feminists vehemently disagree with typecasting roles through traditional gender norms and motherhood is the quintessential gender norm for biological females. In her own words: “…because gender difference is seen as structuring and maintaining male dominance, many feminists seek to downplay and disavow anything that marked this difference; the main one being of course motherhood.” In this way, to theorize motherhood is to always support a traditional bifurcation of gendering and for those feminists who adamantly wish to move away from this gender duality, any talk of a maternal feminism is a different face of the same coin that is the patriarchy and its oppression of women.
For scholars such as O’Reilly, motherhood is the unfinished chapter of feminism; the irreducible habit of caring through breastfeeding that has nothing to give in exchange for its own practice is an interesting point of departure to think through this unwritten feminist demand since exchange is the principle value of any public facing practice in liberalism. Breastfeeding is the sole act which allows for the baby to eat, drink, relax, regroup, reset, soothe and fall asleep without raised levels of cortisol in the brain. The mother’s breast has the potential to serve as a much-needed home for a defenseless child throughout her or his infant year and through toddlerhood as well. With medical intervention, non-gestational cisgender and transgender women can also breastfeed and experience this relationship. And while arguably a different experience altogether, chest feeding can be included in this singular, unfolding of love between mother and nursling. In this way, love, and not exchange value, becomes a concept deeply tied to the breastfeeding experience that sets it apart from all other neoliberal practices.
Yet, what does love really to have to do with it? In our present moment, the concepts of love, care, and affect have returned to the forefront of political and theoretical debates across the humanities as freestanding for broad notions of human life, inter-personal relations, and social mediations that should be upheld and defended. In contemporary theoretical elaborations, the ideals of love and emotions are deeply entrenched in the political, because they are understood as primary motives for human behavior and social action. Consider, for instance, the great Marxist political philosophers Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, who have theorized love as a way to rebuild fractured communities, and a potential way to overcome differences on the political Left. In pointing out the radical shifts in economy, culture and law that have led to our new political order of globalization in our postmodern society, Hardt and Negri end their collaborative work, Empire, suggesting that the revolution undertaken by the multitude will be ‘a revolution that no power will control – because cooperation and revolution remain together, in love, simplicity, and also innocence’ (413). In Multitude, Hardt and Negri imagine the driving force, or ‘strong event’ that will propel the people to desire democracy will be ‘the real political act of love’ (358). While, this shift toward a politics of ‘love’ has taken far strides from a traditional emphasis on antagonism to address Marxism’s unresolved question of political organization, this turn to love comes at a cost since it is an exchange after all. Negri and Hardt’s understanding of love as the creative force of revolutionary consciousness leads them to give up the immanent force of desire in an effort to recast it exclusively as a mediation for the constitution of political struggles. Within the political, love, then, operates as a dangerous supplement, undermining the commitment to multiplicity and diversity as central aspects of political action. It also brings me to an extremely important and yet overlooked point—can love truly stand as an antidote to the political sphere structured as patriarchy? Or, rather, is love, as an incoherent, many times difficult or even devastating, and always irrational force actually able to be captured, shaped, and instrumentalized towards a political end? I would suggest that it cannot and the politicization of love and affect is undoubtedly the binding psychic force of neoliberal habits and university discourse that self-serve a principle of equivalence of temporal differences between the sexes, much more than the force that can fight them. The instrumentalization of love toward the end goal of providing a collective framework ultimately erases the possibly of singular habits of caring that exist between singular beings. If one were to envision the possibility of employing the concept of love toward a greater political goal of garnering justice for the mothers and nurslings within a neoliberal frame, in this case in the contemporary university, to paraphrase Argentinian psychoanalyst Jorge Alemán, this community would be composed of mothers who have no say, because no mother can speak to and on behalf of the experience of another (15).
This might all seem too theoretical and detached from our post-industrial present– a present heavily invested in cybernetics, digital screens, and an optics of equity– but one should not understand it as a theory, but rather as a free playing exploration of our experiences and forms. The reality is that when an Assistant Professor is able to and choses to breastfeed her child around the clock, allowing her breasts to not only feed but soothe, stabilize and calm the baby as well as soothe herself through the hormonal rollercoaster that is the postpartum experience, she may be embracing love, but she is also placing herself far behind her fellow colleagues in the race against the tenure clock. Paternity leave will never be the intense, full-body, emotionally and physically exhausting and at times, excruciating few months that maternity leave is for the breastfeeding mother. Nor do non-lactating partners ever experience the equal amount of emotional labor that it takes for a mother to have to separate from her child. (Just imagining the decision to take my maternity leave seven months postpartum is inconceivable to me because of how emotionally and physically tethered I was—and still am—to my daughter).
There is a glaring question I have asked myself since returning to work: Is this what motherhood is about? A brief stint with our babies before we are separated and severed as their primary caretaker and their home for good, increasing health risks—mental and physical—in both mother and nursling? Of course, I am not the first to ponder this question, and it is a question that has prevailed in our contemporary times. The question of motherhood as a means of controlling women’s bodies and experiences toward the maintenance of a diverse array of political, social, and economic systems has been approached and attacked in a rich corpus of feminist writings on motherhood. Writers and thinkers such as Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Patricia Hill Collins, Sarah Ruddick, Miriam Johnson, and of course, Andrea O’Reilly have all grappled with the intersection, or lack there of, between feminism and maternity. Adrienne Rich’s foundational book, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, opens with a concise description of the divide between “two meanings of motherhood, one superimposed on the other: the potential relationship of any woman to her powers of reproduction and to children; and the institution, which aims at ensuring that potential—and all women—shall remain under male control” (13). In light of Rich’s unparalleled wisdom, it must be understood that in equating the breastfeeding mother to the father or non-breastfeeding caretaker, the system is not only erasing the glaring needs of the mother and baby during the delicate years that the breastfeeding relationship unfolds, but as Rich suggests, “ghettoize[s] and degrade[s] female potentiality” (13) all in the name of equality of the genders. While paternity leave is important and the support a partner can give to his or her partner during leave can be critical to the mother’s well-being, the breastfeeding mother needs much more, and no equivalence between genders can amount to a corrective explanation of its form. In fact, her needs are such that they destabilize the very heart of the neoliberal workplace and its domination of temporality.
What do we mean by the neoliberal workplace, anyway? Simply put, the neoliberal workspace is not just the realization of economic accumulation and its indexes of growth, but rather the condensation of the heterogeneity of time into a linear clock that orders the forward movement of beings and things in the world in the name of capital. As Italian psychoanalyst Elvio Fachinelli suggests, it would be only possible to conceive another sense of human relations if capable of annulling the consequentialist temporality of capital (Fachinelli 2022). It is in this time where women exist and have arguably received compensation toward “equality” in the workplace but only as a compensatory entity to the maintenance of the temporal organization of exchange, administration, and the economy. In this society, the ideal form of an organization is the one aimed at making profit and this same society believes that true freedom is inherently economic freedom. Neoliberal ideologies in the workplace affect the way the status quo is maintained and an important component in this maintenance is the promotion of an emotional commitment to the institution. This is perpetuated through a defense of social ties to the organization, with the expectation that employees not only invest their intellectual or manual labour but that they consider their workplace their second home where they work (and play) amongst their second “families.”
In this sense, the neoliberal university very much mirrors the neoliberal office in its quest for familial “excellence.” Assistant professors and tenured professors alike are not spared as the university pushes them toward this ideal of valorization. They are asked to extensively research and teach while also taking on a unsustainable workload in service for the university. This work is all coupled with the unspoken push toward socialization where professors are expected to get together and discuss work over drinks. The ludic culture of working hard and playing hard stereotypically found in fraternities has now also found a way to deeply ingrain itself in the culture of professors, the same group of overly intelligent minds that once upon a time would have greatly critiqued this turn toward absurdity. And yet, for the new mother, not only is this culture absurd, but also unattainable. It amounts to nothing less than the destruction of motherhood.
While the experience of motherhood is always singular in its evolution and development, it behooves us to remember that motherhood can never be reduced to a normative biological act of birthing followed by a clear and sustained act of severing or separation. Quite on the contrary, a mother’s body is a site, a place, a use. A mother performs the act of mothering, perpetually and cyclically, fueled by a whisper or a humming of a deep immanent desire that cannot be represented or symbolized in any patriarchal discourse. This desire, as psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray theorizes, is a separation in proximity known as female desire, and it rejects both the domestic figure of the mother silently confined within the home as well as the historical figure of the mother as reinstated in the political (50). It also rejects the Western-European intertwining of sexuality with an existence that is engulfed in cultural conceptions of possession and commodification and where bodies, their theoretical conceptions, and their instrumentalization are often used as a means to a monetary end. For Irigaray, the inscription of the gendered body is always written as deeply intertwined with its relationship (or lack thereof) with the other masculine body. This narration in dialogue raises the question of how commodities relate to other commodities. Can the mother (and/or the virgin and the prostitute—the two other masculine ordered historical narrations of the woman) enter into a relationship where her identity does not depend on its mediation between men? Can the woman have rights to pleasure when her sexuality has been defined to ensure that she is the object of, not the subject with, desire? To this end, Irigaray closes her article, “Commodities among Themselves,” with the jolting question: “what if these ‘commodities’ refused to go to market?”
In conceptualizing the lactating mother in a hyper-professionalized world, we are confronted with the answer to Irigaray’s powerful question. Here emerges a third figure—not the invisible domestic mother, or angel of the hearth developed for the economic needs of Victorian liberalism nor the political mother brought about by second wave feminism in a rejection of the domestic mother —but the mother of desire, whose relationship with her nursling is irreducible to any structuration of social value or market value that is already set up to be organized around the allocation of time and exchange. This mother of desire is the mother figure that existed a priori to the foundation of male-dominated civilization that for Irigaray, emerges as the mother is instrumentalized and inscribed into the narration of history. This is the mother that is tied to the cycles of women’s bodies, swayed by the seasons and propelled by the phases of the moon, and the fertility of the earth that as Monica Sjoo and Barbara Moor posit in The Great Cosmic Mother, was the original force of all humanity and the exact opposite force that propels our neoliberal institutions today. The presence of lactating mothers in our neoliberal institutions stands in direct opposition to the uncontrollable process of domestication and controlling of women’s bodies that begins with the mother’s inscription into male-centric historical temporality (Camatte 2021).
We now know that female desire as that which drives the breastfeeding relationship can annul the assembly of time proper to the ruling order because it escapes the very modalities of the sequence of rules and orders proper to the masculine imperative. Whereas society and its institutions can mask the overarching goal of achieving capital with the façade of love, the breastfeeding mother has nothing to mask as her relationship she cultivates with her nursling has no ulterior motive that would fuel the economic power dynamics of the neoliberal web of institutions and systems. Unlike her tenure clock that demands her to produce, to mingle and to network on repeat, all within the masculine frame of accumulation, the academic mother’s postpartum clock asks her to rest, to move away from the extractive, abstract process of production, and to relax into the cyclical world that she is now living in tandem with her nursling. Just like in the womb, she and her nursling are still one. To separate them in the name of work and progress is falling prey to the masculine engendered frame that encases time and work. But to keep them together is a radical step toward supporting a habit of ‘letting be’ that stands well above the economic demands that administers the neoliberal rationalization of order. This is far from a politics of love that requires a commitment to a narrative that is always part of the masculine imperative. Instead, keeping the mother and her nursling together is the fulfilled embodiment of love as an experience on the back of historical empty time, where time cannot be measured in correlation to accumulation.
Alemán, Jorge. Soledad: común: políticas en Lacan. Buenos Aires: Capital Intelectual, 2012.
“Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk,” American Academy of Pediatrics, https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/129/3/e827
Camatte, Jacques. “L’asservissement des femmes et mise en dépendance de l’enfant”, Invariance, 2020.
Figueiredo, B., Canário, C., and Field, T., “Breastfeeding is negatively affected by prenatal depression and reduces postpartum depression,” Cambridge University Press, July 3, 2013, https://www.cambridge.org/coreBreastfeeding is negatively affected by prenatal depression and reduces postpartum depression/journals/psychological-medicine/article/abs/breastfeeding-is-negatively-affected-by-prenatal-depression-and-reduces-postpartum-depression/EA17120DDFCA7FE1D4A5645D9A4E2DD3
Doherty, Maggie, “The Quiet Crisis of Parents on the Tenure Track” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 20, 2021.
Fachinelli, E. The Still Arrow: Three Attempts to Annul Time. New York: Seagull Books, 2021.
Ficino, M., On the Nature of Love: Ficino on Plato’s Symposium. London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 2016.
Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio. Empire, Harvard University Press, 2000.
———.Multitude, Penguin Books, 2005.
“Importance of Breastfeeding, ” La Leche League International, https://www.llli.org/breastfeeding-info/benefits/
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Irigaray, Luce. The Irigaray Reader. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1992.
———. This Sex Which is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter & Carolyn Burke. New York: Cornell University Press, 1977.
O’Reilly, Andrea. “Motherhood Hall of Fame Keynote,” 2014.
Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. Norton, 1995.
Zambrano, M. (2012). “Los origins de la novela”, Aurora. Papeles Del Seminario María Zambrano, 2013.