There has been much jubilation this week in the women’s health and lactation (and tech) worlds this week as a brand new “smart” breast pump that will be hitting the market this Spring got the tech world excited at CES 2017. While the Scary Mommy blog and Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric, and Neonatal Nurses were beside themselves with joy over the new Willow breastpump, I believe a healthy dose of skepticism about this type of product is in order.
What’s the big idea? It’s quiet and discrete–you can wear it under your bra, it’s wireless, and it has some cool tech features. It’s being pitched as a way to multitask while pumping. Imagine easily commuting, going to the movies, making dinner, or cleaning the bathroom while pumping! Great for busy nursing parents, right?!
Don’t get me wrong–as a supporter of human milk for human babies and a former (and possibly future) pumping and working mama, I am for easing the burden of expressing milk when needed. For instance, as a nursing mama, I did bring my electric pump to the opening night of Star Wars: Force Awakens last year–went straight from clinic to the movies and plugged in during the previews and opening credits! This pump would have indeed made my expression of milk easier. The critique that follows is more about lower wage women than about professional workers such as myself that could likely afford the Willow. In regard to the Willow, we must consider the following not just about our own potential personal use of the pump but about what it represents.
- Moms are under pressure more than ever to Do More. You’ve heard that cute phrase “mother’s work is never done”? Or perhaps are familiar with the concept of the “second shift” of women* having two jobs–one (usually under-) paid at work, then going home to be mainly responsible for housework and childcare? With the devaluing of care and women’s work generally, nursing mamas are producing even more value for the economy by making food for their infants that doesn’t have to be paid for (unlike artificial milk for babies, which can be exorbitant but is paid for by programs like WIC). This product allows the pumping parent to Do More while pumping. Sure, that may be convenient and beneficial for many mamas struggling to feed their children, whether working outside of the home or not. However, it strikes me that this product is a symptom (not a creator) of the general societal expectation for mamas to be Super Mothers. In this time of neoliberalism and very few social resources that would actually help parents raise healthy children like, say, socialized high quality daycare/other childcare, postpartum in-home nurse care, excellent local public schools, accessible healthy food for families, walkable safe neighborhoods, paid maternity leave (for at least 12 months like a civilized county) etc.–mothers are still expected to Do Everything to raise healthy children by: breastfeeding in spite of all odds, prepare homemade meals for our kids every night, and sacrifice everything to be the right kind of mother who balances career and parenting. No such standards are ever applied to men/fathers because Sexism.
Let’s be real. While mothers who can afford it (see point #3, below) would likely benefit from a pump like this to get more done at home–though most pumping moms I know do most of their pumping while at work, except exclusively pumping mamas–the real and direct beneficiary of products like Willow are the corporations that don’t really want to support their employees’ right to undisturbed pumping time on the job that is (for now) guaranteed under the Affordable Care Act. Makes you wonder if the creators of Willow have just been waiting for the ACA to be closer to repeal in order to promote this product. In every circle of breastfeeding parents I have been part of, there are constant questions about workers’ rights to pumping time. Many people resort to working through pumping time (though not as discretely as they would with the Willow) because it’s just not practical to take proper breaks to pump (I myself usually did charting while pumping because there’s always charting to be done, and the extra charting time lessened my time staying late). This will only get worse if nursing protections are lost with the almost inevitable upcoming ACA repeal. Bad news for maternal and child health–and workers’ rights. But here’s Willow, and ready to accommodate your upcoming loss of rights! Wouldn’t you like to see your midwife while they express milk for their child?! Or have your latte prepped by a properly productive multitasking discretely pumping barista? Or groceries rung up by a pumping cashier?
- Retailing at over $400, plus and astonishing $0.50 per single-use milk storage bag, Willow will be cost prohibitive to the vast majority of working mothers. For a product that will make it easier to make pumping parents work through their pumping session, the least capital could do is subsidize this product. In a rational world, corporations would be made to bear the burden of the cost of such a product, rather than consumers. Sure, eventually, Willow would benefit under the current ACA requirement for health insurance to provide lactation benefits. But until then–or after, if/when ACA is repealed under the next Administration–Willow will be a privilege of a small minority of wealthier professionals who can afford it. I wouldn’t consider Willow a “game-changer,” as it’s being touted, unless and until it is free to all pumping parents who need it in order to meet their breastfeeding goals.
- Finally, one question about this product that I’ve seen raised by lots of mamas on breastfeeding forums has to do with the actual science of milk production. Willow claims that it senses letdown and then switches to expression mode (not far off from Medela’s technology), but many pumping parents have expressed (um, sorry) concern that it can be hard to actually produce more milk while focusing on things other than nourishing the baby you love. That’s why many people don’t like pumping–you are always having to measure your output against your baby’s nutrition needs for the next day, and for many, the pressure of making enough makes this a stressful rather than satisfying process. The pressure many of us feel to pump enough in our stressful parenting and working lives does more harm for milk production than good. Some may feel better getting things done while pumping rather than staring at the pump as it fills up, but I question the physiologic good of hooking a mama up to a pump so she can be disconnected from the thing her body is doing (expressing milk) while her mind can be focused on doing something else. This seems to suggest that our nursing bodies are just machines for milk output. Most of the writing I’ve seen on increasing milk production (and I have ear a lot of it while struggling with it personally) suggests focusing your mind on your body and your baby–prety much the opposite of what Willow encourages. I am reminded of the pumping women in Mad Max: Fury Road, who I swear must have all been taking domperidone–making milk for the society and able to do little else. They needed Willow to up their capacity as contributors to the patriarchy!
- I hope the next phase of the women’s and reproductive justice movement will fight for paid maternity leave, and more collective solutions to infant nutrition and maternal health than are currently on offer under capitalism, and more specifically, neoliberalism. I hope we will be fighting for more leisure time for workers, so that we could start to imagine technology not to benefit the bosses and the war on women, but solutions for the common good and public health. Willow seems to me a symptom of a particularly American problem, whereas a society that actually values maternal-child health and in which mothers and workers actually have rights, would produce, say, workplace-based nurseries where nursing parents can feed their babies on demand and not be shackled to a pump during the workday at all. Or, say, hospital-grade pumps you could just hook up to (BYO parts), and more lactation lounges at your workplace or public locations like cafes, libraries, bars, etc. De-stigmatizing and promoting breastfeeding is not about individual decisions to nurse or breastfeeding in public, but must be part of changing the infrastructure of our society, and fighting sexism at every step, so that women’s reproductive work (pregnancy/parenting/nursing) can be separated from her life in a healthy, holistic way (yes, nursing parents and other mothers do need to get out of the house/be away from their nurslings sometimes).
Some of these solutions exist in social democracies, and many of them have not yet been won anywhere, to my knowledge. Let’s not lower our horizons to hoping a product like Willow will lift busy nursing mamas from our drudgery, but use this as a way to vision a better way to integrate the needs of nursing dyads into society.
*I am using “mother” and “mama” and “women here for linguistic ease. I do recognize that not all breastfeeding parents identify in these ways, and I seek to honor that in my writing. Most of the theoretical work about social reproduction and the second shift focuses on the care work of “women,” and sexism has generally underpinned the war on mothers specifically. In the framework and sense of solidarity that I would like to put forward here, I do generally refer to women/mothers, because an attack on women and mothers generally underpins the war on parents of all genders, including gender non-conforming and trans* parents. I hope that as the movements for reproductive and gender justice grow in the coming years, they will help us develop more useful and inclusive language that helps capture the shared and also distinct experiences of sexism, misogyny, etc. of gendered oppression. And I hope you will read my piece with understanding and generosity toward my linguistic limits.