The materials of mothering

Boyer, Kate and Boswell-Penc-, Maia, 2010, Breast pumps. A feminist technology, or (yet) “More Work for Mother”? In Layne, Linda, Vostral, Sharra and Boyer, Kate (eds.) Feminist Technology, University of Ilinois Press, 119-135. (Women, Gender, and Technology)

Boyer and Boswell-Penc enquire in this chapter whether breast pumps can be considered a feminist technology. I find this article interesting in that it focuses on one example of the stuff, that is,  the materiality, which makes up modern motherhood and examines what roles this technology play, what does it enable, and what are the risks that it brings, through analysing  the cultural context of its emergence but also by analysing its use in practice.

Their work focuses on the use of breast pumps in the waged workforce in the US, one of the countries where women have less maternity leave in the world. One of the questions which frames this study is understanding if the breast pump is a feminist technology or if it is it another device which, as Ruth Schwartz Cowan (1983) argues, creates ‘more work for mother’, as many other so-called labour-saving devices.

In this chapter they look at the cultural context in which the breast pump emerged – a time (60s-70s) where there was growing awareness and advocacy for the benefits of breast milk over formula, and a moment when higher number of women were returning to the waged workforce. The latter practice was due to different reasons ranging from economic restructuring, the need for double wages, and the fact that women were occupying better managerial positions. They describe how, in the 1990s, the technology evolved to be lighter, portable and cheaper, and jumped from being mainly hospital-based, to being available for retail.  

The argument for it being a feminist technology stems from the way that using this technology allows more mobility, more temporal and spatial freedom to the mother. The breast pump can bring a much needed break for mothers and it allows for mothers to break the cyclic time loop that new mothers who breastfeed are in – the two hour window to do things!- as well as the necessary proximity to the child. It also expands the choices that women have in terms of infant nutrition, as well as serve other important purposes, such as relieve engorgement in mothers who choose not to breastfeed, and help initiate breastfeeding for mothers who adopted an infant. Moreover, its use in waged workplaces could help push the boundaries of the private/public, by bringing to work an activity normally done in the privacy of the home.

However, these authors point out that much of its liberatory potential in terms of waged work is constrained by attitudes about pumping (and general lactation), issues about the technology, workplace design and the politics around actual pumping. Breast pumps, thus, have to be understood within its actual use, which is something that these authors delve into. They show how attitudes to pumping at work make women who pump, as well as the breast milk itself, feel ‘out of place’. The strong feelings that breast milk brings out is seen, for example,  in the case where women were fired for leaving their breast milk stored in the communal fridge. For women who pumped at work, the search for privacy and the sense of embarrassment around pumping, made them look for different strategies that would allow them not to be seen or heard (electric breasts pumps can be very noisy!), such as going to feed to the car, in the medical centre, in an unused office/conference room. Other constrains also include finding the time for it, as often employers do not structure extra breaks for this. What this shows is that the responsibility of finding a place and a time for this activity is down to the individual. Moreover, it highlights the reasons for the uneven distribution of its use, in terms of class especially, as the possibility of having this extra space and time is most likely to be in middle income jobs, rather than low income ones.

Furthermore, these authors also highlight some of the risks that this technology can bring to feminist struggles. By providing a technical and individualised fix to the question of how to combine lactation with work, it might keep employers off the hook in terms of providing other, and maybe better, alternatives. In addition, as these authors show, this technology has something in common with other technologies, such as communication technologies, in that they give more mobility, more spatial and temporal freedom, but it also raises the expectations of what can be done. The authors show that as much as this technology increases choices and provides flexibility, there is a risk that it could be used against efforts for longer maternity leave or on-site care, for instance.

What I found fascinating is that this article makes me think about the different things that make up the practices of mothering, and how each of these things are performative in more than their utilitarian sense. They work to highlight questions of race and class, as it has been shown in this article. I would say that things and technologies also play a role in identity formation, as they act as markers of inclusion in certain groups. In a sense, I think that they are also part of the ways of evaluating a mother’s performance – I am thinking here of the pressure I felt the first times I tried to put up or down the buggy in public, for instance!

We are surrounded by stuff in our practices as mothers: buggies, breasts pads, sterilisers, cots, nappies, dummies, bottles, special clothes for breastfeeding, high chairs, car seats. And the list can go on and on. Leaving out the stuff of motherhood would impoverish our understanding of the politics of motherhood/parenthood, which is why I find what these authors do, that is, questioning the theoretical possibilities but also the complexities that seeing and thinking these technologies and things in practice bring about, is a crucial exercise.

2 responses to “The materials of mothering

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful summary of this article. It’s been on my to-read list and I just haven’t gotten to it yet. I was particularly intrigued by your thoughts regarding how the stuff of motherhood might be used to evaluate a mother’s performance and shape her identity. I look forward to further study in this area.

  2. Thanks! I am currently trying to develop a research proposal on this! Interested :)? In any case, it means I will probably review articles that explore this in different ways, as well as try to articulate my own thoughts about it. So keep coming!

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