4-minute essay: Human milk has no gender: 21st century breastfeeding language

I presented this 4-minute essay at the 2019 Breastfeeding and Feminism International Conference and thought I should share it on my blog. It is published in the Journal of Human Lactation (14th Breastfeeding and Feminism International Conference: Roots and Wing: Looking Back, Looking Forward. (2019). Journal of Human Lactation, 35(3), 604–628. https://doi.org/10.1177/0890334419851796).

My name is Fiona Jardine and I use she/her/hers pronouns. I’m a lactation consultant, postpartum doula, and PhD candidate. And I think we should bring lactation language into the 21stcentury. To assume that only women and mothers breastfeed ignores gender and bodily diversity and fails to recognize those who do not identify as women or mothers, yet still lactate. These caregivers may breastfeed, chestfeed, and/or express milk; they may call themselves mothers, fathers, parent, or something else entirely. There may be those who lactate to feed children other than their own: for example, grief donors express milk to donate after the loss of a child; gestational surrogates may express milk to feed the child they carried or to donate; others induce lactation to feed a child in an emergency, or a one they adopted, fostered, or was carried by someone else.

In one-on-one interactions, there’s no reason not to use 21st century lactation language. Instead of asking “breast or bottle?”—which is also problematic for exclusive pumpers—ask “how are you feeding your baby?” If you’re there to give lactation advice, ask “how can I help you?” and you’ll often organically find out what your client calls what they’re doing. And instead of assuming the lactating person is “Mommy” or “Mama,” instead ask what their parent name is. And let’s normalize providing your gender pronouns when introducing yourself and simply asking others if you’re unsure. It makes the world of difference to those outside the cisgender binary.

But to me, the real challenge is in what we do as a discipline (in the English language. I can only speak to my native language!). We can talk about the biological process as lactation: “when a person lactates,” for example. No need for “mother” or “woman” in that sentence. And I’ll vehemently defend the singular “they” as grammatically acceptable. While “human milk” feels a little less warm and fuzzy compared to breast milk, it’s logical when compared to cow milk, goat milk, or nut milk. And by now, you should see why to avoid “mother’s milk” entirely: use “parents’ own milk” when we know that’s the source.

But I remain conflicted about the umbrella term for the act of feeding a child human milk. For example, when I wrote the abstract for this four minute essay, I used “breastfeeding”. Because biologically speaking, isn’t that technically correct? Don’t we all have breast tissue and isn’t it required to produce milk? But that doesn’t really solve the problem of perpetuating the dysphoria for those whose breasts contributed to those feelings—especially during a time when their dysphoria may be at an all-time high. Chest-slash-breastfeeding doesn’t roll off the tongue and probably is not compact enough to be widely accepted in titles and organization names. Nursing suggests directly from the source and therefore excludes pumping.

So, if breast milk is human milk, then why can’t breastfeeding be human feeding? Human milk feeding? That works for less “fluffy” settings like academia, but I can’t imagine parents cooing over their cute babies saying, “our human milk feeding journey has been just magical.” Perhaps breastfeeding, while a less-than-perfect umbrella term, is the least-worst option with the greatest appeal? I think no matter what we decide, we need to define what we mean by the words we use, while also being inclusive of gender and lactational diversity.

But why does this all matter anyway? Legal protection: if laws only protect “breastfeeding mothers,” are you protected if you’re a “chestfeeding father”? Research: if you’re recruiting “nursing women,” can you participate if you’re a “genderfluid exclusive pumper”? Support: would a group with the slogan “Happy Mothers, Breast Fed Babies” be a place to find support if you’re “Papa” “Maddy,” or “Ren” to your baby?

And finally, acceptance: if we are intentional and purposeful in the language we use, we can make sure everybody is included in the promotion, protection, and support of breastfeeding, so that both they and their child have the very best physical, emotional, and developmental outcomes.

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