A woman is making herself scrambled eggs before feeding her toddler. She cracks two eggs into a bowl, then beats them lightly with a fork. Now it’s time for the milk. She unbuttons her top, pulls out a breast and adds a few squirts. After a quick sauté, she sits down to eat, forking up eggs with one hand while holding her toddler to her breast with the other. Lunch is served.
The scene, which comes at the end of the new Ricki Lake-produced documentary, Breastmilk (May 7 at IFC Center), is intentionally provocative. So is the montage of milk-squirting breasts and the graphic description of lactation porn (exactly what it sounds like). And of course, there are lots of naked bosoms.
For the most part, however, the movie takes pains not to sensationalize a subject usually discussed only at the polarizing and squirm-inducing ends of the spectrum: Breast milk cheese! Nursing second-graders! Toxic breast milk! Male lactation! While most of these issues get name-checked in Breastmilk, director Dana Ben-Ari carefully keeps her focus on relatively ordinary women having relatively ordinary experiences.
“It’s easy to focus on the extreme, dramatic examples, but at the end of the day, few [mothers] get to be that woman nursing the 7-year-old, because they don’t make it past six weeks,” the Brooklyn-based director says, speaking by phone from her publicist’s Manhattan office. Breastmilk is the director’s first film, following a career as a high school teacher and a background in social work.
“The film is hoping to be part of a conversation about making more choices available for women, rather than telling them what to do,” she says. Although she nursed her two sons, now 5 and 7, she was scrupulous to avoid judging, sermonizing or scolding. As a result, the film feels less like a screed than a tragedy.
A tragedy, that is, for the mothers. The babies, for all appearances, could care less whether their milk comes from a breast, a bottle of formula or a garden hose. But at least partially because of all the hyperbole and invective around the subject of breast-feeding, the mothers we see in the film are almost paralyzed with worry about the ways they feed their young. Breast may be best, the film’s message might be, but breast-feeding is stress.
Ms. Ben-Ari says she is not interested in engaging in the formula vs. breast milk debate, and to her credit, no scare statistics flash on the screen. There is no dramatic, slo-mo footage of formula-fed baby monkeys falling out of trees.
But to say the film is a neutral look at the subject would be misleading, because without the debate around formula, there would be no conflict for any of the mothers she follows and little reason to follow them. If, to borrow a few scare statistics from the notes accompanying the screener, 85 percent of mothers in this country intend to breast-feed but only a third make it to the three-month mark, clearly there is a huge gulf between what we believe is ideal and what turns out to be achievable. This raises the question: Do documentaries like Breastmilk, no matter how well intentioned, help close that gap, or do they just add to the pressure women feel around an issue that is maybe not actually that big a deal?
Aside from the unidentified egg-scrambling mother we see at the end, who is the very image of unconflicted lactating bliss (you can only imagine what she does at Starbucks), the common emotion shared by the mothers in the film is anxiety. One confesses she even has anxiety about her anxiety, worrying that stress hormones will taint her milk supply. Another, a scientist, spends hours each night pumping her breasts, trying to increase her supply, while her husband fortifies the baby with formula. A professor reluctantly gives her premature infant formula, because she worries her pediatrician will call Child Protective Services if she doesn’t. Another new mother nurses with no problem but frets about sharing her breasts with her baby and her husband: Should she designate one breast for each?
It could be easy to dismiss the women as neurotic, self-doubting nervous nursers who are so focused on this one, relatively brief period of their children’s lives that they miss the bigger picture. But, says Ms. Ben-Ari, to do so is blaming the (sleep-deprived, hormone-addled) victims. New mothers, she says, are under tremendous pressure to breast-feed but often lack the societal support to make a successful go of it, whether because of the demands of a full-time job, unsympathetic doctors or lack of familial help. Of the five principal participants in the film, four stopped breast-feeding before six months.
“There’s a lot of science that says breast-feeding is better; the medical establishment says it’s the healthiest thing to do,” says Ms. Ben-Ari. “But the support isn’t there, and that’s what’s ruining it for women. They hear it’s better, but they can’t achieve it. We’re also still a culture that blames women for a lot and blames mothers for a lot. It shouldn’t be all about the mother; it’s about society’s responsibility for the children and the mother.”
Ms. Ben-Ari found the women she followed through mothers’ groups and word of mouth and filmed them from the months before birth through their babies’ first year—an incredibly delicate and vulnerable time in any mother’s life—but none appears to feel any compunction about whipping out a boob on camera. The only time we see a mother ask Ms. Ben-Ari not to film is when Karin, the professor, has to pump her milk in her office.
“I feel like a cow,” she says. “I sit here and I go, ‘Mooo.’” And here’s where things get complicated. If breast-feeding is the most natural process in the world, pumping is anything but. As the women in Breastmilk attest, pumping can be expensive, uncomfortable, inconvenient, embarrassing and hugely time-consuming. But it is, at least initially, a near-hourly necessity for any mother who wants to maintain her milk supply while away from her baby at an office every day. Watching Breastmilk, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that breast-feeding and working full-time are essentially incompatible.
“There’s a lot of talk about family values, but when you make it so difficult … when you have just six weeks off for maternity leave, and you can’t have your baby on site for the first year, it just doesn’t make sense to me,” says Barbara, a school librarian who goes back to work after her daughter is born and pumps during her lunch break. Of the four women who stop breast-feeding before the end of the year, three do so because of the impracticality of nursing and pursing their careers. As Chrystle, a young mother whose parents watch her son while she works and goes to school, says, had she tried to continue breast-feeding, she would have had to take more breaks at work and school to pump, and her parents would have had a harder time feeding her baby when she wasn’t there. Plus, her son’s acid reflux made it difficult for him to digest her breast milk. Her decision to switch to formula “kind of worked out for the best, now that I think about it,” she says.
The rest of the mothers are far less sanguine. For working mothers, it creates a double bind: Give your baby formula so you can go back to work, and you’re a bad mother; quit your job to stay home and breast-feed, and you’re a bad feminist.
“I think mainstream feminism has to take this on as an important issue,” Ms. Ben-Ari says. “We have to understand why that dichotomy exists and create the structure that supports women working and breast-feeding.” The fully supportive structure she envisions would include six-month maternity leave, flexible work hours, informed, pro-breast-feeding medical staff and baby-friendly work environments. “The bargain women took on to enter the workplace was necessary, and I’m glad we won that fight,” she says. “But the male working model is really hurting us.”
It’s unlikely that the changes Ms. Ben-Ari would like to see will happen overnight, and in the meantime, women muddle through the first year of motherhood, swamped with guilt lest a drop of formula cross their babies’ lips. In the film, it is particularly heartbreaking to watch Colleen, the scientist who deems herself a “bad mother” for giving her son formula when he is unable to get sufficient sustenance from her breasts. From the outset, her expectations for motherhood are thwarted, beginning with the moments after her son, Matteo, is born. Rather than helping him nurse, Colleen and her husband want Matteo to find the nipple on his own, because they saw a baby do this in a movie they watched in a birthing class. Eventually, an exasperated nurse guides Matteo’s mouth to Colleen’s nipple. Further problems ensue, including a “tongue tie” that may be preventing Matteo from nursing successfully. A year later, Colleen gets emotional describing her “failure” at breast-feeding, despite the fact that a chubby, happy Matteo toddles around looking perfectly content. You feel sorry for Colleen, and you also want to remind her how lucky she is to have a healthy, thriving baby.
Would a guilt-wracked mother like Colleen benefit from watching Breastmilk, which offers tremendous sympathy while subtly reinforcing the importance of breast-feeding? The movie is executive-produced by Ms. Lake and Abby Epstein, who explored home birth vs. hospitals in the documentary The Business of Being Born. As in Breastmilk, that film featured women expressing guilt, shame and disappointment when their experiences of motherhood didn’t match up with their plans. The filmmakers would say this is society’s fault—that once we fix all the broken paradigms, most women will be able to give birth with a minimum of medical interventions, then breast-feed their babies for as long as they choose. More pragmatic critics might say that any birth that results in a healthy mother and healthy infant is an ideal birth and any feeding regimen that gets the infant and the mother through the first year is just fine. Depending on which study you believe, breast may be best, or only slightly better than formula, or as an Ohio State University study published in February asserts, no different from formula at all. But the fact that the women in Breastmilk are concerned and informed enough about their babies’ development to even attempt breast-feeding and grapple with the question of whether to supplement should indicate that their kids are among the lucky ones. One might worry that an excessive media focus on nonlife-threatening yet button-pushing issues like breast-feeding distracts attention from larger, more critical problems around infant and maternal health and impedes actual societal change.
Ms. Lake counters, via email, that films like Breastmilk help “normalize” breast-feeding for the public, raise awareness of “all the complexities around successful breast-feeding and really show women how challenging it can be.”
For Ms. Ben-Ari, the issue goes beyond what happens in a baby’s first year: “We’re taught very early in life that our bodies aren’t good enough, that they’re going to fail us,” she says. The director, who breast-fed her two children but was not breast-fed by her own mother, who was busy working full time, believes our attitudes about breast-feeding are emblematic of the way our society treats women and children in general.
“We either have misinformation around women’s bodies and reproductive rights or we’re completely squeamish around women’s bodies,” she says. “We’re still a very Puritanical society.”
In The Business of Being Born, Ms. Lake is shown giving birth to her second child, naked, in a bathtub. She is not a visible part of Breastmilk and only became a producer after seeing a rough cut of the film. She says the two movies could not be more different: Ms. Ben-Ari’s is “more objective and subtle,” while Business has an overt pro-natural birth message.
But the two films complement each other: Both show women who, for reasons societal or personal, place a premium on the importance of what happens in a short window at the very beginning of their babies’ lives and are devastated when they are unable to fully control these experiences. Parents farther down the road might take a more measured view of the importance of any single parenting act, especially one the babies themselves will have no memory of. As Ms. Lake herself, who wound up supplementing her own milk with milk from a donor bank, acknowledges, “Having just completed a college tour with my oldest son, I can definitely say that I miss the days when my biggest concern was how to get him some donated breast milk.”