The Romanticism of Third World Motherhood

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Image courtesy of David Leo Veksler of Flickr.com.

The recent Cry-it-Out arguments and “Breast is Best” competitions on my facebook have devolved into commentary about how “90% of the world doesn’t see it this way”. Possibly true.  But I especially love these comments from people who have never been to the developing world for more than a luxe holiday.  I get that many people don’t do it “our” way and see bedsharing and breastfeeding as the only “normal” option.  But  I also think the romanticized idea of women in the developing world having it all figured out to be patently offensive.  Why?  Let me explain.

A lack of choice – Women living in developing nations don’t have all of our luxuries.  They may very well live in a one room flat or hut with 5 or 6 kids.  When I was going out to villages to speak to women in Rwanda, many women appeared to sleep on a dirt floor with all of these children.  That was the way it was for their families because that was the only option.  Breastfeeding was definitely the preferred,if not really the only, way to feed in Rwanda but that was also due to a lack of safe water.  Formula feeding there would either be dangerous or prohibitively expensive.  Most of my friends would have a hard time understanding this.  In cases where women lost production due to illness or an aberrant inability to feed their kids, other women living in the same village or social circle would often help.  I know there are milk banks here, many of which do not screen milk, but this idea of community feels very different.  These women do what they need to for their kids to survive.  There is no other option.  Sure, there are also plenty of wealthy women in Rwanda who live differently as there are plenty of wealthy women everywhere but the average woman breastfed and bedshared due to a lack of space and a lack of funds.

A lack of economic power – The reason I was in Rwanda was to study post-genocidal recovery and to look into the status of women there.  As a white feminist who doesn’t want to make her experience the only acceptable experience, I have a hard time saying that more “traditional” setups can’t be a CHOICE for women.  However, when it comes to working outside the home, on average, Rwandan women had few options.  The main bit of field research I did required me to interact with women in somewhat precarious situations.  Many were abused by partners.  Leaving was not easy.  There is a “No Sugar Daddy” campaign by the government currently so girls will stay in school and go into the workforce rather than marry early and end up in a bad relationship.

Because women don’t often make their own money (especially typical middle and working class women), they don’t have the same problems with juggling breastfeeding and work or deciding who will take shifts.  There is just no question.  Most women stay home and provide almost all the domestic labor.  It’s not comparable to the experience that many Western women have.  Whether it is better or worse is immaterial.  It’s apples to oranges.

A totally different “role” as a woman applies – Patriarchy is a huge issue in the U.S. and abroad. My time in Rwanda made me realize that similar things were said to women, a similar rape culture dialogue existed, and women, in large part, were fighting similar battles to be seen as equal.  The women in Rwanda, however, were dealing with other basic necessities not being easily found and disparities in education beyond what is seen in the West.  So, we all face patriarchy but in different ways and different amounts.  While my working mom was a bit unique in my upper-middle-class suburb for working despite having a gainfully employed husband, she wasn’t seen as a pariah or completely unusual or unheard of.  Sometimes teachers did not “get” it but no one was downright offended by her choice of working over homemaking.  This is different in other places.  There was a choice in her role.  At one point, my father quit his job to stay home and raise us so my mom could go back to work.  She did not enjoy staying at home. This sort of choice would have been unheard of in Kigali.

Romanticizing the fact that women who don’t have a choice, don’t have their own economic ability to “choose” to work outside the home, and don’t have the ability for outside work to be seen as “normal” or even “acceptable” is disturbing to me.  These women aren’t choosing to stay home for the most part.  Many of them don’t see any other opportunities.  That’s the role of a woman in her society.

There is a weird need to explain bedsharing and breastfeeding as being “closer to nature” and, thus, preferable but we need to be especially careful when we romanticize women living in the developing world as “closer to nature” lest we veer towards describing them as “primitive”.  Nothing could be more offensive in my opinion!  It’s not “cute” for women to be stuck in a role without the choice or economic means to pick another way.  A lack of cry-it-out and formula feeding is out of necessity and different circumstances.  It’s not only unfair to women in the developing world to take this tack, it completely ignores the difference between a woman in a postmaterial society and than in society industrializing.  I’m not big on first-world feminism being the only argument and I’m a huge believer in intesectionality, so these dialogues just ignore huge, important concepts surrounding the rights of women around the world.

Instead, how do we avoid this?

First, know that it is okay to say you prefer to bedshare or breastfeed.  If you prefer it, that’s reason enough to do it.  It is your choice to do so.  If bedsharing means everyone sleeps, that’s fantastic.  If breastfeeding works for you, keep it up!  Second, we should acknowledge the difference between a choice and a given.  If you live in a place with non-potable water and a one room place, you don’t have a choice.  Realize that women around the world are not pictures or scenes, they are living breathing people just like us who have their own struggles which may differ from ours and that’s okay.  As long as we don’t try to speak FOR THEM directly, we should be okay.  Using them to support your argument against an entire swath of women (for the purposes of basically calling the other women bad moms) as if they are game pieces or tokens is never okay.

We can’t say their experiences are ours or are better or worse than ours but we can be sensitive in our conversations.  Neither CIO or bedsharing are the devil. Neither breastfeeding nor formula feeding will kill your kid.  It’s okay to have a preference and it’s okay to respect the preferences of others.   But, seriously, leave women in developing nations OUT of it!

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