Movie Review: In “Breastmilk,” Women’s Bodies Are Still Not Their Own

“If someone is having trouble with breastfeeding, I think I would not want to make them feel worse about it because they made that decision to feed from a formula, but it’s not a choice that I would make for myself.”

Those are the words of Colleen, an American biologist nine months pregnant during an interview with the makers of “Breastmilk,” a new documentary on what, how and why we feed our children. But Colleen soon encounters hurdle after hurdle trying to breastfeed her son, Matteo. She ends up representing both the hopes and fears of all the parents in this illuminating, heart-wrenching and frequently funny film, available online today as part of World Breastfeeding Week, from debut filmmaker Dana Ben-Ari.

Colleen during her pre-birth interview

Colleen during her pre-birth interview

Of the movie’s five or so featured mothers, Colleen clearly spends the most time and energy worrying about her ability to breastfeed, but she’s far from the only one who struggles with it. Lindsay spends the first several weeks alternating between elation at successful suckling and fear that she isn’t producing enough milk. Chrystle can’t tell if her son, Tyler, would be better using formula after he starts having acid reflux. Karin follows doctor’s orders to supplement preemie Rose’s breast milk feedings with formula but wonders if her daughter wouldn’t gain enough weight to catch up to her peers using breast milk alone.

We hear the least about Eliana, whose breastfeeding concerns are actually among the most interesting. She worries that her husband will be uncomfortable with her breasts, which are suddenly functioning in a new, non-sexual way to feed her daughter. “My question was, can I breastfeed, and at the same time can I have my breasts be part of my intimate relationship with my husband?” she asks. She refers to ownership of her breasts as either her husband’s or her child’s — never her own.

In promotional materials, filmmakers say the documentary “uncovers all the most surprising and concealed aspects of what it means to have milk,” but that’s not necessarily true. Breasts, like every other part of a woman’s body, are constantly under attack, and it’s not exactly surprising that new mothers would obsess over how and when to use their bodies. The issue boils down to shame and bodily autonomy; whether women choose breast or bottle or are forced into either by mitigating circumstances, their actions are loaded.

What is surprising is how certain all the parents in the film seem to be that breastfeeding should be easy, if you’re doing it right. Women who struggle to breastfeed seem so caught off-guard, like they can’t believe this relatively common phenomenon is happening to them. At the same time, they don’t share that information with those around them. Karin, a geochemist whose daughter was born premature, spends hours in her office with a breast pump, trying to produce enough milk to get her daughter up to a good weight. She avoids telling her coworkers why she’s late for meetings, even while she spurns the image of the working mother who is “able to do it all.”

Karin shows the results after pumping in her office at work.

Karin shows the results after pumping in her office at work.

Those who have no trouble breastfeeding don’t understand why others find it so difficult. Emily and Luki, a lesbian couple who both breastfeed after Emily — with the help of surging hormones from being around a pregnant Luki — induces lactation in herself, don’t believe that other women could possibly have as much trouble breastfeeding as they claim. Luki says she’s frustrated that no one congratulates her on her breastfeeding success, which is theoretically the Holy Grail of new motherhood. It’s a shockingly mean stance to take, especially when Emily says she’s willing to tell women to their faces that they should have breastfed.

But, as many other women have found (and as the film’s expert interviews explain a little more eloquently than I’m about to), so much of our cultural rhetoric around breastfeeding is tied to a sense of what women should be doing rather than what they would like to or are even able to do. Breastfeeding isn’t purely a medical issue, but neither is it a wholly moral one. And all the parameters that go into a woman’s decision to breastfeed pale next to the fear that she is somehow failing her child. If she breastfeeds but can’t produce enough milk, she risks undernourishing her child. If she supplements with or simply uses baby formula, she robs her child of the all-important “life cells” transferred between mother and child via breast milk.

The issue for these parents is not whether or not breastfeeding is the right thing to do. Most agree that it is, citing studies on its longterm health effects (even though those benefits have apparently been somewhat overstated). But, like community health worker Patrece Griffith-Murray points out, there are many things that are good for us that we don’t do, and not breastfeeding a child does not condemn them to a terrible life. She pinpoints another important factor that pushes women to try breastfeeding at all costs: competition with other mothers.

“Breastfeeding is one of those things that you have to be ridiculously competitive to do. You have to be almost mean about it,” she says. “There’s a certain kind of push, a umph that goes with breastfeeding that, you know, the off chance your child may not be fat when they get older is not gonna do it.”

With all that drama going on, it almost seems like an afterthought that the film discusses breastfeeding as a mainstream cultural topic. From lactation porn to public breastfeeding, feminist scholars explain how debates over breasts as sexual organs versus parental tools has created a double-standard. Women can’t or shouldn’t breastfeed in public because it makes others around them uncomfortable, yet that discomfort comes from the misguided belief that breastfeeding is a sexual act. But on yet another other side, there is the lesbian couple who welcomes breast milk into the bedroom, not because it holds any particular sexual interest for them, but because it’s an inescapable facet of having sex while a breast is still being used for lactation. Similarly interesting but undeveloped thoughts are tossed out regarding breast milk donation for adoptive parents or women who can’t produce their own milk. It’s a discussion that fits into the rest of the film thematically but feels somehow incomplete.

Behind the scenes at "Breastmilk" the movie

I feel it’s important to tell you the movie also includes a musical interlude with shots of various breasts squirting milk into the air.

Also disappointing is the film’s inability to directly confront issues of race and class. The cast is extremely diverse, both racially and economically, but neither the mothers nor the scholars call out the clear divides between the groups and their breastfeeding concerns. Even Griffith-Murray, who works with low-income families in the state’s Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), refrains from directly naming race as a factor. The closest we get to a frank discussion of race is with Lindsay, who donates her surplus breast milk to a white couple who has adopted a black baby. As she waits for the couple to arrive, she realizes she never told them she was black. “What if they took [the milk] and didn’t use it because I was black?” she wonders. “I would be naive not to think that.” Considering the vastly different concerns the women of different backgrounds face, it feels similarly naive that the film doesn’t address race throughout.

Still, in an hour and a half, director Ben-Ari pretty thoroughly explores many of the internal and external fears a woman faces as she considers breastfeeding. It isn’t a perfect film, but it does spur refreshing and somewhat surprising honesty from a diverse cast of parents. You can feel the tension and anxiety these women face, and you want them to be successful, even if you aren’t quite sure what the consequences of failure are. With a soft touch, it shows both the competitive pressure women feel and the gentleness they’re capable of expressing toward one another when it comes to one of motherhood’s most hotly contested topics.

Profile photo of Kaitlyn

Kaitlyn is a recent college grad, nanny and journalist living in New York — although, truth be told, she spends most of her time on Tumblr. Talk to her about intersectionality, Battlestar Galactica, and bacon if you want to be best friends.

Kaitlyn has written 46 articles for us.

14 Comments

  1. Thumb up 13

    Please log in to vote

    Hey there,

    I’m the second-parent lactating lesbian in this film and I’m glad to see that you’re reviewing the film. I wish more people knew that second-parent and adoptive lactation were possible. Most people I’ve ever discussed it with seem astounded at the possibility. And BTW, it’s not just being around the pregnant partner that gives you the hormones, it’s just the fact of being a parent.

    I also think that it’s worth pointing out that we were interviewed for over five hours, to have about five minutes of our comments included in the film. And the comments of mine that you are referring to here as flippant and rude were part of a much larger and (I honestly feel) more nuanced discussion of the fact that breastfeeding is fucking hard and that many of the people who have difficulty making enough milk (A) didn’t realise that it would be hard, (B) didn’t have the support of their (typically male gendered) partners in understanding how much time, effort and physical discomfort is involved in the early stages, and (C) the sheer amount of time that is necessary, particularly during the first few weeks.

    I stand by my comment that it’s a statistical impossibility that the number of women that have difficulty with their milk supply couldn’t produce the required milk in ideal circumstances, but the film omits all of the qualifying context that made it very clear that I wasn’t blaming the women, but rather decrying a system that alienates women from their bodies and implies that they personally are at fault.

    • Thumb up 6

      Please log in to vote

      Hi,

      Can you say a little more about second parent lactation? I’m astounded that its possible. I wonder if there’s something unique to the process. Women struggle to lactate after pregnancy, lactating without a pregnancy seems more difficult.

  2. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    Loved this piece. As a women’s health professional, it seems like competition and lack of understanding for confounding factors cause many women a lot of stress/anxiety when it comes to this topic.

    Our society is really great at criticizing women and the choices we make about our own bodies. Period. This area is no different.

  3. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I grew up in a pretty pro-breastfeeding home–my dad’s in pediatrics and we were all breastfed except for my younger brother, who had to be on a crazy strict diet and had tons of health problems. I know my mom had a lot of guilt about not being able to breastfeed him and even now, 18 years later, she worries any little health problem he has can be attributed to his being formula-fed (asthma, allergies, etc)
    This is my first long-term lesbian relationship and I’ve thought a lot about breastfeeding and we’ve talked a lot about it, read about it, etc. As the probable baby carrier, I know I want to breastfeed. My person’s grandparents had a wet nurse for my partner’s mom, so she is a little less opposed to the idea of a non-gestational parent breastfeeding than I am, even though I lived in rural Ecuador for a hot minute. While I still think it’s a little weird for someone who didn’t personally carry the kid to breastfeed it, I could provably get over adoptive parent breastfeeding if said adoptive parent was already breastfeeding a billogical kid. But I am absolutely uncomfortable with the idea of nongestational parentsinducing lactation or those adoptive breastfeeding contraptions. I’ve listened to adopted adults talk about how uncomfortable they are with the idea, and birth parents, as well.
    So it kind of just weirds me out when people hold that sort of breastfeeding as just as natural and good as the normal kind of breastfeeding that comes with being pregnant. I get the desire for bonding and shared responsibilities, but I think pumping solves that problem just fine.

      • Thumb up 0

        Please log in to vote

        B/c it’s just not the same. Breastmilk is a natural thing that happens when someone is pregnant. Sure, sometimes a little help is needed, but it’s still something that is supposed to happen (breastmilk–not judging people who don’t breastfeed).
        I guess I view it as no different than the idea of my dad breastfeeding me. The thought just makes me incredibly uncomfortable. The contraptions for adoptive parent breastfeeding don’t have enough (any?) studies to back up their benefits, and honestly, neither does a non pregnant person taking a whole bunch of hormones or pumping to induce lactation to feed a child they didn’t carry.
        But honestly, it’s my opinion, and I’m entitled to it. But again, acting like natural breastfeeding and no-pregnancy-involved breastfeeding is the same thing is pushing it.

    • Thumb up 4

      Please log in to vote

      I actually did a quick lit search, and I didn’t see any reason to believe it was less good. The milk composition was almost the same in the vast majority of cases, and you would get the added benefits of proteins like IgA in the induced milk that you wouldn’t get with formula. The main obstacle seems to be producing enough (most needed supplementation), but that happens with non-induced breast feeding too.
      Of course you are entitled to feel uncomfortable, but lots of people have children in non-traditional ways (something you may be considering yourself if you and your partner both have uteruses, unless one of you is planning on having sex with someone with sperm in order to conceive more naturally). I don’t see how this is different.

    • Thumb up 3

      Please log in to vote

      When my wife had a baby there was a period of time, either a month or a week, during which the idea of me participating in breastfeeding felt entirely normal and not even remotely weird or creepy.
      And I didn’t, partly because I wasn’t expecting to feel that way, but if I had and it had gone well things would have been a lot easier, because my wife had low supply and her milk came in late and she found pumping really ridiculously triggering.
      And TBH, I think your assertion of pumping solving the problem just fine probably comes from a place of ignorance about what pumping is like (horrible), about how much milk it produces (considerably less than an infant at the breast), and about the experience of breastfeeding a newborn, which is an all consuming, exhausting thing.

  4. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Also, I think it’s incredibly rude of Emily, the nongestational parent, to judge women who did carry children on whether or not they breastfed, especially if she’s never been pregnant. That’s akin to my belief in people who have never had a uterus judging others on birth control/abortion/whatever else. Just no. “An incredibly mean stance” is right.

  5. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    This film sounds very interesting! I can’t wait to see it. From reading this article I’m realizing how little I knew about all the complex issues associated with breastfeeding – and I thought I was pretty well informed. It seems like the film maker is doing a good job of introducing new points of view to people to encourage them to learn more on their own.

    Also, I’m mega stoked for the musical milk interlude!

  6. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    We all judge. This type of film, or most types of journalism or even some qualitative research, is vulnerable to what I’m going to call the snippet effect. You can’t present all your material. A skilled writer/director/editor will only present material within context. Someone with an agenda is more likely to present the extreme, the sound bite, the click-bait, etc. In other words, the nuances of people’s perspectives are complex. I’ve been misquoted, by being out of context myself.

    Emily’s actually not all that extreme (seriously, I work in the field and am in the feed-the-baby-safe-food camp, and ask the snarky question of is that effect worth the effort questions, a somewhat unique location). It’s reasonable to argue that all women should have easy access to the knowledge, social support, medical support, and resources to build those skills, and to then have manageable logistics to avail themselves of the OPTION of breastfeeding. Most working American women don’t, making it surprising and incredible that so many women do chose and persist with breastfeeding/feeding breastmilk through nearly contortionist logistics (I shall pump in my car; comply with bizarrely complicated day care rules; and constantly deal with ice packs and sanitation and arguing for time to pump with my boss on top of being sleep deprived from caring for a two month old because there isn’t enough paid leave for new parents). It’s like all women should have access to affordable and safe birth control. It’s a choice that should be easy and routine. It’s not, because our institutions have numerous barriers built into them.

    Also, as a caveat, pumping has quite a few issues that have not been well-addressed, including contamination, effect of freezing/thawing/reheating, feeding from bottle vs. breast, and composition of milk (changes with age of baby– milk from a couple of months ago may not be as appropriate as current milk).

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.