Last week 'rising star' Liberal MP Kelly O'Dwyer was unable to attend two parliamentary speaking obligations because she was breastfeeding her four month old baby Olivia. On one occasion, her office was asked by the Chief Whip Scott Buchholz whether the MP could "express more milk" rather than breastfeed so as to avoid "missing her duties".
While there were errors made by Buchholz regarding O'Dwyer's duties - in fact the standing orders stipulate that she is entitled to make a proxy vote - the deeper issue here is that pumping and nursing are not equivalent activities and if mothers are to fully participate in working life, including politics, their embodied relationship to infants must be taken into account.
The rules have changed around breastfeeding in Parliament. In 2003 when Victorian State Labor MP Kirstie Marshall breastfed her 11 day old baby in the chamber she was approached by a Sergeant-at-Arms and asked to leave; her baby Charlotte was identified as "a stranger in the house" – a particularly antiquated term to define those who are not parliamentarians or their authorised staff. There was no scope within the extant laws to allow a sitting member's baby within the chamber because the default assumption was that sitting members were not women, let alone breastfeeding mothers!
Within the ideological nexus of liberalism where rights and votes are assigned on an individual basis, maternal and infant bodies are a conundrum. Are they one or two? Is the baby part of the mother or separate? Is nursing a baby continuous with or disruptive to a mother's duties? These are vexed questions precisely because the implicit assumption is that those in public office are discreet, unitary, autonomous selves.
With women entering the halls of power, including government, these assumptions have become visible and problematic. As a 2009 Government research paper by Dr Mark Rodrigues points out:
Over the past 30 years there has been a dramatic increase in the representation of women in Parliament and some of them have given birth while in office. Since the 1990s a number of parents have defied the rules and brought a child onto the floor of the chamber. In response to changing values, new procedures and facilities have been developed in parliament that attempt to address the needs of senators and members who are parents of young children. These include the establishment of a childcare centre within Parliament House, measures to support breastfeeding and enabling proxy voting for nursing mothers in the House of Representatives.
The rules changedin February 2008 after my own member Catherine King had a baby and campaignedfor special provisions to enable nursing mothers to vote by proxy. King is incredulous at the treatment of Dwyer noting that it has been seven years since the standing order rules have changed and yet key parliamentary staff like Buchholz remain oblivious (or did until a few days ago).Dwyer, of course, is keen to put the incident behind her given that the ignorance lay within her own ranks.
However, the interesting point here is the assumption that expressing (more and faster) is the answer. Buchholz's comment is consistent with workplace norms under neo-liberalism that require mothers to minimise their breastfeeding relationship with their infants and to instead pump milk. As sociologist Kate Boyer recently observedin the US context, without longer maternity leave or proper provisions to breastfeed at work we are not so much accommodating mothering as squeezing it – quite literally – to fit into the 'needs' of industry. While centering the importance of 'human milk', expressing actually pushes mothering – the act of embodied nurture - to the periphery. This, she contends, is a new form of 'neoliberal mothering' that extracts both care work and labour from women without regard to the unique problems this creates.
The new norm is not to exclude women outright, but to exclude the particular embodied relationships women have with infants and young children (and, perhaps more fundamentally, that infants and young children have with their mothers). In the new model, liberalism has been surpassed by neo-liberalism: mothers are allowed in 'the house' (or out of the house as the case may be) but they and their babies are under pressure to minimise physical contact. As I have written recently, keeping up a 'supply' of milk and work is the new norm, which promotes 'pumping' over breastfeeding. These are, of course, not the same thing. The intimacy and bonding, the stroking and face-to-face contact, the intersubjective experience and embodied care are diminished in preference to disembodied 'expressing'. As maternal scholar Julie Stephens notes:
What does that tell us about the real agenda? The industrialised breast is an alienated breast, de-linked from the baby its function is to feed, and separated from wider concerns about society's commitment to caring for children. Those who frame breastfeeding as a primarily practical problem also divert attention from the politics of the issue.
The real challenge for integrating women with work across the transition to motherhood is how to accommodate the unique corporeal and intersubjective relation between mothers and their babies. This means longer parental leave times, the provision of breastfeeding breaks and facilities at work, on-site childcare, greater flexibility, 'allowing' women with infants and young children to work from home where possible, and, last but not least, familiarity by those in senior positions with these policy developments. Unless and until these shifts occur women will continue to feel that motherhood and careers are all or nothing.
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