It all started with a note taped to a refrigerator. Not just any fridge; this was the staff refrigerator in a hospital maternity ward in Jerusalem. The nurse, who discovered the note, was placing her pumped breast milk therein when she noticed it. “To Whom It May Concern,” read the politely worded note with a less than polite message, “Please do not store breast milk in this refrigerator. The Staff.”
Back just a few days from her maternity leave, as the only nursing mother on staff, the letter may as well have been addressed to her. Shocked, she complained up the chain of command all the way to upper management. She was told that each ward is its own democracy and can decide independently if it wants to allow breast milk to be placed in its own staff refrigerators. Unable to be a part of a “democracy” that could make such decisions, the nurse resigned.
Breast milk, the liquid gold that has sustained babies for as long, well, as long as there were babies, has therefore, not for the first time, found itself at the center of a maelstrom. This time, for a change, the issue at hand had nothing to do with women feeding their babies in a public place.
What is it about this natural nutrition source that gets up people’s dander? Have we over sexualized women’s bodies so that we are ashamed of something that should be natural? Or perhaps we are trying to under sexualize something that should be erotic? In fact, it seems that both of these processes are happening simultaneously, from opposite ends of the “breast is best” spectrum, resulting in confusion, shame, and embarrassment on the part of nursing mothers, or unsuspecting passersby respectively (depending upon where one finds oneself on the spectrum…)
Let’s take a look at what should be the most innocuous part of the whole process: the milk. What is this “milk” anyway? No one will argue the fact that it is a nutritionally perfect food for human babies. Nice. Let’s start there then. This food, when delivered as nature intended, creates a beautiful bonding experience between the mother and the baby. Are we all still in agreement? Good.
Now assume that for some reason, work, health, or any other reason, the mother cannot physically nurse the baby at a particular time. She goes, modestly of course, to a private room, and in a very unnatural way she pumps her breasts, carefully preserving every drop of liquid, to feed to her infant at a later time. Now we are starting to feel uncomfortable; women getting impressions of cows being milked and men imagining Chinese torture machines being employed by women (how right they all are…) but let’s leave that for the time being. Imagine that this hypothetical woman is at work. She has succeeded in procuring 8 ounces of this nutritional wonder. She seals it up to save for later, and puts it…where?
You see, there seems to be a deep, existential question that has gotten this particular hospital–the maternity ward no less–into a tizzy: what exactly is breast milk? Is it a food that you can put into the fridge next to your PB&J? Or is it a bodily fluid that should go into a lab fridge next to stool and urine specimens? Or perhaps it belongs in its own special refrigerator, saved exclusively for these sealed and well-labeled baby treats, never to share space on the shelf with lesser foods such as banana yogurt and cow’s milk?
Incidentally, I was once a nurse in a maternity ward, and we had lots of refrigerators. We had a fridge for meds, and one for bodily fluid specimens, one for patient food, one for staff food–and one for breast milk. Yes, we actually had a special refrigerator wherein would be carefully labeled bottles of patient’s breast milk, never to mix with any of the many other refrigerated items in our ward, never to accidentally be poured in an unsuspecting person’s coffee or in with a bowl of corn flakes. That’s right; anyone pumping breast milk stored it there. Oh, except for the exception: staff. Employees who pumped at work? They put their milk in the staff fridge, right next to the food. No one freaked, and frankly, no one ever accidentally drank it.
And no one ever had a problem with it.
I think that the hospital was absolutely wrong, and the staff is a bunch of lactophobic prigs. Still, if it were me? I’d just toss my milk in the freezer in my Ben & Jerry’s cooler with the cow motif, and tell everyone it was my ice cream…
For more on this story, which has been making a splash in Israel, click here.