Feminist writer and activist Jennifer Baumgardner first turned heads in the parenting blogosphere when she wrote about her experience “cross-nursing” her infant son with a friend. The two long-time friends both had breastfeeding babies and discussed swapping babes in an episode that initially caused her to panic with all kinds of concerns. After learning that there was no health risk to such an activity, Jennifer eventually consented and her piece recounting the experience captivated both parents and childless readers.
Now, the Third Wave feminist has gathered her other notable essays into a collection entitled F’em!: Goo Goo, GaGa and Some Thoughts on Balls. The humorous collection offers interviews with other notable feminists like Kathleen Hannah and Ani Difranco while also delving into Purity Balls, lesbians after marriage, and her personal experiences as a mother of two boys.
How has your feminist background impacted your approach to parenting, if at all?
It hasn’t made me force my sons to wear pink or put down their guns, trucks, and Super Mario but it has enabled me to contemplate that I don’t know how they will understand their own gender and sexuality, as they continue to grow. Being a feminist also means that while I don’t think it’s necessarily age-appropriate for me to initiate personal discussions of my past relationships (including same-sex relationships) with my sons Skuli and Magnus, it is imperative for me to find ways to talk about about gay relationships as normal and valuable.
I know that your boys are little but have you had any opportunities yet to have any feminist discussions yet?
My six-year-old recently prefaced a story about how he is afraid of girls by saying, “Please don’t say that this is bad for feminism.” So, even if I’m not directly engaging in discussions about Judith Butler or how poorly the media treats women in politics, the children are picking up on my point of view and value system. My two-year-old came home from a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art saying “Girls don’t need the penis.” He was referring to all of the naked figures in the museum and how he saw penises on men and not on women, but I loved the line. I said, “That’s the title of mommy’s next book, honey.” I was kidding. (I think.)
You wrote a piece for Babble in 2007, which is republished in your book, about how you and your best friend “cross-nursed” one another’s babies. As you note, it received tons of press. Why do you think so many parents, and childless people for the matter, responded to the story?
As I say in the epilogue I wrote, many people don’t see breast milk as food and breasts as devices for storing and delivering milk. To them, breasts are SEX! To nurse another baby is NONMONOGAMOUS! I think the critique is poorly thought and really just an excuse to do something misogynist society does every day–that is, police women’s behavior. For example, you MUST nurse or you are a bad mother. You must nurse for one year, or you are inadequate. If you nurse for longer, you are a pervert.
In the piece, you express an initial anxiety at other parents discovering that you and your friend had cross-nursed for fear of not appearing like “normal parents.” Do you find that to be a particular anxiety that consumes a lot of parents?
I think many parents are deeply worried that they aren’t the mythical norm because they are divorced or gay or poor or rich or let their kids watch TV and can’t get them to eat veggies, to be contrasted with the perfectly middle-class, hetero, functional, educational, and tofu-eating home. As my friend and colleague Amy Richards often points out, feminism says that there is no “normal” and asks us not to measure ourselves against a myth. That said, parenting is a high-stakes game and none of want to do anything to harm or disadvantage our children.
You’re married now, but for awhile you were a single mother. You recount in your book how you battled the word “selfish” when it was just you and your little boy, especially when deciding whether to date again or just remain a duo with your child. How has single motherhood shaped your view of the nuclear family, if at all? Especially now that you have one.
My experience of the nuclear family after having been a single parent is that the nuclear family as a form is more lonely, in a way. It’s a closed unit and expected to be self-sustaining. I chose and married someone for whom it is very important to have lots of time alone with the family; when it was just me and my son Skuli, I loved having friends over and wanted my people to feel like my door was always open. It’s been an adjustment, and I’m still learning how to meet the needs of my larger family without sacrificing myself, but I’m very happy in the quartet I’ve created more recently. Skuli is happy, too. We’re still a good team — but a bigger one.
(photo: Gretchen Sayers)