Like pretty much everyone I know, I watched the series finale of “Girls” on Sunday night. I wasn’t really looking forward to it—I was tired from seven hours of car travel with my 5-year-old daughter, on Easter Sunday no less.
But you know, the “Girls” finale was an event, and I didn’t want to have it spoiled at work or on Twitter. So I managed to keep my eyes open through the opening credits. And then, as I watched, rage took over.
I was wide awake, and angry.
By now, you likely know the plot, but just in case: Our anti-heroine Hannah has her baby, whom she names Grover. Marnie, rudderless and without purpose, offers to help raise it. The “friends” move upstate, where Hannah has a hard time adjusting to her new reality (i.e., a baby relying on her) and also, especially, breastfeeding. This is really the point of the episode, which, after all, is titled “Latching.”
Marnie, for her part, steps up as a kind of wundernanny and by the end everyone learns lessons about what it means to grow up and let go.
All fine. Except in the course of showing Hannah’s challenges adjusting to motherhood, “Latching” ended up promoting a bunch of stereotypes about baby-having and being a woman and mother that I would have hoped Lena Dunham and her cohort would have turned completely upside down.
I get it: New mothers are pressured to breastfeed. Doctors, friends, the internet, men: Everyone has an opinion about it, and it’s usually the same one (read: You better, or else). This conventional wisdom would imply that if you give your kid formula they will flunk pre-K or have a never-ending cold for their entire lives, oh and also, they won’t love you, because you were too much of a selfish asshole to give your kid your body for, how long? Well, don’t even start the debate over how long you have to breastfeed, or how long is too long. No one wins.
When my daughter was born, and I had made it clear to the hospital staff—in writing and in actual spoken language—I would be formula feeding my baby, I still had a nurse ask me why I wasn’t breastfeeding. She told me to try. I told her to back off. (By the way, I also had an epidural!).
And as I have written before, my daughter is healthy, smart, crazy-making and perfect in every way.
So wait, why am I ranting about this? Because despite what Dunham and Jenni Konner say (a quote from Dunham: “Anything that makes your day easier, as long as you’re not feeding your baby crack in milk, is really good by us”) that finale essentially reinforced the idea that formula is bad and you are not enough of a mother if you don’t try, try, try to breastfeed, even if it impedes your ability to relax enough to get comfortable with your new little baby, let alone enjoy them.
We see Hannah struggle to get Grover to latch on; we see her wearing a breast-pump vest, attached to a backpack, with two bottles hanging off (though we don’t hear the Darth Vader-like whir of the machine, which may be the most terrifying part of the entire apparatus); we hear her complaining about all of this, and that it’s not enough for him to drink breast milk from a bottle, even, because then they aren’t bonding. “He hates me!” Hannah cries.
I could not help but think, with tremendous despair, that this was the message being handed on to an entire (still largely childless) generation on Sunday night: that, when the time comes for these young women to have kids, they would receive the “wisdom” that breastfeeding is the key to bonding with your baby. That anything other than nipple-to-mouth is not enough. And that you risk ruining your kids, and actually having them hate you, if you don’t do it.
What an awful, incorrect, oppressive message to pass on in a world where women are already given enough things to feel horrible about, especially once they have kids. And especially since it’s total bullshit.
Ask any adoptive parent, or woman who couldn’t breastfeed for some reason, or who just didn’t want to! We love our kids and, unless they are teenagers, they love us back.
And what about fathers and partners? I mean, do kids love their dads or other moms less because they don’t have milk-filled breasts? No, they don’t. And many a man (like my husband), or non-birth-giving partner who has been part of bottle-feeding a baby from day one will tell you that it was part of their bonding process, and a way for them to feel critically involved in the health and care of their kid. To me, this is part of being a feminist parent: sharing the responsibilities of keeping the child alive and well.
Hannah has suffered from OCD since we met her, and maybe, somewhere in the future, her obsession with breastfeeding as the path to connection with Grover would be understood in that context. We’d watch as she fed him sushi before his second birthday or let him sip her coffee and laugh in acknowledgment that actually, it’s not that easy to really screw up your kid as long as you provide the basics in love and care.
Because I couldn’t help but think on Sunday night that the Hannah I’ve known—the stereotype-breaking one who strips off her clothes in a physical ‘f**k you’ in practically every other episode, who sleeps with who she wants when she wants and how she wants, who pleads for help constantly—would have been a little less hard on herself and given that baby some formula. And probably the liquid kind, that you don’t even have to mix.
And at the same time, she would have sent a truly radical message to the millions of young women who grew up with “Girls:” When it’s your time to be a mom, if you even want to, you don’t need to cave to the pressure. Do it the way that’s right for you, and everyone will be fine. Not just fine—everyone will be happy.