The Effect of the Illusion of Infinite Choices (Ain’t No Breast Pumps in Oaxaca)

21 Jun

Those petty Mommy Wars don’t exist here in Southern Mexico. I started to write about me going back to work and pumping, but I got sidetracked by my need to explain some background info first. It’s a good news / bad news situation. The good news is that there’s no absurd culture war between moms. The bad news is, I think it’s mostly due to a lack of options.

It’s not that people aren’t judgmental, because of course some people are, but there is a general lack of hating on moms for doing what they have to do for their families. Or I guess I could say that people seem to understand better that the decisions that we make about how we live are often not based 100% on choice, but rather on what needs to happen given the circumstances. Perhaps because people here both perceive and really do have fewer choices in life, it’s not an automatic to be crappy to someone for their life “choices.”

I live in a state where, compared to the U.S., there is an incredibly obvious lack of choice about most things. You don’t have to stand staring bewilderedly at the 20 kinds of rice in my grocery store, because there are probably only two choices, and there are a whole two choices only because rice is a popular food. There are fewer life decisions to make, too, because people don’t have a lot of power in this very poor state, and nobody here grew up being told to pull themselves up by their boot straps. People know that if you were born poor, you will probably be poor your whole life, and so will your kids and their kids. They hope they will be less poor in the future. They hope they’ll be able to provide the basics for their kids, that their kids won’t struggle as hard as them, but they don’t have this inherent idea that everyone can get out of poverty on their own. In general, they don’t have this idea that everyone has limitless choices, either, or even that we should have limitless choices.

So of course this lack of choices applies to moms, for better and for worse. For moms here, mostly you use cloth diapers if you can’t afford disposables. You work outside the home if you have to, and if not you bust your butt at home and possibly earn money in some other unofficial capacity (selling tortillas, sewing on the side, etc.). You take care of your kids the best way you can, possibly along with your mother or mother-in-law helping take care of them, too. There’s pretty much no talk of parenting styles. Some people use baby carriers, which have reached this corner of the world, or they use rebozos, which is the original form of baby carrying, and some use strollers, but it’s more a question of whether your street is paved enough to make a stroller worthwhile than anything else. It’s not about being a better mom than other people. Who has the time and energy for that?

the hands-free, in-the-back style around here…. there’s another in-the-front style around here but you have to use one arm and I couldn’t find a picture of it. this photo is from google, not mine. 

For better or for worse, I live in a state where most people have never even heard of a breast pump, much less seen or owned one. Even in the state capital, Oaxaca City, my nurse friend tells me that moms with babies are in the equivalent of the NICU are given sterilized cups and told to squeeze their milk into there with their hand. That’s it. In my “backwards” state of Kentucky the hospital gives you access to a fancy electric breast pump. Here, in my small but touristy town, you can buy some nicer types of manual breast pumps, but they’re not common- not for working moms and not even for moms whose babies can’t nurse yet. Forget about the easy and convenient electric kind.

So there’s a lack of resources and often information, but there is plenty of support for nursing- much more so than in the U.S. It seems like nearly every mom breastfeeds, at least part-time, at least at some point in their baby’s life. It is so normal that nobody bats an eye at moms whipping out their nipple to feed their baby, in restaurants, while walking down the street, or anywhere else that they damn well please. Female family members help new moms learn how to nurse. Cushy jobs that follow federal guidelines give moms an hour a day off of work for nursing, up until their baby is 6 months old (and yes! I get this benefit!!). Breastfeeding here is totally normal and accepted without the nasty this-is-the-only-right-option attitude that you often find in the U.S., which I think is just a defensive reaction because other people are out attacking and badmouthing breastfeeding moms for doing it in public.

The laid-back situation here might also be related to the fact that a large portion of moms here use formula and breastfeed. None of them seem to have any drama around it, either. It’s not some crazy black and white issue. It’s not even an issue, period. They nurse when it works for them and bottle feed when needed, and nobody goes around shaming or lecturing them for either of those things. It is pretty much a given, due to the lack of breast pumps and pumping information / culture, that moms who have to work are going to give their babies formula, because almost nobody thinks there are any other options.

On one hand I think it stinks that working moms don’t have any options, because I’m sure there are some moms who would prefer to pump rather than give formula. But on the other hand I love that people aren’t trying to make moms feel guilty about doing what they have to do. Just like almost everybody here recognizes that moms who work outside the home do so because that’s what they have to do in their situation. People don’t usually discuss having a job as something they do for self-fulfillment, which means you can’t really give moms a hard time about “selfishly” going back to work after having a baby.

While there is still a much larger percentage of women here than in the U.S. who aren’t part of the official labor force, people here are much less likely to perceive your domestic / working life as a choice. If you were lucky enough to do well in school and be able to finish high school and then go on to college, then of course you work in a professional job if there’s work available for you. If you weren’t lucky enough to finish school, didn’t want to or couldn’t for whatever reason, then you might or might not have steady paid employment if you’re a mom. It depends on the other factors in your household- how many other people have jobs, what other unofficial earning options are available to you, if you are doing all the stay-at-home work for several family members, etc. But nobody seems to be telling stay-at-home moms to get a career. And while there’s some conservative women-belong-at-home attitude that still happens here, most people recognize the economic necessity of working and thus don’t criticize (as long as they still do housework, mind you. I didn’t say things were perfect.)

It’s a different mindset, and while I can’t advocate for people having fewer choices in life, I think the U.S., and mamas everywhere, could learn a lot from being down here. I think people in the U.S. could really stand to contemplate what choices are important (and it ain’t the number of products in the grocery store), and that choices are a luxury that many people don’t have a lot of (yes, including people in the U.S.). I think moms, and by extension families, in the U.S. would be much better off if they put less energy into worrying about each other’s life “choices” and accepted that we all do what needs to be done, based on our circumstances and what’s available to us. If we could quit being so against each other, if we could share information and resources without insisting that our way is better than someone else’s, then maybe we could have all have access to more of the choices that matter in life.

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