Originally published on Discover Society.
“[When] my freezer’s full, I’m happy, I feel like it’s Christmas!” Anna told Beatriz, beaming. Anna is a 21-year-old mother of Grace, a beautiful, healthy, six-month-old baby girl. After a rough start in life, Anna was determined to give Grace the best possible nutrition she could. When stress and a thyroid condition made breastfeeding impossible, Anna turned to what she believes is second-best to her own milk: shared human milk, lovingly gifted by women who have more than they need.
Between 2013 and 2019, we, sociologist Shannon Carter and anthropologist Beatriz Reyes-Foster, engaged in a long-term ethnographic exploration of peer milk sharing, also known as informal milk sharing, in the Central Florida metropolitan area, a region spanning from the Atlantic coast, through Orlando and Sanford. Over the course of seven years, we met many mothers who gave and received human milk. We participated in a local breastfeeding non-profit organization, attended many community events, and organized a few Big Latch-Ons. We joined and participated in local lactation support groups, and soon learned that peer milk sharing, while publicly discouraged, was an open secret in the Central Florida lactation support community.
Peer milk sharing seemed to be happening everywhere. When we asked directly about it, some local breastfeeding support professionals (known as IBCLCs) would choose their words carefully, saying something, noncommittally, about individual choices, doing research, and being safe. Others actively encouraged obtaining milk from screened donors and sometimes connected moms who needed milk with those who had extra. And, after spending any length of time with members of local breastfeeding support communities, before long we would observe exchanges happening before our eyes as one mother with short supply would gratefully receive milk from another. All of the support communities we worked with maintained virtual spaces on social media. When we didn’t see the exchanges happen in person, we would often see them online.
Over the years, we came to learn a few things. First, we learned that milk sharing is widely misunderstood by people outside of that community, and this misunderstanding has led to some unfortunately shoddy science. While scary headlines led people unfamiliar with milk sharing to quickly rush to judgement, our study participants looked at the coverage, perplexed, and did not see themselves reflected in the dominant discourses. Second, we learned that most people who milk-share in the communities we studied share certain consistent ideologies and values even when many milk-sharing people are far apart from each other politically or socioeconomically: within the milk-sharing communities, caretakers and donors routinely screen each other, milk is always gifted, and formula is incomparable to the gift of mother’s milk. Finally, we learned that milk sharing is a deeply meaningful and emotion-driven practice for the people who do it.
For peer breast milk recipients, human milk is a gift of life, of human vitality. Caregivers watch as the milk they receive from generous donors and feed to their babies transforms their babies’ bodies. Often, these are babies who were struggling to gain weight due to their mothers’ low milk supply, or they had already been on a formula diet but had difficulty digesting it, prompting caregivers to seek out donor milk. Upon screening donors, receiving their milk, and feeding it to their babies, recipients watch as peer-shared milk improves their babies’ health before their very eyes. This gift of human vitality creates what Rhonda Shaw calls bio-intimacy, in which a donor gives their biological material for the health and well-being of someone else, and that gift transforms the recipients’ body. Although there is not necessarily an emotional connection inherent in the milk itself, many who share milk establish a sense of emotional connectedness and family-like relationships.
In our new book, Sharing Milk: Intimacy, Materiality, and Bio-communities of Practice, we argue that these relationships converge on local and global levels to form bio-communities of practice. Our concept of bio-communities of practice builds on Etienne Wenger’s communities of practice, which is a group of people who come together to achieve a common goal. Caregivers who attend a breastfeeding group could be considered a community of practice because their purpose for joining is to gain support and information to help them breastfeed their babies. Participation in milk sharing is similar in that people join together for the purpose of feeding their babies breastmilk, but they are bio-communities of practice because they achieve their goals through the exchange of human biological material. Those who participate with each other at the local level form local bio-communities of practice. They often share information or participate in larger groups via social media, forming global bio-communities of practice.
The practice of sharing breastmilk offers a vision for what human societies could become. In milk sharing, people look past some of their differences, and they work together to provide the best possible nutrition to human babies. Those who have extra engage in regular, ongoing labor to produce milk that they give away, and those who cannot produce accept these gifts, occasionally giving non-monetary expressions of gratitude. They work together to develop healthy babies, and in so doing, they establish local and global communities that are connected on a deep, ontological level.
Beatriz Reyes-Foster is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Central Florida. A medical anthropologist, her research interests include reproductive and mental health in Mexico and the US. She is co-author of Sharing Milk: Intimacy, Materiality, and Bio-Communities of Practice (2020, Bristol University Press) and author of Psychiatric Encounters: Madness and Modernity in Yucatan (2019, Rutgers University Press). Her Twitter handle is @BeatriAnthro.
Shannon K. Carter, PhD, is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Central Florida. Her research focuses on the ways social inequalities manifest in reproductive health and healthcare. She has published numerous articles on pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and peer milk sharing in academic journals such as Sociology of Health & Illness, Sociology of Race & Ethnicity, and Gender & Society. She is co-author of Sharing Milk: Intimacy, Materiality and Bio-Communities of Practice. Her Twitter handle is @ProfSkcarter.
Sharing Milk: Intimacy, Materiality and Bio-Communities of Practice by Shannon K. Carter and Beatriz M. Reyes-Foster is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £60.00.
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