In Defense of Gisele

gisele breastfeeding photo - gisele breastfeeding controversySo a few weeks back I was attending the Ultimate Moms Night Out event sponsored by MommyBites. It was amazing, and I was so glad that Christa invited me to attend with the Mom Meet Mom crew. About halfway through the evening and after indulging in delicious food, free beer, and free wine, I looked at Christ and Meg and said, “You know who I’m really surprised isn’t here? Gisele! She lives in Boston! How cool would it be if she were here?”

Now, I am not a huge Gisele fan, but Gisele is a famous area mother who does bring out many conversations in the Momverse about breastfeeding, homebirth, and raising children. So it really would have been fitting if she had attended the event, one fifth the proceeds of which went to an amazing local charity. Suffice it to say, some of the moms I was speaking with were not huge Gisele fans because of her comment from 2010 after her first child was born that breastfeeding should be law.  To which, she did offer an explanation on her blog.

(I’ll also say that my first child had colic and slept no more than half an hour at a time except between 9 am and 11 am every morning that I hope no one would hold me to anything I said in my sleep deprived, PPD, PTSD state of mind. My daughter was a much better sleeper and I didn’t have the same challenges with her as with my son, but I still hope no one holds me to anything I said until she was about four months old when I regained some normal cognitive function. I’m just glad I wasn’t a famous celebrity expected to give interviews that would be quoted and then haunt me years later everywhere I went!)

Not being a huge Gisele fan, I couldn’t remember where she hailed from, so I queried, “Isn’t she South American?” Well, she is Brazilian in fact. Having this confirmed suddenly stirred me into a line of thinking about motherhood that can be easily overlooked: Our own cultural contexts. I suggested that Gisele having a homebirth, breastfeeding, and being open about her decisions has broader implications. I commented that maybe Gisele was backlashing against the cultural context in which she was raised, and further — maybe this openness of hers is less about the US and more about promoting alternatives to women in Brazil.

Having had a very unwanted C-section with my first child, I became more interested in C-sections in general. I utilized the International Cesarean Awareness Network website (and, hey! April is Cesarean Awareness Month!) to find support and to learn more about C-section experiences elsewhere. One piece of what I learned, and this was before Gisele had been pregnant, was that Brazil was not a country you wanted to be if you didn’t want to have a C-section, with C-section rates reaching as high as 70% in private hospitals in the early 2000s!! There was  one study done that found that Brazilian women would choose to have a C-section because they believed it was a higher standard of care and because being able to afford surgery in a private hospital indicated a higher social status.

As for breastfeeding? Well, in 2003, Brazil introduced a new campaign with Luiza Tome, a famous Brazilian actress, to push more mothers to attempt breastfeeding. At that time, only 8% of Brazilian women breastfed to six months.  According to the Pan American Health Organization [.pdf] by 2006, the rate of initiation was 42.9% with a rate of 38% reaching to six months and the median duration of breastfeeding reaching 14 months!

Also, now in 2014, Brazilian women are beginning to question the need for having a c-section as the default way of giving birth. And I have to wonder if Gisele and her openness about choices other than a C-section is helping to pave that way and if, regarding breastfeeding, she is taking over where Luiza Tome may have left off. Much of the news surrounding Gisele is very Euro-US-centric  that it’s easy to forget about there are moms in the southern hemisphere. To the New York City and Boston Mom, Gisele can come off as sounding privileged and aloof to the challenges of motherhood when she touts how easy it was for her to give birth in a bathtub and when she posts pictures of herself breastfeeding while getting her hair done. But I wonder immensely if to the women in her home country – the place where she grew up and was primarily exposed to women only giving birth by C-section and climbing breastfeeding rates — if her words, experiences, and, yes, her privilege isn’t shaping the landscape for Brazilian women to birth how they see fit. In fact, I’d like to ask her about this if I ever have the chance to come across her.

gisele nursing - gisele breastfeeding should be lawSo, the next time Gisele speaks about birth maybe we should remember that giving birth vaginally is still not the norm in Brazil, that coming from where she does, she was very brave and, maybe, rebellious to make a different decision. As for breastfeeding? Well, I happen to love that picture! Gisele was at her job, feeding her baby before she had to go before the camera, which is not something you could pay me to do in a million years. I’ve also had the experience of having to nurse at my job. When my daughter was young and our daycare would close, I’d bring her to work with me and, of course, breastfeed her because I had the privilege to do so. I didn’t view what Gisele was doing all that differently from what I had done – and in fact, I would hope her privilege, and mine, could extend into other such work environments.

Sometimes change happens through influence, and Gisele is nothing if not in possession of a world of influence! I say, good on her for being confident in her choices as a new mother that she is able to openly share them with the world.

Liz lives in Salem, MA with her husband, children, two rabbits, and a cat. She works as a coordinator to an academic department in Boston. When she’s not too busy with all of the above, she can be found in yarn stores and book stores. As evidenced by this post, she occasionally finds time to write as well.

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