Our boobs, Our babies, Ourselves

NS March 16th, 2009

You may have read about or seen on tv the furore caused by an article that recently appeared in The Atlantic called “The Case Against Breastfeeding,” by Hanna Rosin. I’m not here to tell you what it says or to dissect it line by line but I encourage you to at least skim it, though I’m sure you can guess from the title what it’s about. What you might not have guessed, however, is that I actually agree with some of what Rosin puts forth.

Now, before you snatch away my lactivist credentials and sharpen your pitchforks, let me just say that I disagree with a lot of what Rosin writes and the way in which she presents it; the key is that I don’t deride it. See, no matter how wrong or ill-informed or strange I find some of her views, I don’t find them incomprehensible. Even as a mother who breastfeeds, thinks it is important and actively speaks out against efforts to undermine it, I can easily see how others would think and feel differently. Widespread use of formula and the suppression of breastfeeding has been the cultural norm for the last generation or so. Though these norms are slowly breaking down and nursing makes strides towards normalization, the hostility (at worst) and apathy (at best) toward it continues. Rosin makes a few correlations (both anecdotal and scientific) that she flippantly mistakes for causation, but in there among the hazy associations and snarky attitude towards ardent breastfeeding supporters are some real issues.

Rosin wonders if breastfeeding is keeping women chained to the home, much like a sense of domestic duty and restrictions on opportunities to go to work and attain higher education did to women in the 50s. She writes:

I dutifully breast-fed each of my first two children for the full year that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends. I have experienced what the Babytalk story calls breast-feeding-induced “maternal nirvana.” This time around, nirvana did not describe my state of mind; I was launching a new Web site and I had two other children to care for, and a husband I would occasionally like to talk to. Being stuck at home breast-feeding as he walked out the door for work just made me unreasonably furious, at him and everyone else.

In Betty Friedan’s day, feminists felt shackled to domesticity by the unreasonably high bar for housework, the endless dusting and shopping and pushing the Hoover around—a vacuum cleaner being the obligatory prop for the “happy housewife heroine,” as Friedan sardonically called her. When I looked at the picture on the cover of Sears’s Breastfeeding Book—a lady lying down, gently smiling at her baby and still in her robe, although the sun is well up—the scales fell from my eyes: it was not the vacuum that was keeping me and my 21st-century sisters down, but another sucking sound.

Still, despite my stint as the postpartum playground crank, I could not bring myself to stop breast-feeding—too many years of Sears’s conditioning, too many playground spies. So I was left feeling trapped, like many women before me, in the middle-class mother’s prison of vague discontent: surly but too privileged for pity, breast-feeding with one hand while answering the cell phone with the other, and barking at my older kids to get their own organic, 100 percent juice—the modern, multitasking mother’s version of Friedan’s “problem that has no name.”

This, to me, is not the picture of a lady who hates breastfeeding or who is too selfish or lazy or ignorant to do it. This is a woman who is grappling with the difficulties that most mothers today face: handling the shift in dynamics of our relationships, marriage, parenting, career, self-identity and household management when we have babies. She (rightfully, in my opinion) questions the complete exclusion of ourselves and our pre-baby lives in the quest to give our babies the best, which is the breast.

Interestingly, I found Rosin’s offhand remark about how the woman is portrayed on the cover of Dr. Sear’s book the most telling. Rosin, as a working mom of three, rejects the idea that most women have uninterrupted, extended time to breastfeed, at home and at leisure. I tend to agree. Obvious classist issues aside (which I could write an entire post on), we have a long way to go in figuring out how to get the best outcomes for babies while not discounting the realities of modern life. Issues that need to be tackled urgently include: educating and connecting with expectant and new mothers so they can make informed decisions and seek help when it is needed; bettering our birthing standards and practices so that babies and mothers get the best, most peaceful start; determining the role and length of maternity leave in our society and how fathers/partners can share in the burden of early childcare ; assessing rights and practicalities for nursing mothers in the workplace; combating the ignorance and hostility surrounding nursing in public; and getting women plugged into a support group which they can turn to for assistance, advice and open, honest communication with other parents and professionals.

As a modern woman with career ambitions and as a radical feminist, I know I often feel conflicted about my biological instincts and the style of parenting that comes naturally to me because often they do not reconcile. Believing (for the most part) in the benefits of attachment parenting and extended breastfeeding and wanting to follow those philosophies for my family doesn’t make it any easier to stem the anger that I often feel at being unable to pursue my own interests and career in order to do this. I too have glared at my husband with daggers in my eyes as I sit surrounded by breadcrumbs and spit-up and seethe at how lucky he is to walk freely down the street, unfettered by nap schedules, teething rings and the worry of where and when the baby will want to be fed again. Do I have on the nursing bra and tank top that make ‘discreet’ nursing possible or did I wear that top where I have to pull it down instead of up? The consequence of the latter is that I risk being accused of ‘whipping it out’ as if I were putting on a show in a desperate bid for attention. I can certainly see why an inequality between the breastfeeding relationship and the parenting partnership is a worry of Rosin’s, and other women’s. In fact, it is something I have experienced and continue to experience as I come into the seventh month of exclusively nursing my son.

Every Sunday, I go to the local cafe for two hours of coffee and reading, all by myself. Usually this is enough to recharge my batteries and I walk home with a spring in my step and the dog-eared paper tucked under my arm, looking forward to seeing my brood upon my return. Before the door can even be shut, I scoop the baby from his father’s arms and shower him in kisses before lovingly nursing him, delighting in and marvelling at such an act of intimacy and perfection. Sometimes, however, after a particularly stormy week or when TNH has worked a billion hours of overtime, two hours is not enough. When I catch sight of the time after forlornly sketching out possible career paths and the associated (inevitably impossible or too expensive) childcare arrangements on my notepad, or when I see and mourn my blank social calendar, I get a face like thunder and a part of me hates that I have to get back home because I’m the only one who can feed The Noble Baby. You’ll sometimes hear me snarl, “I wish these things were detachable,” and daydream about running away from my responsibilities. Does that make me a ‘bad’ breastfeeder? I hope it just makes me human.

These are real, meaty feminist issues that have been dismissed out of hand by Rosin’s critics in their apoplectic rage. Things have gotten ugly. So ugly, in fact, that I cringed my way through this post by Emily at Adventures in [Crunchy] Parenthood and even had a couple of wide-eyed “Oh no she didn’t!” moments. I hadn’t ever read her blog before today and while I’m sure she’s a lovely person and means well, I found some of the things she’d written so offensive and so counter-productive to the lactivist/feminist cause that I couldn’t keep quiet. In dissecting the article, Emily says of Rosin:

Now on her third child, she has become disenchanted with the idea of breastfeeding, and wrote this article to show us why she doesn’t want to breastfeed anymore, and why we should not judge her for doing so.

…Her primary motivating factor seems to have been the feeling of being shackled by the chains of motherhood. She spends a bit of time talking about the feminist movement, and how breastfeeding is the modern equivalent of indentured servitude. To women who want to have careers, who want to be liberated from our biological imperative, that sounds great! But there is an easier solution:

DON’T HAVE KIDS.*

You don’t want to “do” the wife and mother thing? Then don’t get married and have kids. We are designed by God (or nature, if you prefer) to carry our young for 10 months, to birth them vaginally, and to suckle them at the breast. That is why we are classified as mammals. I will never understand why women want to have children, but don’t want anything that goes along with having children: birthing them, nursing them, and being home to raise them.

*(bolding mine)

Most importantly, once you have children, you cannot take away THEIR right to choose. Your right to choose ends when another life is affected by your choices. Infant formula is potentially harmful to babies. Period. You cannot “choose” to use formula simply because it suits your lifestyle better – you must breastfeed because it won’t kill your baby!

What. The. HELL?! Really? The answer to the complex issues surrounding babies, feeding choices and modern women is essentially “You made your bed, now lie in it?” This is eerily reminiscent of another movement I dislike, one that likes to tell women that if we don’t want to get pregnant that we should simply keep our legs shut and be good girls or else reap the consequences and be prepared to sacrifice all of ourselves to our offspring. Sound familiar?

Now, like I said, I don’t know much about Emily and for all I know she doesn’t believe in a woman’s right to choose whether she carries a pregnancy to term. It doesn’t really matter what Emily thinks in this case though, since she’s not trying to legislate mandatory breastfeeding. However, she does say in the comments section that she’s in favour of putting severe restrictions on formula, to the point where a woman would need to provide documentation of a medical need and gain the approval of a doctor before being ‘allowed’ to buy it. Again, this sounds disturbingly familiar. Did I wander into the wrong debate?

Let’s take the equation further and assume that the percentage of women who medically cannot breastfeed and need an alternative food source for their babies (around 5%) is about the same percentage of women who get pregnant even while stringently and consistently using birth control. Should we force that 5% to prove without a shadow of doubt that they did everything in their power to prevent the ‘abomination’ which they are seeking an end to? Or do we realise, as a rational and human society which values individualism, that people usually do the best with what they’ve got? Does that mean we have to stop trying to educate and help prevent these situations from happening? No, of course not. Like preventing unwanted pregnancies or fixing a flailing breastfeeding relationship, early intervention is the key.

But to say that this is solely about what’s best for babies and completely ignoring the needs and circumstances of the mother is no more legitimate a stance than that of the anti-abortion crowd. And that’s okay if you’re anti-abortion but if you’re pro-choice when it comes to growing babies in utero but totalitarian when feeding choices post-birth are in question, I hope you’ll spend some time thinking about how conflicting these two views are. (This is not directed at Emily in particular, but women in general)

Ultimately, Rosin didn’t make a very convincing case against breastfeeding. I still believe it’s the best thing for my children and I will continue to practice it, treasure it and fight for it. Not out of some warped sense of sacrifice or duty but because it’s just what my body does and because it makes sense. I’m able to do so effortlessly and for that I am thankful. I believe that women need more encouragment, support (both emotional and practical) and information so they can make better choices and be well-equipped to carry them out. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand by and watch others be made to feel less of a mother, less of a person, because of the blinkered and insensitive views of a small proportion of my lactivist peers.

This isn’t about Emily or Rosin or anyone else. It’s not personal. But how we feed our babies is. Let’s keep it that way.

15 Responses to “Our boobs, Our babies, Ourselves”

  1. Charlotte says:

    GREAT post! I am sure many women can relate to those feeling of anger and resentment as husband or partner walks importantly out of the door, while they are attached to a small feeding baby and needy older children. I certainly can. It’s such a long way to go for society to VALUE this role. Maybe if I had been paid a salary for the many, many months I spent breastfeeding three children, I would have been able to relax more and resent it less.

  2. Shannon says:

    Fantastic blog, excellent post, superb writing.

    I am also completely pro-breastfeeding and consider myself feminist in many ways, yet can relate to the feelings of being trapped while nursing. Rosin sounds like many of the terribly stressed mothers that I know today. It’s a lot to handle, and I certainly take offense to somebody suggesting the answer for her is to “not have kids”. How about more support for moms juggling issues like these?

    It IS hard. I am nursing my 14 month old and I have a 5 and 3 year old, both of whom I nursed for over a year. My husband (before he got laid off, poor soul) used to come home from work stressed and tired, and expect me to show compassion to him?? Oh please. My day consisted of poop, pee, puke, crying, and dangling a nursing baby from a sling upside down while I wiped a toddler’s butt. I struggle every day with the desire I have to go back to work and fulfill my career needs and goals and the reality that I can hardly afford to send three kids so young to daycare.

    I agree that Rosin didn’t make a convincing argument against breastfeeding, but her stress and angst certainly came through in the article. I am more interested in helping her sort through those feelings than I am in condemning her for speaking out against breastfeeding.

  3. Jill says:

    Amity, this is awesome. It makes me so happy to know that there are people like you in the world.

    In the past few weeks, I too have been horrified by some of the anti-formula BS that I’ve come across. Recently at a conference, someone stood up during a talk on improving breastfeeding rates in hospitals and said that formula should require a prescription. My jaw dropped. Then, someone post that formula should be illegal on one of my message boards. I promptly wrote back that posting that was extremely rude and asked what kind of response she had hoped to illicit.

    Shannon hits on the middle-class problem of making ends meet as a SAHP, considering part-time work but not being able to make enough to justify daycare costs, feeling stuck because of it, yet knowing that we’re not reeeeally stuck and to say we are stuck is a slap in the face to women of color or women living in poverty who may not have the benefits of race and class privilege that would allow such “should I work or not? should I change my situation in life or not?” questions to even exist. Know what I mean?

    But rather than grapple with such things, I guess I just shouldn’t have had kids?

    Yeesh.

  4. Twwly says:

    “You made your bed, now lie in it?”

    I don’t think it’s quite so severe. Nor do I think this issue has much, if anything to do with abortion.

    I consider myself a pretty hardcore lactivist. But I would never argue that the 5% who genuinely cannot breastfeed SHOULD. Nor would I argue that I woman who has made an INFORMED DECISION about formula feeding, after discovering it is not right for her, SHOULD.

    If you accidently get pregnant, don’t want a baby, I’ll drive you to your abortion appointment. There’s too much breathing on this planet, I have no qualms about women pursuing abortions if they are not ready to parent. You decide to stay pregnant, you decide to have a child, to become a parent, you are committing to that little person FOREVER. Is it terribly insensitive to demand people try to pull their socks up every now and then? (And I don’t just mean about BFing). I mean, really.

  5. NS says:

    @Charlotte — We’d be rich if we were paid to breastfeed. I wonder what the going rate should be? ;)

    @Shannon – Thanks for the kind compliments! The baby upside down in the sling while wiping a toddler’s bottom sounds very familiar. I too dream of returning to or forging a career but the costs of childcare stop me in my tracks. I heard a feminist panel discussion the other day and one of them said that the number one issue for feminists today is sorting out childcare — making it affordable, more equitable between parents and so that a woman doesn’t have to choose between working and raising her family or kill herself trying to do both. It would have so many knock-on effects for women that even those without children would benefit.

    @Jill – Wow, thanks! I too am happy to know that there are people like YOU out there, writing and working towards a better understanding of issues facing mothers today. I thought your post on this topic was absolutely amazing. People, you gotta read Jill’s site if you care about the state of birth in America, it’s fantastic!

    @Twwly – I didn’t say that the issue had anything to do with abortion, I said that the arguments are similar. It was an analogy.

    Of course having a child is a commitment but parenting is made up of many, many components. Who has the right to judge which ones I do ‘right’ and which I do ‘wrong’? Why does it matter to anyone else what I (or any other woman) do?

  6. Wow. A fabulous and well thought out post.
    I breastfed both my babies because I wanted to. I loved it but I didn’t bang on about it nor did I hold it against anyone who didn’t.
    Second time around I found it really difficult but I stuck with it for as long as was comfortable for the both of us and then stopped.
    It’s a thorny issue no doubt and there is no right or wrong – just what’s right for you as a mother.

  7. I applaud you for being so incredibly honest! I have been breastfeeding and or pregnant for the last 3 years (2 babies 2 and under) I am not going to say that every time I breastfeed it is the most awesome experience- this may have been true at first, but now my daughter who is 2 tries to crawl all over me (pulling at my hair, pushing at my back) and my son, every time we try to nurse (she wants attention at the same moment)- so ya some days it can be a challenge. I can say that now I have been a mother for a little longer I am a lot more comfortable with breastfeeding in public. Still get the looks- too busy and tired to care.
    Hanging out with other moms, and now being a mom myself I have also learned a few things. Even in groups where we are supposed to agree – women often judge each other. There seems to be this pressure to be perfect or pick a side. If you attempt to do so, often you are still judged within the ‘group’ you are supposed to be on (be it natural parenting or modern working mom). If it is not breastfeeding it is other things (parenting styles, food choices, toy choices, you name it) I think as women we are more judgmental of each other than any man. We really need to support each others authenticity- understand that mistakes will be made and often times attempting to be ‘perfect’ can be even more damaging than not trying at all. The stress of attempting to be everything to everyone will take its tole.
    I would never consider not breastfeeding (for myself) but pause to judge other moms who choose not to. We need to support and nourish each other not cause more of a divide.
    Yes, I believe breast is best and will defend any woman to the end to be able to do so if they choose. I will advocate for support systems and educational programs. We have laws here in Oregon that require the employer to let the mom have breaks to pump- which is a huge step forward.
    But- I am telling you right now, trying to strong arm a woman into breastfeeding (by making laws) is not going to inspire them to ‘join the club’ telling someone they are a terrible person for their choices (without knowing anything about their situation) will not inspire anyone to jump on the breastfeeding bandwagon.

  8. Lizzy says:

    Excellent post. I can relate, as I am breastfeeding my seven-month-old baby. Dealing with nipple confusion for the first three months and using formula during that time taught me that I shouldn’t judge other women who find breastfeeding a struggle, which I confess I did before.

    I think most mothers want to do what is best for their children. Hanna Rosin is wrong for advocating that women should not breastfeed, we are all different and our circumstances and tempers influence the way we raise children. I won’t accept Rosin making the choice for me because of her own experiences, but I also reject the kind of blind activism without common sense that denies legitimate issues facing women today.

  9. Mon says:

    Great post. I’m so glad there are BFing mamas with rational brains around, lol.

    The fact that you needed to state, “before you snatch away my lactivist credentials and sharpen your pitchforks…” is a perfect illustration of the state of things today.
    As I said at Annie’s blog, the real problem in my eyes is, ” …women using BFing as a badge into some fascist elite club. I think this division is one of the most damaging processes happening right now surrounding motherhood, NOT whether one BFs or not.”

    I wanted to BF more than anything. It didn’t work. I cried. I mourned. I got over it. My baby is one of the healthiest I know.
    For another mother to think herself superior to me because she sticks her boob in her child’s face is HER issue. She obviously has NO idea what work and commitment it takes to make up those formula bottles. ;)

    Thank you for your honesty.

  10. Chloe says:

    I read the article, and completely agree with your post. You said everything I’ve been thinking regarding that article. I consider myself a lactivist and still nurse my two year old, but damn, she’s right in that it creates an unbalanced dynamic and I do feel chained down sometimes, even now. I nurse her, so I am the one who comforts her, and the one who did all the night time parenting from the beginning because I have the boobs that put her to sleep the quickest. And if my partner wants to go away for a weekend- well, he goes, and I haven’t been away from her for a single night since she was born. There’s a lot of militant women out there who try to make me feel guilty if I choose to wean her before her second birthday, and women who sneer at other women for leaving for an overnight trip when their baby is nursing… I sometimes fantasize about using formula, honestly, even though I’m such a huge believer in breastfeeding!

  11. [...] Noble Savage: Our boobs, Our babies, Ourselves: I have to address this one next because she takes exception to Emily’s suggestion. She says that she didn’t breastfeed her children out of “some warped sense of sacrifice or duty, but because it’s what my body does and because it makes sense. I’m able to do it so effortlessly and for that I am thankful“. She sees some merit in Rosin’s arguments (but not too much!) because, like the post from Birth Write above, she recognizes that there is too much pressure on mothers to be a perfect mother (often to the exclusion of themselves and their pre-baby lives). [...]

  12. Amber says:

    I have the same struggle in terms of how to reconcile my various views. I am committed to breastfeeding, but I also like the idea that I can have a life outside of mothering. I struggle to balance it all, and I often don’t succeed. I don’t think there are any easy answers and I find it sort of offensive when someone suggests that there are. Which is why I balked at both of the authors.

    Anyways, thanks for a thoughtful post. I enjoyed reading it. :)

  13. NS says:

    @Tara – Fantastic attitude towards it, wish more people were like you!

    @Angie – Very well said! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. :)

    @Lizzy – I used formula supplements with my first child for a few months too, due to weight gain issues. Even though I now realise that I was probably given incorrect information that caused the problem in the first place, it definitely gave me compassion for those who have problems with breastfeeding.

    @Mon – I’m sorry things didn’t work out for you but you’ve kept a good attitude about it, which is fantastic. And I did mixed feeding for awhile with my first so you have my full props for putting up with making up all those bottles! ;)

    @Chloe – You’ve perfectly illustrated the key message I tried to get across: breastfeeding is wonderful but there’s no shame in admitting that it can be a burden at times too. What we need to work on is alleviating some of the problems that cause it to feel that way. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    @Amber – That’s the thing that I’ve found so wonderful about blogging: finding so many other women who aren’t invested in the Judgment Wars. Thanks for commenting.

  14. Emily Jones says:

    Hi, Emily here! I appreciate your point of view, and I understand my brand of feminism isn’t for everyone. I believe that women should indeed have choices, but I believe those choices should be limited where babies are concerned. For the record, I am anti-abortion, but pro-choice in limited circumstances. I DO believe that if a woman is not prepared to become pregnant, she should not be having sex. However, if she chooses to have sex, then by all means, she should have access to birth control. I don’t personally believe in using birth control, but I don’t think all women should be forced to conform to my own beliefs. That being said, once a woman becomes pregnant, there is another life in the equation, and I think that life deserves some respect and consideration.

    But I’m still not entirely anti-choice. Why? Because what you do in the beginning of pregnancy echoes at the end of pregnancy. The same argument for outlawing abortion because of “fetus’ rights,” is the same argument used for court-ordered c-sections for VBAC moms and the attempt to outlaw home birth. If you remove choices for some people, someone else may remove your choices. For this reason, I’m not anti-choice.

    But because there is another life involved, those choices should be limited. One cannot be allowed to make choices simply based on convenience. That is why I said formula by prescription only. Formula has health risks. It has the potential to harm a baby, but not all women are able to breastfeed. So formula exists for a purpose, and I think it is a good purpose, but the risks are significant and well-documented. However, with our culture of entitlement, entirely too many women are making that choice without understanding the risks, because they don’t have to understand them. They just have to say, “It’s my choice! Don’t judge me!” By putting restrictions on the doling out of formula, you force women to stop and consider carefully before proceeding. I take exception to Rosin’s article precisely because it gives women permission to disregard the risks and give up breastfeeding in the name of “choice.”

    I do believe in “you made your bed, now lie in it.” I don’t think children need to suffer because of our lack of planning or desire to be parents. I guess the heart of this debate lies in one’s definition of “suffer.” Then you could branch out into a whole other series of arguments, such as being born into poverty, unhealthy two-parent homes, etc. But in this one case, formula vs. breastfeeding, I feel like the answer is so clear: free, available, healthy, natural feeding trumps costly, wasteful, potentially dangerous, artificial feeding any day of the week.

    FWIW, I was a single parent for 10 years with my first child. She was in day care and was fed formula, and seems to have turned out fine. I just never knew that formula had risks, as everyone said it was just a matter of “choice.” That is what I do now: inform women of the risks they are taking, and try to dissuade them from unhealthy choices. But ultimately, the choice is up to them.

  15. joanna says:

    Well said. I haven’t read this article but reading this post makes me so happy to know that there are women out there who are middle-grounders, like me. I believe in breast-feeding. I also believe in choice and keeping your opinions off my body.

    I breast-fed both my babies for as long as I could. I worked and pumped with my firstborn but I had to pump in a bathroom, and the frequent breaks were obviously bothering my co-workers. I have to admit I was relieved (but sad) when she was weaned. More than one mother gave me grief – none too nicely – about my choice. One said I really shouldn’t be working. When I had requested to cut back my hours to be with my daughter and turned down (“40 or nothing”) I was left with little choice. Being criticized for not bfing combined with the lack of understanding of my boss made for extra stress that any new mother does not need. I was fortunate enough to be home with my son and I planned to bf him as long as I could. He had other ideas. I grieved when he weaned himself but I was also so glad to get my body, my time, my nights… myself back.

    A woman who has children obviously has to sacrifice for their welfare – to a certain extent. If a woman completely losses herself and her dreams in the process, what kind of role model will she be to her children?