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.
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.