The C is for Crank

Breastfeeding Absolutists Ignore Women's Daily Lives

By Erica C. Barnett November 11, 2011

On the train in to work this morning, I saw this ad, brought to you by the breastfeeding absolutists at the Breastfeeding Coalition.



[Sorry for the blurry iPhone pic. Image is of a sad-looking baby with a thought bubble that reads, "Both breast and formula? No, Mom, you have everything I need," followed by the tag line, "I need only the breast."]

I recognize that women have good reasons for choosing to breastfeed their children. Some studies (contradicted, of course, by other studies) suggest that breast milk provides more of the nutrients growing infants need, promotes immunity, may prevent obesity, promotes bonding between mother and child, and could result in a higher IQ later in life. And I recognize that the formula-industrial complex encourages women not to breastfeed by providing free formula to women who have just given birth, which is when, ideally, a woman should start breastfeeding if she's going to do so. And I also realize that women who breastfeed---particularly those who dare to do so in public, which, by the way, is legal---are stigmatized and shamed for the crime of using their breasts for their intended purpose.

But this ad, like much of the lactivists' cult-of-motherhood rhetoric, fails on several counts:

1) It ignores the many reasons, in addition to economic, work, and time constraints, women choose not to breast feed. Maybe she has recurring, excruciating breast infections. Maybe she can't produce enough milk to keep her baby healthy. Maybe has postpartum depression. Maybe she's worried about toxins in her breast milk. Maybe she's  a sexual assault survivor and breastfeeding is triggering. Or maybe she just doesn't want to breastfeed---for reasons that are personal and idiosyncratic and none of the lactivists' damn business.

2) It assumes the decision to breastfeed is an individual choice by "Mom," not the product of privilege (the ability to take time off from work during the first months of a baby's life; access to a place to pump at work; the ability to take a break from work every couple of hours to pump; money to afford a pump; leisure time to attend meetings of breastfeeding support groups; health care to go to the doctor if you experience problems, etc.) enjoyed by the (mostly white, mostly affluent) women who argue that anything other than breastfeeding isn't "natural."[pullquote]Maybe she just doesn't want to breastfeed---for reasons that are personal and idiosyncratic and none of the lactivists' damn business.[/pullquote]

3) It ignores the massive stigma associated with breastfeeding---the attitude that women should have to stay at home to breastfeed, or duck into a restroom stall, or "cover those up" with a blanket if a baby gets hungry at an inconvenient moment. Thanks to legislation passed in 2009, women in Washington State can breastfeed in public without fear of being arrested, but that's no guarantee they won't be shamed for trying to do so or asked to leave the premises. (Facebook, incidentally, considers photos of breastfeeding mothers obscene.)

4)  It assumes that women who don't breastfeed have been fooled by formula marketers or are too dumb to know that their bodies produce breast milk to feed babies. "No, Mom," the pitiful infant pleads. The implication: Women who don't breast feed simply don't know that they should be.

Those who look down on women who choose not to, or are unable to, breastfeed would do better to focus their efforts on the myriad issues that make it hard to breastfeed or be a mother in general---policies that pressure women not to take time off after giving birth, the wage gap for women who return to work after taking time off (one widely publicized study found a five-percent-per-child wage penalty for working mothers), the stigma associated with breastfeeding, the practice of providing formula to new mothers in hospital, and the lack of affordable child and health care.

Perhaps the biggest factor in women's inability to follow the "breast is best" advice, though, is the widespread lack of paid maternity leave. According to a just-released Census report, fully half of all working women get no paid time off after giving birth. That stat gets grimmer the less education a woman has. Only 32 percent of women with no more than a high school diploma had paid leave, and only 18 percent of those who didn't finish high school got paid time off.

The US, by the way, is one of just four countries in the world that doesn't mandate some kind of paid time off for new parents. The others are Liberia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea.
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