The new uproar over the public health threat of not breastfeeding illustrates exactly what is wrong with the conversation about women, motherhood, and feminism in this country. An article in Tuesday’s New York Times reports on a new public health campaign that compares not breastfeeding your infant to smoking during pregnancy.
Let me make clear that I believe that there are health benefits to breastfeeding. I’m pregnant right now and planning to breastfeed my twins when they are born. However, I know enough about motherhood and women’s lives to know that it’s just not that simple. There are a lot of reasons why some women don’t breastfeed their babies. Lots of women can’t nurse– they don’t produce enough milk, or the baby won’t latch on properly. Many would like to share the feeding experience (and overwhelming responsibility) with their partner.
The greatest obstacle of all is our society, which is not designed to support nursing mothers. The majority of women in America work – most of them by necessity – and the lack of paid maternity leave, on-site child care, and even private breastfeeding/pumping rooms in the workplace make it extremely challenging for most women to breastfeed for extended periods of time.
But is the new public health crusade about the centrality of breastfeeding taking on these public policy obstacles to nursing? No. It’s advocating a required warning label on cans of infant formula (like those found on alcohol or cigarettes). As if all we’re talking about here is personal choice. Of course, choice is part of the issue – women should be trusted to make responsible decisions based on the various factors in their lives. But (like most issues that are defined these days in terms of individual choice) there are powerful social, political, and economic forces that influence our supposedly free choices.
Much of my current anxiety about becoming a mother of twins revolves around the breastfeeding issue: will the babies eat at the same time, or am I going to be nursing continuously, day and night? Will I have to wean the babies when I go back to work, or will I be able to pump enough milk so that they don’t go hungry during the day? Will I find a day care center close to my office that will allow me to come in and nurse in the middle of the day, and will my work schedule allow that flexibility? The answers to these questions are, unfortunately, pretty much out of my hands. If we’re going to politicize breastfeeding as a burning public health issue, we need to move the conversation beyond individual choice and what’s “natural” and create a larger campaign to change the social conditions of motherhood in 21st century America.