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Breastfeeding bullies

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.

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6 Comments

I just wanted to follow up on the post and find out, how did the breastfeeding go? How are your kids? How did your attitude(s) change (if it all) once you actually become a nursing mother? By the way, as a Mom and also as a researcher, I agree 100% with your statement that we need to be more supportive of mothers - on-site daycare, subsidized maternity leave, etc. I don't think it's ironic that some of the worst critics of breastfeeding are young women, in their twenties, who are not mothers themselves but who are feeling pressured by many conflicting messages as they try to sort out their own lives and figure out what feminism means to them.

Only 15% of children grow up in a home where only the father works. I am a adolescent psychologist at a midwestern university and I can tell you that it is very uncommon for women to not work outside the home in American Society. I agree with the author that if people want to promote breastfeeding they need to focus on providing an environment for working women that makes nursing simple and easy.

I don't think that a new mom (or dad) should be made to feel guilty for not brestfeeding. There are enough adjustments to make when you have a baby, especially your first. Just speaking for myself, I didn't like breastfeeding. It hurt, and was more of a separation between my husband and I. Also, the increased prolactin levels cause some women's libido to take a nose-dive. Unfortunately, some pediatricians and obstetricians - and women - are almost fanatical about breastfeeding.

As a mom and professional who has been through it, I hope you put your current anxiety (your words) on hold. Some answers you will not have until the situation arises. I know two woman who sucessfully nursed twins.

However, I respectfully disagree with you on a number of issues.

It is true that breastfeeding is medically proven to be the best nutrition for babies. There is no debate concerning this fact. However, as a woman, in a free society, you have a choice as to what you will feed your child. If formula or wet nurses (as in the past or in other cultures) were not available, infants would not survive and these issues would be moot.

I don't think society is politicizing these issues or giving you guilt, you are reacting to information that is available. Even if there were no additional information campaigns, your ob/gyn would inform you about the health benefits of nursing. To not do so would be malpractice.

Sometimes we have to make decisions and find solutions on our own. We have the unfortunate opportunity to be pioneers and trailblazers who cannot count on the government, employers, or society to look out for our best interests. It is frustrating but also empowering.

In addition, the statistics concerning the % of working american women are complex. Many working mothers work part time and a large portion of moms do not work outside of being a homemaker.

With respect,

Jewish Mommy Lawyer Princess

I saw the article too. You've said exactly what I've been saying since my first child was born 6 years ago. It's the perpetuation of putting more pressure on mothers without the resources. Here's a perfect example: I have a friend with a 7 month old. She is a physician in the middle of residency. She's taken off time since her baby was born and will begin work again next month. She's been exclusively breastfeeding and plans to pump, but is afraid she won't be able to keep it up, because they won't give her the time it takes to pump in the hospital. PLUS, there are no appropriate private rooms for her to pump. She's a PHYSICIAN. What's the message?

Well said! I'm so sick of this personal responsibility myth permeating every aspect of our social and political discourse, while there is absolutely no talk of us having any responsibility to each other as members of communities.

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How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Breastfeeding bullies." 14 June 2006. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 23, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/breastfeeding>.

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