“The Case Against Breastfeeding”
This month in the Atlantic Monthly, there was an article arguing against breastfeeding. To somewhat oversimplify, the author, a mother of three who breastfed all her children, argues that
a. There is little clinical data to support the belief that breastfeeding results in better health outcomes
b. Despite this fact women are made to feel guilty if they chose not to breastfeed by a ideologues who descend from the feminist movement
c. Ironically, breastfeeding is not liberating, but a form of subjugation, interfering with women from being able to compete in the workforce.
Not surprisingly, the author has drawn a lot of controversy. Her review of the clinical data seems disingenuously selective in ignoring the vast body of very recent literature, including the meta-studies, that demonstrate a preponderance of evidence that breastfeeding has a number of health benefits. She also makes an error in assuming that many small, but statistically significant, improvements in health metrics do not add up to an overall significant improvement in health outcomes. So on this point, it is easy to dismiss her.
Her other points are more polemic in that they have more of a grain of truth to them, in my eyes. Breastfeeding, like many elements of parenthood, is a very judgmental experience. Every act is a manifestation and a clear signal, of a set of beliefs about parenting, and of the world at large. Breastfeeding is a declaration of a belief that evolution is difficult to trump through technology. It is a belief in the need to have a less technology mediated life in some places. It is a declaration of the non-sexualization of breasts and an asserting of power over the display of the woman’s body….
But I also know that women who choose not to or cannot breastfeed, there are looks of disdain that they have to ignore. I have friends who avoid the PumpStation in LA specifically because they are not breastfeeding. This is a shame because we all should be focused primarily on the right to raise our own children the way we each feel is best, and not be judgmental of others until we have walked in their shoes. I know as an anthropologist that it is sometimes impossible to understand how people make the choices they do until you literally live their lives. What seem like stupid, irrational behaviors suddenly make sense once you have a more complete understanding of the context of choice.
The reasons not to breastfeed are many, and I have seen first-hand with Tara, a doula who has assisted many mothers with breastfeeding, how difficult it can be with an entire platoon of support. Latching issues, thrush, nerve damage all enter into the picture. While Tara has been able to successfully navigate these obstacles, and continues to breastfeed, it is in no small part because she has both the support of many wonderful and informed professionals, and because she has chosen to take time off from working. So I think we can all hold (moral) judgment (at least) over other folks’ choices on how they nourish their children.
I feel the article’s third point, perhaps the generative point for the angst and stress that drove the author to write the article in the first place, is the most concerning and most valid. And it extends far beyond breastfeeding. We live in a country with a deeply inhumane relationship to work. Work is all encompassing, all demanding, and totally inflexible. It eats at our lives in very nasty ways, making us all feel vulnerable, powerless, and torn. The social contract is completely one-sided, totally serving the needs of capital. The same Atlantic Monthly issue also had an article on the resurgence of Marxism and it is not coincidental. Economic pressures are felt intensely by working moms. If we lived in a society that valued family, we would have much more expansive maternity leave policies and other forms of social support that would enable women to truly compete in the marketplace AND have children. At a minimum, it would facilitate the ability for a single-parent income for a period during the first months of a child’s life.
But no, we do not live in Europe.