Squadratomagico (in a recent e-mail exchange) reminded me recently of an article in The Atlantic magazine last spring that may shed some light on this patriarchal equilibrium thingy we’ve been puzzling on for the last six months or so. (This post may have some interesting connections to some of the conversations going on over at Reassigned Time with Dr. Crazy this week, at least for the heterosexualists and breeder types.) Hanna Rosin wrote (very bravely, I think) about what appears to be the very shaky evidence that breast milk is the Holy Grail of All Health and Wellness for babies, and about her very fraught experience with it herself. After two babies, she had had enough!
One afternoon at the playground last summer, shortly after the birth of my third child, I made the mistake of idly musing about breast-feeding to a group of new mothers I’d just met. This time around, I said, I was considering cutting it off after a month or so. At this remark, the air of insta-friendship we had established cooled into an icy politeness, and the mothers shortly wandered away to chase little Emma or Liam onto the slide. Just to be perverse, over the next few weeks I tried this experiment again several more times. The reaction was always the same: circles were redrawn such that I ended up in the class of mom who, in a pinch, might feed her baby mashed-up Chicken McNuggets.
Scandalous! What kind of mother are you, Hanna Rosin? Friends of mine have told me their stories of being terrorized by people they refer to as “the nursing Nazis,” who are beyond evangelical in their insistence that “breast is best,” and that “anyone can do it!” I have a lot of friends who breastfed successfully, but now that I think of it, I have a lot more friends who couldn’t, and didn’t. One friend produced only a few squirts of milk, and spent most of her child’s infancy feeling like a total failure as a mother. Another friend had a preemie who couldn’t nurse because of her medical condition, and then after six weeks in the hospital, the baby strongly preferred the bottle. (They say that breast size is no hindrance, but I have to tell you: it sure seems like my flat-chested friends have had a lot more troubles than my friends with larger breasts. I’m just sayin’.) So faced with the certain starvation of their children, they decided–faute de mieux–to go ahead and mix up a bottle of Drano formula to fill the wee one’s belly.
Hanna Rosin’s article makes me think that all of my friends who cried endless tears of frustration over their “failure” to breastfeed were after all the lucky ones. Be sure to read her whole article to see just how exaggerated those claims about the magical purity and clear superiority of breast milk really are. Can your child’s Kindergarten teacher really look around the room and say, “Oh she was breast fed, that one too, that one too–uh-oh, clearly a formula baby over there. . . ” I know children who were breast fed exclusively for six months who are plagued by allergies and colds, and formula kids who are healthy as horses. (Anecdata, to be sure, but the “scientific proof” of breast milk’s superiority ain’t all that, either:
[T]he medical literature looks nothing like the popular literature. It shows that breast-feeding is probably, maybe, a little better. . . . A couple of studies will show fewer allergies, and then the next one will turn up no difference. Same with mother-infant bonding, IQ, leukemia, cholesterol, diabetes. Even where consensus is mounting, the meta studies—reviews of existing studies—consistently complain about biases, missing evidence, and other major flaws in study design. “The studies do not demonstrate a universal phenomenon, in which one method is superior to another in all instances,” concluded one of the first, and still one of the broadest, meta studies, in a 1984 issue of Pediatrics, “and they do not support making a mother feel that she is doing psychological harm to her child if she is unable or unwilling to breastfeed.” Twenty-five years later, the picture hasn’t changed all that much. So how is it that every mother I know has become a breast-feeding fascist?
Rosin writes of the frustrations of trying to be egalitarian heterosexuals in the face of the demands of breastfeeding:
We were raised to expect that co-parenting was an attainable goal. But who were we kidding? Even in the best of marriages, the domestic burden shifts, in incremental, mostly unacknowledged ways, onto the woman. Breast-feeding plays a central role in the shift. In my set, no husband tells his wife that it is her womanly duty to stay home and nurse the child. Instead, both parents together weigh the evidence and then make a rational, informed decision that she should do so. Then other, logical decisions follow: she alone fed the child, so she naturally knows better how to comfort the child, so she is the better judge to pick a school for the child and the better nurse when the child is sick, and so on. Recently, my husband and I noticed that we had reached the age at which friends from high school and college now hold positions of serious power. When we went down the list, we had to work hard to find any women. Where had all our female friends strayed? Why had they disappeared during the years they’d had small children?
The debate about breast-feeding takes place without any reference to its actual context in women’s lives. Breast-feeding exclusively is not like taking a prenatal vitamin. It is a serious time commitment that pretty much guarantees that you will not work in any meaningful way. Let’s say a baby feeds seven times a day and then a couple more times at night. That’s nine times for about a half hour each, which adds up to more than half of a working day, every day, for at least six months. This is why, when people say that breast-feeding is “free,” I want to hit them with a two-by-four. It’s only free if a woman’s time is worth nothing.
Might some of the ideological rigidity of this modern “Breastfeeding Imperative” be due to its canny facilitation of that ol’ devil, patriarchal equilibrium? When we look back on the last few centuries of modern Western women’s history, so much of the advice that mothers have been given about how to raise their children properly has in fact served other needs rather than, strictly speaking, children’s or women’s needs. (I would argue that haranguing women about their children’s needs usually is about just about everything except children’s actual needs, but wev.) Is the B.I. just the “scientifically” enabled, updated version of The Cult of True Womanhood? It surely creates an environment in which a woman’s body is located in domestic space for hours or days at a time with an infant, and is frequently only partially clothed–something that’s probably a new experience for most professional women, to say the least. This is, to be sure, the experience only of elite women who can afford to take this kind of time away from paid employment–and interestingly enough, these are the very women who have the education and the cultural capital to challenge traditional sex roles at work. (As Rosin asks, “Where had all our female friends strayed? Why had they disappeared during the years they’d had small children?”)
The B.I. is brilliant: it links women with children once again, and because of the time and work involved, it prevents women from engaging in paid employment. It’s a patriarchal equilibrium twofer! Awesome. Let’s change that old expression, “barefoot and pregnant” to “nursing and topless,” shall we? (And, let’s try to keep things civil here, folks. Whether you have experience with nursing or bottles or none of the above, they’re all different legitimate experiences. There is no one right way to feed a baby or to raise a child–as a feminist philosopher friend of mine used to say, “that kind of thinking only makes sense if all women and all children are exactly alike.” And, of course, we’re not.)