Friday, March 13, 2009

A Case Against Breastfeeding or Reductio ad Absurdum

In the April issue of The Atlantic magazine, Hanna Rosin writes The Case Against Breastfeeding. All I can say is if it is THE case then lactation consultants don't have to worry about their business drying up (so to speak), because it's a poor case indeed.

Rosin's article sets out to do two things: (1) demolish the medical arguments for breastfeeding; and (2) link the pressure to breastfeed to the decision by highly educated women to leave the workplace. Her first task is relatively easy. The argument that breast milk is better for an infant than formula, medically speaking, is not hard to take apart. Controlled studies with one group of breastfeeding moms and one group of formula feeding moms are ethically impossible to construct because you can't tell someone how to feed her kid. The results of the studies we have are contradictory at best. The breast is best argument has been oversold. Got it.

Then Rosin sets out to prove that breastfeeding is to twenty first century women what the vacuum cleaner was to mid-century stay at home moms, or what Betty Friedan called the problem that has no name and ties women to the home. Because of the intense pressure from doctors and the media to breastfeed and because breastfeeding is so hard, Rosin argues, women have to give up work to do it. Rosin writes: "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."

Um, no. After four or five months, a baby could very well sleep through the night -- some babies do this even earlier. By four or five months, you could even introduce a little cereal, a pediatrician wouldn't mind and it means fewer feeding. And breastfeeding for a half hour every time through six months? Maybe Rosin's children did that, but mine didn't and many, even most, kids I know didn't either.

Rosin also couldn't bear the indignity of full breasts in the workplace. She describes the experience of lactating spontaneously as hugely embarrassing. I'm not saying it'd be my favorite day at the office, but of all the embarrassing things I've done in my time in offices, I'd take that over most of them. After all, it's a body thing. I mean, fart much, Hanna?

But Rosin is convinced that it's the demands of breastfeeding that make women leave work. "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?"

Rosin's answer: Breastfeeding! Really?

Babies and their habits are as varied as the reasons women decide to leave or stay in the workplace. Among those who have a choice, some can't imagine returning to the stress of work. Others can't imagine staying at home. Either way, as parents of infants and very small children we enter a period in our lives when the physical and emotional demands are enormous. To argue that the medical profession along with all those nasty ladies at putting out the magazines that urge new moms to breastfeed comprise a vast conspiracy to keep women at home doesn't make much sense. It's a big, reductive bark up a pointless tree. (Jill Lepore's case that the prioritization of pumping undermines the argument for better work-life policy makes more sense.)

Yes, educated older women who have babies should feel empowered to choose to breastfeed or not. That Rosin didn't seem to realize she had a choice or could use any formula until she had her third baby doesn't mean she should browbeat the rest of us with how beaten down we've been by the establishment forcing us with over-inflated claims and half-truths into the challenges and, yes, the deep, physical pleasure of breastfeeding. (And I say that as someone who didn't like it all that much.)

The bottom line is there's important work to be done to improve the situation of parents of infants and young children and the children themselves. Serving up the choice not to breastfeed as if it were a revolution to well-educated grown-up new mothers who already have that choice is not part of that work. Not even close.

No comments: