Friday, March 27, 2009

"The Case Against Breastfeeding", Part 1: thoughts on the response

Well, if you’re involved in the birth/breastfeeding/public health worlds in any way, you must have spent the last couple weeks under a rock not to hear about “The Case Against Breastfeeding” by Hanna Rosin. For my class presentation this week, I asked if I could present on the article and the various responses to it. This launched me deeper than I probably wanted to go into the debate. There are helpful and interesting takes on this all around the blogosphere, as well as policy statements by several organizations, but after a while my head started to spin. So I’m going to post about this in 2 installments: first, my take on the debate; second, my take on the article itself.

First, I just have to say: Wow, patriarchy! Once again, you have managed to pit women against each other instead of their real problems. Let’s scapegoat breastfeeding as the thing that makes mothers overwhelmed and guilt-ridden. Not their measly 12 weeks of unpaid leave or unequal parenting duties. Then let’s have women attack Hanna Rosin and each other for being terrible or neglectful or crazy or judgmental or pathetic. (I lost count of the number of blogs and comments that said, “Hanna Rosin is obviously a sad person who doesn’t like being a mother and is in an unhappy marriage.”)

Having waded through probably only a fraction of a seemingly bottomless pool of blog posts on this, I can assure you, patriarchy, that if women spent this energy on dismantling you, you could be in serious trouble! But thank goodness, they are not. Patriarchy, as an institution you are really on top of your game. You know, it kind of makes me not want to have children if this is what mothers spend their time doing to each other.

In that vein, I was particularly disturbed by blogs that came at Hanna Rosin from a biological determinist standpoint. OK, mostly this one. You shouldn’t have children if you don’t want to breastfeed? Women shouldn’t have children if they don’t want to “birth, nurse, and raise them”? In the 1950s, we didn’t have to promote the scientific benefits of breastfeeding because women “naturally assumed” their “proper role”? This is throwback stuff and it’s a little sickening to me.

I also disagree with another blogger who said feminism should rethink its ideals to regard mothering is the “most amazing thing a woman can do”. Can we just say “one of the most”?

I agreed far more with all the posts that said the article really isn’t a case against breastfeeding. It’s a case against a lack of paid maternity leave. It’s a case against unrealistic expectations of women to “do it all” while being Mommy Perfect or to divide different roles into different parts of their lives. It’s a case against an “equal” system that by treating men and women “equally” ignores women’s needs (at the expense of men as well). It’s a case against guilt-based, prescriptive parenting. It’s a case for better information when women are making their feeding decisions. It’s disappointing that Hanna Rosin made the focus just this one piece of mothering, and sparked all of the typical Mommy Wars Bingo-playing.

I am at a conference this week and yesterday one of the speakers discussed the idea that for many women today, motherhood may be their first experience with explicit sex discrimination. We’re not talking about sexual harassment here, or the many ways sex discrimination is institutionalized and hidden from our everyday perceptions. We’re talking about “Wow, I am expected as a woman to do x, y, and z and it is physically impossible and I get no support, and now for the first time in my life, my options are radically different from those of my male counterparts, and in a bad way”. So guilt and anger over that get displaced not on the system, but on other women and, sometimes, on breastfeeding. I wish Hanna Rosin had explored those issues in her article. Because if you drop breastfeeding from the equation, how many other inequalities are you left with?

And that leads into part 2: my thoughts about the article.


Jill said...

You mentioned one of the sentiments echoed all over the country (world, actually) that I couldn't even bring myself to discuss. Women should breastfeed because it's what mothers (or good mothers) do? Following that line of thinking backwards (backwards in more ways than one), I guess women should give birth vaginally because it's what we do. They should conceive a child at some point because that's what we do.

Motherhood must, therefore, be the purpose of our existence, the pinnacle of our lives and our biological destiny.


The "we all sacrifice so you should, too" mentality is troubling. I think some people really believe it. I don't presume that every woman wants the same things that I do, but I get really pissed when I see women have to fight for or have no support for normal birth and breastfeeding. It doesn't bother me if someone isn't into it... in fact, I always get a kick out of the many ways that people argue that breastfeeding and vaginal birth (and motherhood) is for crazy women.

Seth Zenz said...

I really can't tell how serious your jabs at the "Patriarchy" are. Seems to me that if a bunch of people said some nasty or unhelpful things to each other as part of the debate on this article -- and I do agree they sound nasty and unhelpful -- then that's a decision they made themselves.

publichealthdoula said...

@Jill: Yes, that's the line that's so difficult to walk - insisting that all women have the right to supported choices in [breastfeeding, childbirth, childcare] without making it sound like you are prescribing one particular way. Not "we should support this because it's the only valid way" but because "we should support this because it's A valid way and it's one that's NOT supported".

@Seth: My jabs are somewhat tongue-in-cheek but I am serious about the institutionalized nature, for lack of a better phrase, of this debate. Yes, it is someone's choice to engage in personal attacks. But we've also permitted and encouraged that debate at a societal level, instead of saying "Hey, let's stop blaming the victim and start looking at the system". It is exhausting to see how much energy is spent on picking apart who's the worse parent, when we could just make all those debates irrelevant by, say, offering paid parental leave. The media completely feeds this, with articles on the "Mommy Wars" and "should women drop out of careers to raise children?" and, yes, "The Case Against Breastfeeding". I don't think this is all personal choice - there are ways the debate is being framed on a national level that cause things to go the way they do.