Friday, March 27, 2009

"The Case Against Breastfeeding", Part 2: thoughts on the actual article

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

After talking about the responses a little bit, I want to talk about the article. I think Rosin gets a lot of things right in her case against all the other, non-breastfeeding issues I discussed in my previous post. What disappoints me is that in her case against breastfeeding, she basically tosses all the benefits to the mother out the window (way to be feminist there), and overall she focuses on health alone. I’m going to snag a paragraph directly from my undergraduate senior thesis, because I think it says it well (albeit mostly via Linda Blum):

“Linda Blum, whose book [At the Breast] formed the basis of my early thinking about these issues (as well as much of my later thinking), emphasizes on several levels the importance of “unfixing” breastfeeding. She argues against “fixed” biological meanings for breastfeeding... She advocates breastfeeding more for the benefit of mothers than for babies, in an unusual reversal of typical priorities; for Blum, breastfeeding (under the correct circumstances) can reclaim female and especially maternal bodies. Thus additionally and on a more conceptual level, she also argues against fixed concepts of breastfeeding’s meaning: 'To nurse our babies at the breast may offer a way to revalue our bodies and force a public reevaluation of caregiving – or – at the same time, it may represent acquiescence to dominant regimes of self-sacrifice, overwork, and surveillance. It can blur into a disembodied regime and threaten an overriding sense of failure' (pgs. 198-199).”

I believe that last bit is what Hanna Rosin is talking about; but what I, and many others, would like to talk about is the first part. Let’s revalue women’s bodies, revalue the unpaid labor of parenting, and provide true choices for infant feeding.

I also am puzzled by what Rosin, exactly, wants to see happen. I buy her argument that we can’t guarantee breastfeeding’s benefits for every child; I wrote a post about it already. But I also pointed out that while it may make sense for a mother to decide not to breastfeed, based on her weighing the risks and benefits of formula feeding for her life, that is because when we talk about breastfeeding’s advantages we are discussing them on a population level. We know that the risks of formula feeding, spread over a whole population, will lead to worse outcomes. This is why we encourage individual mothers to breastfeed, and why we should do less of that and more of the structural changes that need to happen to make more breastfeeding possible.
Still, mothers will always have a choice about how they want to feed their infants. We can provide a year of paid maternity leave and free lactation consultants, but if we don’t make some efforts to shift our culture away from formula feeding we may not see enough women taking advantage of those structural changes. This involves us saying to women, in essence, “We suggest you breastfeed for the following reasons.” Rosin does not just argue against individual choices to breastfeed. She critiques the policy statements by major organization promoting breastfeeding as the norm for at least the first year. What really knocked me over, though, that a major complaint is that it wasn’t sensitive to working mothers. Right, medical organizations should tailor their recommendations not to the best science, but to the social and political climate. If we’re making policy statements based on what’s possible, let’s also recommend that only rich people get medical care.

I think that Rosin wants public health and medical authorities to just back off. Stop telling women to breastfeed, because it’s making the people who can’t feel guilty. I think she truly believes that not just on an individual level, but also on a population level, it doesn’t make a big enough difference. This week, I came across a recent blog post where she compared her article to the new evidence that prostate screening does more harm than good. She felt this was evidence that all the medical authorities could agree for years – eand still be wrong. So we should dismantle all our efforts to promote breastfeeding, dump the pumps at WIC, stop certifying hospitals baby-friendly and provide no more tax credits for corporations to provide lactation rooms. Right? I mean, this is her argument taken to its logical end, correct? If breastfeeding is just a lifestyle choice, mothers do not deserve any special support.

The only reason I hesitate to conclude that this is what she really wants is that she is a breastfeeding mother. She breastfed her first two children and after she had her illumination about the pointlessness of breastfeeding, she kept breastfeeding her last. He gets formula when she goes out, but she nurses him at home. Why? Oh, just because it’s nice to do. No, I won’t say, as one of the essentialist posters did that “this is [her] biology calling”. But this is her hypocrisy calling. As a further count in support of that, she concludes at the end that breastfeeding is probably better! Just not enough to outweigh all the downsides. So now after finishing up her breastfeeding career, she now gets to look back and tell everyone else it wasn’t worth it and don’t bother, and while I’m at it maybe we should also dump all of those supports you might want, you know, to help with the downsides. And if Hanna Rosin doesn’t think that’s what she’s calling for, then I’d like to know what she thinks she is arguing in favor for. Because I’m still not sure, but I don’t think it’s good.

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