Thursday, March 12, 2009

yet another front in the mommy wars

Hanna Rosin has a great article called "The Case Against Breast Feeding" in this month's Atlantic. It's especially good read in conjunction with Jill Lepore's "If Breast is Best, Why are Women Bottling Their Milk?" article in the New Yorker.

The gist of both articles is not to posit La Leche or the American Pediatrics Society as a vast conspiracy to chain mothers to their babies, but that the statistics on the health benefits of breast-feeding are marginal (within statistical insignificance) at best, and so you're not feeding your baby this super vaccine and intelligence juice that will make them super smart and healthy super babies. And if you don't breastfeed, you need not worry that you are feeding your baby poison that will make them sickly and stupid. Formula babies can turn out quite healthy and smart, depending on how you raise them when you stop breast-feeding. And that there are real costs to breast-feeding as a working mother, in the form of lost hours of sleep (that your husband does not have to share the cost of) and lost productivity during the day as you take pump breaks, even if your employer accommodates you with a lactation room. As Rosin writes:

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.

I remain very ambivalent about all of this, since I am interested in caregiver discrimination and agree with Lepore that turning breast-feeding into a "women's rights issue" is yet another way we don't deal with the issue of adequate family leave polices. Yes, accommodating breast-feeding is important. But so is adequate leave. And what irks me the most is how the entire debate is posited as a responsiblity of only the mother, such that her failure to breastfeed is an example of her moral failure, and her selfishness. If the benefits of breast-feeding (apart from the bonding, which I am sure may be achieved in other ways) are marginal and cannot be disentangled from other confounders such as parental education and income level (which tends to produce smarter, healthier babies), then why demonize mothers who choose formula over breast? I haven't decided yet what I will do, but I would personally expel some moralizing "lactation expert" from my delivery room, and I will probably avoid all "mommy and me" groups. That there is even such a huge debate shows how this issue has been taken away from the individual parents to be some sort of banner for the many competing groups, who may agree on the policy recommendation, but for different reasons. And only few of these reasons may be your own, and quite possibly many of them don't consider the realities you will find yourself in as you reenter the workforce or struggle personally with issues of co-parenting.

They always end those public service public health ads with "talk to your doctor." Sure, I'd recommend that, as well as reading up on the literature yourself, especially if you can read statistics. But I'd also say to talk to yourself, and your partner. If this is all about the mother and her child (parents! their!), then why have the parents disappeared from the entire debate? "Find out what's best for you" is what they usually say, or used to.