Breast is best…for patriarchal equilibrium?

Feed me!

Feed me!

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.

NO--Feed ME!

NO--Feed ME!

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.)

0 thoughts on “Breast is best…for patriarchal equilibrium?

  1. An issue hinted at but not really commented on here is the connection to childbirth. I can’t help but read this post and comments and think of another Historiann post about childbirth from months ago where a commenter (if I remember correctly) indicated that natural child birth was a campaign taken up by post-war organizations with roots in the eugenics movement. I can’t help but wonder if the pressures to breastfeed babies (aside from the scientific evidence – or perhaps in spite of) has emerged since World War II along similar lines and with support from the same organizations. I don’t mean to imply that advocates of breast-feeding are eugenicists. I’m more interested in interrogating the origins and motives of the movement’s earliest promoters which may shed light on how we talk about – and promote – breastfeeding today.


  2. What about all those wet nurses people had in the past? Some were just because Mom had other things to do, from what I can gather, but there are constant references to mothers without milk or who couldn’t nurse for various reasons.


  3. DV–yes, great memory! I think this is the post you’re referring to, from the summer of 2008: Our OB/GYNs, Ourselves. I think the history of La Leche will be interesting–there were a number of grad students doing research on this at the Berkshire Conference last year. (You can access the program here.) There is a historian at the University of Iowa, Paula Michaels, who is writing about natural childbirth movement in both the Soviet Union and in the U.S. She is uncovering the “secret” French and Soviet roots of natural childbirth, and examining the ways in which these ideas were scrubbed of their “communist” associations and marketed to U.S. women in the cold war.

    And Z: yes, wet nurses were frequently the only way children could get fed if their mothers were unable or unwilling to nurse them. I think the associations between aristocratic women who refused to breastfeed and the judgment today especially of middle-class or elite women who can’t/don’t breastfeed may be linked. (“Indolent and selfish women who refuse to provide nature’s perfect food for their own children,…” etc.)


  4. Another thing I’ll throw out there, without making any claim of its bearing on patriarchal equilibrium or not: I haven’t personally experienced militantly pro-breastfeeding mothers who were not also militantly pro-organic, anti-processed baby foods. I can remember my wife feeling guilt among her other breastfeeding peers because she was not hand-grinding fruits and vegetables when our son started on solid foods. See also, to a lesser extent, cloth vs. disposable diapers, which were discussed not only in terms of the environment but also allegedly lower instances of rash, yeast infections in girls, etc. It was a whole package of “being more natural.”


  5. Mark K.: ugh! I think the incidence of rash and infection is higher in the cloth diaper babies, unless they’re changed instantly. But anyway: who wants to be “more natural?” Did those mothers crap in the woods, because that’s a LOT more “natural” than using indoor plumbing (or even a composting toilet.)

    I truly don’t get the fetish of “the natural.” Isn’t nature what we’ve been laboring to escape for most of human civilization? (I’m really OK with that.)


  6. Glad to provide more on La Leche League:

    They were founded in 1956 by a group of mothers in Illinois– so long before second wave feminist health activism. This was really part and parcel of the feminine mystique — as was the initial revival of natural childbirth in the 1950s. See Lyn Weiner, “Reconstructing Motherhood: The La Leche League in Postwar America,” Journal of American History, March 1994.


  7. Although there is a lot I want to say, I will confine it to commenting on cloth diapers.

    My husband and I work full time and we choose to cloth diaper at home. Cloth diapers are changed as soon as the parent knows they are wet or dirty. It is a paradigm shift for some people, although many parents also change their disposable diapers this way. The real cloth zealots claim that cloth-diapered babies never get rashes, they are wrong (and usually find out about it the hard way). However, I can say that other than yeast rashes–which require special attention and are the one reason why I switch to disposables, personally–cloth diapers used correctly are much, much better for my child’s tush.

    Other reasons we love cloth diapers include: cloth wipes (cheap washcloths) works so much better; cloth diapers consistently hold in infant poo which no brand of disposables seems to do; cloth diapers are somewhat cheaper and a wee bit better for the environment if you hang them to dry; cloth diapers don’t stink with perfume; and it seems like they must be more comfortable. (One of the best things about cloth is you flush the poop so your house never smells like the oh-so-gross combination of human waste and disposable perfume. However, lots of us also flush the poop from our disposable diapers for the same reason.)

    I think of disposables like paper plates: often very handy, but not nearly as good as the real thing.


  8. Hemp diapers went on a sort of a tear for a few years out here in Whiskey Rebellion territory, and everywhere else where the good stuff was grown and federal revenue officers were run off. They even survived a vicious Federalist rumor that President Washington was raising and making them in Virginia for the kid he ended up not having. Happy Hempys (R) was a quite popular brand here on the ridge, along with their niche-marketed daytime product, Happy Heinys (TM). You could look it up.


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  10. I’m sorry Historiann, you don’t get to use terms like “breeder” and claim levity. I don’t understand why people without kids feel as though they can use derogatory terms for people who have them… and then, what, by not being ok with it I’m humorless? Haven’t we heard this pitched against feminists before? Would it be okay if I somehow “joked” about women without kids being less than female? Of course not.

    I think the reason my hackles end up getting raised in these conversations (here and at Dr. Crazy’s, where because I love her so much I couldn’t even bring myself to comment) is that there is always an edge to these posts when written by folks without kids, as though you are resentful of the choices those of us with kids have made. I’d love to be wrong, I’m just saying that’s how I read it. I would love to read a post about mothering from someone who isn’t a mom that doesn’t feel like an attack. Maybe it’s because I always knew I wanted kids, but I never felt derision towards women with children (maybe the kids at times, but never the moms or dads), and it wasn’t long ago I was in that category.

    I would like to know where this comes from on your end. I mean, it’s not like this world is particularly well set up for parents, it makes parenting and children generally invisible or relegated to spaces away from other adults. My annual departmental welcome party is expressly “no kids, no pets” (why the no pets, I don’t know — did someone bring a ferret one year?). There are no changing tables in my or my husband’s buildings on campus (in fact I have yet to find one on campus). Everyone criticizes the actions of parents as though they could do better. How is this position so privileged, so vaunted, as to deserve your scorn?


  11. I don’t understand why people without kids feel as though they can use derogatory terms for people who have them.

    Kate, you don’t know anything about my personal life, so don’t make assumptions. I may or may not have children, and I leave that intentionally vague for reasons of net safety, and because as a not-truly-pseudonymous blogger, I like to keep some things about my life private.

    Why do you assume that only a child-free woman might express the opinions I have expressed, and have asked the questions I have asked here? Are you (dare I say it) essentializing motherhood, and assuming that all mothers must feel exactly the way you do? I like to think of all people–men and women, mothers and non-mothers–as indivdiduals whose muliplicity of life experiences shape their perpectives.

    If you want to be welcome here, you’re going to have to drop the hostility and accusations. I thought Rosin’s artice was worthy of consideration in light of conversations we’ve been having here. You can just stop reading if you don’t like what you see!


  12. Wow. I react to what I perceive as hostility and am threatened with not being welcome here. And the argument is that I don’t know your life. Okay. Consider me gone.

    I would really like to imagine a place where we could have it out and that would be okay, where we could get to the bottom of these (mis?)perceptions and hostilities. I’m not really sure how else women are going to stop fighting with each other and get connected unless we can express all sides of the issue. Feel free to take the fight to my place if I have overly hijacked the thread. I’ll try to get something up in the next 24 hours.


  13. I have no interest in fighting, either here or anywhere else.

    I just don’t get why disagreements about mothering and motherhood always have to end in a standoff. People are different, so families and mothers are different, too. That’s all I’m saying–but the Breastfeeding (and Cloth Diapering, and Organic Foodmaking) Imperative won’t recognize those differences.


  14. What a false argument! Here in Sydney Australia, although our once fine public health system is a crisis, women are just not getting the supprt to breastfeed. I struggled terribly with breastfeeding my first nealy 30 years ago and was able to get intensive support including a week at a mothercraft home. When I worked with disadvantaged women having babies some 15 years later support was diminishing. Now, women leave hospital sometimes the next day – their milk hasn’t come in and they go home to all the stresses and strains of life.
    I beleive women need a considerable amount of time to adjust to a new baby with signifcant daily support. Breatfeeding often takes time and patience to establish. Very few women are physically incapable,but I can’t help thinking that, societally, we do not give the space, time and support for women to really give it a good go.
    Braet v bottle is afallacious argument, designed to divide women. Lets’focus on providng support to women to decide for themselves properly.


  15. Lets’focus on providng support to women to decide for themselves properly.

    Agreed. Let’s also leave them alone once they’ve made their decision. It seems to me that few babies are fed solely by one method or the other–of the people who attempt to nurse, they also incorporate formula into their child’s diet at some point.

    This post really is more about the historical moment that has led us to the Breastfeeding Imperative in some circles, and why women are usually the enforcers of the B.I. Sadly, I don’t think that U.S. society is going to “give the space, time, and support for women to really give it a good go.” That would cost time and money beyond just individual women’s time and money, which are undervalued in any case.


  16. I have questions about Rosin’s article, and I have questions about the correlation between the ideology and frequency of breastfeeding and the strength of the women’s movement across time. (Perhaps its the status of women that I mean when I write “women’s movement”, instead.)

    My two questions regarding Rosin’s article are: is she correct about the science; and is she correct about the role of breastfeeding in enforcing a certain standard of womanhood for a certain group of women? Based on a quick-and-dirty reading of her citations and the major ones she left out, I conclude that Rosin is wrong about the science. There is a small but persistent set of scientific benefits to breastfeeding. I suspect, however, that Rosin is correct about the role of breastfeeding — especially when I consider the B.I. as part of an entire set of parenting values proposed by and pushed on some groups of U.S. women in the past 20 years.

    I am still considerably irritated by Rosin’s rhetorical need not only to make her point about the costs of breastfeeding paid in women’s time and in the reinforcement of anti-feminist family patterns, but also to fudge the science. Feminists who believe that the BI (if not breastfeedomg itself) hurts women should be able to say, “yes, there are medical and psychological benefits to breastfeeding, but they are small, and they are not enough.”

    My responses to Rosin then raise a secondary set of questions: is it still possible to understand the decision to breastfeed as counter-patriarchal, given the pervasiveness of the BI imperative for some groups of women? How do feminists weight mother’s and scholar’s [sometimes competing] analyses of “why women breastfeed in different cultures/communities”? How do feminist couples who want to BF on the basis of the science, not to mention their personal preferences, understand their actions in the context of the wider patriarchal environment? Are lesbian couples more or less privileged within some feminist communities when one partner chooses a “traditional/patriarchal” role within the family, which may include extended BFing, organic food, cloth diapers, and the lifestyle espoused generally by “Mothering” magazine?

    In my immediate community, the most “granola” parents are often those who describe themselves most vehemently as anti-patriarchal. These are often people who focus on patriarchy’s interconnection with capitalism, and who propose that their family decisions are specifically anti-capitalist. In that sense, and in these communities, the BI is part of a larger conversation about how best to change society, and can be analyzed as part of the debate over time about what it would mean to overhaul social systems.

    And this brings me to my last set of questions, which is: what is the correlation between greater rates of breastfeeding or a greater emphasis on breastfeeding, and women’s status over time? If women’s status doesn’t appear to correlate with their breastfeeding choices, do we nevertheless see a rise in debates over infant/toddler feeding at moments when women appeared to be gaining political, economic, or social power? There’s clear evidence in the 20th century that women are encouraged (by “experts” and by each other) to “think of the children” at key moments when the women’s movement has gained ground. Can we link the BI, or the “granola” parenthood movement generally, to a backlash against women or against feminism in the nineties and noughts? What do we make of the fact that anecdotally, at least, the “breastfeeding zealots” are more likely to be college-educated, self-identify as liberal in their politics, and be of higher socioeconomic status? [Breastfeeding rates among self-defined conservative women are often not as high as those among self-defined liberals, and the playground evangelists for breastfeeding are not typically the Michelle Duggar moms.]

    I have lots of questions, but few answers. I think the questions are worthwhile, and that people can answer them whether they’ve parented or breastfed or not.

    Two last points: Rosin was still breastfeeding her third child while she was promoting her Atlantic Monthly article; when asked why, she said “because I like it, and that should be enough.”

    And while I understood your use of “breeder” to be a bit of light-hearted fun, I think it’s reasonable to consider the context in which terms are usually used. “Breeder” is almost always used critically, albeit with wit and humor in some venues. “Breeder” can even carry with it an aura of denigration, depending on how you feel about rhetorically connecting women to their status as animals. I wouldn’t have used the term in this post, given its wider usage and the likelihood that it might hinder frank discussion. But given Dr. Crazy’s linked post, and her fury at censorship, I want to be very clear that I see a difference between critiquing the effect of a person’s word choices and an attempt to stop people from using certain words.


  17. Historiann,
    I seriously think you’ve been pretty rude to a few people here. Just sayin. If you’re going to call someone out, then be prepared to be called out yourself. Listen to your readers — don’t attack them.


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  19. The tenor of the comments, to me, seem in part to be a product of the dismissive language introduced by the Rosin article and picked up by Historiann. Referring to people with children as ‘breeders’ is only funny to people without children. And since this discussion is about children, that sets the table for a food fight.


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