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Seeking critique without misinformation in the burgeoning breast vs. bottle battle

April 4, 2009

I can’t not blog about this issue.  It’s an issue that has been stampeded upon by mothers, breastfeeders, formula feeders, and breast pump lovers and haters throughout the land, yet I still feel compelled–yes, compelled–to write more.

Yes, I’m going to address that article.  In fact, it has now become those articles.  Hanna Rosin’s piece in The Atlantic, “The Case Against Breastfeeding,” and Judith Warner’s more recent New York Times piece, “Ban the Breast Pump” have incited both the fury and celebration of many-a-woman (and man, I presume).  My response tilts more toward the “fury” side, not because I am the most zealous breastfeeding advocate (though I do encourage other moms who can to breastfeed) but because I dislike misinformation and inaccuracy in any context.  And I think that both Rosin and Warner mislead their readers into thinking that the benefits of breastmilk (and breast pumps, for that matter) are only touted in order to dollop yet another serving of guilt onto mothers’ already overfilled plates.

As was pointed out to me by one of my incisive (and outraged) friends, the underlying thesis of Rosin’s article seems to be that breastfeeding is inherently oppressive to women.  In fact, the article’s online tag line reflects this very idea, questioning whether “[breastfeeding is ] this generation’s vacuum cleaner–an instrument of misery that mostly just keeps women down.”

First, I would like to kindly point out to Rosin that it wasn’t the vacuum cleaners of past generations that were oppressive to women.  Rather, the social contexts and domestic demands symbolized by the vacuum cleaner were oppressive to women.  And while Rosin’s characterization of the vacuum cleaner as an “instrument of misery” probably picks up on this nuance, her further claim that the vacuum cleaner “keeps women down” (and, later on, that it is similar to that “other sucking sound…keeping [Rosin] and her 21st century sisters down”) slides back into a conflation between the oppressor and the instrument of oppression.

But why all of this talk about oppressive vacuum cleaners, Kristen?  Well, just as vacuum cleaners weren’t the actual oppressors of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations, breastfeeding itself is not the oppressor of today’s generation of women.  And the scads of research elucidating the many, many benefits of breastfeeding (pointed out by my friend in her insightful, witty, and alltogether awesome blog, Nursing Birth and before that in Motherwear’s Breastfeeding Blog) are not the oppressor.  It’s a culture of mommy guilt and shame that is the oppressor.  It’s a society that has not yet fully realized how to support working parents that is the oppressor.  And it’s a mentality that allows one to claim that a nighttime co-parenting arrangement is unfeasible because it would subsequently “wreck” the morning of both parents that is the oppressor.  (That martyr complex ain’t doin’ you any feminist favors, Ms. Rosin!)

Speaking of conflations, I also find that Rosin seems to conflate the tone of various claims with the content of those claims in her criticisms of breastfeeding advocacy.  Note, for instance, the following passage from Rosin’s piece, in which she responds to a quote from The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding:

“The resistance to disease that human milk affords a baby cannot be duplicated in any other way,” the authors scold. (emphasis added)  The experience of reading the 1958 edition is like talking with your bossy but charming neighbor, who has some motherly advice to share. Reading the latest edition is like being trapped in the office of a doctor who’s haranguing you about the choices you make.

The authors scold?  Really?

I will be the first person to agree that some breastfeeding advocates can be overzealous in their advocacy, and I will easily agree that many of the social norms surrounding parenting create  a culture of guilt and self-doubt for many mothers (and fathers).  These issues are worth criticizing!  Nonetheless, even if the aforementioned quotation from The Womanly Art… does carry a scolding tone, this in no way affects the veracity of the claim.  It’s still true whether one says it with a scolding, sad, irritable, excited, or even delirious tone! 

In fact, if you click on the link referring to the “scads of research” demonstrating the benefits of breastfeeding, you’ll see that this 2007 meta-analysis–and not the 1984 analysis that Rosin mentions–examines over “9000 abstracts, 43 primary studies on infant health outcomes, 43 primary studies on maternal health outcomes, and 29 systematic reviews or meta-analyses that covered approximately 400 individual studies” all to show that

a history of breastfeeding was associated with a reduction in the risk of acute otitis media, non-specific gastroenteritis, severe lower respiratory tract infections, atopic dermatitis, asthma (young children), obesity, type 1 and 2 diabetes, childhood leukemia, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and necrotizing enterocolitis. There was no relationship between breastfeeding in term infants and cognitive performance.

What’s more, the results of this meta-analysis also demonstrate that

For maternal outcomes, a history of lactation was associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, breast, and ovarian cancer. Early cessation of breastfeeding or not breastfeeding was associated with an increased risk of maternal postpartum depression. There was no relationship between a history of lactation and the risk of osteoporosis. The effect of breastfeeding in mothers on return-to-pre-pregnancy weight was negligible, and the effect of breastfeeding on postpartum weight loss was unclear.

Worth noting is that this study’s findings do support Rosin’s claim that all of the supposed benefits of breastfeeding (including the relationship between breastfeeding and children’s cognitive performance and the relationship between breastfeeding and the risk of osteoporosis) are not conclusively supported by the evidence.  And while this might make the benefits of breastfeeding thinner than they were thought to be, this does not make them thin.  To use an analogy (one that avoids thinness, for fat’s sake!), if I were to estimate that a California redwood was 300 feet tall only to discover that it was actually 250 feet tall, this would mean that the redwood was, in fact, shorter than my estimate.  But it wouldn’t really mean that the tree was short, now, would it?!

While Judith Warner gives a bit (but only a bit) more of a critical eye to the “evidence” that Rosin uses to support her argument, she still makes the conflation between oppressor and instrument of oppression that Rosin does, in this case replacing ‘breastfeeding’ with ‘the breast pump’.  In fact, Warner ends her article with the following musing:

I hope that some day, not too long in the future, books on women’s history will feature photos of breast pumps to illustrate what it was like back in the day when mothers were consistently given the shaft. Future generations of female college students will gaze upon the pumps, aghast.

“Did you actually use one of those?” they’ll ask their mothers, in horror.

And the moms, with a shudder, will proudly say no.

Not surprisingly, Nursing Birth has a fabulous response to Warner’s article, counting the myriad ways in which mothers may “need, choose, or even want a breast pump.”  And none of them involves “Because I feel guilty” or “Because the breast pump is oppressing me.”  (Suddenly, I am struck by an image of an army of vacuum cleaner, boob, and breast pump zombies feasting on a mob of lactating mothers.  But I digress…)

Now, I’ll agree with Warner that we should be asking some serious and difficult questions about the support (or lack thereof) of working parents in contemporary US society.  Why does our society simultaneously extol the  benefits of breastfeeding without giving mothers enough (paid) maternity leave to devote the first six months of their child’s life to exclusive breastfeeding (as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends)?  Why do we as women “accept the guilt and pressure” surrounding our choices about raising (and feeding) our children–and, I would add, why do we sometimes place this guilt upon one another?  (Another one of the questions she includes–and one that Rosin considers in her podcast that accompanies the online version of “The Case Against Breastfeeding”–is, “Why have we made such a fetish of breast milk when there’s no evidence to prove whether, as Rosin puts it in the Atlantic video, ‘what’s key about breast feeding is the milk or the act of breast-feeding’?”  In response to this question, I would ask: If it turned out that the act of breastfeeding and not breastmilk itself actually offered the aforementioned benefits to babies, should that really make much of a difference when it comes to choosing whether or not to breastfeed?)

In any case, if, in answering these questions, Warner wants to chuck out her breast pump, then she has right–and perhaps a good reason–to do so.  Making parental decisions based on guilt is not a healthy way to make decisions.  But neither is making decisions based on misleading and inaccurate information.  And in regard to Rosin’s article, I fear that this is what she offers to her readers.

Finally, what irks me about both articles is the disdainful, misguided objectification of other women–other mothers–that both authors rely on in order to make their points.  Warner refers to the “mommy-blog vituperation” she anticipates in response to her and Rosin’s articles, including (but not limited to) the “Dr. William Sears-inspired attachment parenting crowd.”  Pretty lightweight disdain, but there is certainly some discounting and dismissing going on in these characterizations of Warner’s “opponents.”  Rosin, however, refers to the “the urban moms in their tight jeans and oversize sunglasses” who “size each other up using a whole range of signifiers: organic content of snacks, sleekness of stroller, ratio of tasteful wooden toys to plastic.”  And it is this figure, described in the second paragraph of Rosin’s article, who seems to loom the largest throughout the piece.  Larger than the American Academy of Pediatrics.  Larger than Dr. Sears.  Larger than the dreaded vacuum cleaner.  And it makes me wonder–what (or who) is the source of Rosin’s guilt?  Of all of our parental guilt?

In fact, if I were to do some oversimplified thinking of my own, I’d venture to guess that what is really going on here–and what really deserves our attention–reaches far beyond the breast/bottle wars and even far beyond the spectrum of reactions (from venomous outrage to victorious hallelujah-ing) to Rosin and Warner’s articles.  What really deserves our careful attention and critique are the socio-cultural representations of women’s relationships with one another

Put less academically?

Ladies, we need to refuse the catty images of woman-to-woman relationships that are served up to us in every single media we encounter.  We gotta stop allowing guilt, shame, and back-biting competition to enter the ways in which we relate to one another.  I hate it when I see it on the playgrounds I frequent with my children today, and I hated it when I saw it on the playgrounds I frequented when I was a child.  And if we can get to a place where we can avoid these modes of relating to one another, maybe we can get to a place where a woman’s profoundly personal choice about whether to breastfeed or formula-feed her child can be made not only after reflecting on accurate and transparent information and evidence but also with the assurance that her decision will be respected–whether on the playground or in her own mind.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. nursingbirth permalink
    April 4, 2009 11:24 am

    Oh my lord I love this post. I think we should go on tour, me with my science/health and L&D experience, and you with your philosophy/feminism and mom experience…we could sell out playgrounds everywhere! Haha!

    No but seriously, you write:

    “It’s a culture of mommy guilt and shame that is the oppressor. It’s a society that has not yet fully realized how to support working parents that is the oppressor. We gotta stop allowing guilt, shame, and back-biting competition to enter the ways in which we relate to one another.”

    And I say RIGHT ON!


    P.S. Thanks for the pingbacks 🙂

  2. koganowski permalink*
    April 4, 2009 11:33 am

    Thank YOU!!! And I’d go on tour with you ANY day! 🙂

  3. Kellie permalink
    April 6, 2009 12:50 pm

    I’m so glad that you are my eloquent, like-minded sister who can say all of this for me (and the countless other moms who surely feel the same way) in complete sentences. I think you could actually publish a book on this very subject. Correction: I think you SHOULD actually publish a book on this very subject. And I’ll be first in line for my signed copy :).

  4. Kristen permalink*
    April 6, 2009 8:15 pm

    Kellie–Just as long as I can commission you (with your extraordinary artistic talents) to provide an illustration of an army of boob and breastpump zombies feasting on lactating moms. 🙂

  5. April 16, 2009 6:40 am

    Interesting. I have not seen the article (I’m supposed to be writing a research paper!), but it would never occur to me to see a breastpump as anything but a tool that allowed me to feed my baby at all for the first month or so of life.


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