The Case Against Blaming Mothers

The Atlantic recently published an article by journalist Hanna Rosin entitled ‘The Case Against Breastfeeding.”  Full of haphazardly injected studies and themes reminiscent of Jill Lepore’s meticulously researched January article in the New Yorker about breastfeeding and pumping milk, the article is not as much a case against breastfeeding as the provocative title suggests.  Rosin conducts a sincere self-analysis of her feelings about herself, her marriage and the status of women, her struggle with traditional gender roles in a middle- to upper-class family, her modesty and feeling that breastfeeding is time-consuming and annoying.  Rosin equates watching her friends pump milk with Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele and states on the video that accompanies the article, “[Pumping at work] is the moment that brings together all the awfulness of being a modern mother.”

Though possibly intended to be tongue-in-cheek, some of the imagery that Hanna Rosin offers is a telltale indicator of her socioeconomic class and occasionally disgruntled relationship with her own body.

She doesn’t “breastfeed slavishly.” Breastfeeding full-time is for slaves!

Pumping is inconvenient when you’re a busy employee and is done to relieve yourself. Expressing milk at work is merely to relieve yourself of bodily fluids!   

If you experience a let down in front of a male co-worker, the milk seeping through your shirt is a “stigmata” that you wear. Milk is sinful and shameful!  Hide yourself from men!  

Her friends that pumped did so out of panic, using machinery to pump their milk that looked like a Josef Mengele creation. Expressing milk with an electric pump is like committing a Nazi war crime on yourself! 

Breastfeeding is only free “if a woman’s time is worth nothing.”  Breastfeeding is unpaid labor and women have PAID work that requires their attention!

 

Rosin externalizes her own ambivalence about breastfeeding her child, to whom she feeds her milk part-time and enjoys the skin-to-skin contact, by blaming public health campaigns, volunteer organizations like La Leche League and a present day frenzy of parenting perfectionism for making her and other women feel guilty.  Public health campaigns promoting breastfeeding seem then to have been designed as a means of making privileged, educated, literate, upper class women like Rosin feel bad about themselves for not mothering properly.  Rosin makes them sound like an extension of the eugenics movement from the first half of the 20th century which in part sought to encourage reproduction of desirables by tying women to the hearth through pseudoscientific education and the glorification of all-things-motherly.

The one simple fact missing from the discussion that Rosin began about feeling guilted and bullied into a self-sacrificial role at the expense of her once egalitarian status in her marriage is that human milk is for human babies.  It will always be superior nutritionally, not morally, than a formula comprised of cow’s milk or soy beans and a host of chemical additives.  It doesn’t take a randomized control trial to arrive at the conclusion that mammalian milk is species specific.  For many families, formula is lifesaving, especially since human milk banks are largely inaccessible and expensive in the U.S.  When used according to directions, the vast majority of babies on formula thrive.

The Value of Public Health Campaigns

Public health campaigns are as much for doctors, nurses and the general public as they are for pregnant women and new mothers.  In the early 20th century, the high infant mortality rate from the practice of feeding babies spoiled, non-pasteurized cow’s milk prompted a public health campaign in favor of breastfeeding or, at a minimum, not feeding unadulterated cow’s milk to infants.  Before the turn of the century, women in large numbers began supplementing their own milk with cow’s milk shortly after birth and weaned their babies from the breast by three months of age. The poor health of artificially fed infants attracted widespread attention by the 1910s and physicians decried the high infant mortality rate and reliance on cow’s milk. Public health campaigns divided, with one that urged mothers to breastfeed for as long as possible and one that campaigned for cleaner cow’s milk.

Human milk advocates focused on keeping babies at the breast. In 1908 in Chicago, the Health Department sent public health nurses into the neighborhoods with the highest death rates to discuss infant feeding with mothers.  Minneapolis instituted a similar program, calling the promulgation of breastfeeding education one of its best investments.

According to Dr. Jacqueline Wolf:

...breastfeeding never became the cornerstone of preventive medicine that so many early-20th-century physicians recommended. Instead, the lay and medical communities came to believe that pasteurization nullified the differences between human and cows’ milk. With readily available clean cows’ milk, breastfeeding crusades and breastfeeding itself seemed antiquated and unnecessary. By the early 1930s, a new generation of doctors belittled human milk as "nothing . . . sacred."  Unlike their breastfeeding-activist predecessors, these pediatricians never witnessed the "slaughter" of infants by spoiled and adulterated cows’ milk and so came to place more faith in the efficacy of cows’ milk than human milk.

From 1930 to the early 1970s, now with the collusion of physicians, not only did mothers continue to supplement their breast milk with cows’ milk and wean infants in the first few weeks and months of life, but more and more mothers did not breastfeed at all. By 1971, breastfeeding had reached an all-time low in the United States. Only 24% of mothers initiated breastfeeding—that is, only 24% breastfed at least once before hospital discharge.

Women were routinely injected in the hospital with hormones shortly after birth to suppress their milk and their breasts were bound. Without any support for breastfeeding, women were told they didn’t have enough milk for their babies or that formula was cleaner than fluids emitted by their bodies and they believed it.  The perceived superiority of science and industry had freed them from their bodies.  Or had it?

Hanna Rosin dismisses the “formula wars” of the 1970’s as something that happened only in far-away South America and Africa, when Nestle promoted formula to families with no access to clean water.  Racial and socioeconomic disparities in infant mortality persist in “developed” countries like the United States. An African American baby born today is twice as likely to die than a white baby. One researcher argues that efforts to increase breastfeeding of infants in the African American community might help narrow the racial gap in infant mortality.

Formula is available in every grocery store or drug store in the country and many U.S. hospitals still regularly violate the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing Breast-milk Substitutes, created to protect mothers and babies, and breastfeeding, from commercial influence, such as idealizing formula, product sample distribution through hospital "gift" bags and formula advertising.

The correct use of formula requires literacy or education to follow directions, education on sterilization of bottles and nipples, and, of course, money.  The average of 2,000 dollars a year for formula might be a drop in the bucket to some, but represents 294 hours of work at minimum wage in the 15 percent tax bracket for another family.  The Formula as Freedom equation also involves the assumption that there is someone trustworthy with whom a mother can leave her child while working or pursuing personal interests.

So why not promote giving women options and support in using the milk that they already produce as a means of ecologically and economically friendly feeding that automatically adjusts itself to the needs of the infant as he or she grows?

Because it makes some women feel angry, guilty or uncomfortable?

Owning Our Decisions

It seems to be very difficult for many women to simply own the fact that they do not want to breastfeed exclusively.  Some don’t want to do it at all.  Some feel their time is better spent elsewhere.  This is not a new phenomenon or the challenge of the modern American woman.  Women of higher social classes in the United States commonly used wet nurses, whether paid, servants or slaves, to feed and sometimes raise their babies in the 19th and 20th century. In China, having a wet nurse is seen as a status symbol.  For those who engage in the practice of shared nursing of babies with other women, the terms “cross-nursing” or “co-nursing” do not carry the same classist connotation as “wet nursing.”

The practice fell out of vogue in the decade of the 1950’s when formula became available, but Time Magazine covered the current minor trend of women again hiring other women to nurse their babies or sharing the nursing process with other moms.  Cultural squeamishness and taboos around women’s bodies, breasts and bodily fluids keep the practice largely underground, and many put it in the same category as pedophilia.

In her article, Rosin says that when she is out all day working or out at night with friends, her baby “can have all the formula he wants, and I won’t give it a second thought.”  The use of the word “won’t” over the word “don’t” implies opposition, perhaps opposition to the ideals of public health campaigns promoting breastfeeding?  By seemingly interpreting breastfeeding support information as a “pro-tie yourself to your babies for years even when you don’t want to” agenda, Rosin seems to be blaming external forces for making her feel ambivalent.  Would it be more liberating to just own that breastfeeding feels like a trap sometimes rather than rail on breastfeeding education, public health campaigns and La Leche League?

Rosin said the following about formula and the workplace on the video that accompanies the article:

There’s this funny thing going on where women have worked for a long time, right?  It’s been almost 50 years that women have been entering the workforce.  It’s been this tremendous change.  Children still have to be raised.  The equation doesn’t add up and everyone pretends it’s not happening so I feel like, you know, when that step happens there will be a sort of degree of ownership… OK, we have to make all of these things kind of happen at once so—and formula will enter that conversation.  It’s like the conversation has to happen backwards.

This conversation has already happened many times in the last century.  It sounds like Rosin is looking outside of herself for a “degree of ownership” for the decisions that she has made to work and feed her children formula.  Human breast milk will always be the most nutritionally sound milk for human babies.  It is not the responsibility of some collective of epidemiologists and public health experts to issue statements with the sole purpose of making people feel better about their decision to use formula instead of human milk.

It remains very hard for many women to admit to themselves that they don’t want to shoulder the entire responsibility of reproduction of the species and nurturing of its young.  Or, for some, half of the responsibility.  Or ten percent of it.  The questions that seem to resurface again and again are What about the baby?  What about the child?  Won’t they suffer some grave psychological harm if their mother rejects them at the breast?  What if she returns to work or travels?  

 

Prescriptive Parenting

During the Renaissance, humans began to believe that they could control their physical world through science and reason.  A few centuries later, this philosophy became applied to human beings.  Today, we count on the power of science to make it possible to understand ourselves and others, to control our behavior and help us raise perfectly mentally healthy kids.

The study of psychology, namely Freudian principles of repression and arrested development as causes of neuroses, revolutionized our attitudes toward parents-- especially mothers.  If the root cause of all sadness and character flaws is Mother, then surely if she raises her children properly, we can free the human race from all that ails it!

Over the years, we have collectively become so presumptuous that we believe that the right pregnancy, the right birth, the right infant diet or the right prescriptive method of raising children will produce or harmony in our lives… and a perfect child.

Rapid changes in industrialization, urbanization and women’s rights over the last century in the U.S. have left many of us feeling like we’re still flailing inside, unsure of what course to take in life.  I’ll never forget when I told my friend’s Israeli mother that I planned to leave my job to stay home with my child, then 15 months, and any future children.  She said that it sounded nice, but she could never do that in Israel.  “We were the revolution,” she said.  “We had to work.”  I felt my first real twinge of fear and apprehension over leaving the workforce for the next few years.  I mean, would I contribute anything to the world besides more babies?

Feeling no attachment to duties such as cooking, preserving, baking, sewing that once sustained a family, I wondered what I would do with my time to consider myself productive.  We had a little money saved up, but not enough to live without downsizing to a tiny rented condo and living on less.  I fell prey temporarily to the idea that my child was my product and made her the focus of my attention.  The concept of a professional parent is a new phenomenon in human existence and, frankly, I find it confusing.  Most of the time, I feel privileged to have this window of time to be with my children through infancy and am usually content with this particular “brand of joy.”  Sometimes I feel angry that I am not the one to walk out the door each morning to sit in an office with my name on the door and on a paycheck.

The turning point came for me when my daughter, then two, went through a pushing stage.  She pushed kids like she was testing gravity.  She pushed kids to see their response.  My friends didn’t care and laughed while they reminisced about their own child’s unpleasant stages of development.  Other parents looked at me with disgust or disdain with the implication that she clearly learned this behavior from me.

I was distraught, frustrated and angry, analyzing every detail of her life to date.  I had been gentle, I breastfed her and I was seldom away from her.  On the days I worked during her infancy, I pumped her milk in my office, relishing the quiet time with the door shut and no one bothering me.  When I started analyzing her birth and trying to figure out if the Fentanyl or castor oil could have caused her brain to wire itself differently, I realized that I had officially made myself insane.  The big picture became clearer—a mother is always the cause of any problem.

Mothers are blamed as a result of the belief system that every choice impacts her child in a potentially hazardous way, as if she has ultimate control over the mental, emotional and physical health of her fetus, baby, child, adolescent and adult children.  More importantly, it seems that mothers blame themselves just as often.

Anything can be pinned on the mother, such as the following:

 

Took pharmaceuticals during pregnancy? Damage to child. 

Gained too much weight in pregnancy?  Damage to child.

Had a “bad birth?” Damage to child.

Didn’t or couldn’t breastfeed?  Damage to child.

Went back to work after a few weeks?  Damage to child. 

Really didn’t want to be a mother in the first place? Triple psychological damage to child.

Apparently, we have totally given up faith in the resilience of human beings.

The prescriptive parenting plans and advice thrown at parents are manifestations of the cultural construct that science and reason can control nature—particularly human beings.  From the first pregnancy test taken, women are expected to take multiple tests, ultrasounds and screenings.  Birth is typically managed and monitored from start to finish with drugs, surgery and other interventions, whether needed or not.  Parents then wade through advice about where and when their baby should sleep, what vaccinations, if any, he or she should receive, how they should interact with their baby and…

…how they should feed their baby.

Rosin’s “case against breastfeeding” isn’t really a case against breastfeeding.  She contends that breast is probably best.  The negative consequences of guilt-based prescriptive parenting methods and the over-the-top expectations placed on parents, particularly mothers, to give their children the very best start in life to prevent future physical and psychological maladies is something that does deserve the label of “public health menace.”

 

But a conversation about how we as mothers feel ambivalent at times about our bodies, cultural expectations, work and how to make sure motherhood isn’t the place where the fight for social justice and women’s rights goes to curl up and die?  Count me in.

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