Thursday, March 19, 2009

An Impassioned Defense of the Status Quo

So, Hanna Rosin makes the incredibly bold suggestion in the Atlantic this month that breastfeeding is not all its cracked up to be! Did you know that it's difficult and inconvenient to breastfeed when you are trying to hold down a full-time job away from your baby? Did you know that it's awkward to breastfeed in public in a culture where acknowledging the function of women's breasts as a food source makes people nervous? Did you know that babies wake up often in the night and demand to eat and that their fathers can only provide them with liquid nourishment if it's in a bottle? Well, that's why we have groundbreaking publications like the Atlantic and insightful writers like Rosin to tell us what we couldn't possibly figure out for ourselves!

Rosin gathers together all her anti-breastfeeding insights and makes the logical leap to an incredible conclusion: if our society doesn't value breastfeeding, it is clearly breastfeeding that's the problem! And when only 1 out of 10 babies is exclusively breastfed until six months, the recommendation of WHO, AAP, and the US HHS, it is quite obvious that breastfeeding is becoming far too popular in the US, and someone needs to speak out against the Gathering Storm that is mothers feeding babies in the way that mammals have done for millions of years. Rosin then spends some late nights at her computer and concludes in contrast to decades of research and thousands of studies that the health benefits of breastfeeding for children are not as stupendous as she thought they would be (and she's a trained research scientist who understands statistical significance and what a preponderance of evidence in epidemiology and nutrition might look like! Oh, that's right, she's nothing of the sort).

So, there are plenty of avenues to criticize Rosin from, but I'll just focus on one. Here is a woman who is arguably in one of the most privileged demographic slices of the US in 2009. She's white, well-educated, a reporter for many of the nation's most influential publications (the Washington Post, the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Atlantic, the New Republic) married to an equally privileged husband (David Plotz, editor of Slate where Rosin has a blog.) And we can probably safely guess she's part of a household with an income far above the national median. She has three children, all of whom she has been able to breastfeed because she's had the economic and social resources needed to do it. She combined her career with breastfeeding, and whether that was because of a workplace that allowed her to pump or a flexible schedule or working from home or maternity leave or being supported by her spouse, who knows. Like many upper-middle class women, it worked out for her. But, it still wasn't particularly easy: Pumping at work is at best a pain. Waking up at night to feed a baby if you need to work in the morning can be exhausting and soul-sucking. Not all husbands take up the slack when you take on the admittedly major project of feeding another human from your body (and it sounds like Plotz wasn't quite up to the job.)

So, does Rosin, from her position of privilege think to herself: Even with all the advantages I have, breastfeeding is actually really taxing. How could I help women who don't have all these advantages and make it easier for them to exercise this basic physiological function that every human baby comes into the world expecting from its mother? What could I do as a reporter with access to some of most influential media outlets to improve the lives of mothers and babies in the US? How could I illuminate the many barriers that prevent American mothers from providing their babies with human milk --- lack of maternity leave paid or otherwise, lack of health care, lack of family-friendly work policies, lack of legal protection for breastfeeding (or pumping) mothers in public or the workplace?

Nope, luckily for everyone, Rosin decides to focus on the real problem in this country: upper middle class women like herself condemning other upper middle class women like herself to hours of mind-racking guilt about whether they managed to breastfeed their babies. Whew, close one there! Let's not lose sleep over the 1 in 5 children under the age of 6 living in poverty in this country many of whom could use a boost of five IQ points in order to overcome all the other disadvantages they start off life with. Let's worry about the tiny percentage of extremely privileged adult women in this country whose feelings are hurt when someone criticizes them (possibly unfairly) for not having breastfed. Hurt feelings are a wonderful basis on which to catalyze public health policy that would benefit the fewest and most powerful at the expense of the least powerful many. Once again, it looks like we can count on our media elite to spend their time and passion defending unjust privileges, i.e. defending the status quo for the wealthier members of society.

Rosin, of course, is not the first woman (or man) to do this. In fact, as we've seen certainly for the last couple decades (and probably longer), women and family issues only merit interest in the mainstream media as cat fights between upper middle class women at the playground aka the Mommy Wars? Read the New York Times style section lately? The Atlantic itself is notable for giving Caitlin Flanagan's ravings a platform. And who could forget "Dan Quayle was Right"?

When women and family issues are presented as being solely about whether individual moms feel guilty about their choices, there is no reason for them to be taken seriously by the people---still mostly men---who have the power to change the set of options women have to choose between. It also distracts the very women who have the resources to push for changes to laws and allocation of government resources (yep, we're still looking at you, Rosin!) away from addressing the real problems at hand (e.g. the lack of any mandatory paid maternity leave in the US). Instead, it encourages them to spend time worrying about something as absolutely unimportant as whether some women condemn other women's choices.

(As an aside, why is breastfeeding lumped in with the other choices that the moms in Rosin's demographic niche spend a fair amount of time worrying about anyway---cloth vs. disposable diapers, cosleeping vs. cry-it-out, montessori vs. waldorf preschool, etc. etc.? Characterizing the normal physiological process that baby humans start life with as a "choice" makes me wonder when we’re all going to be hooked up to dialysis machines and IVs at work to make us more efficient employees. We’ve got the choice to pee and eat but not everyone wants to exercise it because they value their career goals more!)

Ultimately, this trivialization is the real harm of Rosin's article. If you can dismiss breast-feeding and infant care as something that does not really need to be done by mothers---a silly optional whim with limited benefits in which the lucky few can indulge---then why should we as a society ever make it a priority to provide the maternity leave necessary to making breastfeeding a realistic option for the majority of mothers? Why should we have any laws mandating accommodation of breast-feeding mothers and their babies? Why should we make it easy for parents to continue to pursue their career goals after or while taking time out to care for small children?

And so, Rosin's perversely myopic perspective from inside her socioeconomic cocoon ends up simply reinforcing the depressing truth behind the status quo in the US mentioned above which is that only 10% of babies are lucky enough to be exclusively breast-fed until six months old. It is beyond me why the Atlantic would think it necessary to publish Rosin's case against breast-feeding when, quite obviously, for the majority of moms and babies, the case against it is being made convincingly every day.


Mama Bee said...

This is a great "rant" -- I couldn't agree with you more. Clearly Rosin knew that her sensational claim -- that breast-feeding is overrated -- would drive traffic and sell magazines. That's why she wrote it. So much for illuminating, well-researched journalism on this subject.

Anonymous said...

I agree that her complaint left me cold. My youngest sister wanted very much to breastfeed her first child, but she didn't have some cushy reporter's job, she worked at WalMart. And it seems WalMart has a real problem with allowing returning moms time to pump breast milk. When she stopped producing she bawled her eyes out.

While it's nice that I can tell her that the formula didn't hurt my nephew, the fact that companies treat pregnancy and motherhood like a regrettable 'hobby' you have to do on your own time stinks.

Anonymous said...

Did you even read the article? It seems as though you've constructed quite a straw-man to avoid dealing with Rosin's actual point, which is that women are being SHAMED for not breastfeeding, even though our society doesn't support breastfeeding in any meaningful way.

I breastfed my first, and was unable to breastfeed my other children. People like you seem to ignore the fact that some women just can't breastfeed, for whatever reason. I felt so much shame about my inability to provide breast milk because I believed all of the people telling me how much better breast milk is. Like you, I wanted to do the best for my baby.

You are faulting Rosin for expressing her opinion on this from her admittedly privileged position, but the fact is, most women who have been shamed by their inability to breastfeed don't have Rosin's soapbox, and they need someone to speak for them.

Cassie said...

@Anonymous (5/18) I certainly did read the article, but it's not entirely clear that you read my post! Given my mention of "the many barriers that prevent American mothers from providing their babies with human milk --- lack of maternity leave paid or otherwise, lack of health care, lack of family-friendly work policies, lack of legal protection for breastfeeding (or pumping) mothers in public or the workplace," it's quite clear that I understand that here in the US there is only the weakest support at a societal level for breastfeeding mothers and children. That said, it's a bit of a stretch to say that women are "being SHAMED for not breastfeeding." (If you actually took a poll, I suspect you'd find just as many women would complain that they have been shamed at some point for breastfeeding.)

In addition, there is plenty of scientific evidence to support the claim that formula is not as good as breastmilk. (I didn't focus on refuting Rosin's claims about this but instead just linked to some of the many strong refutations elsewhere, but Jennifer Block had a good discussion of this (with links) on Babble recently.) There is just no getting around the fact that not breastfeeding increases health risks. If you can't breastfeed, then obviously it's certainly a net positive that there exists an option besides letting your child die. (But it would be far better if it that option were human milk rather than formula, another thing there is almost no support for!)

I highly recommend reading this post about maternal guilt; I think it's not unusual to feel like others are blaming you, when, in fact, it is a projection of your own internal feelings of shame. Also, "doing the best that you can for your child" does not require raising your child in the best of all possible circumstances. It just requires that you did the best you could given your circumstances (health, money, time, etc.)

Nonetheless, individual feelings of shame and guilt combined with ignoring robust scientific evidence that lack of breastfeeding increases health risks are not the basis from which public policy should be formed. And, unfortunately, publishing articles like Rosin in the Atlantic is indeed the sort of seed from which the conventional wisdom that determines public policy in this country grows.