Mommy Wars: Breastfeeding Battle

If you're a follower of modern day parenting and media coverage about modern day parenting, you realize that in the so-called "mommy wars," breastfeeding is not unlike a country with ongoing, supposedly insoluable conflicts (think, Middle East for magnitude of intractibility). Is breast really best? Is breast milk the same as breastfeeding? Is breastfeeding in public offensive?

One of the latest articles–followed by inevitable rebuttals–to hit the media was Hanna Rosin's recent piece in the Atlantic called "The Case Against Breastfeeding." What got Rosin thinking about this whole breastfeeding-is-seriously-overrated issue? The playground, of course, and the icy reception she felt she received when she casually mentioned to a group of mums that she was planning to wean her infant at about four weeks, instead of the socially "acceptable" six months (or year or longer–depending upon your mothering cohort). Rosin explains she nursed children one and two what she was told by pediactricians was the requisite year, but running after children one and two and wishing to have time with her husband now and again, she felt like being stuck breastfeeding was too much of a bother. So, in smart gal fashion, she decided to dispute all claims about breast really being best. She had to dig deep; one of the reviews she cites was published in 1984.

Jennifer Block points out as much in her piece, in response largely to Rosin's piece, on Babble. She hits many of the high points that make breastfeeding difficult, which boil down to how much pressure is put upon women personally rather than our society taking responsibility to help support women and babies enjoying that aspect of a mother-baby relationship. Judith Warner in her New York Times blog also response to Rosin; Warner thinks mothers (doctors, etc.) on this side of the Atlantic have gone too far in the breast-is-best assertions, creating inordinate personal pressure upon mothers all the while the question about whether it's breast milk or breastfeeding that is critical has never been (and probably never can be) answered. She advocates an end to the practice of pumping milk.

Recently, the New Yorker ran a wonderful piece by Jill Lepore on the history of the breast pump. What she chronicles so well is how medicine took agency for childbirth–and it turns out, child feeding–from mothers, and in essence this began the separation of breastfeeding and the breast. Indeed, there was a mini-buzz about current day working mothers hiring wet nurses. The lack of paid family leave along with few workplaces offering onsite infant care options means many working mothers pump at work. Medela, a Swiss company, the leading manufacturer of breast pumps, Lepore writes, sells breast pumps in ninety countries and enjoys its biggest business in the United States. And some women–whether they are working or physically uncomfortable or modest–pump exclusively to feed their children breast milk from bottles. Lepore concludes: "These newest machines, the company promises, 'work less like a pump and more like a baby.' More like a baby? Holy cow. We are become our own wet nurses."

As is mentioned in a couple of these articles–including Jennifer Block's assessment of the "baby friendly" hospital initiative and as I posted last year in another eruption of the breastfeeding vs. formula public conundrums for Women in Media and News' group blog, saying breast is best but handing out formula to new mothers can be at odds with one another. So, too, have there been very mixed reviews of public service announcements designed to put fear into new mothers who may use formula. And in truth, saying one thing is good, another evil is simply offensive, because breastfeeding can be a complicated endeavor–at times, for some, even in the best of circumstances–along with the reality that it can't always happen, especially in our society at this time.

A personal interjection here: my eldest, Ezekiel, had a tight frenulum (also called "tongue-tied"), which meant the flap of skin under his tongue was too tight and thus he couldn't lap his tongue forward far enough to bring my milk in; he suckled but didn't do a whole lot. Most babies in that situation go undiagnosed, because–as was the case with Ezekiel–they start to lose weight–he weighed seven onces less than his birth weight at three weeks, technically "failure to thrive"–and pediatricians and parents say breastfeeding didn't work and switch to a bottle. Few doctors, and even few lactation consultants, know to check for the frenulum length. In our case though, breast-is-best was a deafening refrain. I can really only say in retrospect: thankfully, we had a patient and open-minded doctor, Charles Brummer, a smart and compassionate lactation consultant, Joanne Jaffin, who also had us consult with the amazing lactation consultants at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, and an able pediatric surgeon to snip the frenulum. Thankfully, too, though, we had nothing else that needed to get done that year so pressingly, because I really just nursed and pumped (and wrote about it for the now-defunct Moxie). I had the privilege to pump like that. I knew, even with one more child, I could not repeat that year (and wouldn't have wanted to). I thought a lot about the pressure to do this all "right," childbirth, breastfeeding, parenting, balancing work and parenting… The second child, Lucien, latched on and that was that; the next one, Remy, also nursed like a champ–he also had reflux, so he then spat everything up, which meant he breastfed exclusively–followed by our caboose baby, Saskia, who we adopted, and thus she drinks from a bottle (sometimes with breast milk, given to us by four generous mamas). Not breastfeeding merits its own post (or posts).

Jennifer Block gets to a really key set of questions in her Babble piece:"Why did American feminism evolve in such a way that we think of biology as destiny, and that destiny as a prison? Why are we so willing to surrender the parts and processes that makes us female rather than demanding that society support them? We've broken down doors and cracked glass ceilings, when what we need to do is redesign the building."

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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