In the thirty years or so since I entered puberty during the Carter Administration, I’ve spent quite a bit of time contemplating women’s breasts — and my own (not to mention other men’s) fascination with them. But in the last few months, as a first-time father and partner to a breast-feeding mother, that fascination has morphed into a new kind of reverence. And I’ve become aware of what might, for lack of a better term, be called the “boob war” — a sub-conflict within the larger “Mommy War” that continues to rage, exasperating and frightening and dividing women. And into this fight comes a bombshell article in the new Atlantic Monthly: Hanna Rosin’s The Case Against Breastfeeding. More on the article later. (Cap taps, belatedly and with apologies, to Rod Dreher and to Scott.)
The term “Mommy Wars” generally refers to the public and private debates, common among the middle and upper-middle classes of the developed world, about what makes a “good” mother. For years, the chief front in these wars has been the battle over daycare and work outside the home, though other conflicts rage in areas like nutrition and natural childbirth. As a women’s studies professor, I of course had a professional acquaintance with these battles — but as a first-time father these past few months, I’ve gotten an entirely different perspective. As a man, my cultural and physiological privilege immunizes me from attack; yet as a devoted partner and father and feminist, I cannot help but be involved.
When we first announced to people that we were expecting a child, we got (along with the hugs of congratulation) many queries and unsolicited nuggets of advice. In particular, my wife was regularly asked about her plans for nourishing the baby; whether she intended to breastfeed, and if so, for how long. The merits of “pumping” versus “not pumping” were presented with bewildering detail; and, at least in our social circle, the evils of infant formula were repeatedly stressed.
We chose a midwifery team and a pediatrician based on recommendations from friends and a series of interviews (trust me, we were thorough in the latter). The pediatrician we ended up choosing is a delightful man, a fellow vegan with a prominent reputation as an opponent of a slavish adherence to the vaccine schedule and a proponent of both breastfeeding and attachment parenting. He charmed us with his attention and his devotion and his irreverance, as well as his conviction that child health and animal rights can be entirely compatible commitments. When we first met with Dr. G. weeks before our daughter was born, we also met with his professional lactation consultant, who promised to come in the hours after the delivery to help my wife breastfeed. It was clear that in this practice, formula at any time in the first six months — even the first year — was considered tantamount to child abuse.
I don’t blog intimate family details here, but I will say that my wife and daughter were lucky: by the time the lactation consultant showed up on the afternoon of the day our girl was born, she had already latched on. First the colostrum, then the milk came down with no trouble, and in copious quantities. Heloise Cerys, seven weeks old today, is a voracious eater; my wife clearly delights in feeding her. It’s a happy thing to witness. I know that some new dads feel a bit out of sorts that they can’t do as much for a child as breastfeeding mothers can, but I haven’t felt that sort of pique. There is much that I can do for both these amazing women, and my equal responsibility as a parent isn’t contingent upon being an equally reliable source of nourishment at this stage of my daughter’s development.
My wife and I are vegans and environmentalists, eager to do what is healthiest and best for our baby. But Rosin argues that there’s a clear classist element to the whole commitment to breast-feeding, a commitment our family has embraced:
In my playground set, the urban moms in their tight jeans and oversize sunglasses size each other up using a whole range of signifiers: organic content of snacks, sleekness of stroller, ratio of tasteful wooden toys to plastic. But breast-feeding is the real ticket into the club. My mother friends love to exchange stories about subversive ways they used to sneak frozen breast milk through airline security (itâ€™s now legal), or about the random brutes on the street who donâ€™t approve of breast-feeding in public. When Angelina Jolie wanted to secure her status as Americaâ€™s ur-mother, she posed on the cover of W magazine nursing one of her twins. Alt-rocker Pete Wentz recently admitted that he tasted his wife, Ashlee Simpsonâ€™s, breast milk (â€œsouryâ€ and â€œweirdâ€), after bragging that they have a lot of sexâ€”both of which must have seemed to him markers of a cool domestic existence.
From the moment a new mother enters the obstetricianâ€™s waiting room, she is subjected to the upper-class parentsâ€™ jingle: â€œBreast Is Best.â€ Parenting magazines offer â€œ23 Great Nursing Tips,â€ warnings on â€œNursing Roadblocks,â€ and advice on how to find your local lactation consultant (note to the childless: yes, this is an actual profession, and itâ€™s thriving). Many of the stories are accompanied by suggestions from the ubiquitous parenting guru Dr. William Sears, whose Web site hosts a comprehensive list of the benefits of motherâ€™s milk. â€œBrighter Brainsâ€ sits at the top: â€œI.Q. scores averaging seven to ten points higher!â€ (Sears knows his audience well.) The list then moves on to the dangers averted, from infancy on up: fewer ear infections, allergies, stomach illnesses; lower rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease. Then it adds, for good measure, stool with a â€œbuttermilk-like odorâ€ and â€œnicer skinâ€â€”benefits, in short, â€œmore far-reaching than researchers have even dared to imagine.â€
Well, we certainly have read our Dr. Sears, and though we haven’t yet taken our infant girl to a playground, I have no doubt that in our particular social milieu, we’ll encounter at least some parents like those in Rosin’s article. And we did have a lactation consultant work with us, though her services proved to be — happily — entirely unnecessary. But though I remain convinced by what I’ve read of the case for breast milk over formula, I’m keenly aware of the problematic way in which breastfeeding raises issues of class and feminist values.
From a class standpoint, it’s clear that breastfeeding makes work outside the home considerably more difficult — particularly when you belong to that subset of “breast is best” subscribers who look dimly on feeding breast milk in bottles. (Our pediatrician’s view is that pumping is okay if absolutely necessary, but he’d rather have a baby only on the human breast itself until at least six months.) While California law, thanks to Antonio Villaraigosa’s efforts more than a decade ago, requires that women be allowed to breastfeed in public, many workplaces will not allow women to bring their children with them. My wife works semi-independently, controlling her own hours; she’s returning to her office this week, and has a bassinet set up next to her desk. She intends to do at work what she’s been doing at home all along, which is caring for Heloise while keeping up with her clients. This is privilege, of course.
Many women aren’t as fortunate as my wife; not everyone finds breastfeeding to be easy from the start. If we had had trouble, a lactation consultant was standing by; a great many women don’t have that privilege. My wife works in an industry (entertainment) and in a town where there is considerably greater sensitivity to these issues than in other professions and locales; babies are “trendy” in Los Angeles, it seems, and my wife’s office is bending over backwards to accomodate her desire to have the baby with her at all times and to breastfeed on demand. (I ought to note that I have made it clear that should my wife decide to start pumping, I’m ready to start bottle-feeding the girl in a heartbeat. That offer has been lovingly and very firmly declined.) If my wife were in a different line of work, with fewer resources and less professional autonomy, then the “breast is best” cry might begin to seem cruel rather than encouraging.
So it’s clear that whatever the health benefits for mother and child, breastfeeding is something more easily done by women with family leave benefits and accomodating workplaces. That gives it an obvious class element. But there’s a problematic feminist element to the whole thing as well, and Rosin touches on it: the obsession with breastfeeding is linked to the ancient and decidedly anti-feminist view that women’s bodies exist primarily to nurture others, and that “real women” are radically sacrificial. There’s no question that breastfeeding takes more time than giving formula; it is physically draining (though for many like my wife, emotionally rewarding) in a way that offering a bottle is not. And it certainly negates the possibility of a genuinely equal division of labor in the household, even with the most pro-feminist and eager of fathers:
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 theyâ€™d had small children?
Seven weeks in to our daughter’s life, I’m keenly aware of these potential risks. It’s one reason why I am assertive, in a loving but committed way, about being involved with our baby. Yes, I’m back at work (typing this post at an ungodly hour on my laptop, waiting for my first students of the morning). But at night, I change the baby and get her back to sleep if she is restless — and my wife feeds her. It might seem easier to have at least one of us get a full night of sleep, and since my wife is breastfeeding, she could — in theory — also do the diapering and the soothing. But that strikes me as an absurd abdication of responsibility on my part, as well as a reinforcement of this dangerous dynamic that Rosin touches on: the one in which women “disappear” into motherhood.
I cannot breastfeed my baby. I am glad my wife can, and for a variety of reasons having to do with health and bonding, I am grateful that she has chosen to do so. In the end, it is my wife’s choice to breastfeed, and it will be her choice when to stop. But I’m too invested in egalitarianism to let that one decision become an excuse for me to abdicate my equal responsibility to make decisions about Cerys’ life and needs. I am learning — fast and furiously — how to soothe her when she cries; I am learning her sounds and her grunts. The day will come when the breastfeeding is stopped and my wife has an important meeting and the baby is sick — and on that day, my students may well find their classes cancelled because their professor is home with his child. I know how insidious the cultural forces are that encourage men to defer, to withdraw, and to delegate — and I’m aware that breastfeeding, this wonderful choice for some, can play a part in reinforcing those cultural pressures. It’s my choice as a husband and a father whether I acquiesce to those forces or resist them.
In the end, it’s incredibly presumptuous for any man, no matter how good his feminist credentials, to weigh in on the breastfeeding wars. (An exception might be made for pediatricians such as our own.) But it’s not presumptuous to point out the classism that comes with “lactation consultants” and the expectation that a woman will have the leave time to breastfeed for as long as she wants. It’s also not presumptuous to remind men — my fellow fathers, husbands, partners — that the reality that we cannot breastfeed is not a symbol of our inability to nurture, and it isn’t an excuse to drop a commitment to egalitarian parenting. Rather, it’s a challenge to ensure that we double our efforts in other areas to compensate for our “inability” to breastfeed — a reality that is both a physiological impediment and a potential source of profound privilege.
Our daughter was born in a hospital (we had hoped to have a home birth, but various complications made that impossible). When we left the hospital, we were given a standard newborn kit; filled with blankets and toys and several boxes of formula, it was a gift not from the hospital but from the corporation that made the baby food. As we were presented with it, the nurse’s aid, judging us by the various markers of privilege she could witness, remarked “You know, you probably won’t need this, but you can always donate this to a shelter. They’d be happy to take it.” I remember a chill went down my spine when I heard her say that. It was my first visceral encounter with the class politics of the breast, and it evidently won’t be my last.