“Boob Wars”: reflections of a new father on breastfeeding, class, and feminism

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 (it’s now legal), or about the random brutes on the street who don’t approve of breast-feeding in public. When Angelina Jolie wanted to secure her status as America’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 Simpson’s, breast milk (“soury” and “weird”), after bragging that they have a lot of sex—both of which must have seemed to him markers of a cool domestic existence.

From the moment a new mother enters the obstetrician’s waiting room, she is subjected to the upper-class parents’ jingle: “Breast Is Best.” Parenting magazines offer “23 Great Nursing Tips,” warnings on “Nursing Roadblocks,” and advice on how to find your local lactation consultant (note to the childless: yes, this is an actual profession, and it’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 mother’s milk. “Brighter Brains” sits at the top: “I.Q. scores averaging seven to ten points higher!” (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 “buttermilk-like odor” and “nicer skin”—benefits, in short, “more far-reaching than researchers have even dared to imagine.”

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 they’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.

46 thoughts on ““Boob Wars”: reflections of a new father on breastfeeding, class, and feminism

  1. Thank you SO much for this post and the link to Hanna Rosin’s wonderful article. I have long been disturbed by the lack of questioning in feminist circles of the notion that a good mother should breast feed. I do think this expectation and the social disapproval that goes along with it is highly problematic from a feminist standpoint.

    It is wonderful that feminists have rallied around the right of women to breast feed and to do so publicly. But we need to also stand up for the choices of women who rely on formula.

    I don’t know the science, but I was a formula baby as was (I believe) most of my generation in the U.S.. Breast may be best (though Rosin raises some interesting questions about how much better it really is) but using formula isn’t exactly child abuse. It seems as though women should be encouraged to balance their own needs and desires with those of the baby’s and be trusted to make the best choice for themselves and their families. This does seem to be yet another area where women are discouraged from considering their own needs and desires when making a decision.

  2. “In the end, it’s incredibly presumptuous for any man, no matter how good his feminist credentials, to weigh in on the breastfeeding wars.”

    Well, I’ll go ahead and be presumptuous anyway. I’ll point out the gendered assumption that all things being equal, mothers naturally know what is best for their babies, and are owed some special deference in matters like this. I think breastfeeding is fine, I think pumping is fine, I think formula is fine – it all depends on the circumstances and the wishes of the mother and father, and I’m happy that you and your wife have found a way that suits you.

    In my case it was formula, and as I wrote here, I’m quite happy with our choice.

  3. Sweating through fog,

    The notion that mothers are owed some special deference in this area is not based on the assumption that mothers naturally know what is best for their babies.

    Mothers are owed special deference because it is her body. We are all owed special deference as to what to do with our bodies.

    (That’s not to say that a mother should not take the father’s opinion into account, but ultimately we should respect the fact that it is rightly her decision.)

  4. Sweating,

    Your very sweet blog post is well-taken. One advantage of bottle feeding is that it provides a huge bonding opportunity for fathers (not that there aren’t other bonding opportunities, but feeding time can be very special).

  5. I was not breastfed, as my mom could not produce enough milk to feed me. I was also born in a hospital and my mom was on painkillers during the birth. I don’t think anything detrimental happened to me as a result. I am not sure why people make a huge deal of things like that, when ultimately, most kids turn out fine regardless.

  6. “The pediatrician we ended up choosing is a delightful man, a fellow vegan with a prominent reputation as an opponent of vaccines and a proponent of both breastfeeding and attachment parenting.”

    Hugo, I hope you and your wife are not also opponents of vaccines. When I lived in San Diego, I saw first hand how horrific measles complications can be to an unvaccinated child. I don’t understand how an doctor can ignore the public health necessity of vaccinations.

  7. A good, thoughtful and fairminded post, Hugo. It’s maddening (from a feminist perspective) that the issue has become so fraught with guilt-tripping, judgement, and unacknowledged class privilege. But please, please, please tell me this: a prominent reputation as an opponent of vaccines is a bug and not a feature, and you’re not going to abdicate your basic social responsibility to the health and safety of your child and community….

  8. Sorry, let me clarify on the vaccines: he’s an opponent of the current vaccine schedule as massive overkill, and is willing to do some vaccines on a more modified schedule, giving a child time. He’s not alone in this.

    And any more discussion of vaccines will need to be privately through email and not in this thread.

  9. I was really looking forward to breast feeding when my son was born. Unfortunately he had what I have heard called a “barracuda latch”. By day 5 he was sucking blood out of me. That day I went and bought a very nice pump. By the time I had healed enough to try breast feeding again, he refused the breast and wanted a bottle. After several frustrating and teary days, I decided to quit making all of our lives miserable and keep pumping.

    Jack had breast milk only for the first 6 months, then a mix of breast and formula for three, and by nine he was on to formula only. I balanced my time/stress/work to do the best for my son and myself. My husband really enjoyed being able to feed my son from an early age, and the time they spent together during the late nights seems to have forged an especially strong and loving bond between them. I am grateful that I work in academia, and have an office with a door and access to a fridge at work.

  10. “There’s no question that breastfeeding takes more time than giving formula”

    This has not been my experience. My oldest was physically unable to nurse so I had to bottle feed her (mix of pumped breastmilk and formula for 6 weeks until my milk supply dried up and then formula only). My younger two were/are exclusively breastfed. Nursing was very easy compared to the hassle of washing & sterilizing bottles, mixing formula, measuring out the proper amount, warming the bottles, and making sure I had enough supplies anytime I left the house. Complete pain-in-the-neck IMHO!

    Plus it was extremely expensive, which put a strain on our family’s budget. How is that not a class issue? Ms. Rosin may have plenty of disposable cash to purchase formula, but we didn’t have a lot of that at the time. We were not poor enough to get free formula through WIC but not rich enough to easily afford pricey cans of formula. I just checked what my local grocery store charges for formula and it’s around $25 for the size can that used to last us about a week.

  11. I second Crimson Wife on the above idea that breastfeeding takes more time and effort than formula-feeding. It’s true that there is a steep learning curve for both baby and mama after the birth, but after a good latch-on is achieved, breastfeeding is so convenient and best of all–FREE. I don’t think formula could have fit into our weekly grocery budget; it is quite expensive. Late-night breastfeedings are also so much simpler than getting out of bed, going to kitchen, warming up water, making sure bottles are sterilized, etc.

  12. Thanks for this post, Hugo.

    I too recently had a daughter (just 10 days ago) and have been trying to wrestle with a lot of these issues. Feeding our daughter has not gone nearly as easy as it sounds like it has for you, which has definitely made me wish that I could personally do more to help with breastfeeding.

    I am still wrestling with all of this, and not sure if the Rosin article has helped, or just made me question more, this whole process.


  13. My sister in law just got done breastfeeding and it was horrible for her. She didn’t have any trouble with the actual act itself, but her family is weirded out by it and she has body issues, so for her doing it anywhere other than in a secluded room was not an option. The isolation made her miserable, but it wasn’t as overwhelming as the shame of feeding in view of other people for her, so she stuck with it for 6 months. I don’t know if this is a problem for a lot of women, but it was real for her. I’m not as shy as her, but I am *not* looking forward to having people judge me for how I feed my baby, because it seems like you are going to catch some of it no matter what you do.

  14. “Alt-rocker Pete Wentz recently admitted that he tasted his wife, Ashlee Simpson’s, breast milk (“soury” and “weird”)”

    Huh. She has unusual breastmilk. I’ve had a husband taste mine and I’ve tasted it myself, and what it is, is incredibly sweet—a lot like warm skim cow’s milk with lots of added sugar. Or maybe mine’s unusual, but I’ve heard the “super-sweet” refrain before–never heard it characterized as “sour” before.

    Re the extra work, I think what’s trying to be said here is that breastfeeding is a lot of extra work for the mother because it can only be performed by the mother–if other people feed the kid instead of her, then by default, she does less work. Now, if she’s the only one feeding the kid regardless of whether or not it’s breast or bottle, then yep, breastfeeding’s a lot less work for her individually.

    Actually, what I’m amazed at is that nobody has descended upon you yet to take you severely to task for daring to defend the formula-by-choice gang. My favorite recent encounter involved a woman who is accusing her mother-in-law of predisposing her husband to cancer because she bottle-fed instead of breastfed him. She cited a study; I checked it out, and what the study says is, bottle-feeding results in a slightly increased chance of childhood obesity, and childhood obesity results in an increased chance of contracting cancer as an adult. Kind of disgusting lunge for the guilt trip there. 😛

  15. I’m a fan of breastfeeding, but I hate when anti-bottle-feeding advocates talk about formula as though it’s poison. It’s food…extremely high-quality food that will nourish an infant. I know I don’t 100% optimize my diet, and I wouldn’t 100% optimize my child’s diet either (no matter what I might say pre-kids), and feeding formula to a baby is perfectly fine.

  16. I am so sick of rich people thinking “well, everyone in MY little klatsch does this, therefore it’s classist”. When my first was a baby, I breastfed her because we were so goddamn poor that we couldn’t risk my daughter’s food intake on our ability to afford formula. Yes, I pumped at work in a grubby bathroom on breaks instead of eating lunch, because I had to make sure that my daughter had enough food; WIC doesn’t give you that much formula for backup. Take that and shove it up your oh-so-daringly Class Traitor ass, Ms. Rosin.

  17. Pingback: Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » Bottles, Breasts, and Mothering “Choices”

  18. I am really tired of breastfeeding being presented as the “free” alternative, when it comes with its own set of (not always financial) costs, including:

    * The time spent breastfeeding or pumping
    * A pump and equipment (OR, for many, having to leave paid outside-of-the-home work)
    * The extra food, calories, and bone calcium expended during nursing
    * The “wear and tear” ranging from normal discomfort to bites, infections etc.
    * A lactation consultant if necessary
    * For some women, the inability to take certain medications
    * For some women, the inability to do certain jobs

    The main thing is that women consider these costs, vs. the costs of formula feeding, and then decide what they are willing to “pay” based on their situation and what works for them. But we do women a disservice by painting breastfeeding as the “free, easy choice”, and I think if people wanted to get more women breastfeeding (not that I think it’s really necessary) they should be a little more open about its challenges.

  19. Brilliant – Great stand for **Equal Parenting**
    Please visit my BLOG and sign the **Equal Parenting** Petition

    Thanks for confirming that **Kids need Equal doses of Mum, DAd and all 4 Grand Parents**

    Onward – Jim

  20. Pingback: World-Wide - Brilliant stand for **Equal Parenting** « Equal Parenting @ Ration Shed

  21. I’ve been wanting to post on this, because it hasn’t escaped my notice that attachment parenting and breastfeeding became trendy as soon as middle class men lost the right to command their wives to stay at home to avoid emasculating them. Now, things haven’t changed that much, but female dependence has a feminist shine to it.

  22. Crimson, you may want to read the article before you declare her a know-nothing. The notion that breastfeeding costs nothing when it costs a woman’s time is another way of saying a woman’s time is not valuable.

  23. Pingback: Anonymous

  24. hasn’t escaped my notice that attachment parenting and breastfeeding became trendy as soon as middle class men lost the right to command their wives to stay at home to avoid emasculating them. Now, things haven’t changed that much, but female dependence has a feminist shine to it.

    And it hasn’t escaped my notice that when women who don’t fit the “overachiever” demographic that Rosin describes started breastfeeding and adopting what are now called “attachment parenting” practices (you know, what folks used to do before Dr. Spock and the rise of the “experts”)—that’s when the bar got raised. Raised to specifically exclude women who can’t take time off from work, or never give breastmilk via bottle, etc. None of that raising the bar is inherent to breastfeeding (or any other parenting practice); it’s a way to distinguish the “us” from the “them” (“them”, meaning women like me).

    Rosin mentions class, but conveniently leaves out how not just breastfeeding, but other parenting practices in her social circle are used as class markers to separate the upper social strata from the lower.

    I’m with mythago—breastfeeding saved me a hell of a lot of money. At least a couple thousand in formula, and who knows how many unpaid days off for caring for a sick child (that can’t be quantified in my individual case, but there is ample evidence that breastfeeding does provide immunity, and the health-benefit difference between breastfed and formula fed infants is more dramatic for preemies).

  25. because it hasn’t escaped my notice that attachment parenting and breastfeeding became trendy as soon as middle class men lost the right to command their wives to stay at home to avoid emasculating them

    No, it became “trendy” (read: popular among the upper-middle class and wealthy) when a wife’s giving up her paid job to stay home with the children became a symbol of her husband’s affluence and status.

    MsAnon, maybe I’m not explaining this clearly. Breastfeeding wasn’t a matter of being a “free, easy choice”. It was a matter of, I need to feed my baby, and if I run out of money to buy formula, I run out of food for my baby. Whereas if I breastfeed, my body makes it for free and as long as I drink water (which is also generally free) my kid can eat. Even if, you know, my meal for the day is the can of tuna I got from WIC in lieu of an extra can of formula. That’s the situation a lot of women are in, but it’s not called “attachment parenting” and people like Rosin don’t leech off of them for amusing anecdotes to fill column inches.

    When somebody comes pirouetting in and saying that breastfeeding is free because it only costs women’s, you can wag your finger at that person, thanks.

  26. Sorry, I’m just weirded out by the whole Pete Wentz/Ashlee Simpson thing.

    I have very sensitive nipples, and I think my biggest fear is a weird one. I worry that one of two things will happen: when I have a baby and he/she suckles me, I will get aroused. (I love it when my boyfriend puts his mouth on my breast, not just the nipple but the whole aureole). The other fear is that once I have breastfed, I won’t ever get turned on by my own breasts again. It’s the whole incest taboo idea.

    If any women here (sorry, Hugo, you know a great many things about us but not this, surely, at least yet) have any insight? I hope this isn’t “major thread drift.”

  27. I breastfed two of ’em, and I had and have very sensitive nipples, so maybe I can help–yes, it is pleasurable to have your nipples stimulated, whether it is your husband’s mouth or your baby’s. However, believe me, after three or four days at MOST, you will forget all about it feeling good with the baby because it hurts like heck because believe me, your nipples have never been given the workout that the baby’s gonna give ’em. After a while (I’ve talked to some women who said their nipples toughened up after just a few weeks, and then there are women like me, where it was more like a couple of months) the soreness subsides, and you can feel pleasure again. I didn’t notice them being any less sensitive to my husband’s touch then they had been before. Yes, when the baby suckles then, it’s a feeling of physical pleasure connected to your sexual organs. However, you won’t sexually desire the baby. It won’t even feel remotely like you’re sexually desiring the baby. It simply isn’t sensual with the baby. It’s just something that feels good.

    My husband didn’t regard my milk-filled breasts as any less exciting sexually than he had regarded my non-milk-filled breasts, so I never stopped considering my breasts sexy when he was spending quality time with them. (Though early on in the game, when you get excited, they do start to squirt, sometimes, but as long as you both have well-developed senses of humor, this should not be a problem.)

    In short, I guess, sexual arousal and sexiness is really all about who you’re with, not the physical aspects of stimulating breasts and the look of the breasts themselves, I guess.

  28. Breastfeeding and class has been a giant issue for a very long time. My grandfather was a pediatrician and author of parenting books from roughly the advent of bottle feeding to the first glimmerings of the back-to-breastmilk movement. Back then bottle feeding was seen as the total wave of the future and a boon to women. Those who continued to nurse were stigmatized as immigrants, “coloreds” and hillbillies, a.k.a. “low class” people. (Class was a big factor in circumcision as well, by the way. Only hillbillies and other literal “no count” boys went uncircumcised. Largely because they weren’t hospital born but also because they were poor and “ignorant.”)

    My grandfather, who moved to the rural south after World War I, noticed pretty quickly that rural mother’s infants tended to be healthier than city mother’s infants who were bottle fed. Until they were weaned, at which point the decidedly inferior standard diets of the rural poor kicked in and nutritional deficiencies showed up big time.

    Guess how well his reports of *that* went over? It’s simply *not true* that anything the lower class does is as good as, let alone better than, what the upper class does.

    *If* one was to go throwing around notions of status and class regarding nursing vs. bottle feeding I’m… pretty sure they’d want to take a detour past Thorsten Veblen, who’s first question would probably be “which is more expensive, complicated, and time-consuming?” And who’d follow that with “what justifications are cooked up to justify that choice?”

    So back in the 1920s when time and labor was cheap and materials expensive? Bottles were infinitely superior… even if the outcomes weren’t. In the late 20th Century and early 21st when materials are cheap and time and labor expensive? Breast is… infinitely superior… even if human milk, like any other mammal’s milk, is hugely front-loaded with lifetime-accumulated toxins from the mother’s diet.

    The point being, by the way, not which is *measurably better* but which sets of benefits or liabilities are promoted or overlooked by… “for her own good” types with first names that trend suspiciously towards Frank, Benjamin, William, etc.

    In real-world practice to the extent there’s a “right” answer at all it bounces back and forth, a lot, depending on time, circumstance, economics, inclination, ability, support, nutrition, autonomy, respect, available potable water, health, available sanitation…


  29. Pingback: Are Breastfeeding and Working Really Mutually Exclusive? « The Mama Bee

  30. AMS, I had a completely different experience than Lisa.

    I used to have very sensitive nipples and I enjoyed having my breasts played with quite a bit before I had my kids. But after having and breastfeeding two, I don’t enjoy it at all anymore. In fact, at best I find it slightly annoying when the husband goes there during intimacy (he still is turned on by the breasts and enjoys them) and a complete turn off at worst, depending on how turned on I already am before he goes there. And I hate that this has happened to me, because I lost a perfectly good erogenous zone that I used to have quite a bit of fun with.

  31. “I have very sensitive nipples, and I think my biggest fear is a weird one. I worry that one of two things will happen: when I have a baby and he/she suckles me, I will get aroused.”

    Nipple stimulation can actually cause vaginal contractions which sometimes freaks women out during nursing because they think they are getting sexually aroused. They are not. It’s a perfectly normal reaction that has nothing to do with being aroused.

    As Lisa already stated, having your nipples sucked by a baby can be pleasurable, but it’s -not- pleasurable in a sexual way…at least it never was for me. I have nearly two years experience breastfeeding. I’d second most of what Lisa said and add that breastfeeding releases oxytocin which makes you feel totally blissed out while nursing. The feeling is pretty indescribable, but it is not sexual in the slightest.

  32. Well. My little girl just turned 12 weeks old, and, as we discovered, my nipples seem to be about the same age-size. Seriously. You need a microscope to find them. This means I’ve been having to pump and, since pumping wreaks havoc with supply, supplement with formula. And yes, the guilt trip has been agonizing; not one day goes by on which I don’t fault my “broken” physique for that loss of intimacy between my baby and me (PPD, here I come!)–and for the loss of my street cred as a hippie crunchy mom, Waldorf toys or not.

    The hubs, on the other hand, really enjoys the fact that he gets to participate not just in the diaper changing, but also in the feeding, and I have yet to figure out why that makes me jealous. But maybe that’s neither here nor there.

    Loved what Rosin has to say about pumping at work! Returning to work has been, to say the least, “interesting.” I work in aerospace, a historically conservative men’s domain; hence, it’s been embarrassing to request a private area, after the whole idea of pumping in my car in the remotest area of the parking lot still got me too many peeping toms for my own comfort. After I justified my request with “look, many of the guys take smoke breaks; let’s add those up, shall we?”, particularly one woman in the office started yelling at me in the cubicle-farm hallway, “So, when are you done in MY room???” meaning the store room we now share and in which she likes to take the occassional nap. Fine, we’ve made peace now, but I can’t help the impression that my male colleagues are now considering my boobs before my brains when putting me on projects. Insert feminist analysis here.

    To clarify: Yes, I’m one of those women who might not “have to” work, from an economic perspective, and if I could fit back into my tight jeans, might don my oversize sunglasses and hang out in the playground. In other words, I could very well stay home, as many of my colleagues have inquired, and thus “disappear.” But I/ we have chosen not to, not only for the sake of my 401k and the additional corporate benefits for hubs and baby, but also for my own sanity. I had been ready to defend my choice “to the blood,” as we say in German, when I came across the AAP Guide to “Your Child’s First Year” (yes, in the same formula box you probably received when you left the hospital) which does, in fact, list formula feeding as a realistic and sometimes necessary alternative to exclusive breastfeeding. What a welcome relief to all the “breast is best” pummeling! It resolved at least the medical part of the guilt trip.

    So, while, yes, I still pump twice a day at work, and twice at home, with a rather measly output, I’m privileged enough to battle only the emotional side of the guilt. After all, babygirl can count herself lucky enough to get the most expensive non-mainstream organic formula my money can buy. I know a lot of women who aren’t that lucky.

  33. Faith and ks and LisaKS, thank you each. I suppose I’ll find out for myself in due course. I realize it may seem superficial to be so concerned about this. My boyfriend and I are not exactly planning on having a baby soon! But though they may not be huge, I love my boobs, and maybe more importantly, they are a really vital part of sex for me.

    I trust this isn’t too much TMI on your blog, Hugo. But truth be shared, I find it difficult to orgasm without some nipple stimulation. This is true with myself (since I was a teenager) and true with partners. Next to my “nether regions”, they are the most important erogenous zone I have.

    As far as this thread is concerned, I most certainly hope to be able to stay home with my baby when he or she is born, both for breatsfeeding and for bonding purposes. I’m in grad school still, but on the other side of this long slog, I would like to be a mother. When I think about looking for a job, finding one with good leave benefits is paramount (one of the reasons why I think about teaching as a job).

  34. Pingback: “Boob Wars”: reflections of a new father on breastfeeding, class … | KinderFeed.Com

  35. “I realize it may seem superficial to be so concerned about this.”

    It’s not superficial at all. Perfectly normal concern. I worried about it too, but like most of my parenting worries…the worries were all for nothing.

  36. Faith is right, it isn’t superficial at all.

    I used to be the same way, but I’ve found that while my previously small and sensitive breasts have morphed into large (and really great looking–I have cleavage now that I used to only dream of) dead weights on my chest, my other sensitive bits have gotten more sensitive to make up for it and I can still have a really great time with the husband or by myself. So everything has worked out fine in the end.

  37. I agree that there is unfortunately a class issue when it comes to breastfeeding and unfortunately, the people that can least afford to give formula are the ones that are most likely to give it. I explored that issue on my blog in a post called “Lactivism and the Homelessness Problem”:


    That said, I do not agree at all with Rosin’s claims about the lacking evidence on the benefits of breastmilk (she picked and chose the studies and factors she chose to include, ignoring more recent and more comprehensive studies and ignoring things like decreasing the risk of SIDS by 50% and the risk of mom contracting breast cancer by 50%). I also do not agree with her claims about it being anti-feminist or keeping women down. That has not been my experience at all. While I support the right of each woman to make her own choice, to suggest that it is keeping us all down is ridiculous:


  38. While I agree breastfeeding is partly a class issue, it is not in the way you describe it. My family lives below the poverty level, a family of 5 on one income of $27k. We receive govt. assistance and I stay home and breastfeed. Most of my friends are all in the same boat. The friends who do work outside the home find a way to pump and store breast milk. If one wants to breastfeed badly enough, they will find a way to make it work (not counting special situations).

    As one PP points out, when formula was first introduced, it was expensive and considered modern and trendy, i.e. for the rich folk. Breastfeeding was something only poor people did. Once formula became affordable and accessible, the poor latched on to it in order to emulate the upper class. And of course, once the poor people were doing it, it was no longer haute couture, so the rich folk turned back to breastfeeding.

    Also, now that it is fairly ubiquitous among the lower class, the government subsidizes their formula purchases, and the art of breastfeeding has been lost.

    So, poor people don’t formula feed because they are poor and have to work a lot. They formula feed because they are not presented with other options. Because they lack community support. Because the government, hospital, and doctor’s office are throwing them formula samples and vouchers, and telling them, “Use this!” without any education or information.

    You don’t need a paid lactation consultant; there are hundreds of books for free use in libraries. There are hospital nurses that are willing to help if asked. There are LLL group leaders all over the US who offer help and support for free. Hospitals, clinics, and WIC offices provide free pumping and storing materials.

    Lack of breastfeeding is not a function of the working poor; it is a function of a society and a government that is not willing to educate and support breastfeeding and women’s rights. If rich people are breastfeeding, it is because they have the education and resources to seek out their own support. But support does exist for poor people; they just don’t know that it exists, or where it is. And it seems the govt. is satisfied to keep it that way.

  39. “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”

    Why? It’s a shame that for some an equal division of labor means that each person does *exactly* the same thing.

  40. Great post.

    I write about the subjects of mommy wars and breastfeeding a lot. In fact, I have a Mommy Wars Bingo Card since so many of the same kinds of comments come up over and over again.

    I wrote about Rosin’s article, too. The problem with her (and some of the comments on here, and many of the discussions about breastfeeding vs. formula) treatment of the discussion of breastfeeding is the assumption that breastfeeding is the intervention and formula feeding is the norm, and the greater problem of not treating this as a health decision (with obvious social and feminist and classist issues, but primarily a health decision).

    Breastfeeding is and should be the normal and recommended feeding of all newborns. If an intervention is sought (formula feeding), there should be ample health indications for doing so. Just like any other health treatment, other issues do come into play (such as compliance – if the mother can’t comply due to work obligations or unwillingness) then that is of course an issue. If the infant is losing weight despite lactation consulting, that is a health issue. However, those must be weighed against the absolutely undeniable health benefits of breastfeeding.

    Interventions due to complications (such as formula feeding, induction of labor, cesarean section) should not become the “normal” treatment options for women and newborns who do not warrant interventions. The evidence does not support improved health outcomes with such interventions, it actually shows more harm than benefit.

    I am all for discussing the social, economic, and other considerations that come into play with delivery, access and compliance when it comes to these and other health decisions, but let’s keep the ideal treatment options in perspective when we have these discussions.

  41. Pingback: Another reply-turned-post, breastfeeding style « Mom’s Tinfoil Hat

  42. Hugo, thank you for your subtle, thoughtful post! You touch on facets of this issue that I have not seen considered anywhere else.

    Given the quality of the post, I was surprised at how many of the comments rehash some of the same, tired, “you’re judging me, I couldn’t possibly be the judgmental one” arguments that get brought out over and over again.

    I just want to comment on one point, however: breastfeeding as a class issue. Emily Jones was the only one to touch on what I see as the real underlying issue here: “Lack of breastfeeding is not a function of the working poor; it is a function of a society and a government that is not willing to educate and support breastfeeding and women’s rights.”

    I grew up in the USSR where breastfeeding was the norm and the idea that you would feed an infant anything else without a medical reason did not even exist. As is the case in most cultures around the world, it wasn’t an “issue.” It wasn’t about choice or equality or feminism. And yet, the women I knew growing up were highly educated and worked as doctors, scientists, engineers, etc. The reason they could work and breastfeed at the same time was that they were given ample paid leave from their jobs. In addition, they didn’t need lactation consultants because their mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters and older friends could help them figure out how to get a good latch. And since they lived in a breastfeeding culture and had seen women nursing their babies their whole lives, they automatically avoided a lot of the mistakes women in the US make simply out of ignorance. Needless to say, these women were not upper class. But breastfeeding for them was not an expensive ordeal and certainly not a luxury.

    I have no nostalgia for communism or the USSR. My point is only that breastfeeding in the US is a class issue not because breastfeeding is inherently something only the upper classes can afford, but because our society does not support it.

  43. I am told that the women of the upper, upper classes in late nineteenth century Britain and the eastern US new money changed clothes four times a day.
    Presumably that was because the slightly less well off had the time, clothes, and servants to change three times a day.
    Part of that was dressing for dinner and would probably have happened in any case, which means three changes as opposed to two unnecessary ones. A fifty percent increase, IOW.
    White bread used to be the province of the upper class, until it got so cheap the lower orders could get it easily.
    Seen any of the uppers eating plain white bread recently?

    Howsomever, there is a further issue beyond classism in this. Some people have a desire to tell others how to live. I recall a woman getting all over a younger woman because the latter’s sister did not nurse. That the kid was allergic to her milk was irrelevant. She should have nursed. The key to this is that the things which should be done are always those done by the enlightened minority. If the actions become general, their opposite will become necessary. This is not classism but over-compensated inferiority. Different altogether and adds to the burdens of the uncertain parents.
    Funny thing is, that kid is absolutely ginormous. Huge. And, although practically a record-setter for weight, he has not an ounce of fat on him. Bone and muscle. About two and a half y/o.
    My parents told me that when I was an infant scheduled feeding and nurturing was the way to go. Anything else risked spoiling the kid. Two years later, when my brother was in the same age bracket, demand feeding and nurturing was the only way, scheduled interactions with the kids being practically fascist. My father said he always figured you change such things when you can’t sell any more books on the current received wisdom.
    Far more to this than classism. Still, showing you have what it takes is a big deal. That’s why designer clothes have their labels on the outside which, when you think about it, is absolutely nuts.

Comments are closed.