Sunday, March 22, 2009

the case against breastfeeding?

this piece by hannah rosin has been tearing through the blogosphere, or at least the feminist and mommy blogs. i think the article is best summarized by this, from the lead-in: “…is [breastfeeding] this generation’s vacuum cleaner—an instrument of misery that mostly just keeps women down?” rosin points out that, despite all the public health campaigns and pediatric prescriptions, the evidence on breastfeeding is far from overwhelming. the benefits that have been found are marginal at best. and, yet, breastfeeding has become, “In certain overachieving circles, the ultimate badge of responsible parenting.” the problem then, is that,
The debate about breast-feeding takes place without any reference to its actual context in women’s lives. Breast-feeding exclusively is not like taking a prenatal vitamin. It is a serious time commitment that pretty much guarantees that you will not work in any meaningful way.

so, when it comes to breast-feeding, women are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. but, once you cut through all the sensationalism and all the incendiary comments, i think rosin misses the most important point of all.

changing public opinion so that we are no longer damned as bad, neglectful mothers if we don’t breastfeed is a red herring. the only thing it can do is assuage a guilt that rosin argues we shouldn’t even be feeling. it does not give working mothers any new options; it does not make co-parenting any easier; it does not even promote equity among the sexes. as rosin and moms and dads everywhere know, parenting is inconvenient. and it is hard. we all weigh the costs and benefits of our decisions and then do the best that we can. and we all draw our lines in the sand for what qualifies as “bad parenting.” maybe rosin is right that lines should be redrawn around breastfeeding. but this is a zero sum game here – if one doesn’t need to feel bad about not breastfeeding, then employers don’t need to make any accommodations for mothers who do want to breastfeed. if one doesn’t need to feel bad about spending only a few hours a day with his/her children, then employers don’t need to make any accommodations for parental leave or flex time. what is really at issue here is the age-old question of equality versus equity: have women really succeeded if we can do the same things men can do, but we have to do them in the same way that men do? what rosin wants is to feel good about not breastfeeding, but what she is pointing out is that often times women lack the options to make their own choices about breastfeeding. even worse, she is jeopardizing the gains that have been made to accommodate breastfeeding in the workplace and in our culture.

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