Friday, April 3, 2009

The Boob: Right or Wrong

The Case Against Breast-Feeding by Hanna Rosin in this month's Atlantic.

First of all, it's a wretched title. She's not actually making a case against breastfeeding so much as she's knocking a few holes in the case for breastfeeding, and in fact she concludes the piece by telling us that she herself continues to breastfeed, and even cherishes her time doing so. I've heard that Rosin had a different title in mind, and the editors switched to this more sensational one. Phooey on that.

I haven't read the relevant medical literature, but I have no reason to disbelieve Rosin's representation, which is basically that the evidence behind our culture's current mania for breastfeeding is thin because it's difficult to control for all the other healthy choices breastfeeding mothers tend to make, and the socio-economic group to which they all belong. In other words, if you want the benefits that advocates of breastfeeding claim are the results of the boob, your best bet is to be educated and upper-middle class.

I agree with Rosin that the pressure put on mothers to breastfeed is well out of proportion to the established benefits. Formula is not dangerous, and it's outrageous that it is presented by breastfeeding advocates as tantamount to smoking while pregnant. However, I don't think that the benefits of the boob are to be dismissed simply because they are difficult to prove. And even if the balance only slightly favors nursing, that's a solid argument for giving it the old college try.

Because where I really disagree with Rosin is her notion that breastfeeding is a significant hardship, that it's keeping women down the way housekeeping did in the 50s. "Modesty, independence, career, sanity" are what one stands to lose, she says, by breastfeeding, and that's utter hogwash. Sure, I have the luxury of not working, but I know far too many women who pump on the job without bitching about it to believe that it's that big a deal. And modesty? Come on -- it takes a little practice, but anyone can learn to nurse in public without flashing a nipple, and past the first couple months, you almost never have to nurse in public if it bothers you, anyway. If you stand to lose your sanity because of breastfeeding, by all means, do please stop, but I can't imagine that this is seriously a problem for any but the tiniest and therefore most entirely irrelevant minority. And if independence is that big an issue, don't introduce into your life a tiny creature who is wholly dependent on you -- how you choose to feed it is the least of your worries.

Rosin makes a stab at arguing from the perspective of the working class, but it's not very convincing. Her argument that breastfeeding can only be considered "free" if you don't count the mother's time ignores the time spent sterilizing, mixing, and warming bottles -- which is only "free" if you're paying someone else to do it, which is not generally an option open to blue-collar moms. And, yes, pumping on the job is a lot harder "if you are, say, a waitress or bus driver." But you know what? Everything is harder if you're a waitress or a bus driver, so it's not exactly a winning argument against the boob -- though of course I'm more sympathetic to a mother who gives up pumping because it's genuinely a pain in the ass than one who just can't be bothered to give it a try.

Her only argument against breastfeeding that really resonates with me at all is her claim that it makes for an imbalance in marriage. I remember fondly the very early days of Ben's life, when I felt strongly that Andy and I were a team, were in it 100% together; and I remember the feeling of being at sea when he went back to work, when it became clear that the only way to get the baby back to sleep at night was to nurse him, when suddenly I felt like the parent and he felt like the occasional assistant, when my parenting felt required and his felt optional. That sucked. But some of that would have happened even if we'd been bottle-feeding. With one of us working and the other staying home, there was bound to be an imbalance. And now that we're night-weaning, and nursing doesn't have that kind of powerful sleep magic any longer, the little imbalance that remains doesn't feel at all unfair, and has everything to do with my spending 16 waking hours a day with Ben compared to Andy's eight.

Rosin goes on to posit that this initial inequality leads to others: "[The mother] 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." Talk about hogwash. This kind of gatekeeping is a conscious choice on the parts of both parents, and if you wish to avoid it, you damned well avoid it, and it has fuck-all to do with breastfeeding.

She closes the article by bringing up a suggestion of one of the medical researchers whose studies she's read that perhaps it is not something in the breastmilk, but the physical closeness between mother and child which is responsible for whatever positive outcomes are associated with nursing. And she's right to say that if this is the case, it should be more widely publicized.

I, like many mothers in my generation, have mixed feelings about the debate. I feel for women who try to breastfeed and can't, and are made to feel just awful for their "failure." At the same time, there's still enough cultural squickiness to the idea of putting a baby to suck that without some measure of peer pressure, I think fewer women would make the effort, and I do believe it's an effort worth making. I feel strongly, right or wrong, that I'd have been missing out on a profoundly rewarding part of Ben's infancy if I hadn't nursed him -- and I feel just as strongly that if I'd been unable to, he'd have been just as healthy and every bit as smart on formula.

A quick further thought: I want to make it clear that I'm very much in favor of everybody giving breastfeeding a real go, but I am also vehemently against giving anybody for whom it doesn't work a hard time. I argued against Rosin's characterization of breastfeeding as costing "modesty, independence, career, sanity," and I stand by what I said as a generalization (as Rosin's characterization was), but I'm well aware that individuals do sometimes feel these precise costs -- and others -- and I absolutely support mothers who value their own health and happiness enough to put them squarely on the scale.

1 comment:

ljilka said...

I haven't read the article but you know it's so unfair that women have to carry children too. Geez. We're mammals after all.