Arguing about breastfeeding, Mother’s Day edition

I have a letter published in the June 2012 Harpers, regarding the Elisabeth Badinter article I blogged about here a while back. I sent 700 words and they published 70. Chopping up letters is an editor's perogative, and I should know, so I'm not put out about that, although it would be nice if more of the published words had come directly from my letter, or if the point I was making had been preserved a bit more faithfully. Since that post of mine prompted many comments, I thought I'd share the letter in full here. It's a rewrite of the blog post, but I think it does a better and more concise (though obviously not concise enough) job of making my point -- which is not "How dare Elisabeth Badinter say mean things about breastfeeding/La Leche League!" but rather "This essay is so cheaply provocative and poorly argued that Im surprised Harpers published it." (Thats why I wrote about it here at Verdicts; its the journalism I was criticizing.)

The letter is after the jump. A couple other observations first: mine is one of four letters published in response to Badinter's article. The first and longest is, appropriately, from a La Leche League leader, pointing out some things Badinter got flat wrong about the organization. The fourth is from someone who thinks Badinter's piece was excellent but didn't go far enough. And the second makes half of a point I read several places, including the comments on my post, in response to the article. I say half of a point because the letter begins, "Badinter neglects to mention that the infant-formula industry stands to lose much of its $8 billion in global annual profits if women abandon the bottle for breast milk." True enough. But the reason this is particularly relevant to Badinter's piece is that, as commenter Sarah Blain noted here: "The author is an advertising billionaire, heir to and partner in Publicis, Nestle's advertising agency." The letter Harpers published did not point that out, at least not as edited. I confess to finding that slightly fishy, since they must have received at least one other letter making that connection (if women like Blain followed through on their promises), and there was no shortage of comment elsewhere on the conflict of interest behind The Conflict.

That connection did not initially strike me as something Harpers should have felt obliged to disclose when they published the essay -- there are a couple degrees of separation between Badinter and the infant-formula industry, and its not as though she needed that connection to motivate her to write some contrarian claptrap about mothering. The financial benefit, after all, is pretty direct: underinformed prattling about breastfeeding might sell formula, but it definitely sells books. But that doesn't mean it's not a relevant point. It certainly helps me understand how Badinter came to approach the subject of breastfeeding from the angle she did. (As Blain put it: "There are so many interesting things to say about mothering infants, but when Bandinter talks, all I hear is buy Enfamil.") One of the odd things about the essay was that she wrote as if it were established that bottle-feeding is the normal way to nourish a kid, and breastfeeding was some weird thing a bunch of women invented in the '50s to make mothering harder. Her perspective is very much that of the aggrieved formula manufacturer: "It seems to make little difference," she sniffs, "that there is now a wide variety of formula available, that it is more and more like breast milk." Well, it does make a difference for her argument, in that it demonstrates that even formula companies now admit that breast is best and that breast milk should be given priority as a matter of health, not just parenting style.

And then there was that bizarre quotation from As I wrote in my blog post, I had never heard of or seen that website when I read the essay. I did finally look it up, and it's not exactly the Huffington Post. It is, as you might expect from the name, very low-tech and low-profile. Why would Badinter ever have found it in the first place? Perhaps it has something to do with the "I boycott Nestle. Ask me why" button featured on the homepage? (That button, by the way, leads to a broken Geocities link. Yes, Ms. Badinter, you really have your journalistic finger on the pulse of modern motherhood.)

Anyway, as I said, my letter is below (first as published, and then as written). The magazine world and the blogosphere have moved on, because Time, ever classy, is marking Mothers Day with an even more provocative and totally clueless cover story about breastfeeding. I will send you over to my sister's blog to read more on that, since this is really her beat. I love her suggestion for an article that might actually be worth reading: WHY CANT WE GET OVER OUR BREASTFEEDING HANGUPS, WHICH ARE TRUTHFULLY FAR CREEPIER THAN BREASTFEEDING? Word.

My letter as published in Harpers:

Badinter dismisses LLL's recommendation that working mothers use breast pumps, calling it "only a partial solution to the difficulties working mothers face, not least because many women find pumping repulsive." The argument that pumping might repulse a woman who has already given birth and nursed a newborn is unconvincing. Perhaps Badinter's issues is not with breast-feeding at all but with the inconvenient fact that infants need someone to take care of them.

And heres the letter I sent:

To the Editors:

As a working and nursing mother, I found Elisabeth Badinter's "The Tyranny of Breast-feeding" oddly off-base. As a reader, I found it shoddily argued and emptily provocative -- an article-length exercise in begging the question.

There are plenty of fair criticisms one could make of the breast-feeding-advocacy movement in general and La Leche League in particular. As the health benefits of breast-feeding have become more commonly acknowledged, it has become harder to distinguish between support for new mothers who decide to breast-feed and pressure on them to do so. An article exploring that dynamic thoughtfully is one I'd be glad to read. But Badinter's argument is abstract and tendentious, and takes for granted what she wants to show; namely, that LLL is out to hold women back. The league "has declared war implicitly on working mothers," she says, citing the 1981 edition of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. Imagine, a book that didn't support mothers returning to work in 1981! Today LLL assists those mothers in juggling baby-care and careers, but not, in Badinter's telling, because it has been responsive to the experiences of its members over the past three decades. Rather the change was a political maneuver by the league to maintain its influence.

As for the league's assistance and advice for mothers who use a breast pump while working, Badinter sees through that ruse. "This is only a partial solution to the difficulties working mothers face, not least because many women find pumping repulsive." There are a great many reasons pumping can be an unsatisfactory option, but surely the possibility that it might repulse a woman -- one who has given birth and nursed her newborn -- is the least of those reasons. A better discussion would consider socioeconomic factors (for example, breast pumps can be expensive, and not all workplaces accommodate their use) that never complicate Badinter's ideas about modern society. More important, she goes on, "pumping does not resolve the essential problem of child care." No, but -- neither does bottle-feeding. Are we still exposing the tyranny of breast-feeding, or is Badinter's real problem the inconvenient fact that infants, once born, need someone to take care of them?

When Badinter wants an example of how oppressively mainstream the breastfeeding message has gone, she turns to a list of dictates "from" Looking for extremism on the Internet is a cheap way to make an argument. But in this case it's also fatal to the argument itself: when you're cherry-picking from a low-profile website that describes itself as the opposite of mainstream, you can't conclude that the views expressed there amount to social tyranny. The truth is, if the pressure to breast-feed were so oppressive as to be irresistible, LLL -- which is, after all, a support group -- would not need to exist. Nevertheless, Badinter states that La Leche League "has certainly won the ideological battle," but wonders, "have mothers themselves been persuaded?" She can't seem to settle on an answer. Where (as in the United States) statistics suggest that many mothers still fall short of LLL ideals, she concludes that women clearly aren't that into breast-feeding. But where statistics indicate that breast-feeding is a nearly universal practice (as in Scandinavia), the lesson she draws is that LLL has succeeded in pressuring women to surrender against their will. Why are only some women's choices legitimate?

If there's one generalization that fairly describes modern moms, its that our buttons are too easy to push. But surely the challenges of feminism and motherhood deserve more thoughtful treatment than this. What Badinter doesn't seem to want to confront is that lactating is not a choice. When a woman gives birth, her body starts producing milk. Why shouldnt any woman who becomes a mother want to take advantage of that biological fact? If breast-feeding moms find it difficult to lead satisfying, well-rounded lives or pursue careers, is the feminist response to stop encouraging mothers to breast-feed so they can keep getting along on society's terms? Not so long ago, ignoring the universal rhythm of childbirth and lactation was the standard in the West. Women were expected to let their milk dry up (painfully) and feed their babies from a can. If there's an antifeminist approach to infant care, why isnt that it?


Mollie Wilson OReilly

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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