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The Womanly Art of Arguing About Breastfeeding

Harper's is trolling. And who can blame them? Nothing like a salvo in the "mommy wars" to boost your readership. The article title on the March cover certainly caught my eye: "The Tyranny of Breast-Feeding: New Mothers vs. La Leche League." Its an excerpt from Elisabeth Badinter's forthcoming book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, and what bothers me about it isn't the perspective. I expected to be at least a little sympathetic. No, what bothers me is the article's sloppy argumentation -- the way it tries to push buttons without bothering to build its case. (The official name for this, as I learned from the New Yorker, is contrarian feminism.)

Some necessary background, for those of you not up on the latest in high-stakes parenting debates: In the West right now, breastfeeding is officially in. It's the doctor-recommended way to be a good mother. And exclusive breastfeeding (that is, no source of nourishment but mother's milk) until the sixth month is the gold standard. Experts agree its best for baby to drink the milk specifically manufactured for that baby, but it's not so easy to achieve, at least not if you, as a mother, intend to do anything else during those six months. I can say this with some authority because my seven-month-old son was one of those lucky "EBF" (exclusively breastfed) babies for the first six months of his life. He still nurses a lot more than he eats solid food, and I'm here to tell you that keeping him nourished and happy is wonderful and rewarding and exhausting and hard.

A generation or two ago, by contrast, breastfeeding was definitely not in. Babies drank from bottles, and the way you knew you were a good mother was by monitoring how many ounces they consumed. Nursing babies had become something only weirdos and hippies did. Enter La Leche League, a group formed in the mid-1950s by a group of women who wanted to nurse their babies and offer support to other like-minded moms. They're the villains of Badinter's essay.

She begins by describing the founding of LLL. That's the part of the article I found most interesting. "Several of the founders were Catholic and active members of the Christian Family Movement," she reports. I never knew that. But Badinter isn't interested in painting a complete or accurate picture of La Leche League; for her it simply represents the growing consensus that a mother should, whenever possible, try to nurse her infant. The effort of LLL and other breastfeeding advocates to support nursing moms has been too successful, in Badinter's telling, and as a result, breastfeeding is now so mainstream as to be oppressive. Which makes it an indispensable part of society's big scheme to keep women down.

One could make a good case that, in some circles at least, the pressure to breastfeed (and to do so in a particular way) can be a source of unhealthy anxiety. Advocates do often overstate the advantages of breastfeeding, as Badinter points out. (Although she does not dispute that there are definite, uncontroversial benefits.) Or they downplay the challenges. And there are women for whom breastfeeding is not a viable option, for a number of reasons, who ought not be made to feel like they are parenting failures. An article about that is one I would be glad to read. But Badinter does not make that case, because she's trying to take down "breast is best" altogether.

Perhaps the fault here lies in the editing. Maybe the detailed, thoughtful argument I'm looking for is in Badinters book. The essay that appears in Harpers, at any rate, has precious little argument and relies far too heavily on loaded vocabulary and tendentious reasoning. LLL, in Badinter's telling, wants to impose its retrograde vision of motherhood on women by "chiding" them into obeying "nature's authority." To support her argument that breastfeeding advocates have become tyrannical, she sets up a dichotomy -- my body as a woman is either mine or my baby's -- that is far more absolute and unrealistic than anything I've ever heard at a La Leche League meeting (I've been to a few) or anywhere else. Badinter generalizes about LLL's principles and values, but she never seems to quote anything published by LLL or spoken by its leaders when she wants to drive her point home. "Breast-feeding advocates remind mothers that their breasts were created for feeding and belong first and foremost to their babies," she writes. If she has a source to quote, I'd like to see it, because to me that sounds like what the French call le baloney.

"Supporters of the league have declared war on bottles and formula, and implicitly on mothers returning to work," Badinter writes. But to back up that second part she has to paraphrase "the 1981 edition of [La Leche manual] The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding," which is apparently pretty negative on the idea of working moms. Imagine! In 1981! La Leche and The Womanly Art, and most other sources of parenting advice, have come to terms with the reality of women in the workforce in the intervening three decades. And if that implicit war on mothers returning to work is still active, my local chapter of LLL hasnt gotten the memo. Badinter acknowledges that change, but here's how she puts it: "To maintain its influence, however, LLL eventually softened its position." You might be fooled into thinking their views and methods have evolved sincerely over the years based on the experience of working women, but Badinter sees through that ruse. She goes on, "If a mother must work, the LLL recommends that she use a breast pump.... But this is only a partial solution to the difficulties working mothers face, not least because many women find pumping repulsive."

Wait, what? It's true that using a breast pump isn't a guaranteed solution. And I could come up with a lengthy list of reasons pumping is not my favorite thing to do. It's awkward, sometimes uncomfortable, and certainly inconvenient. (Also, the equipment can be expensive, and not all employers are accommodating of its use. Badinter's analysis doesn't take such socioeconomic factors into account, but they're pretty important in the real world.) But "repulsive"? That's bizarre. Badinter adds, "More important, [using a pump] does not resolve the essential problem of child care." Well, no, but -- neither does bottle-feeding. It begins to seem as if Badinter's real problem is the fact that babies, once born, need someone to take care of them.

Badinter finds a couple good examples of breastfeeding advocacy that crosses the line into mania, though she's very sketchy with her sources. Her quote from the league about how parents who don't breastfeed should be made to feel no less guilty than parents who dont use a car seat -- that's the kind of thing that makes this whole subject such an argument-starter in parenting circles. But she doesn't stick to examples of over-the-top breastfeeding militancy. In her telling, everything about La Leche League is sinister. For example, she writes, due to its skill at "forming alliances with other movements that do not necessarily share all of its goals," LLL has "extended its influence far beyond the traditional-minded women who were its original proponents, enabling the league to give the impression that its message is universal and applies to all women." (The fact that there is a difference between women and women who are mothers would seem worth noting here, but as we will see, blurring that distinction is crucial to Badinter's argument -- the subtitle of her book in French is La femme et la mere.) Another, less tendentious way to put that might be "Over time, more and more women have found La Leche League's message attractive." Suggesting that LLL is somehow tricking people into listening to its ideas doesn't sound very feminist to me. But this is contrarian feminism, and apparently some choices women make don't count as choices.

Also, Badinter says, when asked to "take a stand on such sensitive issues as family planning and abortion," LLL "stubbornly refused, arguing that its message of good motherhood through breast-feeding should not be diluted by other concerns, which might cause it to lose followers." Why "stubbornly"? Couldn't you just as easily say "wisely"? I know I'm glad I can go to LLL for advice on nursing without getting into a fight about abortion.

When it comes to LLL's advocacy of breastfeeding, Badinter complains, "it would seem there is no such thing as maternal ambivalence and that women who balk at submitting are simply reckless or bad." Look: LLL is essentially a support group. You go to their meetings, or call their local leaders, because you want to breastfeed (with your breasts that belong "first and foremost" to you), and they help you make it work. In reality, they're not so much concerned with women who refuse to "submit." They're concerned with women who never feel confident enough to try breastfeeding in the first place, or who aren't sure how to stick with it when they get home from the hospital and their milk comes in and they have no idea how to tell success from failure. If submission to breastfeeding were such a foregone conclusion, if maternal ambivalence had been read out of our culture entirely, La Leche League would not need to exist.

The level of argumentation in this essay is truly abysmal. When Badinter wants an example of how oppressively mainstream the breastfeeding message has gone, she turns to a list of "dictates...from AlternaMoms.com." We all know looking for extremism on the Internet is a cheap way to make an argument. But how do you end up quoting from "AlternaMoms.com" without realizing you've just undermined your whole case? If you're looking at a website (one I've never heard of or seen) that describes itself as the opposite of mainstream, you can't conclude that the views expressed there amount to tyranny. Further along, Badinter cites statistics from Scandinavia, where close to 100 percent of women breastfeed their babies. This, she thinks, is cause for concern: "Are Norwegian and Swedish women able to exercise their freedom of choice and refuse to conform to this moral and social standard? The notion of 100 percent of women wanting to breast-feed is as troubling as 100 percent of women not wanting to do so." Is it? Why? The whole article is one long exercise in begging the question.

What Badinter doesn't seem to want to confront is that lactating is not a choice. Its part of the motherhood package: when a woman gives birth, her body starts producing milk. Why shouldn't any woman who becomes a mother want to take advantage of that biological fact? If breastfeeding mothers find it difficult to lead satisfying, well-rounded lives or pursue careers, is the feminist response to stop encouraging mothers to breastfeed so they can keep getting along on society's terms? What strikes me as weird and troubling is not the popularity of nursing; its the fact that, for quite a while and 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 way to approach infant care, why isn't that it?

"Doubt remains," Badinter insists: "If breast-feeding is a right, then is not breastfeeding also a right?" The last time I checked, yes, it still is. This is not a real concern as far as I can make out. But Badinter has even bigger worries -- she concludes the essay by announcing that the orthodoxy of nursing "has become the defining feature of a philosophy in which motherhood, and only motherhood, determines a woman's status and her role in society." She has not come close to demonstrating that this is so, but I guess that's what makes contrarian feminism such a great gig.

Update 5/13: Follow-up post here.

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Good heavens. The modern mind really hates authority - and at the same time loves conforming to the dictates of the chosen social group.

Ligue La Leche is an honest-to-god FORCE in Montreal. To a large extent, I have a hard time grasping just how contentious breastfeeding is in the States, and I'm always blown away when I read comments from American women that validate the idea that breastfeeding in public is kind of like farting in public: natural but just not the right thing to do (I kid you not--the fart analogy is ubiquitous). Quebec is pretty gung ho about breastfeeding (which is a big difference compared to France). My son spent a long time in NICU, and they were very supportive in enabling him access to breast milk. it's not often that an establishment in Montreal will try to stop a woman from nursing, but when it's happened, Ligue La Leche has organized huge nurse-ins, and word of such impending events has always been enough to make offending establishments do a 180 and send out the white flag. For us, we were happy to take advantage of the resources they offered, while filtering some of the rhetoric. That's how it should be--people should be educated about why breastfeeding is best, but allowed the right to act according to their situations with their babies.

Interesting, Abe, thanks for the report from up north! I think your approach is a healthy one - and I think some filtering of rhetoric is necessary in any area of parenting advice (or any kind of advocacy, for that matter), not just breastfeeding. Obviously La Leche League is going to tell you the solution to every problem is more breastfeeding; that's their mission. Sometimes it won't be the right advice for you. Badinter seems to be suggesting that women aren't capable of figuring that out.

I was able to go the six months with my 2nd baby, with the 1st, I barely lasted a month (I had to go back to work pretty much right away). Infant formula is hugely expensive. Did the article address the economics of bottle feeding? It's not insignificant.

Great rebuttal! I have read her work before and have thought it sounded riddled with underlying guilt at her own inability to be successful, or to enjoy, nursing. She should forgive herself for doing the best she could and leave the undermining of breastfeeding to the professionalsformula companies.Regarding the return of women to work, perhaps if our maternity leave policy looked more like Swedens, more American women would have the inclination to start breastfeeding and would nurse for longer durations. Leaving a 6-week old infant, for 10 hours a day, when they are still nursing every 2-4 hours is not a recipe for successful breastfeeding or a productive work life.

I am always a bit surprised by some of those who choose to nurse and then, as soon as the kid is ready for solid foods, start shoveling Kraft mac n' cheese, soda pop, and potato chips at the kid.Perhaps this explains why, despite our best intentions, our kids are still fat and unhealthy. However, one of the many, many perks of being post-menopausal is that one is no longer expected to have opinions about birthing, breastfeeding, infant immunizations, attachment parenting, discipline, etc.

Harper's is doing worse than trolling. Harper's needs to be publicly and loudly chastised for running a hit piece on La Leche League and breastfeeding in their February 2012 issue without mentioning the authors substantial financial stake in the issue. The author is an advertising billionaire, heir to and partner in Publicis, Nestls advertising agency. Her article in Harper's is publicist's envy of the La Leche League's success in reducing the amount of artificial baby milk sold. She modestly passes on the opportunity to extoll the successful campaign by baby formula companies, with the well paid help of Publicis, which popularized the profitable idea of replacing breast feeding in the first place. Without the ad campaign her family made a fortune on, there would be no need for La Leche League! The main pitch in the article is her claim that LLL erases "..all the other aspects of breast feeding: the loss of freedom and the despotism of an insatiable child." Buy formula and your infant won't be demanding. Buy formula and parenthood won't change your life. If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you. There are so many interesting things to say about mothering infants, but when Bandinter talks, all I hear is "buy Enfamil." Badinter prefers to brand herself as an intellectual with a feminist critique of La Leche League, but she is an ad women selling artificial baby milk. Harpers Magazine fell for her ruse, and they need to hear about it. Email Harpers at letters@harpers.org to let them know how you feel.

I couldn't agree with you more on this. It is tough enough being a new mom, without either being made to feel as if "your breasts don't belong to you" or that by not breastfeeding it's akin to not using a child seat.I was lucky enough to have success breastfeeding my daughter - she never had a drop of formula - but it was by no means simple or easy all the time. There were significant challenges (I was working full time and going to law school part time), but with great support from the nurses at my hospital and some of the great internet boards at the time, I was able to get through the rough patches (my post for tips for nursing/working moms is at http://momwhoworks.wordpress.com/2009/06/26/nursing-mother-working-mother/). THAT's what is missing in all of this - providing SUPPORT to new moms, no matter which route they choose.

However, one of the many, many perks of being post-menopausal is that one is no longer expected to have opinions about birthing, breastfeeding, infant immunizations, attachment parenting, discipline, etc.

For men they're usually optional. But it's kind of fun watching people argue learnedly about which end of the egg should be opened first. The human mind feeds on controversy and uncertainty - it hardly matters what the topic. We live to worry.

I enjoyed reading your thoughtful comments but had one concern regarding this statement,"Advocates do often overstate the advantages of breastfeeding, as Badinter points out. (Although she does not dispute that there are definite, uncontroversial benefits.)"There are some 2000 patents and patent applications in the US Patent & Trademark Office on human milk components for use in pharmaceuticals, infant formula, food, food supplements. These patents are owned by various well-know drug, infant formula, food-particularly dairy, and supplement companies as well as the US Department of Health. It is now understood by many researchers that human milk contains totipotent stem cells, making it an extremely valuable substance. Various human milk components (mostly genetically engineered) will be used to treat cancers, wounds, and as a new antibiotic. Prebiotics and probiotics are based on human milk's capacity to promote beneficial bacteria in the gut. Various companies in Sweden and Spain are selling probiotic products derived from human milk sugars. I have been researching and writing about this since 1999 and believe that advocates are actually "understating" the advantages of breastfeeding and not speaking out enough about the risks of infant formula. Badinter's article is a propaganda piece using La Leche League as the scapegoat and feminism as a justification for her critique.

Excellent analysis, Mollie. I learned of La Leche League in 1963 - thanks to an article in Commonweal! I received the help I needed, and later was involved in getting LLL started in Colombia, where I lived for many years. As you say, LLL has been wise to keep its focus totally on helping the mother who wishes to breastfeed. Of course breastfeeding rates are higher in countries like Canada, Sweden and Norway. Not because these women are somehow taken advantage of, but because society supports them in this natural proces. They all have long paid maternity leave. Sadly this country lags far behind, and the babies who suffer most are those of the women who can't afford to stay away from their jobs for more than a few weeks.

Caroline - Wow! Time for me to hit the C'weal archives.

I have feminist news to this Badinter; women supporting other women is feminism at it's bestI cant believe this she had ever met a LLL leader, they where so helpful, never pushy or anything, always made me think of MY goal at breastfeeding my sans.

Apparently Beyonc is nursing in public, which could be a potential game-changer in America. Something tells me Hova isn't gonna let Beyon-bb get bounced from any establishments.

Oh, I remember nursing in public! Settings that stand out in my memory: at professional conferences, in crowded commuter trains, and at Mass. What easier way to keep a baby quiet and preserve people's peace? The tiny sucking sound of a baby drawing the milk is a lot less disturbing than a loud brawl. My self-righteous attitude was: I'm not sure if that's considered entirely proper, but it doesn't matter: if it's against the culture, then the culture must change. I got a few funny looks, occasionally, but never a comment.

I recall that Badinter sounded as if young mothers were being coerced into breastfeeding by the medical establishment. My daughter-in-law's recent experience in a large city hospital was quite the contrary. Nurses in the maternity ward threw up multiple roadblocks to breastfeeding her newborn son. Surprising to me was that some of the barriers were familiar to me from my experience in the early 80's: offering to give baby a bottle so mom could rest, insisting on supplementation on the basis of weight loss in the first days before mom's milk came in, and sending a gift-pack of formula home with Mom and baby. Luckily my son and daughter-in-law came to the hospital armed with the latest edition of the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and they were able to fend off these potential problems. In the early months, my daughter-in-law used LLL's website to solve some other problems. LLL was there to help her when she asked for that help. And she asked, because she sincerely wanted that help. Thank goodness she had support for her choice.La Leche League was an important part of my own breastfeeding days. If I would do anything differently today, it would be to breastfeed even more publicly than I did back in the 80's. And I would find that profoundly feminist and liberating. Thanks, Molly, for your critique.

The Badinter article was the occasion for my discovery that Harper's has no comment function on their web edition. Thank goodness the missing discussion is going on right here at Commonweal! Mollie and the rest of you have put to rest my fear that the article in Harper's was to go unchallenged. I would say, Jean, that I was able to nurse exclusively for a full year with my first child. She absolutely did not transition straight in to "Kraft mac n cheese, soda pop, and potato chips," but went through the same crema de arroz, bananas and baby food sequence that any bottle-fed child might require. Thank you to all of you for providing your usual light in the wilderness.

I'm sorry if I seemed critical of nursing mothers. I'm not in any way. I only find it ironic that with so many mothers on board with nursing, kids don't seem to be eating better as older babies, toddlers and so on.

Your comment about how Badinter can't confront the fact that lactation is not a choice - it is what happens naturally following birth - sums everything up perfectly. It is part of what makes women women: that if we have babies, our bodies begin producing milk for them. She is stuck in an old form of feminism that seems to want to eschew everything that naturally makes us uniquely female. Thankfully, I am noticing more young women lately who support a new feminism: one that celebrates and embraces the fact that we are biologically different from men, and that this is okay! This is a good thing! Our reproductive differences are what make us male and female, and trying to run away from one's natural, biological female-ness seems pretty anti-female to me. And all the misplaced blame on La Leche League is just bizarre. At the beginning of meetings (at least the ones I've attended), the LLL leaders say something along the lines of "some of our information may be new to you; please feel free to take what is helpful for your family and leave the rest." Militant and oppressive, indeed!

I think breastfeeding is fine.Breastfeeding in public, No. Why not - it's natural!So was the conception, but I wasn't invited to witness that.

I don't know that the La Leche league has changed much since I gave birth to my daughter in the 80s. At that time, a representative of the group marched into my room hours after I gave birth and proceeded to give me a lecture on breastfeeding that would have made my scariest grade school teacher proud. After being harangued for a long time, I finally asked that hospital security come to the room and that she be removed. After some more argument, she was removed by the head nurse. I never want to see her or any other representative of the group again. I sure never wanted her to "show me how" to feed my daughter. It's all pretty self-explanatory. For the first months, I fed my kid the natural way, unless I drank a couple of glasses of beer or was exposed to paint or had a babysitter and a night out. Know what? I didn't need them to show me how, either. I think it's time to limit their access to new mothers who don't specifically ask for them. My experience with them was all the way bad.

Susan, that sounds horrifying. My experience was precisely the opposite to yours. I was planning to breastfeed, and had to endure being pressed with packages of free formula, impatience from the nursing staff when my milk did not come in immediately (which it doesn't) and a lot of generally judgmental bystanders. LLL was a phone call away but nowhere in evidence in the hospital. We are the same generation, but perhaps it is a case of living in a different region, operating in a different milieu, or even encountering an overzealous volunteer. Virginia, breastfeeding in public is only a problem with mothers who insist on "whipping it out" in plain view as some kind of a political statement. There are ways to be discreet, but I fear that in breastfeeding, as in so many areas, discretion is no longer in fashion.

2 am? Really? Is Commonweal in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean?

My first experience was similar to Dorothy's. I was told I *needed* formula because my milk "hadn't come in" 4 hours after birth, repeatedly encouraged to "give myself a break" with a bottle, sent home with samples, got "happy birthday X, you're 3/6/9 months old today!" marketing in the mail and free samples though drs. knew I was bfing. I felt as though my child's privacy had been stolen.LLL was the one place I went where everyone was supportive of whatever amount of bfing I wanted to do. I never felt pressured or judged, and heard the "take what is useful to you and leave the rest" many times. It is true that we were told "your breasts were built for nursing", but never in the years I went to meetings did I ever hear "they belong first" to anyone but me.My only criticism with your verdict is the association of feminism with the book author's viewpoint. I consider myself a feminist as well as a Catholic; so, "traditional women" means Catholic women, right? And LLL's expansion "far beyond" must mean, what, they've gone too far out of their appropriate zone of influence and are now trying to reach out to anyone who wants help breastfeeding or pumping? It would be laughable if it weren't so insulting.I know that LLL actively works to get both "breastfeeding in public" and workplace pumping protection legislation passed. As we know from last month's federal judge's ruling on a case in Texas, you can still be fired for asking to bring a breast pump to work. "Firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination," the judge said. These are both feminist issues. Breasts are not exclusively sexual objects just because some guy at Hooters says so. And since only women lactate, firing for lactating is decidedly sex discrimination.

Badinter's arguments are especially laughable in the case of our own family. We are a gay male couple who recently had a baby, which was possible because one of us is "bio-male" and one is transgendered. Our intention was to feed our baby only breastmilk, even though this seemed incredible at the outset. What was more incredible to us was the support we have received from our local La Leche League leaders and members. There could never be a reinforcing of traditional gender roles with us, yet they have been unreservedly helpful. The people we have met through LLL in our small midwestern town have become some of our closest allies.Our baby will be one year old next week and has never tasted infant formula. Our blog at www.milkjunkies.net chronicles our journey.

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