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 hasn't 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 don't 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. It's 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.

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

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