Sarah Waldeck’s recent post on the consequentialist rationale for publicizing breast-feeding’s benefits for mothers was right on the mark; breast-feeding can be challenging in the best of circumstances, so those who believe that “breast is best” should appeal to women’s self-interest rather than or as well as their noble sense of self-sacrifice. In addition to the argument she lays out, there’s also expressivist value in changing the way we speak about, and thus perceive, breast-feeding.
The discourse of breast-feeding has long been about everything but the mother; women who wanted to breast-feed were once told that they shouldn’t do so because formula was better for their child, now mothers are told that they must breast-feed because of all of the benefits for their child — higher IQ, less risk of obesity, diabetes, ear infections — you name it. Inundated by these questionable claims during my pre-natal classes, I wondered how studies could possibly control for factors such as the socio-economic background of the mother. It turns out they can’t, as Hanna Rosin explained in The Atlantic last month (in an article Sarah posted on here). As Toto pulls open the curtain on its lack of empirical grounding, the breastfeeding orthodoxy is revealed as a stunningly paternalistic judgment on motherhood and women’s agency.
Think about it this way: say you’re friends with a father responsible for preparing his children’s dinner four nights a week. Returning home at 6pm, exhausted from work, he feeds his kids a couple of hot dogs at least twice a week, as they’re incredibly easy to prepare and the kids love them. Would you find it appropriate to lecture him on hot dogs’ lack of nutritional value and tell him that he really should make the effort to prepare a healthier meal for his children? What if you knew, as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the US Food and Drug Administration note, that hot dogs pose a serious but as yet unquantified choking risk for small children? What if you were aware of preliminary medical research findings that children who eat more than 12 hot dogs a month have nine times the normal risk of leukemia? I’ll hazard a guess that most people would leave the decision whether to feed his children hot dogs in the hands of the father; while his childrens’ pediatrician may warn him of the potential hazards of hot dogs, I don’t know that he would be stigmatized as an inadequate parent for his choices. While there is of course a point at which parental autonomy should be limited to protect the child (when, for example, a child’s diet leads to malnutrition), there’s a large grey zone in which parents are and should be allowed to undertake their own cost-benefit analysis between their child’s interest and their interests and act accordingly.
Not so with breastfeeding; “good” mothers are expected to subjugate entirely their own interests in order to provide what’s “best” for their child. Even for those of us with highly flexible professional careers, this is a serious demand on time and energy; as Rosin notes, what about waitresses or truck drivers? Are they forever doomed to being “bad mothers” given the near impossibility of maintaining milk supply while meeting the nonstop work ethic required in their jobs? I like Sarah’s suggested reformulation of breast-feeding mantras, then, to focus on mothers as autonomous beings entitled to balance their interests with those of their child. One can be a “good” mother in many ways; how we choose to feed our children should be simply that: a choice, without judgment from others.