Judging Motherhood

milk-bottle1Sarah 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.

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5 Responses

  1. Nate Oman says:

    How do with know if the father is stigmatized or not? It seems to me that we might already stigmatize fathers who feed their children poorly. Furthermore, I am not at all convinced that eliminating stigmatism in parenting practice is a good idea. Precisely because it is difficult for the law to do any work in terms of sanctioning bad behavior, it seems to me that there is a good case to be made for stigmatizing bad parenting socially.

    This is neither here nor there with regard to the breast-milk wars, but I do want to sound a note of skepticism about the advantages of treating all child-rearing decisions in terms of parental choice free from social judgments. It seems to me that there is an enormous among of bad parenting in the the grey area between legally sanctionable and utterly harmless, and social stigma is probably as good a way as any at getting at it.

  2. anon says:

    Nate, except that parenting choices don’t operate in a vacuum; they’re often a direct result of class and socioeconomic status. Thus, more often than not, it’ll end up being middle class (or higher parents) looking down at “those other” parents. That’s why I hesitate to encourage social stigma, at least. Working to expand the options available to parents always seems like a better and more equitable option to me.

  3. Nate Oman says:

    It seems to me that is a good reason to be careful and sensitive, but I am still not convinced that the the optimal social attitude toward parenting decisions is a binary one of either legally actionable misconduct or private parental choice. I also suspect that no in fact acts as though that is the case. Even the most tolerant among us will find something that we are willing to disapprove of. This is not necessarily such a bad thing…

  4. TRE says:

    I’d definitely judge someone for feeding their children tons of hot dogs. Or non-diet soft drinks, or tons of prepackaged foods, aka lunchables whatever. Doritos are even easier to prepare than hot dogs and I bet the kids love them even more! Been working hard at my job all day and all! Non-diet coke, some doritos and hot dogs, that is an efficient way to feed the little buggers!

    Parenting choices are not “the direct result” of class and socioeconomic status. (No comment on semicolon usage.)

    Also isn’t the breast feeding orthodoxy a maternalistic something or other and not a paternalistic one?

    I don’t know whether breastfeeding is beneficial for the child or not, but assume for argument that it is, then forgoing it is detrimental to the child barring some kind of extreme trade-off.

  5. Jaya Ramji-Nogales says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Nate. Part of my response would look very similar to Anon’s comments above. Additionally, the breastfeeding discourse gives rise to a couple of concerns about disapproval of others’ parenting decisions. First, where should we set the boundaries of appropriateness in expressing such disapproval? Is it appropriate to express absolute disapproval (i.e. “Your parenting decision is wrong”, which may be a more subtle way of saying “You are a ‘bad’ parent”) to strangers? To acquaintances? To friends? Second, a related question — what level of grounding in medical science should be required to support such absolute disapproval? How harmful must parental decisions be and how reliable must the studies establishing this harm be? These are the questions I struggle with when moving beyond private parental choice, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on how to address them.