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The Battle of the Breastfeeders

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Who's right in this fight?

woman breastfeeding her baby

Ronda Kaysen: The breastfeeding wars reached a fever pitch this week as two writers squared off about whether or not we should burn our nursing bras.

On one side stands Hanna Rosin, who penned "The Case Against Breast-Feeding" in last month's Atlantic magazine. Dismissing much of the science supporting the health benefits of breastfeeding, her story immediately generated a firestorm in the blogosphere and she even appeared on the Today show to argue her case. Rosin compares nursing to Betty Friedan's enduring symbol of gender inequality: the vacuum cleaner. "It was not the vacuum that was keeping me and my 21st-century sisters down, but another sucking sound," she wrote. After all, a mom who is home to nurse a baby eight or ten times a day hardly has the time to shatter any glass ceilings.

This week, natural birth advocate Jennifer Block fired back, insisting that breastfeeding isn't the problem, it's pathetic maternity-leave policies and a general lack of support for nursing moms. If new moms knew their jobs -- and salaries -- were secure for a year, they'd happily kick back and nurse longer. "This is the real tragedy of the mommy wars: they drag us down where expectations are so low, where we don't value mothers enough to fight for them. We're making a case against ourselves," she wrote.

Just to add fuel to the fire, a new study came out this week touting another health benefit of breastfeeding: moms who breastfeed for more than a year may reduce their risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

All this is nothing new. The breastfeeding debate has been raging for centuries, according to New Yorker scribe Jill Lepore, who finds that people have been getting huffy about who should be dispensing mother's milk since the 18th century. Lepore argues that cultural changes drive whether or not breastfeeding is popular.

These recent squabbles make me wonder if this week's variety of the Breastfeeding War has something to do with the "r" word. Recession. Yes, it sounds like a stretch, but bear with me. Jobs are scarce. Women who have a job are likely being asked to work longer hours to keep it. For a mom worried about job security, rushing home early to empty her leaking breasts or scooting off to the bathroom five times a day to pump liquid gold into a ziplock freezer bag hardly makes her feel productive and indispensable to a penny-pinching employer. At the same time, with fewer jobs available and upwards of 4 million people hungry to get off the dole, the idea that a segment of the population (nursing moms) might stay home -- and off the job market -- for a few extra months is a pretty tantalizing one. Yes, the issue of how we mother is inextricably tied with feminism. And women's bodies have long been a central battleground in the feminism debate. But this time, I wonder if it's more about the economics of the issue than the politics of it.

next: Fear, Anger and Fatalism over Swine Flu
7 comments so far | Post a comment now
tiffany April 25, 2009, 3:28 PM

This is a topic that i belive will never not be in the public eye. bottom line when it comes down to making the discission it is personal. as a mom you will know what is best for your situation.

Bec Thomas April 25, 2009, 5:04 PM

I have always hated the equality arguement that gets brought. Half of the femanist movement thinks we can not be equal unless we behave alot like men. Instead of saying breastfeeding is great, they slam it because men don’t do it and therefore we shouldn’t either. It’s a really crappy arguement that actually throws equality out the window.

starfish April 25, 2009, 7:28 PM

If men could give birth and breastfeed the world would be a different place. You would automatically get a raise and a year off for having a baby.
Women have always been looked upon as weaker and pregnancy is seen as vunerable and a thing the “weaker sex” does that the woman needs to be protected by men.
Well I believe it is nature intention for men to protect women while they are pregnant and it is also natures intention for women to breastfeed a baby. That is why we have breasts and breastmilk after giving birth.
Why do people constantly fight “mother nature”?

Pamala April 25, 2009, 7:36 PM

I think it’s very true that mom’s feel the pressure to keep their jobs and often times they have to sacrifice in other areas in order to keep them. I mean do you breastfeed and potentially become the person who takes too many breaks or do you not breastfeed and work just like usual in an effort to let them know that being a parent won’t mean things will change.

Jill--Unnecesarean April 26, 2009, 2:29 PM

The recession theory is brilliant.

Women’s bodies and fertility have always been the battleground of societal struggles with population growth, economy, scarcity, politics, religion and more. You’ve made me want to go read up on historical breastfeeding and war-time, when women were expected to leave traditional roles behind temporarily and work while men were at war.

Great post.

jill April 27, 2009, 9:03 PM

What about the economics of contaminated formula, and sicker babies? Doesn’t some of that stuff cost $24. a can? How much of that do you feed a kid.

Breast milk is free, and *newsflash* you CAN leave your house and nurse anywhere that you’d be able to bottlefeed a baby.

Jason C. June 2, 2009, 8:17 PM

Y’know what!? Breastfeeding is GOOD for the kid, helps bonding AND saves money! My wife breastfed our kid, and NEVER regreted it. Oh, she couldnt work till she was weened, but we were able to manage. She worked from home (when she could).
So, NO, you shouldn’t “Burn your nursing bras”.
This also goes with breastfeeding in public. If it makes you uncomfortable, LOOK A DIFFERENT WAY! Some people take offense at shirts with writing on them, they just don’t look at them OR they just keep their mouth shut!

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