The Breast Is A Tender Issue For Moms

A piece on the "breastfeeding myth" has sparked a debate about what makes a "good mom." And scared the rest of us.

In the latest Atlantic, Hanna Rosin writes an interesting, in-depth piece on the tyranny of nursing culture. A mother of three, Rosin is starting to resent the pressure to breast-feed:

From the moment a new mother enters the obstetrician's waiting room, she is subjected to the upper-class parents' jingle: "Breast Is Best." Parenting magazines offer "23 Great Nursing Tips," warnings on "Nursing Roadblocks," and advice on how to find your local lactation consultant (note to the childless: yes, this is an actual profession, and it's thriving). Many of the stories are accompanied by suggestions from the ubiquitous parenting guru Dr. William Sears, whose Web site hosts a comprehensive list of the benefits of mother's milk. "Brighter Brains" sits at the top: "I.Q. scores averaging seven to ten points higher!" (Sears knows his audience well.) The list then moves on to the dangers averted, from infancy on up: fewer ear infections, allergies, stomach illnesses; lower rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease. Then it adds, for good measure, stool with a "buttermilk-like odor" and "nicer skin"-benefits, in short, "more far-reaching than researchers have even dared to imagine."

But, says Rosin, the facts just don't support the mania.

The medical literature looks nothing like the popular literature. It shows that breast-feeding is probably, maybe, a little better; but it is far from the stampede of evidence that Sears describes. More like tiny, unsure baby steps: two forward, two back, with much meandering and bumping into walls. A couple of studies will show fewer allergies, and then the next one will turn up no difference. Same with mother-infant bonding, IQ, leukemia, cholesterol, diabetes.

More to the point, Rosin argues that the breastfeeding debate takes place in a vacuum, without considering the cost to the mother and her marriage. In her opinion, it almost single-handedly sabotages the high-minded ideal of equal labor division between husband and wife, and the benefits can be outweighed by the stresses: "if a breast-feeding mother is miserable, or stressed out, or alienated by nursing, as many women are, if her marriage is under stress and breast-feeding is making things worse, surely that can have a greater effect on a kid's future success than a few IQ points." In conclusion, she argues that while breast may be best, "it seems reasonable to put breast-feeding's health benefits on the plus side of the ledger and other things-modesty, independence, career, sanity-on the minus side, and then tally them up and make a decision."

Given the responses the discussion the piece has generated on Slate's XX site, clearly Rosin has struck a chord with moms who resent the class-burdened pressure to reject any nursing alternative. And given its status as the inarguable central tenet of modern parenting, a backlash was probably inevitable. Jill Lepore recently discussed the tyranny of the breast pump; Rosin has taken the argument a defiant step further, and clearly the time is nigh.

What we're always struck by in reading these debates is how impossible consensus will ever be. Think about it: it's a subject about which no mother can be objective. Who is prepared to admit she's not doing the best for her child, whatever that means? From defensive "well-you-turned-out-fine-with-formula" arguments of prior generations to the sanctimony of helicopter parents to the pragmatism of the new backlashers, the one thing you can know for sure is that everyone has an agenda. However good and removed a journalist, how can a mother separate the discussion from her own experience - and why should she? As Rosin says, the argument cannot exist in a vacuum, but as a result the discussions are ultimately personal. Someone who's childless is likely to be patronized with "you don't understand" smugness, whereas an experienced mother's experience is going to be colored by particulars. To those of us without children, we're struck less by the particulars of the debate than the fact that, for women, it's unavoidable, a cultural controversy from which one can't opt out. Many politically charged issues nowadays are somewhat optional; feeding your baby is not, and that women are inescapably wrapped up in something both personal and political - by virtue of one of the most natural human processes in the world - is the biggest irony of all.

The Case Against Breast-Feeding [Atlantic]

Related: Baby Food [New Yorker]

Earlier: Milky Way: The Long, Strange History Of Breastfeeding