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March 18, 2009

My Boobs Are Not the Man, and the Case for Breastfeeding Still Stands

-26 With an inflammatory title but some surprisingly common-sense conclusions, "The Case Against Breastfeeding" in this month's Atlantic has a lot of women talking.

Author Hanna Rosin actually reads the medical literature and finds that the parenting media has heavily overstated the medical benefits of breastfeeding. She goes on to point out everything that is wrong with such misinformation -- from making women who can't breastfeed feel like failures to leading women to make life-changing and financially difficult decisions based on an exaggerated view of breastfeeding's scientific benefits.

It kind of reminds me of some reading I've been doing lately about whether it's really so dangerous to have a drink or two while pregnant. I share Rosin's view that women deserve real, undistorted information on which to base our decisions.

So why does she piss me off so much? Lots of reasons.

First, she starts out talking about how judged she feels by other mothers on the playground when she talks about early weaning. I'm just so tired of hearing upper-class mothers whine about being judged by other upper-class mothers. This isn't 7th Grade -- grow a pair and do what you think is best without worrying about what other people think.

Second, she's too quick to conclude that just because research on the superiority of breastmilk to formula isn't as conclusive as we've been led to believe, that breast isn't so best after all. Yes, we could use a break from equating formula with failure, but there are so many reasons to believe that an infant is better off suckling from his mother's breast than receiving a formula bottle from a paid caregiver. It just makes sense that natural is better, because science has yet to trump nature. Vitamin pills don't work; broccoli does. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are screwing up our planet; letting chickens eat your bugs and poop in your fields isn't. I know science does not understand all the hormones that are exchanged and triggered when breastfeeding happens, nor have researchers identified every chemical compound in breastmilk; that doesn't mean these things don't benefit our babies and ourselves.

And just because it's difficult or impossible to tease out the benefits of the closeness and cuddling that comes along with breastmilk from the food itself, that doesn't mean that the side effects aren't important. When my girls were weaned, they were old enough to express the grief and longing they felt at the loss of our nursing; they wouldn't be that sad about something that didn't provide them with significant emotional and physical comfort.

Third, Rosin treats breastfeeding as if it is 100% burden to the mother and 0% benefit. OK, it IS unfair that we're the ones who have to wake up in the night to do the deed, but it's also unfair that men are the ones who go bald and don't know how to find things. Anyway, bottlefed babies wake up to eat in the night, too -- and it's not as if the majority of nighttime bottles are given by fathers. I'd prefer breastfeeding to bottlefeeding even if I didn't believe it was healthier; it's more convenient, easier, I can do it while typing with both hands, it forces me to sit down and rest, it really does make me feel good, it's the only way to actually remove fat from your body without exercising or surgery, and let's not forget about the instant soothing it can provide a cranky baby or toddler. Truly, if I couldn't breastfeed my next baby, I'd feel at least as bad for myself as I would for the kid.

Fourth, she blames breastfeeding for women's lack of career advancement, and for our propensity to take on the bulk of childrearing responsibilities. You know, we're talking about 6-12 months of our lives. Is breastfeeding really the reason I haven't yet won a Pulitzer Prize? I'd blame other things a lot more than breastfeeding -- like the working world's unwillingness to accommodate those lousy 6-12 months, the unavailability or unpopularity of equal paternity leaves that would level the playing field and give dads so much more confidence and skill in the kid department, and many women's genuine interest in taking the lead on the upbringing of their children.

My reaction is the same as when other feminist women have wrung their hands over those of us who choose to focus on mothering: Who said I was a victim? Ever consider that I find staying home and nursing a baby, conversing with a toddler or cooking dinner with a preschooler more rewarding than sitting in meetings and cubicles?

In conclusion, thanks for the information -- disappointing as it may be to learn that my kids are not THAT much less likely to get ear infections or have allergies, I know it will come in handy when comforting friends struggling to come to terms with breastfeeding difficulties. But I reject the implication that women have to change the way we mother, or do less of it, in order to achieve equal status in society. We need to change society to respect and allow for mothering and fathering. My boobs are not The Man -- The Man is still The Man.

Original Chicago Moms Blog post. Carrie blogs about boobs and babies at My Funny, Funny Family and about bargains at Shoplifting With Permission. Photo by Nutmeg, used with permission.

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