Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Where are you, Nursing Mamas? A response to 'The Case Against Breastfeeding'

I'm feeling...Opinionated. Polemical.
I want to talk about breastfeeding. And about pumping. And about formula.

I want to talk about Hanna Rosin's article 'The Case Against Breastfeeding' (The Atlanic April 2009) and about Peggy O'Mara's response 'Case Closed: Breast is Best' (Mothering Magazine May/June 2009).

It is my belief that breast pumps are BAD. They represent Big Business and create BIG problems. They cost big money too (for a good pump, that pumps both sides at a time, you are looking at an expense of nearly $300US and/or even more once you factor in all the other gear you need). And they are ugly. And they turn a beautiful experience (breastfeeding your baby), into an ugly one (pumped like a cow on an industrialized farm). And when you spend that much money on something, you usually end up feeling like you'd better use it. And so you do, and it screws everything up. Your milk production goes down, and then the pediatrician recommends supplementing with formula, and there you go down the path.

In the video that The Atlantic posts of a coffee table chat with Hanna Rosin and three of her friends, (Dr Meri Kolbrener, Linda Perlstein and Anne Dickerson) Rosin and the others agree that they wish the breast pump companies would just 'disapear', not only because the pumping is uncomfortable and ugly, but because it enables our country to continue with it's complete lack of paid maternity leave, while hypocritically telling us that 6 months of exclusively feeding our babies breastmilk is 'best'. But breastfeeding needs to mean nursing, not just feeding babies pumped breast milk, but being available to your baby to nurse. And our country does not make this option available to working mothers.

I also believe that breast pump companies and baby formula companies are in 'cahoots'. Can I prove it? Not really, not yet, but it's a theory I'm working on.

Medela, you are everywhere. You make the 'best' breast pumps, you make (ugly, sorry) nursing bras, you present yourself as 'pro breast-feeding', and yet pumping breast milk can actually decrease a mother's milk production and completely intereferes with establishing a nursing 'relationship' with her baby.
Did you know pumped milk tastes different than nursing directly from a breast? The milk's taste changes, (can even become bitter) as it cools from body temperature (and most pumping moms are freezing their pumped milk) and babies may very well prefer the sweetened, sugary formula over frozen breastmilk and thus are eventually switched to formula. Not all babies mind the taste change, but some really do. And the moms take it personally, not knowing that the taste has become bitter, but thinking the baby 'dislikes my milk'. Well yes. If it's been bottled and frozen and now tastes funny, yes. And so; formula.
Enfamil, you are everywhere. The 'free' formula that arrives in the mail as a 'welcome kit' with every pregnancy, the coupons in every 'family' mailer, the 'free diaper bag' loaded with cans of formula, the 'free' bottles and insulated bags and coupons handed off to every new mother as she is released from the hospital. The enormous closet at every pediatricians office stacked high with containers of formula waiting to be handed out...ugh.

You know what is NOT everywhere? Nursing mothers.
Where are the nursing mothers? How many nursing mothers do you see when you are out and about in the world? When I'm out in the world, I go to places where there are children and moms in abundance, and in the 6 years since I've been a mom, I have rarely seen anyone besides myself nursing in 'public'. That includes the waiting room at the pediatricians office, the mom, infant and toddler Music Together classes, and the locker room of the health club after mom and baby yoga classes.

The mall? Never. I never see anyone nursing at the mall. I do see women with bottles. Babies with bottles, and babies with pacifiers. My kids never accepted pacifiers, and I tried. Especially for long car rides. What they wanted was to be comforted by nursing. And so I did, and do. And it's a lot of work and yet I believe that the innate need for suckling needs to be met and that if it is met, then the baby can grow out of the suckling phase and you won't have a paci-dependant child. But this is only possible when the mother is physically available to the baby. Is this off-topic? Well, the point is, no babies are on the breast at the mall, but instead have been 'pacified'. Coincidence? I just think it's all connected.
While I refuse to nurse my baby in a public bathroom stall out of sanitation concerns (and outrage), I do often nurse in my car before going into a public place, because I do feel the social pressure of being 'different', of not having a bottle to offer my babe, but instead a (gasp) bare breast. I am modest, however, and although I do not wear a tarp (or a 'nursing cover', or a 'hooter hider') (geesh, that's offensive to me!) and I do not smother -I mean cover- my baby's head with a blanket, I do wear a nursing top and try hard not to show skin while nursing...but even so, I feel pressure. I do not want to be 'different', I do not want to make a 'statement', I just want to feed my hungry baby. I suspect lots of moms do the same, nurse in their car, to avoid feeling like we are on display. But it's lonely out there.

In Hanna Rosins' article, 'The Case Against Breastfeeding', she mentions social pressure too; the pressure to be a 'breastfeeding mom', the pressure to have 'sleek strollers and organic snacks and a higher ratio of wooden toys to plastic' all as signifiers of belonging to the 'club'. What club? The 'Good Mom' club is what Rosin implies. That these moms at the park, with their 'tight jeans and oversize sunglasses' are sizing each other up, and comparing notes on how best to sneak frozen breast milk on board airplanes...but see that there? Frozen breast milk. Pumped. In a bottle. Talking about breastfeeding, but not actually breastfeeding from an actual breast. Not in public anyway.

There is a real phenomenon going around of pumping breast milk and then feeding your baby from the socially acceptable bottle. No socially unacceptable glimpses of skin to skin contact, and lots of money involved (all that stuff that is required from the expensive pump, to the insulated bags and containers, and the diposable and sterilized gear, and access to refrigeration, etc).

Hanna Rosin complains that "every mother I know has become a breastfeeding fascist". Really?

Peggy O'Mara's response in Mothering Magazine includes a statistic from 2005, that "while 74.2 percent of US mothers initiated breastfeeding in 2005, only 11.9 percent were exclusively breastfeeding at six months. This means that most women who breastfeed in the US also use formula; contrary to Hanna Rosin's perceptions, it is still bottle-feeding, not breastfeeding, that is the norm in the US. "

I know MANY women need to work to provide their part of their two-income households. I know that many women want to stay home with their babies but have decided they have to go back to work. But the pressure that Hanna Rosin is complaining about seems to me to be more about social standing than about paying the grocery bills.

My family would certainly be able to do a lot more if I contributed financially to our expenses, like we could consider adding on to our house, or actually go on a vacation, or even go more regularly to the doctor, dentist, and eye doctor. Or buy all Brio trains for our train fanatic. Or go to Disneyland. Or buy the kids shoes at Stride Rite ($35+ a pair) instead of at Target ($9 a pair). Or buy the couch for the basement that so clearly needs a couch!

But my husband and I made the decision that I would stay home with the baby to nurse the baby and take care of the baby (now babies). It was a long, hard decision, and one that evolved over the period of my first (unpaid) 12 week maternity leave where I just cried and fretted a lot, trying to imagine how on earth I was supposed to leave this baby with anyone but me and return to work.

Wanting to be available to nurse my baby was THE strongest reason for not returning to work. It was a really primal feeling, a mothering 'instinct', that I could not 'abandon' this baby, and I needed to do whatever I could to stay close by, even 'attached' if possible.

And luckily, my husband supported me and continues to support me (and all 6 of us now, poor guy!) and luckily, we are able to make do and get by.

Do I believe breastfeeding can reduce your child's risk of athsma or allergies or obesity or make them smarter or more secure? Do I believe that breastfeeding is full of antibodies that protect your newborn? Do I believe that breastmilk is better for your baby than any man-made batch of chemicals, preservatives and sweeteners? I guess the simple answer is yes. Am I a breastfeeding fascist? Possibly.

But you know what? Any 12 year old can feed your baby a bottle. Any daycare can sit your baby in a swing and keep your baby 'safe' till you come to retrieve it. But only the Mama can nurse. And the intangibles, the cuddling, the nurturing, the closeness and yumminess that is integral to nursing, that is what is so special and that is why I am home with these kids. I am available to these kids and I give them 'quantity time', which may be as important or even more important than 'quality time'. I am a 'given' and I value that more than a sleek stroller, and more than oversized sunglasses and more than going to Disneyworld.

And more than a new couch. Sigh.


  1. There's one here! I'm a nursing Mama!! But, all around me I see a world filled with bottles and formula. For me, It just makes logical sense that something natural will always be better than something man made - especially food. I find it sad that there are already so few women in the US who choose to exclusively breastfeed longer than a couple weeks, and that this decision is again being questioned and challenged so that maybe even fewer women will try to nurse and skip right to formula - because it's not THAT bad. But I do think it's bad. And maybe I'm a "breastfeeding fascist" too, and if so, I'd like to meet more in my area!

  2. Hi! I ran across your post and really, really want to agree with you! However, I'm a single mother of two (by choice) and obviously *must* work to keep a roof on our heads. I have *never* personally given either of my boys a bottle - I only pump at work to provide expressed milk for daycare. I will continue to do so til DS2 turns 1, and after I stop pumping at work will continue to nurse on demand as long as he wants.

    There is a middle ground in the world of pumping... it's possible to nurse 100% when together (even in public *grin*) and use the pump only as a necessary tool when apart.

  3. Hello everyone!
    Jessica, your kids are Very lucky to have you for a mom! And I am in awe of your efforts! For you, I hope the breast pump companies stay in business! I do beleive that women should only have to pump when they are seperated from their babies, (and am so sorry so many of us need to be) but what astounds me is that many women pump because that's 'what they do'. They pump. (and very quickly find they need to supplement with formula.) I mean, I recently read a New York Times article where a young couple was traveling through Italy with their 6 week old baby and the mom was frustrated with her hungry and screaming/crying baby and freaking out because she could not find a place to pump! She brought her (American?) insecurities with her all the way to Italy! Sheesh! Just go ahead and feed your hungry baby!!! But anyhow, you are right, Jessica. Keep on keepin' on and good luck to you!

  4. Hey Autumn! I really identify with your post! The lack of nursing mothers in public has caused me to go into hiding as well... nursing in my car, rearranging my day in awkward ways so that I have to keep going home to nurse in between errands. I also use a cover for those times when I must nurse in public. But people stare at me like I'm some sort of alien.
    I also went on maternity leave from my job for my 1st child (6 weeks unpaid) and found I could not bear the thought of returning, and leaving my child to be raised by a stranger. I was a receptionist in a general contracting office, one of two women in employment. There were zero private areas in which I could have pumped, and prior to my leave I informed my boss of my need. He directed me to use the restroom. Ummm, no. The more I thought about going back to work, and not being able to nurse, the more it tore me up. I could not even conceive of handing over my tiny, helpless child to someone I didn't even know. Missing countless firsts. It kept me up at night with stress and worry. So, after much deliberation, my husband and I decided we would just have to make sacrifices. And we did. It's very, very hard to go down to one income when you've been depending on two. But we made it work... cut out all extras, went down to one car, secondhand everything, bought our groceries at Aldi. It was all worth it. Two kids now, and I hardly miss the things we had when I was working too. And I absolutely know that it's not something everyone can afford to do. I feel completely blessed that I had the option.
    But back to nursing- my youngest is rapidly approaching her year birthday and I have so many friends and family making comments like "Isn't it about time to wean that baby?" and "Isn't she a little old to still be nursing?" Of course my husband is completely supportive, so I just tune everyone else out. The reality is that I will be done nursing when SHE is ready. I just don't understand when and why satisfying the needs of our children in an innate and natural way turned into such an obscene thing.
    Sorry about the rambling response...I just really, really know where you are coming from.

  5. Hear hear! Big breastfeeding proponent here...

    ... however...

    ... my daughter refused to latch until she was 2 months old. My Medela saved my tuckus because it allowed me to keep lactating until she would latch 10 weeks later. I had multiple lactation consultants/LLL leaders scratching their heads. If not for my pump, I would have been up the creek without a paddle.

    But I think that it is rather a tragedy that so many women give up while things are tough in the beginning, and do not receive enough support, encourage and instruction-- or simply don't try to do it at all. And it IS tough in the beginning! Every baby is different. But when they give up, those moms miss so much of the pay off months later, when your baby gives you one of those happy "nursing" smiles. I am so very thankful that I was able to experience that.

  6. If I lived near you we could sit in our cars together or side by side. Maybe it runs in the family!

    I have seen so many people giving bottles to their newborns it gives me the heebee geebees.


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Mamazakka is Mommy blogger Autumn Sousanis; also-known-as Autumn Dunbar; and also-known-as "Mama" to six little ones, ages 9, 7.5, 5, 3.5 2 and a 3 month old! :) Busy,yes. A graduate of C.C.S. (Center for Creative Studies, School of Art and Design in Detroit) with my bachelor's degree in Fine Arts, I have finally found my calling as 'Mamazakka', maker of everything and anything that might improve your home, life and outlook. :) It's my goal to create things that truly meet Wikipedia's definition for 'zakka'; (here's an excerpt)..."cute, corny, kitschy is not enough. To qualify, a product must be attractive, sensitive and laden with subtext." Oh yeah! You betcha! Well, that's my goal, anyhow! I'm also known as an over-user of exclamation marks(!) and parentheses (can't help it) though I do try to keep my smileys to a minimum :)