Yeah, I was hooked at the title, too. Provocative to say the least. I immediately wanted to know about this “new mother.” Was she anything like me? Was Badinter simply suggesting that any new mother was necessarily adverse to LLL? (Get your hands on a copy… It’s not online that I know.)
The article is (poorly, I’m guessing) excerpted from Badinter’s book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. (I say poorly because in the article the argument seems somewhat undeveloped, but I haven’t read the book.) At times the article reads like an advertisement for formula, at others like a condescending scolding of breastfeeding mothers. Mostly it’s a deconstruction of LLL’s history & principles.
I can appreciate the collective wisdom of LLL (The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding literally saved my nursing relationship with my son, which is something I have valued deeply in spite of, or on account of, my being a feminist; the LLL web site also had great advice for me when T started biting me with his newly sprouted baby teeth). But I am not a LLL fanatic (I’ll never forget the time I called my local LLL leader to ask a question about pumping … You could hear a pin drop on the other line … She was utterly uninformed on the finer points of making one’s body express milk for a machine while separated from one’s nursling).
So I appreciate Badinter’s analysis of LLL’s rhetoric (with its themes of nature, womanhood, duty & guilt) & I agree with her subtle (or not so subtle) criticism of the group’s uncompromising positions on mothering & breastfeeding.
But I still think Badinter gets it wrong. For starters, she lumps all breastfeeding advocates in the LLL camp. While Badinter cites the extreme manifesto of one online group (as if to say, Look! LLL makes mothers crazy!), there are many, many breastfeeding support groups that support women who work, women who only breastfeed for a short time, women who pump, women who generally don’t buy into LLL’s “extreme” mothering model but feel that breastfeeding is important, etc. (If you’re curious, check out KellyMom.com, PumpMoms, Best for Babes, even Attachment Parenting International…)
Another way in which Badinter gets it wrong is in her implication that the best or only way for a parenting couple to share roles is to bottle feed. In a move that seems typical for a certain strand of feminism, Badinter suggests that bottle feeding (&, necessarily, formula feeding, since pumping requires extra labor on the mother’s part & is not truly “freeing”) will allow for equality in the co-parenting relationship. But it is possible to achieve an equitable parenting relationship without formula. Parenting, as Badinter must know, is chock full of meaningful & menial tasks. I breastfeed, you change diapers. I breastfeed, you make me dinner. I breastfeed now, you make baby food when the time comes. Etc. The possibilities for fostering equitable parenting are (just about) endless.
Finally, while Badinter extols formula as being close to breast milk, formula is not breast milk & no one will tell you that formula is better than breast milk. Period. It doesn’t matter if breast milk does not live up to all the hype or pseudo-science touted by LLL. It is still the best nourishment for infants. (And formula has the real potential to interfere with a woman’s ability to breastfeed, thus making the experience more stressful & guilt-ridden.)
So I have to chuckle at Badinter’s suggestion that LLL has somehow infiltrated every health organization that matters (AMA, APA, WHO…) & single-handedly convinced them into issuing recommendations that suggest mothers breastfeed for at least one or two years. Is there a political story to tell here? I’ve no doubt. But are these also not independent organizations, making these recommendations in consultation with their own leaders, doctors & scientists? I’d like to think (or hope) so. The suggestion that LLL was somehow disingenuous or sinister for lobbying for these recommendations is simply laughable.
Where Badinter sees a “despot,” I see a helpless being biologically wired to demand a few things. And infants can’t choose to turn off their biological reality in the way Badinter seems to think women can & should. (Badinter seems to advocate ignoring or turning off biology in favor of … “Equality”? Self-determination? Self-interest? Career? Selfishness? Making a political statement? … I don’t think it’s clear from the article what she’s advocating. But I’m not buying that whatever it is it’s worth giving up on one thing we know is better for infants… Besides, haven’t we gotten past the idea that recognizing biological difference necessarily leads to essentialism?)
Still, two fleeting points in the article piqued my interest in particular. First is a question Badinter implicitly raises: What would a 100% breastfeeding rate look like? Would it be a good thing for women? I don’t think I can even dream of tackling that question here (… another post…). But I will say that a rate close to 100% (say, 98%, as they’ve achieved in the Scandinavian countries) immediately makes me think that something right must be happening — real maternity leave, access to services & information across class lines. My first reaction is not that it is “troubling”.
Similarly thought-provoking was Badinter’s point that breastfeeding advocates denounce the cost of formula feeding. But Badinter doesn’t go where I was hoping she would on that point: There is a serious feminist argument to be made about the cost of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is not free. A woman’s time is worth something. A woman’s emotional health (breastfeeding and/or pumping is not a bed of roses for all of us) & physical health (yes, breastfeeding is probably good for the mother, but sometimes illness doesn’t wait for weaning to happen) are worth something, too. These are real costs & they’re not lost on many women asking themselves if full-time breastfeeding can work for them. They are not lost on the many, many women who cannot breastfeed because of a crappy job or boss, or because they have no calories to spare.
In the end, I don’t think Badinter is at all in touch with the “new mother.” As a young(-ish) feminist mother, I am weary of being told by our revered feminist elders that we are taking a step backward by prioritizing our families. (Talk about guilt!) Mothers and fathers are making time for family. Mothers are demanding more from their employers. Change has not come quickly enough & it’s not as far-reaching as it should be. But change will not happen by sweeping children & families under the rug. To the extent that Badinter is worried about bright, young women dropping their careers to stay home with their children, I share that concern. But I don’t think that railing against breastfeeding is the answer. I think young feminists have realized that the structures that must change are more complicated & nuanced than previously imagined by feminists whose main goal was professional parity.
This “new mother”? I think she’s the one trying to make the best choices she can while being aware of the implications of those choices on her own life & on women generally. She’s demanding meaningful work (at home or away from home). She’s saying ‘no thanks’ to employers who continue to demand a supportive house-spouse. She’s demanding an equitable parenting relationship with her spouse. She’s trying to live the change she hopes to see. I’ll raise my hand & be counted. That’s me.