Who is the “new mother”?

I recently read Elisabeth Badinter‘s article in Harper’s Magazine, The Tyranny of Breast-feeding: New Mothers vs. La Leche League.

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.



Filed under Attachment Parenting, Breastfeeding, Feminism, Mothering, Partnership, Working

12 responses to “Who is the “new mother”?

  1. vicki

    I’m sorry you talked to a bad LLL leader (we are volunteers), i have met bad lawyers, do i assume they are all bad? i don’t understand the attitude that LLL doesn’t support working mothers, i have been helping working moms for 20 years.

    • Point well taken, Vicki. And thank you for volunteering your time with LLL! Honestly, I highly value LLL, even though I had a bummer of an experience with my local LLL leader. As I mentioned in my post, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding was essential for me & I’ve found the LLL website to be a wealth of information.

      But I have to say that I was shocked when I first read Womanly Art & learned that LLL’s position was that women should only work outside the home if absolutely necessary for financial reasons. (Maybe that position has changed?) I literally put the book down & thought I wouldn’t be able to pick it up again — it really put me off. (Though ultimately I’m glad I did pick it up again… Where else would I have learned about extended breast-feeding or the proper technique for expressing milk by hand?!)

      So my point in the post (perhaps unfortunately made in my typically snarky manner) was only that LLL (like any large & important organization) is susceptible to criticism. I definitely don’t buy into all of Badinter’s take on LLL& I really think she’s wrong to put “new mothers” (working out of the home or not) against LLL. I think that LLL is immensely important for new mothers, whether they know it or not. (I don’t think any of the other organizations I mention in my post as also supporting nursing mothers would exist had it not been for LLL.) But I also think that there is room for discussion & disagreement when it comes to certain of LLL’s ideas & principles.

  2. Micky

    I could not agree more. This article seemed to me to take a very narrow view of equality in child rearing and what it might mean to be a feminist working mom. I don’t think that the feminist cause is advanced by devaluing domestic and childrearing labor (including nursing) as drudgery. I think we should just be striking up a conversation about how men can be MORE involved in these amazing, rewarding, and valuable enterprises. Some days my job sucks. Some days pumping all day and nursing all night sucks. I would not give up either. And I CERTAINLY will not turn on LLL and other breastfeeding organizations to prove my cred as a good feminist.

    • “I don’t think that the feminist cause is advanced by devaluing domestic and childrearing labor (including nursing) as drudgery.” Absolutely!

      Thanks, Micky, for chiming in!

  3. Katie

    I’m curious how adopted children fit in here. Does LLL have anything to say about them and their care?

    And curious, as always, how this ongoing debate might at some point have room for other female (and male) care-givers who are not parents. How might we value care-giving more, even separate from the biological or reproductive?

    • Katie you always make such thoughtful comments & ask tough questions that are also wonderful & refreshing. But tough! Which is why it’s taken me a while to reply.

      I only have tangential experience with adoption, so my thoughts are not supported by experience. But I think LLL would probably support adoptive mothers who want to nurse (either through relactation or a supplemental system). I know that the more scientific cousin of attachment parenting (which encourages breastfeeding), attachment theory, has a lot to say about adoption & healing through physical closeness & contact. (There is a wonderful episode of This American Life about a family who has adopted a emotionally detached child & implements an radical practice to help their son & family — seriously an emotional & beautiful story.) So for the plus of physical closeness I’m sure LLL encourages nursing or “bottle nursing.”

      As for the second part of your question, I think that a society that values the work of mothers & families will also eventually recognize the other important relationships that make us human. Bu I think it’s a painfully slow process.

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  5. Hooray, a reasonable response! I just read Badinter’s article in Harper’s, and found your post by looking for some reassurance that her argument is…strange. It hadn’t occurred to me that part of that might stem from a badly edited excerpt, good point. Based on what was included, I’m totally unconvinced that breastfeeding’s promoters are part of some underground conspiracy to limit women’s freedom. I’m an anthropologist, and very much on the culture side of any nature vs. nurture debate, but claiming that breastfeeding is a “trend” makes no sense to me. I thought Badinter’s tone was unnecessarily vicious, belittling mothers who might find some meaning in breastfeeding. Yikes! Also, I’m not a mother, but I had the impression that in the U.S. mothers face more scorn for public breastfeeding than for using bottles.

    • Thanks for your reply, Adonia!

      I’ve definitely felt the scornful stares when breastfeeding in public (& experienced comments about nursing for too long). But I also think we’re at a funny cultural point — LLL & other orgs have been moderately successful (yay!) & there is some backlash (e.g. Badinter’s piece) & a sense from non-breastfeeding mothers that they’re being judged for using formula. So there’s scorn on all sides, it seems… Can’t win!

  6. Very measured and reasonable response. Thanks!

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