Has the Battle for Breastfeeding Been Won?

“From where I sit”, reports Hannah Rosin in this diavlog, “everyone thinks you should breastfeed.” Can this possibly be right? And if so, doesn’t it say more about her seat than the societal trends she’s discussing? Here in ultra-progressive Berkeley and among our self-selecting group of friends, we’ve naturally experienced – and sometimes gone in for – a good deal of the no-holds-barred breastfeeding advocacy that’s got Rosin so riled up. But even so, we got formula pushed on us by a nurse at the hospital, know many other parents whose doctors or nurses did the same, and have friends and family members who for various reasons have breastfed only a little, if at all. And while one can do pretty well out here breastfeeding in public without getting disapproving looks from passersby, we’ve been in plenty of perfectly “enlightened” parts of the country where this simply isn’t so, and where the social stigma attached to nursing a child at church or in a museum or restaurant is hard to bear even for an hour, let alone a year or two or more. These, meanwhile, are just the easy cases; attitudes toward breastfeeding differ wildly across the country, and there’s every reason to think that Rosin’s experience, like ours, is very much the exception rather than the rule.

It is, I think, really this lack of sensitivity to the broader cultural situation that left my wife, like so many other nursing moms and breastfeeding advocates (“fascists”, Rosin calls them), so upset with Rosin’s much-discussed Atlantic essay. Rosin’s right, I think, to object to the unrealistic or overbearing attitudes that many breastfeeding advocates take to the subject: there’s no excuse for overstating or misrepresenting the science, and mothers who find nursing to be a burden should absolutely not feel guilt-ridden if they slip off to the store for formula or rice cereal. But the idea that the experience of having friends and physicians pressure a woman into breastfeeding and then make her feel tremendously guilty about the thought of stopping or cutting back is anywhere near the cultural norm even among Atlantic readers or the rest of the American overclasses seems quite unrealistic to me. It’s true that we need to find an appropriate middle ground, and that accomplishing that is going to require honesty about the benefits and burdens of whatever decisions mothers, fathers, and children choose to make. And no one should deny that perspectives like Rosin’s can play important roles in helping us to do these things. She’d be able to do that much more effectively, though, if she didn’t minimize the very different sets of challenges faced by mothers and children in circumstances different from her own.

It’s “not the vacuum”, Rosin writes, that’s “keeping me and my 21st-century sisters down, but another sucking sound”. No doubt this is true in a select handful of cases, but it gets things pretty badly backwards in a large range of others.

(Cross-posted at the new and improved Upturned Earth.)