The Shriver Report – Has “Breast is Best” Jumped the Shark?
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Has “Breast is Best” Jumped the Shark?
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Photo Credit: Julie Nestingen

I’m a working mother of two small children, and I’ve breastfed them both. In fact, I’m currently somewhere in the middle of breastfeeding my second child, who has cut two teeth recently and knows how to use them, so we’ll see how much longer this continues.

And it’s been interesting, being alive and mothering and breastfeeding during a time of historically high intrusion into women’s nutrition relationships with their babies. I’m not a breastfeeding crusader – quite the contrary, actually. I’ve found the whole situation to be exhausting and crazy and difficult. I’ve never participated in a “nurse-in” (a whole bunch of women nursing their babies in public to prove a point). I am already sad about how fast my baby seems to be growing up, but I look forward to the day when I am not the source of her nutrition. I’m just kind of middle-of-the-road on this whole thing.

“Maybe some of this is the crippling mom-guilt that seems to have most women of my generation in an absolute death grip. “

But I care about how our culture treats women, and there is one specific dynamic that I’ve been tracking, and been bothered by, in that way where you can’t put your finger on what bothers you. You turn it over and over in your mind, until one day in the shower it hits you.

So here it is:

The “breast is best” thing has totally jumped the shark. I understand, and applaud and am grateful for, the early crusading work of women who have fought the fight to make sure that breastfeeding is promoted, valued, and legally protected – because there was a time when it was none of these things. Every single time I nurse my child somewhere while I’m out and about (never a fun or comfortable experience, but one has to leave the house eventually, and it’s frowned upon to leave the baby alone at home), I think about these women with gratitude. I am grateful to them because I know that if someone approaches (and reproaches) me about it, I am protected by law – even here in the grand old State of Texas – to feed my child.

But here’s the thing – this “breast is best” thing has taken on a tinge of accusation and a tone of judgment. “Breast is best” no longer comes across only as “…so leave the poor woman alone who is trying to nurse her hungry baby on a park bench.” It no longer comes across as just “provide a lactation room for new mothers at your workplace – one that does not require her to sit on a germy toilet while she produces food for a baby.”

Lately, it’s starting to sound a bit like “…so if you don’t do it, you obviously don’t love your baby or want what’s best for he/she.” Maybe some of this is the crippling mom-guilt that seems to have most women of my generation in an absolute death grip. Maybe we are at fault for projecting our own guilt and anxiety onto these breastfeeding promotions. I know that when I see a billboard that reads “Every Ounce Counts,” I interpret it as “Count Every Ounce.”

But I can’t place all of the blame on us neurotic moms. Some of this is coming from the media – take the New York Times article titled “Breast-Feed or Else,” which kind of sort of equates not breastfeeding with actively smoking during pregnancy. Some of it comes from other mothers – oh, the judgment from breastfeeding mothers that is heaped upon those who can’t or don’t want to.

And now here’s where it gets really interesting: somewhere in this toxic mix of judgment and pseudo-science and self-doubt, a prevailing narrative has arisen. This is the bothersome thing I figured out in the shower recently.

Here’s how it works:

Message One: If the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you breastfeed your baby for a full year, you should breastfeed for a full year. Anything less is simply not good enough. Never mind that you work, and/or that you have two other kids, and/or that breastfeeding gives you horrible anxiety, and/or that you had a breast reduction in your twenties when it never occurred to you that you’d care about how much milk you could make, and as a result your baby howls with hunger because you just don’t have the milk he needs. You’d better do it for a full year if you want to be a truly good mother.

Message Two: Breastfeeding your baby for “too long” is creepy. That TIME cover of the toddler and the mom: creepy.  A child being able to “ask for it”: creepy.  Also: your HR director is emailing you, asking you when you’re going to be “done,” with a pretty clear implication that everyone at work thinks you ought to be done by now. Because: creepy.

Put these two messages together, and what do you get? Apparently, a four-hour window to be what everyone around you wants you to be as a mother. A magical, elusive time slot in which you’ve breastfed your baby for long enough to be a good mother, but not so long as to be a weirdo.

It’s time for this to stop. All of it.

“And if we’re particularly worried about low breastfeeding rates among low-income women, maybe we could do something other than milk-shame them, especially if they are working wage-earning jobs with no paid breaks, no money to buy a breast pump, and no place to pump and store milk at work.”

By all means, in our quest to see more women breastfeeding their children, and doing it as close to that one-year mark as they and their personal situations allow, let’s educate mothers on the benefits of breast milk for their babies. Teach them how to do it and offer them the support to keep doing it if they run into problems. Give them – imagine this! – longer maternity leaves, and then true support at work if they return to the workplace. And if we’re particularly worried about low breastfeeding rates among low-income women, maybe we could do something other than milk-shame them, especially if they are working wage-earning jobs with no paid breaks, no money to buy a breast pump, and no place to pump and store milk at work.

As for the other bookend of this Milk Window – the “too long is creepy” camp – there’s not much to say. There is no epidemic in this country of un-weaned 10-year-olds. A woman who breastfeeds her toddler is really, truly – and I mean this in the nicest way possible – not even remotely your business.

So now we only have one simple step left: Put the judgment down and walk away from the new mother.

As a society, we need to trust women to make balanced decisions that work best for their families – their whole families, including themselves (sometimes the most individually neglected person in the whole picture).

If we actually care (rather than just enjoying making already hormonal and exhausted women feel like garbage), we have to actually invest – including on a legislative level – in women’s ability to breastfeed their children. We have to trust them when they decide how long that situation can and should last. And then, we need to wean ourselves off women’s breasts and out of their decisions.

 

Jessica is currently writing a book of practical advice and war stories for women going back to work and continuing to breastfeed.

Jessica Shortall is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Jessica Shortall is a 35-year-old working mother, with a career dedicated to the intersection of business and doing good. She started out her adult life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan (more vodka drinking than you would expect from a Muslim country), and hasn't stopped searching for ways to change the world since, across the non-profit and for-profit landscape.
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