Monday, March 16, 2009

Breast Is Best?

I just read an article in The Atlantic called "The Case Against Breast-feeding." Here's the blurb about the article from the magazine:

In certain overachieving circles, breast-feeding is no longer a choice—it’s a no-exceptions requirement, the ultimate badge of responsible parenting. Yet the actual health benefits of breast-feeding are surprisingly thin, far thinner than most popular literature indicates. Is breast-feeding right for every family? Or is it this generation’s vacuum cleaner—an instrument of misery that mostly just keeps women down?

Whoa. I don't know about where you live, but around here, saying something like that will get you kicked out of Music Together or Baby Mandarin pretty quickly. Despite the shocking premise, I think the article has a lot of really interesting things to say about modern motherhood.

Hate this? Like this? I'd love to know what you think. I think this subject is so interesting! If you're like me and never click on links to videos, then I would urge you to make an exception and click on the podcasts that accompany the article. I think you'll really like them. Really. You should click on them. Please? Here's the link again just in case you forgot. : )


Phillips Family said...

Okay...let me first be honest and say I haven't clicked on the link yet. I have about ten minutes of computer time left. But I promise to click on it soon...

Breast-feeding was a MISERABLE experience for me. MISERABLE. Things just didn't work like they should (don't want to get too graphic), my milk supply was so low I had to bottle feed and breast feed for each feeding, and did I mention it was horrible? I saw specialists, I drank icky teas, I prayed hard that I would be able to simply feed my child without bursting into tears. Nothing improved. The best day ever was when I decided to give it up after suffering for almost three months.

Once I chose formula feeding, I never looked back. I never even considered anything else but formula with my second child and I was a much, much happier mommy.

I find some people get really uptight with feeding issues and babies...some pro-breastfeeding and others pro-bottle. The day I decided to give up breast-feeding I decided I would never let anyone's opinion on the issue bother me. I figured as long as I did feed my baby and loved him to pieces he would be okay.

The child could identify and name the 50 states of America shortly after he turned two so I don't think the formula damaged him in any way.

From my experience, I learned to respect everyone's choice in this matter, to listen to why they chose the path they did, and to not make judgements. I think there are too many things we women beat each other up over...why fight over how we feed our children? In the end, most of us likely shove a Happy Meal or twenty down their sweet little throats and let them sip a coke on occasion and go to great extremes to make a sugar-laden birthday cake each year...likely erasing a little bit of good that breast-milk or formula did in the first place.

Katherine said...

I'm glad I watched the whole set of videos -- because at first I thought I wouldn't be able to get past the pediatrician's first comment, "breastfeeding has become another way to control women". Despite the tone of the article, as I was listening to these women talk, I realized I more or less agreed with most of the points they made.
However, I think perhaps the article more aptly would be “the case against breastfeeding IN AMERICA”. It seems like their angst is with our culture, not with breastfeeding itself. But given the tenor of the article, it’s a little difficult to arrive at that conclusion.

I have so many things I’d like to say to this group of ladies, and anyone else who has a “case against breastfeeding”, but that would likely turn into a book. So, here are my initial reactions to this:

First of all – YES. We need better maternity leave, better support for working moms, more support for new nursing moms (NOT just a fly-by from a lactation consultant when your baby is one day old) and more acceptance of nursing in public. All of these things would make life better for moms and therefore babies.

Second – if they truly feel like breastfeeding somehow lessened their child’s relationship with their father, or the mom’s relationship with her husband – they need to work on their marriage and their communication. You can’t blame that on breastfeeding. Babies do a lot more than eat – and blaming their nutrition source for a father’s lack of involvement in a child’s life is a cop-out.

Third – (and related to the first two) many women do feel trapped by breastfeeding (just two of the reasons are listed above . . . ), but really – in the grand scheme of a child’s life, one year or two years (if you follow WHO’s recommendation) is a really short time. Maybe we (as a culture) need to change our expectations for what early childhood should look like – less time running around and more together time????

Fourth – I feel like the adage “breast is best” is a bad one. Rather than looking at breastmilk as the gold standard, we should look at it as the baseline. It is the bare minimum that we should offer our children. God designed our bodies to feed and nourish our babies. Anything else we feed infants is below that standard. Period.

Please don’t read that as me hating on people who don’t breastfeed. (why are positive things so often viewed as attacks on people who don’t do the same thing???) There are lots of reasons that some families choose not to breastfeed their children. Some are out of their control while others are not. Those decisions are just like anything else in parenting – you have to do what you feel is right for your child and your family given the situation in which you find yourself. Also, Guilt is not something that someone else can make you feel.

Julie said...

Very interesting article. I think my favorite line is "In my playground set, the urban moms in their tight jeans and oversize sunglasses size each other up using a whole range of signifiers: organic content of snacks, sleekness of stroller, ratio of tasteful wooden toys to plastic. But breast-feeding is the real ticket into the club." Ha!! Touche! I laughed out loud!

I did breast feed for about 6 months, at which point my son and I were both crying and frustrated at every feeding. It was such a relief to go to the bottle, but strangely enough, it was my hubby who was that most hesitant to make the switch. I think he fell prey to all the Breast-Is-Best Marketing...

I personally believe that each mom and each child is unique and you have to do what works for you. I hope to breast feed my 2nd (if I ever have a 2nd), but I also don't hesitate to feed my 1 year old chicken nuggets...

In the end: Trust your instinct and don't judge others.

Green Mamma said...

Yet again the media has moms/women sizing each other up and creating a battle where there really need be none. So long as women/mothers lovingly feed and care for their chidlren, who's business is it how we choose to do so?

I have been nursing my daughter for 2 years now and probably will continue for much longer. Still, I refrain from making judgments or condemning mothers who nursed for a short period, not at all, or who will nurse well beyond the 2 y. mark that I am now at.

I always return to this: women need to support each other. Empower each other. Why feed into the media's need to make us out to be against each other? Ugh. It doesn't help anyone.

My opinion? Write a letter to the editor of the Atlantic.

Elizabeth said...

I have been itching to respond to all these wonderful comments all morning, but, ironically, I have been having to feed Teddy a lot today and he hasn't napped until now. So, anyway, I want to try to make sense of all the thoughts in my head and I've had about six hours of sleep the last couple days, so this will probably not be very clear or eloquent, but here goes...

I find this article interesting, not because I struggle with breast-feeding personally, or care whether or not others breastfeed. I honestly have no position on how people feed their children. I breastfed and formula fed Emma until the bottle won at around 5 months. I felt the usual guilt about not being "successful" at breastfeeding and so I way over-compensated with Charlie and did not let a drop of formula cross his lips until he could take a cup at around 9 months. And even then I felt guilty! I still was breastfeeding him, btw, but would offer a cup with meals or when I was away from him (which was not very often) and continued to bf him until he was 15 months. But I still felt oddly guilty about the formula in the cup, like I didn't get the A+ in breast-feeding, more like an A-. I now know this is totally ridiculous, but at the time it seemed like a big deal. Now, with Teddy, I wanted him to take the occasional bottle and gave him bottles of formula early on just so I could be sure that I could eventually leave him, say, in the nursery at church or at the gym. Or maybe go out on a date every now and then. He took the occasional bottle during the first few months and then started refusing them at around 3 months, so now I am back to exclusively breastfeeding and am "stuck" as the article puts it. I try every now and then to muster up the energy to pump and give him some breast milk in a bottle. Or sometimes I bust out the formula and give it a shot, but he really isn't interested. I've pretty much accepted the fact that I'm his only source of food for the next few months and I'm okay with it.

What I think is interesting about this article, and worthy of a discussion is not whether or not to breastfeed. That is a personal decision that is sometimes not even a decision. Whatever works for all parties is the way to go in my book. I think the real discussion worth having is how the pressure to be a "good mother" can make even "enlightened," educated women such as myself feel so crazy and inadequate sometimes. Breastfeeding is just one of the many hot topics that can make many women feel judged, insecure, and like they are doing motherhood all wrong. Sometimes knowledge is power, but sometimes too much information is dangerous. I think the author is right when she suggests that we have taken the research about the benefits of breastfeeding and turned it into such a huge symbol of being a good mother that women will suffer for months so that they can breastfeed. Is a good mother one who suffers? Is that the message? Because that's pretty stone age if you ask me.

Too much information or access to information via the internet can feel like a burden...I honestly feel compelled to be my own ObGyn and pediatrician sometimes. I feel like if I'm not doing my homework on natural childbirth or vaccines or whatever the next thing is that we're all supposed to be worrying about (hormone replacement??), then some evil doctor is going to take advantage of me and I'm going to end up a victim. Am I the only one who feels this way? It's exhausting second-guessing everything all the time. Oh and then there's the worry about salmonella in Charlie's peanut butter and jelly sandwich or lead in the water. Teddy's wearable blanket has "Back Is Best" embroidered on the chest...a lovely little reminder of the specter of SIDS right before bedtime. As if I didn't have enough to worry about.

It feels like every time I turn around I'm endangering my child and could be on the news as the posterchild for "bad" mothers everywhere. I don't know if it's an unexpected result of feminism that has created this unattainable image of motherhood, or if this is classic sexism at work...but I do think the breastfeeding issue is just one of many issues that can make a vulnerable mom feel even worse. We as women have a duty to stick together, to be transparent with one another and to be generous rather than judgmental. Maybe if we can ease up on other moms, then that will enable us to be a little more forgiving of ourselves? I don't know...maybe I just need a nap. (sigh)

Katherine said...

I re-read the article again today, and the other thought I wanted to add . . . it seems as tough she was breastfeeding for all the wrong reasons. Seriously, if your conviction for your parenting choices doesn't go any further than, "well, THEY told me this was the best way to do it" then you really need to examine why you’re doing what you’re doing! Think for yourself.

I also wonder, would she be tapping her toes impatiently waiting for her baby to finish a bottle if she was holding him? If you don’t want to mother, then don’t become one. Okay, that was harsh, but she really spent a lot of time whining about parenting and the workplace, yet somehow blamed it all on breastfeeding. Misguided frustration, to say the least.

Elizabeth – your comment:
“We as women have a duty to stick together, to be transparent with one another and to be generous rather than judgmental.”

Deanna said...

This was such an interesting article (long, but interesting!). I read it with a lot of mixed feelings, jumping back and forth between the stances being represented. On one hand, it is terrible for some mega-business to be telling people they aren't capable of feeding their babies themselves (which did and does happen). It preys on the weaknesses of people, particularly in undeveloped nations. On the other hand, why should every message in popular media be one of judgment for breastfeeding and against formula?

When I started nursing my older son, I went through a lot of pain for a long time. Two things about this time really made me angry. First, the automatic response of anyone who found out that it was painful was that I wasn't doing it right (I was). Second, media messages had led me to expect that when I nursed the heavens would open and a shaft of light from the angelic host would shine down on this magical moment for me and my baby (it didn't). All that smoothed out and then we had a very positive experience. Pretty much same story for my second - except that I had a lot more experience and confidence and a lot less pressure and anger.

It goes along with this article, but wasn't mentioned, that culture tells us because it's natural that it's easy... and that we should be able to do it with ease, confidence and grace. That's just not true. Natural doesn't always mean easy or pretty. And aren't we glad for a lot of the things we have that aren't "natural"?

I give nursing mothers credit for the hard work that nursing really is. AND bottle-feeding mothers for the hard work that is! These are personal choices and the choice that works best for you is GOOD. I think the pressure and judgment is so entrenched in us now that we do it automatically. I'm glad this article took another voice to remind again that it's not any better to tell people that if they don't breastfeeding they are failing their kid than it is to tell people that breastmilk isn't good enough for their kid.

sunnymama said...

I agree with the comments Katherine made although I have to admit I only made it through page one of the article. I have all the proof I ever needed that there is no case against breastfeeding!

~Gretchen~ said...

"It is the bare minimum that we should offer our children. God designed our bodies to feed and nourish our babies. Anything else we feed infants is below that standard. Period."

That is insulting. Beyond insulting.

I am sorry that my breasts failed to meet your standard when they decided to not make any milk, no matter how hard I tried to convince them otherwise.

You know what my alternative was to not meeting your bare minimum? a dead child.

Sometimes, there is no decision involved. God may have designed it that way, but it doesn't always work out that way.

Elizabeth said...

I agree, Gretchen. It is not always a decision. And even if it is (like in the case with me and Emma), it's none of anyone's business but your own what you choose to do. I just wish we could all be satisfied with the job we're doing as moms without beating ourselves up or worrying what others think. I'm not saying this to you, Gretchen, but your comment did make me think about this.

I am the worst about this. If someone looks at me judgmentally in the grocery store, like when my kids are acting up, I practically crumble on the spot. The other day I was in the grocery store and I could feel someone's eyes on me in this really blatant, I'm judging you kind of way, and I stared right back at them. That is the first time I've ever done that. It wasn't a mean stare, but it felt so rewarding to me. It was like in that moment, I refused to let someone else make me feel like a bad mother. It made me realize that I do have some control over how I perceive the opinions (or judgments) of others and how I let those make me feel.

I know this intellectually, but I still spend about 90 percent of the time worrying what other people say or trying to imagine what they're thinking of me, especially what kind of mother they think I am. It's such a waste of energy though. I need to stop.

Katherine said...

“It was like in that moment, I refused to let someone else make me feel like a bad mother. It made me realize that I do have some control over how I perceive the opinions (or judgments) of others and how I let those make me feel.

I know this intellectually, but I still spend about 90 percent of the time worrying what other people say or trying to imagine what they're thinking of me, especially what kind of mother they think I am. It's such a waste of energy though. I need to stop.”

You’re so right. It really is hard – especially when we’re so ingrained with this notion that everyone has to like us and totally agree with us in order to be accepted. And functioning in a culture like that is really challenging. This is compounded by the pervasive notion that we have to somehow PROVE that what we’re doing is best. (and I’m preaching to myself here). Also, I think Satan uses this as a way to keep us from connecting with each other.

But, I’m really glad I read this article, and watched the videos (and read way too many comments in response all over the web) – because it really has me thinking.

First, I was thinking specifically about the breastmilk / formula debate. This is where I totally disagree with the ladies in the podcast. You cannot read one night’s worth of journal articles on breastfeeding vs. formula feeding and walk away thinking that you have a definitive answer. (and shame on us for even giving her limited review of the literature so much attention). But more importantly, why on earth are we (as a society / culture / scientific community) even spending time trying to prove this???? Is there really any question? Do we really think that something that God designed could somehow be improved upon by trying to replicate it in a laboratory?

But, the more important thing I got from all this . . .I started thinking about this in relation to parenting in general.
I have to seriously question our sanity when we’re looking for scientific proof that our parenting choices are right. Anyone who took psych 101 knows that correlation does not prove causation. Furthermore, there are so many variables involved in child development and parenting, if you were able to do a double-blind study of anything there would be so many variables to consider that it would be very difficult to achieve statistical significance. Don’t get me wrong – I believe in studying child development and I am all for evidence-based practice, but if we know anything about child development, we know this: EVERY CHILD IS DIFFERENT. And every parent is different, and every situation is different. So, there is no one “right” answer for parenting. The hard part is remembering this. I feel like we spend so much time deciding what or how we’re going to do as parents, when we see someone else making a different choice we assume that they must know something we don’t and we start second-guessing ourselves. Or worse, we assume that because they do it differently, that they think our decision is inferior.

We, especially as Christian mothers, don’t need to let Satan use our insecurities and our differences to prevent us from supporting one another.

Really, judgment and insecurities in our parenting choices was the core of what the article was about (well, that and some pertinent observations about how UN-mother friendly the workplace is. Feminist or not – we gotta make workplaces more family friendly!). Ms. Rosin just as well could have written an article about “the case against natural childbirth” or “the case against being a working mom” or “the case against homeschooling” or “the case against letting your kids play all the sports they want”, and dug around and found a group of journal articles and studies to support whatever conclusion that she was seeking. And most likely, her article would have been able to incite a similar debate.

The problem is, although some of her points were valid, she missed the boat in her conclusion (if there really was one – the more I re-read the article the more obvious it became that it was more of a rant than a properly thought out statement). Instead of constantly looking to outside sources to validate our parenting choices, we need to do what we think is right. She obviously feels like she was sold a bill of goods about breastfeeding and is very resentful. But the truth is, there are many dimensions to parenting and lots of tasks involved in parenting. Some we truly enjoy, some we merely tolerate (I’m thinking that if there was a way to bypass potty training, I’d take a “get out of jail free” card right about now). But you do what you think is right for your family, and you get on with life. Unfortunately for us, breastfeeding was caught in the crossfire of Ms. Rosin’s debate.

Elizabeth said...

You've pretty much summed up my feelings exactly, Katherine. There is too much good stuff in your comment for me to quote all the things I agree with...I agree that breastfeeding is a symbol more than the real issue at the heart of this article. I have a feeling Rosin was hoping to spark just this type of debate, and so for that reason alone I think her article is a success.

The take-away for me is that I need to learn to relax a little and not be so hard on myself as a mother. So much of how our kids turn out is out of our control anyway. We can serve up nothing but organic veggies and tofu and sign them up for all the "right" extracurricular activities, homeschool them within an inch of their lives and they could get so fed up with all of the control that they run screaming from us as soon as they turn 18. Or it could all turn out beautifully with one child and not so much with the other one. Or we could let them watch a little PBS Kids from time to time and they still just might go to Harvard. And is having a child go to Harvard really a measure of our success as parents? No, of course not. So what is the measure? There isn't one! That's the real clencher. It's like we all think we're eventually going to get a report card at the end of this or something...well, you got a D in TV watching, but an A in crafts and a C- in eating veggies. It doesn't work that way.

It seems to me as long as we are trying our best, praying for strength and wisdom, and we are showing our love to them in ways they get, we pretty much can't screw them up too much.

And I hear you on the potty training...I'm already dreading that phase with Teddy. Hang in there!

Robin said...

Unbelievable responses to an interesting, provocative article. Obviously a touchy subject! My husband brought the article home for me to read or I probably never would have heard of it...until reading your blog, of course, Elizabeth! You're so with it it's not even funny.

I think women need to do what works for them, their babies, and their families. But I also think we all need to examine the WHY behind what "works" for us. If it's because we're too busy, too concerned with matters outside our home, or too stressed out, maybe some changes need to be made. If it's because our boobs or our babies won't cooperate, then by all means, we should do what DOES work! I think that nursing requires a certain level of selflessness that is at times horribly difficult and frustrating and at other times, beautifully liberating and rewarding. I'm happy to have had the experience of nursing my daughter for 15 months and my son for 11. Now we'll see what kind of nursing "success" I'll have with my third...who will have the added challenges of two siblings running around making noise and a mom with only one functioning boob. Should be an adventure! Isn't that what mommying is all about?


mdm said...

OK. Of all the topics I -- being a male of the milkless variety --am not an expert on, breastfeeding is definitely one of them. (I also don't know much about tampons, minipads or maxipads or how to spell them.) The problem with many -- maybe most -- who advocate for breastfeeding is: they are zealots. Spare me from zealots on any side of any issue. (I once got caught between a breastfeeding zealot and a "Should have got Borden's" billboard that featured a photo of a baby and a baby bottle full of -- step back -- cow milk.) So, I'm retreating to what seems most important: Feeding a child something seems more important than how the child is fed.

het lieveheersbeestje said...

I think that feeding breastmilk is the most natural way to feed your child. But when you are having your children like a 'status symbol'as I see with many young moms overhere, you might get problems with breast milk too. It is not important to tell other moms what they should feed their kids, it is important that we,parents and moms, help eachother!!!
I see many moms that give up feeding breastmilk after one or two weeks. It is painful, not enough milk... Nobody ever told them that it IS painful and stressing that first weeks!!! Why not?? And that babies might need 8 or 10 feedings a takes all your time!! Why not tell the trought about this and respect people that make choices?
Mama Lieveheersbeestje.
(expert on breastfeeding, I fed four children in 15 years constantly,some years two or three kids, still normal though, haha!)