Monday, March 16, 2009

The Divisiveness of The Atlantic Monthly's "Case Against Breastfeeding"

These are the kinds of debates I hate, largely because I refuse to take sides. Yes, I'm a doula. Yes, I have a bias for normal birth, and yes, that leads neatly into a bias for breasfeeding. But Hannah Rosin has some interesting points.

Having not done a literature review myself about the nutritional comparisons between breastmilk and formula, I am surprised, and frankly still skeptical, that medical meta-analysis is not overwhelmingly in favor of breastfeeding. And while I do know breastfed people and formula-fed people who are of equal health and intelligence, a part of me never questioned breastfeeding. Even if breastmilk were an utterly neutral liquid, it is what my body makes solely for my baby, who was also made by my body. In the natural order of things, of course I chose breast over formula.

But I like that Rosin is honest about the fact that breastfeeding is no picnic. Continuing to breastfeed your baby does require significant accomodations with work (many women will nurse for their maternity leave, and the return to work marks the end of nursing), patience from other children (how many times has one child needed something as soon as I settle in to nurse another?), the division of labor in the home, and yes --sleep. Episodically, I have been nursing for the last 7 years, for about a year and a half at a time. I cherish it, though sometimes I've been downright resentful that my husband can't nurse, too. And though it's been all natural and made-by-mom, one of my children has anaphylactic food allergies. Who would have known that until I eliminated her allergens from my own diet, my breastmilk was actually toxic?

And though I cherish nursing, not all mothers do. Though many of them want to, it is painful, and they cannot continue, regardless of the support of numerous lactation consultants. (And I am a little taken aback by the way Rosin diminishes lactation consultants. Perhaps it is because she doesn't understand how, LC's -- most of them nurses -- have assisted enough women with breastfeeding to meet the thousands of contact hours needed to be certified. ) For others, due to a variety of hormonal reasons, milk production is low, which can then lead to the relentless path of nursing-pumping-supplementing with the dreaded formula leaving no time at all to actually enjoy a newborn baby, but plenty of time to be anxious that the baby is dehydrated and starving. And for some mothers, mothers who are equally devoted to their children and absolutely selfless in ways of mothering that I could never be, breastfeeding requires mental and emotional space that is just too intimate, maybe even stifling. I have worked with too many women for whom breastfeeding was at the cost of their mental health, and I find that unacceptable. No amount of colostrum or antibody is worth that.

But what I find most upsetting about the article is not the article itself, but the comments that are being left in the blogosphere, comments that question Rosin's personal decisions, her parenting skills, and her devotion as a mother. The comments only prove that there are indeed breastfeeding fascists out there, as the author calls them. I don't like this debate because there is no answer, only judgment, and its a tension that I see in the birth world too often. It is the breast vs. bottle chapter, like the natural vs. medical childbirth chapter preceding it, in the book of how women deride each other's choices. Rosin's article shows that statistics can be used to prove a point as well as its counterpoint, but nothing is more salient than a community of mothers who feel supported and respected by their peers, employers, family members, and care-providers, so much so that they feel confident in the informed choices they have made and can resist the need to judge the choices of others.

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