Friday, August 06, 2010

A dad's take on the breastfeeding wars

As World Breastfeeding Week winds down and the streamers and buntings are removed from city streets, the breast-shaped floats are garaged until next year, fountains in plazas once again feature cascades of chlorinated water instead of spurting milk, and the piped-in mamo-centric music at the mall fades out, I find myself reflecting on how fundamentalists on both sides of the breastfeeding war have misdirected their ire and played into the respective hands of two powerful corporate cartels: Big Formula and Big Breast Pump.

Although not affiliated with any pro-breastfeeding organization, noted attractive person Gisele Bundchen perhaps best expressed the sentiment of the most radically mammalistic of activists when she recently called for legislation making breastfeeding mandatory for mothers of children under six months old. This was followed by feminist men quietly celebrating an excuse to google “Gisele Bundchen breasts” with impunity, a backlash against her overstatement, a retraction and apology by the model, and continued googling of her breasts.

On the other side of the issue, while you would be hard-pressed to find any spokesmodels denouncing breastfeeding outright, there are certainly those who think putting pressure on moms to breastfeed rolls back many hard-won advances of feminism, and that the mandatory household appliance for working breastfeeders—the breast-pump—is an instrument of oppression and even torture.

In the spring of 2009, Hanna Rosin’s controversial article in The Atlantic caused a massive kerfuffle in the interblogosphereweb. Her piece, The Case Against Breast-Feeding, questioned the consensus among the medical community and parenting punditry that the benefits of breastfeeding are so clear that to opt out of suckling one’s young is tantamount to child abuse. She claimed that in fact, the benefits are negligible, and, even though she was breastfeeding her third baby at the time (she planned to continue only for a few months), she was convinced that the hassle to the mom was not worth whatever minor advantages it conferred upon the baby: she encouraged moms not to feel obligated to breastfeed if they didn’t want to, and not to feel like failures if they wanted to but were unable.

Even worse than the inconvenience and career damage inherent in having babies attached to the breast like so much fleshy body-jewelry, according to Rosin and others, is the degradation and humiliation inflicted by the execrable breast-pump.

In describing one of her friends tethered to a breast-pump, Rosin wrote that the first-time mom was “hooked up to tubes and suctions and a giant deconstructed bra, looking like some fetish ad, or a footnote from the Josef Mengele years.” Judith Warner, in a post on her New York Times blog , agreed with Rosin about the de-humanizing elements of pumping, and yearned for a day that “books on women’s history [would] feature photos of breast pumps to illustrate what it was like back in the day when mothers were consistently given the shaft.” The language in these comments is incendiary, and suggests an insidious plot by The Man to keep a sister down by vilifying any alternative to breastfeeding. But the obvious power of Big Formula—the samples and coupons lurking in every free diaper bag thrown at parents on Labor and Delivery floors and pediatricians’ offices being its most obvious artifacts—render that theory as toothless as an Enfamil-guzzling newborn.

Clearly, the tactics of both Big Formula and Big Breast Pump are well beyond the bumbling oppression techniques of The Man. The Man wants only complacence and conformity. BF and BBP want to recruit zealous consumers who will march into righteous battle on behalf of their products.

Just a few weeks ago, my wife switched off the breast-pump for the last time after a year of feeding our twins primarily with the miraculous elixir that somehow her body knew how to produce only when needed and roughly in the correct quantities (yet another supremely bizarre aspect of human reproduction that convinces me that no space alien would ever believe humanity was possible if it were informed of our existence).

But my wife is no breastfeeding ideologue. It worked for her, the evidence of its benefits was compelling enough to make up for the time and discomfort, it gave her license to eat with abandon, and it was actually cheaper than formula. As a doctor, she strongly recommends breastfeeding to her patients, but she doesn’t try to shame them into embracing it.

To her, the pump was a necessary inconvenience, not an instrument of degradation. Even when I tried, just for the sake of conversation, to get her to talk about the indignity of being milked by a machine, she rolled her eyes and went back to reading Perez Hilton to the rhythmic lull of the Medela Symphony.

Although my wife was oblivious to the Symphony’s subtle overtones, every night as I went to sleep, every morning as I changed the babies’ diapers, and every day as I gave the lunchtime report to Dr. Mom over the phone, I heard the infectious subliminal message from the mechanical heart of the pump and realized the extent to which companies will go to win over their consumers.

“Good-girl, good-girl, good-girl,” the pump slurred rapidly in Phase One.

And as the pump slowed down to roughly the pace of the human heart for Phase Two, it would repeat, for the next twenty minutes or so, “Breast-milk, breast-milk, breast-milk.”


Please visit me at Beta Dad, where I write about twins, Asian mommy groups, daddy groups, weird flights of fancy, and post lots of cute pictures.

21 comments:

Curt said...

yikes, maybe a little too much info for this gay guy.....now pecs, that's a different story :^)

Leo Stezano said...

Great article, Beta Dad! As the proud parent of a 2 1/2 week old little boy, this topic definitely resonates. I happen to be surrounded by friends and acquaintances in my same "predicament", so it's been interesting to compare notes on the different messaging we've received about issues like this one. In our breastfeeding class, for example, the facilitator went on at length about the benefits of breast milk, but she was definitive about the fact that not all of us would be able to use that method, and that while we should try, there was no shame or inadequacy attached to not being able to follow through, and that formula would not cause our little one to grow an extra eye if we decided that was the path we wanted/had to follow.

I asked a friend about his class, offered by a different medical provider, and he was told that there is a negligible chance that any mother will be unable to feed, so they should not be discouraged. They also told him that breast milk is a wondrous elixir that does everything from preventing baby gas (NOT TRUE, BTW) to accelerating birth recovery to improving the couple's sex life. The subtext was that you would have to be some sort of monster to choose formula. At least that's how my friend interpreted the session.

What's our philosophy? Well, the stuff is just flowing, and it seems more natural to feed the baby the nourishment nature intended, and hey, it's a lot cheaper than formula. So we're going with it as long as we can, and if we have to supplement, or even substitute because the tap runs dry, so be it. And yes, the pump is a bother, but we've got at least 18 years of being "inconvenienced" ahead of us, so we may as well get used to it. We worked very hard to have this kid, so now we will work just as hard to raise him as well as we can.

Leo Stezano said...

Great article, Beta Dad! As the proud parent of a 2 1/2 week old little boy, this topic definitely resonates. I happen to be surrounded by friends and acquaintances in my same "predicament", so it's been interesting to compare notes on the different messaging we've received about issues like this one. In our breastfeeding class, for example, the facilitator went on at length about the benefits of breast milk, but she was definitive about the fact that not all of us would be able to use that method, and that while we should try, there was no shame or inadequacy attached to not being able to follow through, and that formula would not cause our little one to grow an extra eye if we decided that was the path we wanted/had to follow.

I asked a friend about his class, offered by a different medical provider, and he was told that there is a negligible chance that any mother will be unable to feed, so they should not be discouraged. They also told him that breast milk is a wondrous elixir that does everything from preventing baby gas (NOT TRUE, BTW) to accelerating birth recovery to improving the couple's sex life. The subtext was that you would have to be some sort of monster to choose formula. At least that's how my friend interpreted the session.

Leo Stezano said...

Part 2:

What's our philosophy? Well, the stuff is just flowing, and it seems more natural to feed the baby the nourishment nature intended, and hey, it's a lot cheaper than formula. So we're going with it as long as we can, and if we have to supplement, or even substitute because the tap runs dry, so be it. And yes, the pump is a bother, but we've got at least 18 years of being "inconvenienced" ahead of us, so we may as well get used to it. We worked very hard to have this kid, so now we will work just as hard to raise him as well as we can.

Greetings, and keep up the good work,

leo

Beta Dad said...

@Curt,
Hahaha--one gay guy I know recently waxed poetic to me at the gym about how much he loves breasts because of their nurturing characteristics, even talking about his mom's huge rack. His partner was standing next to him, poking him with his elbow and clearing his throat like, "Can you please not do this again?"

@Leo,
Congrats on the baby! I'm glad that you have a healthy attitude about feeding, and everything is working out. Yeah--some of the claims about "the elixir" are preposterous. Improving your sex life? Pssht. Don't count on it. How on earth would they gather evidence for a claim like that, anyway?

Alice said...

Nicely done Beta Dad. I never made enough milk to just breast feed so I am very grateful for the formula.

In the really big picture formula has saved lives. What the hell did people do if they couldn't feed their child enough and there was no one else around who could? Again, I'm grateful.

The stress breast feeding can put on the family is something people need to consider. Some families can handle it, some can not and that's OK.

Personally, I think it's great to teach people about the benefits, but also to make sure people understand that it could be not worth it for them and that formula is a terrific option about which one should not feel guilty.

Dawn said...

What an interesting take on the whole damn debate. For me I was able to breastfeed my daughter until she weaned herself around 8 months. I had a breast reduction years ago and was told by that surgeon that he'd try not to cut many milk ducts but of course some would be lost so breastfeeding may not be an option once I had kids.

I pumped with not much resulting from the torture but it's a necessary pain if you sort of have your heart set on breastfeeding.

Oh and as a side note we told our nurses about my breast reduction and 3 of the 4 regular nurses that we saw while in recovery told me not to bother even trying then...I obviously didn't listen and got in a solid 8 months.

It was interesting to read a man's perspective, thanks for posting.

Didactic Pirate said...

Great article, Beta. (No surprise there.) My wife had a really tough time with breastfeeding when our daughter was born early via caesarian, and I got extremely irritated with friends of hers who actually made her feel guilty when we made an early switch to formula.

Is that really true about noted famous person Giselle Bundchen? Huh. I may have to, uh, Google that.

Max said...

I thoroughly understand the benefits of breastfeeding but the degree of fanaticism promoted by La Leche League/etc, particularly when paired with pregnancy hormones, is ridiculous.

I've been a 50/50 single coparent since birth. My son's mother considered the introduction of *ANY* formula as if it like feeding our son poison.

For most people this would be no big deal; you'd just say "Hey Honey, that's great that you're willing to make that sort of sacrifice." -- but for me, this ultimately turned into "I'm running out of milk -- maybe [our son] needs to spend less time with you, and more time with me so I can keep my supply up." In this case "breast is NOT best".

Spending time with BOTH parents is more important than the gain from giving formula vs. breast milk.

Thankfully I held strong, and everything (just barely) worked out. Pregnancy hormones wore off, and now we've been doing great for the last ~2 years (our son just turned 3).

My mom, BTW, was (physically) unable to nurse. She had great feelings of inadequacy as a result of La Leche League.

Yes breast milk is really great, but let's not go nuts about it.

L-Squared said...

Wow, a lot of this is so true. Gisele's little comment could not have been better timed: I've felt a lot of pressure in the last two weeks since my daughter was born. I was still in my morphine-induced, post-surgery haze when the lactation consultant came to push breastfeeding, and when we told her we'd already decided to go for it, she still gave me a really annoying spiel that, combined with the drugs, made it really hard not to laugh. Highlights included "DID YOU KNOW that babies who are breastfed don't get ear infections??? HUH?" and "You know, they put breastmilk on a piece of CANCER [Ed. note: Can you go to the store and buy pieces of cancer? I need to order some cancer.] and GUESS WHAT IT DID. GUESS. [...] IT KILLED IT!!!!!1111!1" I can only imagine what the guilt-tripping was for people who were undecided, or, God help them, planning to use formula. Ironically, due to latching issues and my daughter's preemie status, I had to supplement with formula less than 24 hours later, and totally felt like a complete failure as a result. I'm getting over it; this helps.

Your observations about the makings of consumers, either way you choose to go, has also really resonated with my experience. The amount of pumping material I have been hawked and have amassed has really surprised me; it really blurs the lines between the best/"natural" choice and the evil/"artificial" one. Either way, I'm a sucker--no pun intended. Pumping IS a bit creepy/impersonal, though I have a hard time finding someone to blame for it (it is a choice, for the most part) or finding it representative of the oppression of mothers (there's enough REAL crap to deal with).

Also: OMG! My pump also talks to me: I have heard "Medela", which I totally think is purposeful, but also random phrases such as "go home" and "banana." I thought it was just the remnants of my postpartum brain. I guess as long as the breast pump isn't telling you to kill people, you're okay.

Brett Hetherington said...

A well-written article. There are so many myths about the whole subject. A breast-fed baby won't get ear infections?

I think you put both sides of the case very well. I want to pick up two points though (if you pardon the pun.) The breast pump is certainly not mandatory. Plenty of breastfeeding mothers never use one.

I also disagree that breastfeeding is an inconvenience. My partner thought the exact opposite and saw messing around with powder, bottles, sterilising and all the rest of it as a huge chore, that was thankfully unnecessary for her.

She also thought that the greatest thing about breastfeeding was not the (likely) health benefits for our baby [now 9] but was in fact the bond that it created between them...right up to this day!

I have to admit to some envy here. I used to watch her breastfeeding and really wish that I could do it too.

Clark Kent's Lunchbox said...

Reading that made me feel the same way I do after an hour of NPR in the morning - smarter. That post was packed with more intellectual nutrients than... never mind.

All my kids were breastfed, and appreciative that their mother did that. But I never gave the issue much though beyond this. That was until I recently mentioned my blaze attitude to my wife. She about clawed my eyes out in heated support of breastfeeding. She even went so far as to criticize family and friends who were not currently do so.

There were a lot of medical terms thrown around, findings from studies, child development experts quoted, and I was like "whoa!" That's when I started to get a sense of the larger picture--some of which you mention here.

Then I asked if she wanted to go get some ice cream.

Ed said...

I still say breastmilk is natures fastfood.

Of course, I also think strip clubs should have drive-up windows for guys on their lunch hour.

Anonymous said...

I find it funny that Dr. Mom reads Perez Hilton to kill time while pumping, while I cruised towards BetaDad where I read this while pumping in my office. I think Perez would dry up my supply to tell you the truth...but does this mean BetaDad helps me lactate more?

Like Dr. Mom, I find the pump a necessary inconvenience because I choose to and am able to breastfeed and I work full time. I actually feel fortunate that I can - not everyone can afford the $300+ machine and gear, not everyone has a private space at work to be able to pump, not everyone responds well to the pump, and not all babies breastfeed well or can take breastmilk (my 1st was essentially allergic to my breastmilk, pooping blood no matter what foods I cut out of my diet - there the super hypoallergenic formula was a lifesaver). Instead of making moms feels bad about not being able to breastfeed or demonizing formula, I really think we should turn the anger towards "the man" who spout "family values" left and right without making any concessions or allowances in employment laws to promote that, e.g., mandatory paid maternity and paternity leaves (because you know, some dads actually want to get to know their little babies while they're still little).

But I digress.



Pam

Crinis said...

Glad to see a post at the Dialectic! Our now 16-month-old daughter was breastfed for a year, and the bond it created between mom and baby is stronger than epoxy. I'm the SAHD, but when she gets tired or scared, she wants her mom.

I don't recall having the same anxiety over pump vs. formula. It did take some time to get her to take milk from a bottle from Dad (far too long, ugh). We supplemented with formula until her mom's milk came in.

I'd like to see some numbers, but I just don't see how BBP is anywhere near competing with BF. Formula sells say after day for at least a year; a pump is bought once, and if you're like us, we don't mind getting a used one and sterilizing it. Frankly, I'd like to see pumps start competing with formula, as it would represent a real shift in our thinking about feeding our babies.

Mrs. Motley said...

Interesting take, but I really don't think that "Big Formula vs. Big Breast Pump" is apt. That's Nestle, Mead-Johnson, Abbott, Wyeth, (just for a start) vs. who - Medela? La Leche League? Give me a break.

I breastfed my girls for a long time, and I volunteered hundreds of hours helping other moms nurse their babies, but after years of being on the front lines of the "breastfeeding wars," I no longer care (not even a little bit) what anyone feeds their baby. The amount of vitriol spewed toward anyone who says anything good about breastfeeding is really unbelievable. You have to trip all over yourself saying that "formula is fine and great too!" or else you're dismissed as some sort of crazy nipple nazi.

And don't worry, La Leche League haters - they're likely to go under soon anyway. No one is that organization makes *any* money, and it's run extremely poorly.

I call a victory for Big Formula - and I'm too worn down to care anymore.

Beta Dad said...

Ms. Motley,

That's an excellent point that really sweeps the legs of my (tongue-in-cheek) argument. The pressure to pump is really mostly social.

breast pump advocate said...

Very essential & highly required for Mother to breastfeed, gives very important & required suppliments to babies.

Jeanne Sager said...

As a mother, I'll disagree. The majority of women I know didn't bristle at Gisele's statement because we feel tethered to the breast pump.

Most of us would LIKE to breastfeed longer. But too few of us are in a position where it's possible -- in large part because we don't have the sort of life that Gisele Bundchen leads.

Maternity leave, as it stands in America allows women to just start to get comfortable with breastfeeding when their baby is ripped from their breast, and they're sent back to work in order to make ends meet.

At work, they're faced with bosses who consider their right to pump a reason to assign them the office's scutwork.

Their assigned pumping place is dark, dank and doesn't include an electric plug, so they're trying to use a hand pump which draws very little from the breast, meanwhile having to smell the rather large dump a male co-worker just took in the fanless room.

These women don't give up because they feel tethered.

They give up because they are thwarted at every turn. And until a woman like Gisele uses her big celebrity mouth to fight for better support for women, we are indeed going to bristle at her prescription for our very un-like her lives.

Taninha said...

I saw that NY Mag on newsstands week after I had my baby. I decided NOT to buy it!

Tania Menai said...

I saw that NY Mag on newsstands weeks after I had my first baby! No, I did not buy it!