The breastfeeding majority

by Esther Emery

The last week of conversations has me looking at just about everything through a lens of “normal” and “not normal.” This has to do with our next show, The Butcher of Baraboo, in which a Midwestern family practically becomes a circus act trying to contain their lively collection of skeletons. I’m fascinated by the way that the women of Baraboo, as well as women closer to home (at least the one sitting in this home) seem to sort the behavior of our sisters and friends into “okay,” “okay for her but not for me,” and “not okay at all.”  At least, that’s what we’d like to be doing. What I’m afraid of is that the last two categories have a very messy overlap.

A week or so ago I posted an article to my Facebook page called “The Case Against Breastfeeding.”

I should tell you that on the spectrum of American moms, I’m pretty far to the granola. I give birth at home, I didn’t circumcise, and my 19-month-old is still nursing. I’m looking forward to a tandem breastfeeding adventure when my second child is born sometime in May.

But I appreciated this article.

It was written by Hanna Rosin, whom I follow on the XX Factor blog at Slate Magazine. (She’s the one who did this stunt where she and her husband spent the whole day no more than fifteen feet apart, which I totally want to try.)  

In my opinion, and I think this is often true in this world of high impact page headers, the headline doesn’t accurately represent the article.  The actual text was about what I might call the breastfeeding mandate: the power of the collective to make you feel bad if you don’t “do the right thing for your baby,” or if, for some reason, you can’t.  Like, for example, maybe you’re a man.

Okay…no, the article didn’t shout out to male caregivers, that was extrapolation, but it did address the difficulty moms in some circles might feel in actually hearing their own voices over the sound of the collective breast pump.

I think conversations like that are important. I think that debunking absolutism can only help those of us who do want to breastfeed, especially those of us who want to breastfeed our two-year-olds in public, since some find that behavior teetering out of “okay for her but not for me,” and maybe headed for “not okay at all.”  I think that the more we recognize that babies thrive when they are cared for, and that parents are qualified to make informed decisions about how to care for babies, the more of a chance we have of spotting the things that really hurt kids, like poverty, violence and abandonment.

But now I’ve gotten a couple of emails regarding this “attack” on mother’s milk. I’m hearing a call to rise up and defend breastfeeding (as if we aren’t the majority), and it’s making me feel guilty about supporting the other side. 

Is it too much to hope that we can have a dialogue about empowered choices AND also be supportive of breastfeeding?  Or is this desire to empower female and male agency in early parenting just feeding the culture wars?