At our local public library, somebody had left an old Atlantic (April 2009) at our magazine swap that I picked up specifically because a Hanna Rosin headline caught my eye: “The Case Against Breastfeeding.” As the birth of my second child draws nearer, breastfeeding is one of the things I look forward to most. I had an easy time breastfeeding my first. She latched beautifully, my milk supply was always good, and it was a wonderful opportunity for me to pray and contemplate as I shifted into motherhood. I felt strong and powerful as a woman. I felt like my body was beautiful in its singular ability to feed my child, to provide her with all the nourishment she needed to grow. I was lucky in other ways too. My husband and I chose to live right across the street from my place of work, only a four minute walk from home to office. I hardly pumped (and never at work). I would just bounce home when I felt the urge to nurse or when my daughter was hungry. And I had a fantastic department that let me do most of my work from home those first few critical months when breastfeeding is so time-consuming. I mourned the day I weaned.
Many women have the exact opposite experience. Their milk supply is low, the baby won’t latch right (and subsequently won’t gain weight), and rather than feeling beautiful and powerful, the seemingly never-ending demand of a newborn to nurse is perceived to be onerous and exhausting. Rosin’s argument is that woman should not be made to feel guilty for choosing not to nurse, especially when the evidence in favor of nursing is just not as overwhelmingly in the breast’s favor as we might be prone to believe. Breastfeeding is marginally advantageous in terms of immunity, development, and IQ, but as Rosin points out, this might be because of the contact between mother and child and not anything in the breast milk. Women with jobs that make pumping regularly almost impossible (bus drivers, cleaning ladies) should not at all feel guilty for putting their child at a disadvantage if they choose to switch to formula. And this is an important point. Breastfeeding is a remarkable privilege but women must be respected in the decision to do otherwise.
But Rosin’s real point is not about the evidence in favor of nursing’s benefit, but rather the ways in which the choice to nurse perpetuates gender inequalities, especially in the workplace. Breastfeeding is one the final reasons for a woman’s decision to leave the workplace and stay home. And the pressure to breastfeed is a likely reason we see so few women in positions of power in the workplace. She writes,
In Betty Friedan’s day, feminists felt shackled to domesticity by the unreasonably high bar for housework, the endless dusting and shopping and pushing the Hoover around–a vacuum cleaner being the obligatory prop for the “happy housewife heroine,” as Friedan sardonically called her. When I looked at the picture on the cover of Sears’s Breastfeeding Book–a lady lying down, gently smiling at her baby and still in her robe, although the sun is well up–the scales fell from my eyes: it was not the vacuum that was keeping me and my 21st century sisters down, but another sucking sound.
This is where Rosin goes horribly wrong. She fallaciously identifies breastfeeding as a cause of gender inequality, rather than a symptom of much deeper inequalities and prejudices. It is true that woman face a seemingly impossible task if they choose to both work and nurse, but this is not a problem with nursing itself, but the lack of supportive structures that allow women to do both. And this problem cannot be solved by making sure that woman have a place to nurse and store milk. As Rosin rightly points out, this only serves to further disadvantage women. While pumping, productivity goes down. And for many jobs, pumping regularly is an impossibility. Rosin writes of her own experience as a newspaper reporter with a looming deadline:
Your choices are (a) leave your story to go down to the dingy nurse’s office and relieve yourself; or (b) grow increasingly panicked and sweaty as your body continues on its merry, milk-factory way, even though the plant shouldn’t be operating today and the pump is about to explode. And then one day, the inevitable will happen. you will be talking to a male colleague and saying to yourself, “Don’t think of the baby. Please don’t think of the baby.” And then the pump will explode and the stigmata will spread down your shirt as you rush into the ladies room.”
What this story reveals is the difficulty, if not impossibility, of a woman re-entering the workforce after having a baby on exactly the same terms as her male colleagues. Nursing mothers are simply not the same as men. Not think of the baby? In my experience, you might as well try to stop the tide from coming in. But is the solution to tell women that it would be better for them not to nurse so they don’t run into such problems? Hardly.
What we are failing to respect in both this discussion and the other issues pertaining to the “Mommy Wars” is that men and women simply cannot be expected to be the same in public life. Nor should women expect that their equality depends on the ability to do all the same things that men do, in addition to doing all the things that women do as well. What is keeping me and my 21st -century sisters down is the expectation that we will have similar career arches, similar work days, and similar productivity to our 21st-century brothers. This, coupled with the expectation that we can achieve this without sacrificing our innate desire to bear and parent a child (or two or three or more) is just too much. Equality is not about sameness, and achieving true equality for women demands the exact opposite from sameness.
Demanding the same output from women workers while giving them a place to nurse is not giving them equality. It is giving them more things to do during their work day than they would have to do if they were a male. Guaranteeing time to nurse while still demanding that women’s schedules look very much like men’s is not granting them equality; it is setting them up for the failure Rosin describes above. What we need is structural change that allows women to be the mothers they desire to be while also contributing to public life but not in the same way as men. Why can’t a nursing mother stay home most of the day and attend whatever meetings she may need to attend via teleconference? Why can’t women mothers, especially of young children, be evaluated on a different scale than their colleagues who don’t have young children such that they can have the chance of promotion and advancement even if they simply cannot do all the same things that their non-mother colleagues can do. Why can’t women who are mothers of young children be given reduced-workdays to begin with without being penalized? Why can’t ambitious young women who want to be mothers not have cultural support to accept a different career arch that would allow them the opportunity to delay the most intense years of their careers until after they have had and raised children? Why can’t we find ways of valuing motherhood in public life?
These are the sorts of measures we need to take if women are going to have equality in the workplace. These sorts of measures–fluid boundaries between public and private life, scaled pay to support less workplace hours and more time at home, different scales of achievement during childbearing years–respect that men and women really are different and need to be treated differently without sacrificing equality in the process. And these sorts of measures are radical. Telling a woman to choose not to breastfeed for the sake of her career is not radical; it is telling her to give up. Even Rosin admits that breastfeeding is a unique privilege she doesn’t want to give up fully. But we need radical structural change if women are going to get the equality they deserve. And we need radical structural change that accepts that men and women simply are different. But this isn’t the same as unequal.
Many women want to breastfeed. That doesn’t mean they want to pump; it means they want to breastfeed. They want to hold their child while nourishing her body and mind. They want to take time out of their day to attend to their child without feeling pressure to also be typing out an email or operating their Blackberry. They want to take time out of their day to nourish, not hook their body up to a machine (and subsequently start to feel like a machine in the process). This time of mother/child bonding and not something magic in the breast milk, as Rosin points out, is what is truly beneficial to the child and to the mother. Women who want to nurse shouldn’t feel like they are sacrificing their careers or a robust feminism if they choose to do so.