The Case Against Breast-Feeding (and other thoughts about motherhood)

This article, The Case Against Breast-Feeding, was published in the Atlantic magazine in April 2009, but I just came across it today.

I’ve never encountered feminism with such ferocity. Sure, I’ve heard stories about women long ago trying to throw off the shackles of domesticity, but I didn’t know it still existed with such force. The author proposes that breastfeeding might be “an instrument of misery that mostly just keeps women down.” Wow.

Before I get too far along, I want to make clear that I do not believe that all mothers must nurse their babies in order to be good parents. There are circumstances that prevent it, of course.

I also think the author does have some interesting information regarding the lack of definitive science  showing that breastmilk reduces illness, increases intelligence and the like.  That part is on page two of the article.

But my primary interest in this article is not about the breastfeeding.  It’s not the author’s distain for the time involved to nurse a baby and the limits it places on her as a woman alone that made me sad.  It’s her minimization of the importance of motherhood that really struck me.

Here are some of the particularly painful quotes:

Being stuck at home breast-feeding as [my husband] walked out the door for work just made me unreasonably furious, at him and everyone else.

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. . .

About seven years ago, I met a woman from Montreal, the sister-in-law of a friend, who was young and healthy and normal in every way, except that she refused to breast-feed her children. She wasn’t working at the time. She just felt that breast-feeding would set up an unequal dynamic in her marriage—one in which the mother, who was responsible for the very sustenance of the infant, would naturally become responsible for everything else as well. At the time, I had only one young child, so I thought she was a kooky Canadian—and selfish and irresponsible. But of course now I know she was right. I recalled her with sisterly love a few months ago, at three in the morning, when I was propped up in bed for the second time that night with my new baby (note the my). My husband acknowledged the ripple in the nighttime peace with a grunt, and that’s about it. And why should he do more? There’s no use in both of us being a wreck in the morning. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to seethe. . .

We were raised to expect that co-parenting was an attainable goal. But who were we kidding? Even in the best of marriages, the domestic burden shifts, in incremental, mostly unacknowledged ways, onto the woman. Breast-feeding plays a central role in the shift. . .

[Breastfeeding] is a serious time commitment that pretty much guarantees that you will not work in any meaningful way. . .That is why, when people say that breast-feeding is “free,” I want to hit them with a two-by-four. It’s only free if a woman’s time is worth nothing. . .

What a tragedy that women would feel that caring for their babies in this way is a meaningless work!  To borrow a phrase from my friend Heather, it’s so sad that some mothers “aren’t sure whether they want to commit their bodies so fully to the nurturing of these babies once they are born.”  In her post El Shaddai and the Nuturing Mother, she goes on to point out that this is such an important work that even God himself uses the analogy of a nursing mother to describe his comforting activities.

But the tragedy extends far beyond breastfeeding.  If only mothers like this could see what value motherhood has, what an important work mothers do in the lives of their children and ultimately in society!  Oh that we mothers would embrace this work – this messy, busy, complicated, challenging, critical work! 

Let me challenge the notion that motherhood is menial by asking this: What other job gives more responsibility than motherhood?  What other job requires more passion, talent, energy, patience, and creativity?  Some people work to train others to lead, or to write, or to compute, or to sell.  As a mother I can train others – my children – in even greater ways:  to be strong in the face of adversity, to be ethical in the face of temptation, to be thinkers, to be sensitive, in essence, to be godly men and women.

Sure, this job doesn’t come with all of the public accolades that a corporate job might. But my husband’s praise means more to me than the approval of a nebulous “public.”

There are usually no bonuses given when goals are reached. But a box of Dunkin Donuts functions as a cost-effective incentivized treat for me.

And I usually don’t get written about in important journals.  But the cards my children make for me with their heartfelt thanks are far more precious mementos.

Like the author of this poem,I am glad to be a mother.  And I pray that all mothers, like the author of this article, would one day see the value in it.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. This article made me so very sad. I found my heart hurting with tears in my eyes that motherhood is viewed with such seeming bitterness. It’s not about breastfeeding or giving up career paths or even about the money we do not bring in tangibly (although I would argue the money saved is my money earned). It’s about the demeaning view of motherhood and the undercurrent of fatherhood even. What a privilege to be a mother! What a privilege to be a father!

    I echo your post. Thanks for posting!

    Off to nurse my sweet boy while I make dinner. No need to tap my feet impatiently … I’ll just multi-task when the time calls for it. Bet my biceps are bigger. 😛

    Reply

  2. Erika, I didn’t know whether I should comment on here, or on your blog; but I may just leave this on both. One of the scriptures I share with my breastfeeding class at Hope is Isaiah 66:11-13 where God describes Himself in terms of a nursing mother. “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you”. He tells in the proceeding verses that a mother comforts her child with the breast. No other scripture communicates the high value of motherhood so clearly as this one, because it shows that the “Almighty” (El Shaddai from the Hebrew word “breast”) himself has allowed mothers to emulate Him in this way.

    Reply

  3. Wow – I hadn’t read that article before. I only read the snippet you posted since that broke my heart enough for the day. Motherhood stretches us like nothing else. It exposes sin that we may not have known existed. Motherhood has shown me how truly selfish I am. It has given me but a glimpse of the love our Father has for us. I would write more but I am nursing my 10-month-old at the keyboard!

    Reply

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