The recent controversy in NYC about breastfeeding mothers led to an uproar among women about their right to use formula or breastfeed while they are in the hospital. Women felt that hospitals should not deny them formula if they requested it, while hospitals are trying to promote breastfeeding and its health benefits. I listened to a program about this on NPR, hearing women heatedly debate each other about what they should or should not do. Really? I thought. This is what we are talking about again?
The trajectories of women’s work and society’s value of breastfeeding are, ironically, parallel. As women began to be allowed in elite universities and joined the workforce in greater rates in the 1970s, so also the movement for breastfeeding babies picked up steam. This, of course, only adds to the pressure women feel to do it all at once. (Please see the recent steamroller of an article in The Atlantic.)
The formula versus breastfeeding debate is one that divides women rather than unites them, and it represents yet another chapter in the mommy wars. Battles waged in this exhausting conflict include who is superior in the following categories (the list is extensive but by no means exhaustive): work; children’s intelligence; money; family thinness; food in all of its permutations. Let us call a détente to this particular battle. Here is the deal: if society so values breastfeeding—and study after study shows how advantageous it can be—then there need to be structural changes that allow for women to breastfeed and pump easily and comfortably. Ambitiously, I think that women need longer maternity leaves, when they are not forced to choose between feeding and spending time with their children. Areas designated for breastfeeding and pumping should be mandatory in every park, mall, and office building, and they should be clean and comfortable. The bare minimum: breastfeeding supplies (pumps, bottles, etc) should be fully covered by insurance. These are just a few ways to make women’s lives easier when they are having children.
I was lucky enough to nurse my daughter for over a year. I was not working when I had her, and I stayed home with her for nine months, a wonderful, difficult, valuable time. When I went back to work, it was part time, and I was able to pump. I am not sure that I will do the same if I have a second child; the realities of nursing are difficult enough with one child and staying at home. And now cue the ever-present nagging voice: am I not doing enough for my second child? Am I disadvantaging that baby by not nursing for as long?
Maybe the better question is this: is society not doing enough for me and for all women in my position? I think we all know the answer to that.