Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Politics of Breastfeeding

SteveG and Aliyaah alerted me to this Science Times piece addressing the recent scientific findings about breastfeeding. I had just recently spent time with my co-author, Lucy, who explained to me that most experts agree that mothers should breast-feed for 6 months, so the information wasn't new. And, frankly, I am less interested here in disputing the scientific evidence of this claim; I trust that this research is well-grounded and informative for the public.

Obviously what is more interesting is the question of what is the political import of this finding. That is, what is a responsible stance that our government agencies, such as HHS, should take in light of these findings. The Times article reports that:

A two-year national breast-feeding awareness campaign that culminated this spring ran television announcements showing a pregnant woman clutching her belly as she was thrown off a mechanical bull during ladies' night at a bar — and compared the behavior to failing to breast-feed.

"You wouldn't take risks before your baby's born," the advertisement says. "Why start after?"

Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, has proposed requiring warning labels, on cans of infant formula and in advertisements, similar to the those on cigarettes. They would say that the Department of Health and Human services has determined that "breast-feeding is the ideal method of feeding and nurturing infants" or that "breast milk is more beneficial to infants than infant formula."

Are these the right responses to the scientfic findings? Here is exactly the kind of question ripe for moral and political deliberation. Now, there are some who might challenge the science either on the grounds that it is bad science or on the postmodern grounds that it is bad rhetoric. Fine. But, if you decide to accept the data, you still have to figure out policy and how this information impacts the moral claims of feminism as well as the moral obligations of mothering.

What is unfortunate is that the response, at least the one discussed in the Times article, is (a) anti-feminist and (b) incredibly short-sighted. First of all, to suggest that mothers who do not breast-feed for 6 months are as reckless as pregnant woman riding a mechanical bull is just another example of the fear tactics that many right wing folks use to impose duties on citizens. Now, clearly the scientific information suggests that mothers do need to reconsider their duties to their children, but to get them to do so through fear mongering or guilt trips is not likely to be, in the long run, good for the mental health of already stressed out mothers. The fact is that the "mommy wars" angle--namely, to pit stay-at-home moms against working mums--is counterproductive to any good deliberation about how to best provide for our children and help families do so.

Ma Ma Feminista astutely points out the practical and moral problems with this conservative, fear mongering approach:
Perhaps it results from a conservative push back to traditional gender roles. Lets face it. Breastfeeding every two hours for the first four months puts a damper on mobility. Its just plain easier to stay in the house no matter how insane you become. I personally have stopped the car on many of occasion just to get out and about. The outside public envoironment is not conducive to breastfeeding mothers. The public doesn't want to see it but yet the public space does not make even the smallest accomadations. There is one department store in the mall that provides sitting areas for moms, otherwise you have to find a dressing room. How hard would it be to place a chair of some sort in the bathrooms at restaurants? Mothers should not have to navigate these tricky cultural hangups. Geographical locales around the nation are different but here in the South if I was to breastfeed in public people would stare or avoid me like the plague but there is no where to go in most public places, so what the hell are you suppose to do? Given our current political climate on morals, values, and the obsession with same-sex marriage it does not surprise me that such advertising is out there. Just another way to keep the backlash against women and mothers in the public sphere going strong. I've said it before and I'll say it again......This culture is anti-mother which subtextually translates into anti-child and anti-family.

Sequestering breast-feeding mothers, albeit indirectly, is surely not good for the long-term health of the infant. Isn't the mother's isolation, distress and exhaustion likely to impact the child, i.e. cause resentment. To suggest that the only viable way to heed the scientific evidence is to discipline mothers who do not breast-feed, without providing resources and support to make this possible, is hostile to mothers. As responsible citizens, we should seek out institutional supports to make it easier for women to nurse without either guilting them into quitting their jobs, if they can afford it, or making them feel horrific if they cannot afford to take off time from work.

Look, the feminist response here is to ask our policy makers and politicians to consider the mother or the pregnant female when thinking about how to regulate and structure institutions. Obviously, if the default view is the unencumbered male, then work and public spaces are not going to accomodate women who want to be good mothers without becoming shut ins.

One of the issues in the "mommy wars" arguments that gets ignored is the significance of work for the identity of most human beings. To be able to channel your intellect and imagination into public projects, that enable you to leave a legacy, whether those projects be huge or small, is part of what animates us. Certainly raising children can be one of these public projects, but only insofar as it is rewarded and perceived as valuable cultural work. One cannot reward this work simply by lauding the self-sacrificing woman who tends to the emotional and nutrional needs of her spouse and children. If we want to elevate child-rearing to the status of transcendent work, as opposed to the immanent work of turning oneself into an object to be consumed by others, then we need to start publically recognizing it through remuneration, better institutional policies that support families, greater resources devoted to helping mothers (e.g. state-sponsored day-care, health care, child enrichment programs).

But even if we were to radically change institutions in ways that better supported women in their role as mother and publically recognized it, many women would still yearn to use their talents in the public sphere in others ways.

Alas, good deliberation about the political and moral consequence of scientific findings, that does not merely revert back to 1950's gender roles, is sorely lacking. Without it, we politicize science, rather than rely on science for good politics.