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:
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:
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.