Breastfeeding and the cult of total motherhood

I am a passionate advocate of breastfeeding and breastfed my four children. Nonetheless, I am disturbed at the way that breastfeeding is wielded by breastfeeding activists (lactivists)  to criticize other women. New studies confirm that many of the purported benefits of breastfeeding have been grossly overstated. The scientific literature shows that while breastfeeding has real benefits, the benefits are actually quite small.

Lactivism is just one aspect of the growing cult of “total motherhood”.  The article Is Breast Really Best? Risk and Total Motherhood in the National Breastfeeding Awareness Campaign by Joan Wolf describes how lactivism is a  facet of a new moralism that has redefined the role of the mother to promote the personal preferences of a select group of women.

… [T]otal motherhood obligates mothers to be experts in everything their children might encounter, to become lay pediatricians, psychologists, consumer products – safety inspectors, toxicologists, educators, and more. Mothers are expected not only to protect their children from immediate threats but also to predict and prevent any circumstance that might interfere with putatively normal development. Total motherhood is a moral code in which mothers are exhorted to optimize every dimension of children’s lives, beginning with the womb, and its practice is frequently cast as a trade-off between what mothers might like and what babies and children must have. When mothers have wants, such as a sense of bodily, emotional, and psychological autonomy, but children have needs, such as an environment in which anything less than optimal is framed as perilous, good mothering is construed as behavior that reduces even minuscule or poorly understood risks to offspring, regardless of potential cost to the mother. (my emphasis)

Breastfeeding has particular significance within this newly defined moral universe:

Breast-feeding is an integral part of the total motherhood discourse. Dubbed “America’s pediatrician” and credited with coining the term “attachment parenting” — which promotes mothers’ constant physical and emotional attachment to their babies — Dr. William Sears is perhaps the country’s best-known breast-feeding advocate. Virtually all of his advice to women takes as its point of departure babies’ needs and the necessity of breast-feeding, and mothers’ well-being is addressed largely through these demands… Sears contends that breast-feeding is better for a baby’s brain, eyes, ears, mouth, throat, kidneys, appendix, urinary tract, joints and muscles, skin, growth, and bowels as well as its respiratory, heart, circulatory, digestive, immune, and endocrine system. The benefits he attributes to breast-feeding are both more extensive and less scientifically defensible than those of the NBAC. “You are doing the most important job in the world,” he tells mothers. “Nothing matters more than this.”

The corrosive nature of such moralizing is on display in public health campaigns designed to promote breastfeeding and in the way that lactivists talk about and treat other women.

… [W]omen’s needs — to work, control their bodies, or sustain an identity independent of their children — become “weaknesses in individual maternal character, to be corrected through educational messages”. This kind of reasoning, which implies that either ignorance, cowardice, or selfishness is behind a mother’s decision not to do what is best for her baby, rests firmly on assumptions about total motherhood in a risk society…

Any woman is free to choose the principles of “total motherhood” for herself and her family. The problem occurs when these women and their supporters assert that what is best for themselves and their families is objectively required either for health reasons or emotional reasons. Lactivists need to understand that their way of looking at the world, and the role of mothers in the world, is only one of many possible ways. While it might currently be a popular view, particularly among Western, white, relatively well educated and relatively well off women, that does not privilege it above other possible ways of understanding the role and obligations of mothers. The “risk society”, “total motherhood” and the view of breastfeeding as a proxy for good mothering are cultural fads, no different than the cultural fads that once considered breastfeeding primitive and ignorant. Lactivists have no right to lie to women about the risks and benefits of breastfeeding, and they have no right to present their view of mothering as superior to anyone else’s view.