Natural childbirth and breastfeeding are class signifiers, not signs of maternal devotion


Natural childbirth advocates and lactivists like to claim that I hate vaginal births and breastfeeding. Never mind that I had four vaginal births and breastfed all four of my children. It seems beyond their powers of reasoning to imagine that someone could choose something for herself without insisting that everyone else ought to choose it too. They cannot fathom that a choice could be “best for me,” but that doesn’t make it “best.”

The claims made about natural childbirth and breastfeeding are not supported by the scientific evidence; benefits are exaggerated by professionals who earn their living from promoting them; and they are fundamentally misogynistic, inevitably requiring as they do re-immuring women into the home. So why has it become conventional wisdom that natural childbirth and breastfeeding are best? Because they denote privilege.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The ugly truth is that breastfeeding has become “best” because only the “best” people can afford to do it.[/pullquote]

Privilege is a sine qua non of natural mothering and not merely the economic privilege that allows natural mothers to purchase expensive specialty products. One must have access to a highly technological lifestyle in order to give meaning to rejecting it.

I’m not the only one who has realized this. So has Elizabeth Carrid-Halkett, although in her book The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class she refers to it a bit differently: natural childbirth and breastfeeding are class signifiers.

Who are the aspirational class? It’s not merely a function of wealth.

…[T]hey reveal their class position through cultural signifiers that convey their acquisition of knowledge and value system—dinner party conversation around opinion pieces, bumper stickers that express political views and support for Greenpeace, and showing up at farmer’s markets. These behaviors and signifiers imply aspirational class values and also suggest the knowledge acquired to form them.


Social norms and goods of the aspirational class reflect an implicit knowledge and procurement of knowledge that informs their consumption practices. Aspirational class leisure, whether reading the Economist, listening to NPR, or taking a yoga class, is imbued with knowledge and productivity in the same spirit as work.

And motherhood is a particular focus of the aspirational class, specifically because of the conspicuous leisure required to “perform” it. That’s why breastfeeding, for example, is so closely associated with maternal education and socio-economic class.

Mothering, writ large, has become a new channel for engaging in what Veblen termed conspicuous leisure. Breast-feeding and birthing practices are the most obvious examples of this, as playing sports or studying Greek were in Veblen’s time. Unlike a Louis Vuitton bag or a luxury car, these signifiers are not explicitly expensive but they do require significant investments of time, an even more precious commodity in modern society…

Wait! Aren’t these practices free for everyone?

While many aspects of motherhood seem costless — birthing choices, co-sleeping, carrying your baby, breastfeeding — women can only engage in these activities if they have the luxury of time and leisure and membership into cultural and social groups that encourage this form of motherhood. Certain maternal choices demonstrate the possession of both time and cultural capital that is truly impossible for many women to attain.

The author references French scholar Roland Barthes and his book Mythologies:

…Through the dominant values upheld by society we create “myths” around particular practices and consumer goods, which become “signifiers” of particular messages or dominant belief systems.

In our society, we have created a myth around motherhood, the myth of “attachment” mothering, which has become a critical signifier of membership in the aspirational class. Breastfeeding — because it can be “performed” before others — has become perhaps the most important signifier of all.

It is mainly prevalent in particular cultural and class groups — women with higher education levels who learn about the benefits of breast-feeding and women of higher income groups who can afford the insurance to deliver in baby-friendly hospitals with round-the-clock nurses and lactation consultants providing breastfeeding classes, expensive and efficient breast pumps, and help throughout the mother’s entire stay. One of the other significant predictors of breast-feeding success is duration of maternity leave: … In the United States, good maternity leave is a rare thing for all women, but those who receive it are primarily women in high-level professional jobs. …

What about everyone else?

…[A]s the sociologist Cynthia Colen summed it up, “In the United States, where only 12 percent of female workers and 5 percent of female low-wage workers have access to paid leave, most women are required to forgo income in order to breast-feed. This may be a less-than-ideal situation for middle-class women but an impossible situation for poor women who already are having trouble making ends meet.

That’s yet another reason why aggressive efforts to promote breastfeeding are cruel in the extreme:

Given that breast-feeding requires a whole host of resources and time that poor mothers may not have, low-income mothers are limited in their ability to breast-feed, even if it is not physiologically based. Breast-feeding might be the ideal choice, but these women often do not have the chance to do so.

The ugly truth is that breastfeeding has become “best” because only the “best” people can afford to do it.

Breastfeeding is the designer handbag of mothering. No woman should feel guilty about not owning a designer handbag and no mother should feel guilty about not breastfeeding. Just as a regular handbag is an excellent way to carry your wallet and car keys, formula feeding is an excellent way to nourish an infant. Contrary to claims of the aspirational class, breastfeeding is merely a class signifier, NOT a sign of maternal devotion.