Weaponizing breasts

When it comes to opinions on parenting practices, where you stand often depends on where you sit. That’s not the case for my views on breastfeeding. I successfully breastfed all four of my children until they weaned themselves. Although it was painful and difficult getting started with my first child, I ultimately found breastfeeding easy and enjoyable; my children enjoyed it and they grew like weeds.

But … I recognize that is is often much more difficult for many women, much less appealing and ultimately, not particularly important in the grand scheme of childrearing. That’s why I am extremely disheartened to see how breastfeeding has been turned into a weapon, a weapon used to castigate women who don’t breastfeed and a weapon deployed in marital conflicts.

Two articles in today’s New York Times, highlight the ways in which breastfeeding has been “weaponized.”

In The Milk Wars, author Alissa Quart regrets that breastfeeding has become a way in which lactivists make other women feel bad about their mothering. Instead of women and health professionals berating those who cannot breastfeed or choose not to:

We need more balanced, reassuring voices telling women not to feel guilty if they can’t nurse exclusively for months on end. Given how difficult it is for some women to nurse, we should understand that we might sometimes be asking too much.

And in The Motherlode parenting blog, Breastfeeding and Sex: Is Latching On a Turn-Off?, James Braly laments the impact of very extended breastfeeding on parental sex lives. Braley reports his reaction:

… while watching my wife sit under a tree with my older son, a five-and-a-half-year-old young man with a full set of teeth and chores, stretched out to roughly the size of a foal, suckling. By the time they strolled back to me and my already-nursed toddler son on the picnic blanket, I had lost my appetite — and not just for the smoked salmon. There are some things in life most men cannot share with first-graders, and two of them used to be called breasts…

Braly did not express it this way, but in reality, his wife is using breastfeeding as a weapon against him, insisting that nursing a school age child is more important than sexual intimacy.

How did we get to this point? In my view, this is the result of mythologizing the benefits of breastfeeding.

Quart interviewed me for her piece:

“We’ve moralized breast-feeding,” she told me when I met her for an interview. She argued that it is less important than its advocates claim.

Yes, breastfeeding has real benefits over formula feeding, but, in first world countries, those benefits are actually small and not particularly clinically relevant. Lactivists ignore the fact that the scientific evidence about the benefits of breastfeeding is weak and conflicting, and much of it is rendered meaningless by the many confounding variables.

For example, breastfeeding in contemporary American society is more common among women of higher educational levels and higher economic classes. Therefore, it is often impossible to determine whether benefits in health and on tests that measure IQ may be the result of the improved social conditions in breastfeeding families, not breastfeeding itself.

Despite this, lactivists (generally privileged Western, white women) have declared breastfeeding the sine qua non of good mothering. Even health care professionals have over reacted. As Quart relates, while contemplating formula supplements during her initial attempts to breastfeed her daughter:

The pediatrician swiftly confirmed our fears, intoning, “Formula is evil.” He was implying we were quasi-negligent for even considering it.

Formula is NOT evil. It is a perfectly GOOD way to nourish babies and has saved countless lives. Lactivists forget that formula came into being as a method to save babies whose mothers did not produce enough milk, who couldn’t breastfeed successfully, or (as was all too often the case before the advent of modern obstetrics) were dead.

The reality is that:

… a small group of privileged [Western, white] women hold their own choices choices regarding birth and infant feeding up as standards to which all women should aspire. This is wrong on several levels: there is no objective evidence that the claims of “natural” childbirth advocates and lactivists are true; there is no objective evidence that single moments of motherhood determine the long term well being of a child or determine the strength of the mother-child bond; and insisting that the cultural rituals of a privileged group of women are the standards to which all other women should aspire reinforces existing cultural and economic prejudices.

What are we to make of Mr. Braly’s cri de coeur?

First of all, no school age child needs to breastfeed, nor is there any benefit accruing to the child from continuing to do so. A woman breastfeeds a school age child to meet HER needs, and no one else’s. What might those needs be? They could include the desire to prolong the dependency of a growing child, and an inability to let a child naturally separate from her, both physically and emotionally.

Unfortunately, those needs can also include a desire to hold a partner at bay, both physically and emotionally. Like other elements of “attachment parenting,” such as the family bed and the refusal to leave small children with caretakers (even grandparents, and even for only an evening), very extended breastfeeding can be a way to avoid dealing with trouble in the relationship. It’s much easier for a woman to place the blame for an unsatisfactory sexual relationship on the husband who is turned off by very extended breastfeeding, than to acknowledge that she continues to breastfeed a school age child specifically because she does not want to confront sexual or emotional problems in the relationship.

Braly’s wife needs to put that school age child down and stop using him to meet HER emotional needs and instead confront what is troubling HER. At a minimum, Braley and his wife need to run, not walk, to the nearest marriage counselor to explore what is really going on.

The bottom line, though, is that breastfeeding is one of two EQUALLY HEALTHY, equally acceptable ways to nourish babies and toddlers. It does not make a woman a good mother, let alone a better one, and it is not an all purpose excuse to keep a partner from your bed or avoid confronting relationship issues.

Let’s put breastfeeding in its place as a way to feed babies, and stop weaponizing breasts.