Why not simply brand bottlefeeding mothers with a scarlet B?

Has Mayor Bloomberg lost his mind?

Mayor Bloomberg is pushing hospitals to hide their baby formula behind locked doors so more new mothers will breast-feed.

Starting Sept. 3, the city will keep tabs on the number of bottles that participating hospitals stock and use — the most restrictive pro-breast-milk program in the nation.

How on earth could he imagine that treating infant formula like prescription medication is a remotely defensible use of government power? Perhaps he’s been spending too much time in lactivist-land, that fantastical alternate world where breastfeeding is easy, cost free and only undermined by imaginary social and cultural pressures.

If so, he’s not alone. All too many, Western, white women, relatively well off women have elevated their personal preferences into a standard to which all other women should aspire. And if they don’t aspire to emulate Western, white women? They should be regulated and punished into doing so, of course.

The dirty little secret about the latest efforts to promote breastfeeding (prohibiting formula gift bags, denying bottle feeding WIC mothers the same benefits as breastfeeding mothers, hiding formula in hospitals) is that they are purposely punitive, vindictive and serve only to bolster the self image of those implementing them. I suspect if lactivists thought they could get away with it, they’d propose branding bottlefeeding mothers with a scarlet “B”.

I’m not the first person to have noted the self-serving, moralizing that undergirds current attempts to promote breastfeeding. As Amy Romagnoli and Glenda Wall write in a new paper, ‘I know I’m a good mom’: Young, low-income mothers’ experiences with risk perception, intensive parenting ideology and parenting education programmes:

… Teen/young mothers and their children are generally accepted by professionals and society as an ‘at risk’ social group in need of surveillance and intervention. Macvarish (2010) outlines how the ‘discourse of risk’ has replaced the former overt moralisation of the ‘unwed mother’, yet functions to maintain society’s view of teen motherhood as a social threat by casting the young mother as lacking necessary rationality to manage risk. The resulting ‘social problem’ of teen motherhood is a construction based on white middle-class ideals and rooted in politically and historically specific understandings of female sexuality, education and occupational attainment…

… [T]he assumption made … is that older mothers always bond with, stay at home with, and feel no ambivalence about their children. This in turn serves to legitimate intervention on the mothering practices of the young, and parenting classes are often seen as an essential component of such intervention

The latest efforts to regulate infant feeding aren’t merely restricted to punishing the behavior of young, unmarried women. Contemporary lactivists want to punish anyone who doesn’t emulate them. It would be more accurate to state:

The ‘social problem’ of bottle feeding is a construction based on white middle-class ideals and rooted in politically and historically specific understandings of female sexuality, education and occupational attainment…

The assumption made is that Western, white, relatively well off good mothers always bond with, stay at home with, and feel no ambivalence about their children. Therefore, it is legitimate to regulate the mothering practices of anyone who does not emulate them.

These attempts at regulating infant feeding choices are wrong and a blatant misuse of government power. The benefits of breastfeeding are too small, the costs of breastfeeding are too high, and the utter lack of evidence that such efforts are effective combine to reveal these practices for what they really are: the contemporary effort of “good” mothers to shame and punish those who are “bad” mothers, “bad” only because they don’t copy their “betters.”

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