Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Breast?

Sometimes I really, really wish I was raising my son back home. Other times, I'm relieved that I'm not.

I just read an article in The Atlantic titled, The Case Against Breastfeeding. Wow. Was that author angry! The piece was less about the benefits or detriments of breastfeeding than a rant (an intelligent rant, but a rant nonetheless) about how American society pressures mothers to breastfeed without leaving any room for an alternative. The author (Hanna Rosin) wrote of how formula-feeding is portrayed as tantamount to child abuse by breastfeeding fanatics, and yet science shows breastfeeding to be only marginally better than formula-feeding. She also sounded off about how she hated having to "stay at home breastfeeding" while her husband walked freely out of the door to go to work, and how much harder it is to breastfeed when you're on your third kid and have to make sure that your other two aren't "drowning each other in the tub." In the end, she just wished she could simply opt for a bottle of formula on occasion without being labeled a bad mom.

There'll probably be tons of letters to the editor roasting the author, but I thought it a brave, sensible stance. From what I can tell (from my vantage point across the Atlantic Ocean), attitudes about breastfeeding in the U.S. are strangely paradoxical. There seems to be this enormous pressure to breastfeed, and yet there's also this attitude that must be done in private or specially designated places. This surely must make a mom feel that she can't go just anywhere with her breastfeeding infant and thus is "stuck" at home.

I remember feeling this way when I took LK to the U.S. when he was 4 months old. We went to my 8-year old nephew's football game and as the game went on and on, I began worrying about whether he would need feeding before the game was over. I didn't have anything to cover up with (if those apron-like things exist in Paris, I don't know where to find them), and I felt that it really would have been some gross error in etiquette had I whipped about my boob and started feeding him in the stands. Which annoyed the hell out of me. I mean, he's a baby and he needs to be fed. We all know that. So why can't I just feed him where I was without feeling that I'm making other people feel uncomfortable? No one would have been able to see my breast, even without an apron-thingy. But people would have simply been uncomfortable knowing that my breast was not safely tucked away in a bra, and that my child's mouth was sucking on it.

I was irritated with myself for feeling uncomfortable - why should I care how others feel about me feeding my kid? But I cared all the same. And lest anyone says that it was all in my imagination, both my mom and brother (who were there) thought that feeding him at the game would have been a huge no-no and that I should probably return to the car to feed him, if necessary.

Admittedly, I'm from DC which I find to be an impossibly (socially) converative town. So, maybe it's not like that everywhere. But I get the impression from reading that article that many places in the U.S. are uptight about public breastfeeding. On that same trip to the U.S. I breastfed LK on the Amtrak from DC to New York, and I almost cracked up at the expression on the face of the guy sitting across from me. He looked liked he wished he could have been anywhere, anywhere else....sitting in the dining car...standing in the aisle...still waiting on the freezing cold platform. For some reason, it didn't bother me to feed LK on the train, even though I knew others would be made to feel uncomfortable. I guess it's more initmate than a football stadium.

Now, let me just say that I don't have a phobia about breastfeeding in public. I breastfed LK all over Paris. From the legendary Cafe Flore to the park at Palais Royal to any old Starbucks, I had no problem with it. True, At first I was a little self-conscious, but I quickly realized that it was no big deal. It took my mom a little longer to catch on. The first time I fed LK in public with my mother present, she insisted on holding an old-fashioned cloth diaper in front of us and glared at any passersby who dared look our way. I thought that was hilarious and told her that they were probably staring because they were startled to see a woman holding a big white cloth in front of a breastfeeding mother.

But even while it's no big deal to breastfeed in public here - many French women only maybe a month or two, if that. The stereotype is that French women worry about what will happen to the firmness of their breasts if they breastfeed for too long. I don't know whether it's true -- the few French women that I know with children have breastfeed. (Though I remember being mildly shocked at seeing a picture of a French friend bottle-feeding his newborn son while they were still in the hospital. I immediately realized that this was unfair of me -- I don't know whether there was breastmilk in that bottle, or why they might have been feeding the little one formula. And moreover: it was none of my business. ) But breastfeeders or not, you almost never heard militant views on either side about breastfeeding here -- well, except against breastfeeding toddlers. I can't even imagine a French woman doing that. My mind is simply unable to conjure the picture.

In the end, I'm with Rosin. Perhaps it is better to breastfeed, but it's not such a huge benefit that we can actually distinguish between children that were breastfed and those that were formula fed later in life. As Rosin says, it isn't as if she looks around her daughter's second-grade class and thinks, "Oh, poor little Sophie, whose mother couldn’t breast-feed. What dim eyes she has. What a sickly pallor. And already sprouting acne!” And, though I live in a nation of primarily formula feeders, I don't read about French children having more health problems than American children. It's just unreasonable, I think, to insist that breastmilk is the only path to a healthy child. And I hate the way so many loving, wonderful mothers are made to feel guilty for not being able to breastfeed, and are put under a great deal of pressure to keep trying, keep trying, keep trying, keep trying, even while their child is not thriving on their breastmilk, or the mom is running herself ragged trying to work, and breastfeed, and pump.

I do wish, however, that Rosin had addressed the Puritanical attitudes toward breastfeeding in public. For the 10 months I breastfed my child, I never felt "stuck" at home or "kept down" because I had to breastfeed. Stuck at home because I was exhausted, yes. Stuck at home because there's so few places to change a dirty diaper outside of your house, yes (the idea of changing tables in public restrooms pretty much doesn't exist here). But breastfeeding never slowed me down. In fact, I loved the convenience of it. Once I accidentally locked myself out of my apartment with the kid, and I remember sitting in a Starbucks waiting for my husband to come home, and being very relieved that I carried LK's food with me all the time. And how easy was breastfeeding at night? Just roll over, stick the kid on your breast, wait awhile and put him down, then go back to sleep.

At least that's how I remember it. Check back with me in July.


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