Sunday, September 12, 2010

How I came to accept feeding a baby from breast or bottle as equally acceptable choices

After the birth of my first baby, I subscribed to two parenting magazines, believing that both will bring valuable perspective to my ongoing education on being a mother. One of them was Mothering, an earth-mama style publication that gave my maternal instincts a lot of validation, while educating me on the hottest controversies in childrearing: vaccines, co-sleeping, attachment parenting, etc.  The other, Working Mother, is an invaluable publication about work-life balance, especially if one needs to know which workplaces have the kinder, gentler policies allowing for mothers to continue working or to return to the workforce. Coming from different angles, both of these magazines helped keeping my sanity in those early, frantic years.

On one issue, however, the two publications disagreed sharply. Mothering advocated breastfeeding zealously, which was my personal position at that time, thus it was easy for me to identify with their point of view. Working Mother, on the other hand, published a provocative article about a bottle-feeding mother, who never even considered breastfeeding and was a self-professed advocate of bottle-feeding as the true feminist choice. Consequently, Working Mother received a slew of letters to the Editor, deriding their choice to give bottle-feeding a “forum,” even in one article. I almost wrote in myself, because I thought there was really no need to advocate for bottle-feeding, a practice already sufficiently widespread in the U.S. And while breastfeeding is becoming the dogma in medical circles, there is still a long way ahead until it becomes (again) the norm.  As this article about an Ohio case demonstrates, smart lawyering can achieve a state Supreme Court decision stating that a woman fired for "unauthorized lactation breaks" was not discriminated against because of her gender or pregnancy-related condition. 

While I was thinking about what I would write to the Editor of Working Mother, I reflected on my own prejudices against bottle-feeding.

Like my fellow blogger admits here, some feminists view stay-at-home mothers as the losers of a zero-sum game. The same is true with women who are committed to breastfeed despite its inconveniences and pains (and also on demand of the baby, until such time as both of the parties involved agree that it’s best to stop): they often view bottle-feeding mothers with a dash of pity for losing out on creating such a special bond with their child. But there is no need to view breastfeeding as an “either/or” proposition and, certainly, there is no need to get our feathers fluffed over other women's informed decisions.

I came to advocate for breastfeeding to only those who have yet to make their decision, but once that informed decision is made, it is quite futile to try to convince women to switch to the "other side." Not only futile, it is likely anti-feminist to harangue one another because of our mothering choices. Women are absolutely capable of making these choices for themselves, and to educate themselves on the issues before making a decision. We, feminists, have to acknowledge this capability of all women, and avoid putting pressure on them to conform to any set protocol. It is also unnecessary to attach emotional significance to another mother’s rational choice in childrearing. Some mothers may want to create bonds with their babies in other ways, and if they are ingenuous enough to do so, the better for all of us. Women who experiment with different childrearing ideas are the ones who can share these ideas later with the rest of us.

In the end, I exclusively breastfed my first baby until she was 2.5 years old. With the second one, I was less anxious to be the perfect earth-mama, and I chose to supplement my dwindling supply with formula. That choice, in the end, has benefited us both, and opened my mind about the considerable need for flexibility in parenting. I ended up embracing my femininity, and my instincts as a mother, as parts of the complex that make me unique, and a more efficient participant in today’s co-ed workforce. But I also learned to judge other mothers less based their choices in childrearing, because there are as many flavors of it as are mothers.


Rebecca said...

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, employers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) are now required to furnish “reasonable” breaks to nursing mothers to express milk for their infants. This is a new provision that states that:
An employer shall provide:
(A) a reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth; and
(B) a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.
There are two exceptions to these requirements under the health care law:
Employers are not required to pay employees who take a breastfeeding break—unless a state law says otherwise.

An employer with less than 50 employees is exempt if the requirements would “impose an undue hardship” by causing it “significant difficulty or expense” as compared to the employer’s size, resources and business structure.

As a working mother back in the early days of mothers who breast-fed, I was left to fend for myself. There was no accommodation that my employer made to provide for a private, clean place to pump. There were many days where I felt I would be forced to give up nursing early because of the barriers that work posed. With the new requirements, employers will have to provide nursing moms with a private place, other than a restroom, to use a breast pump.

Chez Marta said...

Thanks, Rebecca, for the helpful comment. In the case referred to above, the winning employer's attorney succeeded in proving that the mother there failed to request the lactation breaks. I have a nagging feeling that she actually requested those breaks, orally, and she was perhaps ridiculed into giving up on actually receiving such breaks. It brings to my mind the case where a junior associate at a law firm was ridiculed and harangued, almost forced into giving up breastfeeding. Other associates surrounded her office when she was taking her break and made "moo" sounds. Very sophisticated.

If I were a judge, I would view any claims by employers that the employee did not request the lactation breaks with intense suspicion.