This week over on the “Verdicts” blog for Commonweal Magazine there’s a very interesting post written by Mollie Wilson O’Reilly– writer, breastfeeding mother, and my sister– called “The Womanly Art of Arguing About Breastfeeding.”
In it, Mollie responds to a recent essay in the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine, The tyranny of breast-feeding: New mothers vs. La Leche League, by Elisabeth Badinter. Badinter is the author of the book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, which is heading Stateside this spring after apparently tearing up the European best-seller charts.
Badinter thinks modern mothers have a real problem, and that problem is
liberal motherhood, in thrall to all that is “natural” … tethering women to the home and family to an extent not seen since the 1950s.
And in her excerpt published in Harpers, Badinter goes after a primary target: the La Leche League, for making breastfeeding-in-lockstep the only acceptable modern means of feeding your child, no matter what the cost, for the last 55 years.
Okay. Let’s start from the beginning. Here’s two things everyone in the world should be able to agree on:
- if you can breastfeed your baby, you should, because the health benefits for your baby are clear and undeniable.
- at the same time, breastfeeding can be hard, and nigh-approaching impossible, without patience and support and more than a dash of luck.
It’s been three and a half years since I’ve had the pleasure, but here’s how my sister Mollie (currently a nursing mother as well as a working mother) puts it:
Experts agree it’s best for baby to drink the milk specifically manufactured for that baby, but it’s not so easy to achieve, at least not if you, as a mother, intend to do anything else during those six months… I’m here to tell you that keeping [my son] nourished and happy is wonderful and rewarding and exhausting and hard.
Yes, exactly. And when so many new mothers (like me) get less than no useful information at the hospital, and have no close relatives who breastfed to rely on, but still want to nurse their children, the La Leche League and other breastfeeding support groups become an invaluable resource. According to Badinter as told by O’Reilly, however, that’s when their evil work begins:
Badinter finds a couple good examples of breastfeeding advocacy that cross the line into mania, though she’s very sketchy with her sources. Her quote from “the league” about how parents who don’t breastfeed should be made to feel no less guilty than parents who don’t use a car seat—that’s the kind of thing that makes this whole subject such an argument-starter in parenting circles. But she doesn’t stick to examples of over-the-top breastfeeding militancy. In her telling, everything about La Leche League is sinister.
And I have to say, I think that’s ridiculous.
Sure, I met some intractable nipple-confusion-is-the-worst-thing-that-could-ever-happen-to-your-tiny-baby kooks in my new-to-nursing life. I have even poked fun at a few for fun and profit. But I made sure to say then, and I’m going to say now, that I also met wonderful women who gave generously of their time to new mothers just because they knew it was important. Because they knew breastfeeding WAS hard, not because they wanted to convince us all that it wasn’t.
If the La Leche League really thought breastfeeding was a walk in the park, they wouldn’t have created a national organization to support it. They’re not out to brainwash anyone that it’s easier than bottle-feeding. I don’t really think they’re out to make anyone feel bad, either. They’re just out to help mothers who are overwhelmed and not sure their baby is getting any nourishment at all and are about to give up– and who, with five minutes’ coaching, MIGHT learn something that will enable them to nurse their baby happily, and have that amazing experience. Because it can be that as well.
What do you think? Do you think La Leche League and other breastfeeding “support” make it harder for new mothers by forcing this difficult ideal upon us all? Do you think they make it better for new mothers every day? Or is it, in your experience, a little bit of both?