Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On Request: Parenting Under Pressure

We have a topic request! Sarah writes:

I've heard people say that breastfeeding, cloth diapering, and making your own baby food actually take women back a few steps and further tie us to the home and our babies. But others say that breastfeeding, especially, is an empowering experience for women. What are your thoughts on the issue? Does it all lie in the fact that we have the power to CHOOSE how we raise our children?

The short response is, yes, these choices are absolutely ones that should be made on an individual parent-by-parent basis. The DIY approach appeals to some more than others; I would rather take a hard punch to the nose than knit something, but to each their own.

This is complicated by the fact that parents are not able to make their child-rearing decisions in a vacuum. On the contrary, parents are subjected to incredible pressures by their families, friends, and even perfect strangers to raise their children in particular ways. Some of these choices vary by region, and some are nationwide.

The pressure to breastfeed seems to fall into the latter category. A number of organizations, including the Ohio Department of Health and PETA, fund billboards that push the breastfeeding option. "Breast is best" is heard over and over. It is yet another example of our society's collective efforts to control women's health care decisions. I imagine that it requires a not-tiny amount of personal courage for any woman to decide not to breastfeed in the face of such monolithic public opinion.

Furthermore, the attitude that only breast milk will do can cause undue emotional distress for women who would choose to breastfeed, but cannot. And this is despite the fact that a lack of breastmilk is hardly the fault of the mother, and that babies can certainly thrive on formula. (Just to be clear, though, I totally understand how one might look forward to the experience and be disappointed when it doesn't happen, a feeling which is separate and distinct from the artificially induced guilt I'm talking about.)

To summarize, I feel that the decision to breastfeed (or to use cloth diapers, or to sew your child's clothing, etc.) or not is a personal decision to be made by a child's parents. The rest of us have the responsibility to respect that decision, and enable parents to raise their children as best as they can. In the case of breastfeeding, I am simultaneously in favor of increased time off/facilities/resources for mothers to breastfeed and pump and also in favor of backing off on the "breast is best" rhetoric.

As this blog is written entirely by childless women, I would love to hear about the experiences of actual parents, especially mothers, in the comments section.


  1. Another interesting issue that goes hand-in-hand with breastfeeding is whether or not we will be shocked/scandalized by women who breast feed in public. There seems to be a particular aversion to it in the USA, while in Ecuador, for example, it is an odd day that you DON'T see a woman breastfeeding on the bus, in the park, etc. It seems that, in order to avoid hypocrisy, if people want to push breastfeeding, then they also need to push for acceptance of public breast feeding. Given that a recent Attorney General decided to cover up a pair of MARBLE BREASTS ON A PUBLIC STATUE, we have some work to do.

  2. I'm old enough to remember when breast-milk was considered less nutritious than formula, and women were discouraged from breast-feeding. THAT was insane. I admit to being uncomfortable seeing women breast-feed in public, but I simply need to adjust. The world changes.

  3. I have been wanting to post a response to this for awhile, but haven't had the chance. Baby is with dad this morning and we are slow, so I'm gonna do it! :)

    Thanks again for posting a response to my question - I never realized until I became pregnant just how controversial pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting can be.

    In regards to the 'breast is best' being repeated over and over, and how women can feel badly if they don't breastfeed, the reverse is also true. A lot of women who truly want to breastfeed don't get the support they need. If it weren't for my pediatrician, I don't know if I would have been successful. I was definitely NOT doing it right, and it's definitely NOT this natural, instinctual thing! If women think that it's supposed to be, and then find that it's more difficult than they thought, then they brand themselves a failure and switch to formula. I'm not saying that women shouldn't use formula if that's what they want or need to do, but they need to be given the SUPPORT to succeed at breastfeeding if that's their desire. Or the support to formula feed, if that's their desire. Support is paramount no matter their choices (well, unless they're feeding their baby root beer and Combos).

    There is something else I've also learned in my almost 2-year journey as a pregnant woman and mom. It never ceases to amaze me how women seem to be programmed by society to criticize ourselves AND each other instead of being supportive. Of course I know a lot of wonderful, supportive women who have been integral to my health and happiness, but just the same there are a lot of women who degrade and criticize others for doing something different from themselves. And Kyrie is right - so what if a woman chooses formula? Circumcision for her baby boy? Cloth diapers? Vaccinations? It's her choice to make for her family - support her or keep your ever-lovin' trap SHUT (unless she's harming her children, of course).

    I also wanted to share this article, as I feel it relates.

  4. I'm with Anne. I tried so hard to breastfeed and couldn't. I had a lot of support through doctors, lactation consultants, and my husband. When it didn't work I was crushed, but my daughter is still thriving. I just can't stand women who don't know me or my situation yet still criticize my choices. HAVING choices is not enough--we need to support each other in those choices. I CHOSE to be a stay-at-home mom but worry constantly that people make assumptions about our family and our view of women based on what we decided was right for us. No, I'm not a fundamentalist Christian, a Republican, or a "housewife," and I am certainly not less intelligent than my husband. We all know what happens to those who ASSume... :)