All the Opinion That's Fit to Print About Breast-Feeding

This weekend in The New York Times, two writers put their two cents into the piggy bank that is America's Obsession with Breast-feeding. One is a woman. The other is a man. Let's talk it out. 

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This weekend in The New York Times, two writers put their two cents in the piggy bank that is America's Obsession with Breast-feeding. One is a woman. The other is a man. Both argued that formula is still a choice, as is short-term breast-feeding, despite what that mom on that Time cover seemed to be telling us. Since both writers arrived at a similar (pro-milk-choice) conclusion, is gender an issue in this debate?

Let's start with some history.

Although the stream of arguments for and against various methods of breast-feeding seem endless lately, they are not new. As Hannah Rosin explained last April in The Atlantic, these debates date back to the invention of formula. We began to disagree about nursing as soon as we had an alternative.

In "The Case Against Breast-feeding," Rosin writes:

Formula grew out of a late-19th-century effort to combat atrocious rates of infant mortality by turning infant feeding into a controlled science. Pediatrics was then a newly minted profession, and for the next century, the men who dominated it would constantly try to get mothers to welcome “enlightenment from the laboratory,” writes Ann Hulbert in Raising America.

So, formula was created and pushed by male pediatricians. Got it. Then came the push-back. According to Rosin:

[N]ow and again, mothers would fight back. In the U.S., the rebellion against formula began in the late ’50s, when a group of moms from the Chicago suburbs got together to form a breast-feeding support group they called La Leche League. 

...La Leche League mothers rebelled against the notion of mother as lab assistant, mixing formula for the specimen under her care. Instead, they aimed to “bring mother and baby together again.”

Over time, Rosin explains, the anti-formula movement took on a "feminist edge." Says Rosin:

In 1971, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective published Our Bodies, Ourselves...[The book] grew out of “frustration and anger” with a medical establishment that was “condescending, paternalistic, judgmental and non-informative.” Teaching women about their own bodies would make them “more self-confident, more autonomous, stronger,” the authors wrote. Breasts were not things for men to whistle and wink at; they were made for women to feed their babies in a way that was “sensual and fulfilling.” 

Today, with women in the workforce and the number of single mothers on the rise, both breast-feeding purists and women too busy (or uninterested) to breast-feed can be feminists. In this Sunday's New York Times, Alissa Quart detailed her difficulties with attempting to follow the breast-milk-only protocol, and said that "the heightened pressure to breast-feed creates shame in those who don't manage to do it." Considering that fewer than half of American babies are breast-fed for six months, there are a lot of people who "don't manage to do it."

Says Quart:

Breast-feeding exclusively for the first year is just not feasible for many women, who sometimes get six weeks of paid maternity leave but often get none. Choosing formula as a supplement is reasonable, given this reality. 

...We need more balanced, reassuring voices telling women not to feel guilty if they can’t nurse exclusively for months on end. 

Quart is no less of a feminist than the Our Body women. But instead of chanting pro-breast-feeding slogans, she advocates for more paid maternity leave, and in the meantime, she supplements the natural stuff with formula.

In The New York Times' Motherlode blog on Sunday, James Braly issued a much different argument against prolonged breastfeeding. This argument can be summarized in one word: boobs. [Which is proof that my colleague Jen Doll was right.]

In "Breast-feeding and Sex: Is Latching On a Turn-off?" Braly details the disgust he experiences while watching his wife breast-feed their son well into toddlerdom. (This is the kind of essay every woman wants her husband to publish in The New York Times, by the way.) He argues that nursing should be a decision made between a man and a woman. Because once a woman gets pregnant, she loses partial ownership of her boobs. In paragraph that aims a double barrel shotgun at the good ol' Our Body women, Braly writes:

[T]o everyone chanting “My Body! My Choice!” I say, “Your Body! Our Nookie!” We are in this together, women and children, men — and breasts.

Your Body, Our Nookie. With exclamation points. Deep breaths.

Braly argues that women should be mindful of the impact breast-feeding has on their husbands. Then he argues that this impact is usually negative.

A recent (if highly dubious) study of Brooklyn families linked helicopter mothering with philandering. The argument: a mother who hovers over her little prince or princess too long leaves the former king of the castle feeling increasingly powerless, and likelier to seek a queen on the side.

Other men — me, for example — might be driven to engage in something even worse: sexless fidelity. Mine crystallized in Central Park one evening, while watching my wife sit under a tree with my older son, a five-and-a-half-year-old young man with a full set of teeth and chores, stretched out to roughly the size of a foal, suckling. 

...For what man in a committed relationship has not considered having sex with someone other than his breast-feeding partner? Someone he knows or — if he’s a sports star or a politician — a waitress at the diner or a videographer who tells him he’s hot. 

Luckily, Braly is not a politician or a sports star. But he does have an invisible trophy. It is inscribed, "Opinion Piece on Breast-Feeding Most Likely to Ensure Its Writer Never Touches Breasts Again. With love, The Our Body Leche League."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.