Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Breastfeeding - is it mandatory?

The recent articles about the so-called Twitter Wars and Badinter's book got me thinking. If breastfeeding gives children an advantage, how can we justify the choice to use formula? After reading The Conflict, I adjusted my own views on the subject, realizing that we shouldn't be trying to shame or pressure women into one feeding method. Advocates of breastfeeding made comments on these articles that implied any mother who gives her child "less than the best" mustn't love their kids as much as the commenter does.

I find two things wrong with this assumption.  One, the mother is no less important and worthy a person as her child.  When what you are asking a women to give up is a great sacrifice (her career, pain or difficulty breastfeeding) and the gain to the child is moderate, it is reasonable to make the decision that is best for the family as a whole (the former Terry Fisher student in me wants to call it Pareto efficient).  To do otherwise creates an expectation of motherhood that regards self-sacrifice as mandatory and unending, and dismisses the notion that the mother's needs matter as well.

Secondly, every mother, no matter how dedicated, is going to miss some opportunity to give their child an advantage.  The mothers that sat on Facebook all afternoon arguing about breastfeeding could have otherwise taken their children to the park or to the library, so they missed an opportunity to improve their child's health or intellect.  The mothers who stay home instead of working are depriving their daughters of an additional role model of an independent career woman, and perhaps of a psychologically healthier and smarter mom.  At least you're depriving them of the advantages the additional salary could have made, such as organic vegetables or private tutors.

And when the kids are in school?  Instead of gardening, you could have been attending a free online university to teach yourself about physics and calculus and be a better homework helper when they're in high school.  Heck, you could do this instead of sleeping.  Do you really need a full six hours?  How selfish!

My point is, at some point even these saintly LLL mothers make choices that favor their own welfare over slight advantages to their kids.  It is just that breastfeeding is a more obvious battlefield of this calculus since it is biologically natural. 

If you're a naturalist, by all means, breastfeeding is going to be the choice for you.  However, naturalism is a philosophy, not an ethical mandate.  Nature just is, it isn't a moral dictate.  There is nothing inherently unethical about wearing eyeglasses or taking the subway, or many of the other unnatural acts that we do every day.  So because breastfeeding is natural doesn't mean you're a bad mother if you don't do it, and just because childbearing is natural doesn't mean it's mandatory.  We have to make our choices on an individual basis based on the specifics of the situation. 

Lastly, I want to acknowledge that as someone without kids, I absolutely lack any experience in these matters.   Considering just how much those with experience disagree, I don't know that having a child is especially helpful in finding an answer.  Maybe not ever having to make this choice gives me a unique outsider opinion.  In any case, the recent slew of childfree-relevant articles that concerned breastfeeding, combined with my reading of Badinter's book, created a rush of ideas I felt like sharing.

Technorati Tag:


finrind said...

Well, there are claims out there that actual research is unable to provide convincing evidence that breastfeeding really gives a child advantage:
So, ultimately, the question is not even whether to make such a huge sacrifice for definite good, it is a question of whether to make this sacrifice for the value that may or may not be added.

CM said...

Odd topic for a childfree blog!
My position on breastfeeding is similar to my position on abortion: I think ideally, every baby would be breastfed (because I have more faith in human biology than in drug/food companies) and no woman would ever need an abortion, but in the real world, there are so many factors that go into these decisions. We can't possibly imagine them all, nor can we judge what is right for an individual person or family that is not ours. So we should accept that there are valid decisions either way, and try to trust people to make their own decisions without judging them. (Hey, there is a connection to the childfree theme! What do you know.)