Admittedly, most talk of the health care bill and the state of medical care in our country causes my eyes to glaze over. (Apologies to my many friends who are talented, valuable doctors.) But this spring, new research was released with quite a splash, catching my attention.
The recent study said that the lives of 900 babies could be saved, along with billions of dollars in lost employee wages, if 90% of American women breastfed their babies exclusively for the first six months. I am not sure which part of that goal stuns me more – the 90%, the six months or the “exclusively.”
When you really think through those demands, it is no wonder that only 12% of American mothers currently comply with that goal. And they’re hoping for a 600% improvement – even for the government, those are some pretty high expectations.
Sure, I’m all for solving the deficit and saving lives, but aren't there far more insidious foes out there than suboptimal breastfeeding rates? For example, smoking during pregnancy is said to cause more than 1,000 deaths annually. And yet, more than 12% of women report smoking during the last three months of pregnancy. I’ll go out on a limb of deductive reasoning here and say that 12% is not the same 12% that breastfeed exclusively.
I lend full support to the efforts of the study, The Burden of Suboptimal Breastfeeding in the United States: breastfeeding-friendly legislation, more support for nursing mothers in the workplace, and more breastfeeding help for new mothers in our hospitals.
However, a goal of 90% of American mothers to breastfeed exclusively for six months is an effort I cannot rally behind, and nor frankly, as a woman and citizen, do I think it is a very healthy goal. Sure, doctors and researchers have been able to put numbers and dollars on losses due to the nation’s breastfeeding rates. But what they haven’t looked at is what these “suboptimal” rates have prevented or gained for American women, children and families. Where are the statistics on how many marriages have been saved by limiting breastfeeding? Or simply what postpartum independence has meant for women’s mental health, and their confidence and trust in their relevance outside the domestic sphere?
When baby comes home from the hospital, there are those few first magical days of shared responsibility with your lab partner. And then, inevitably, someone’s got to take charge. With breastfeeding, there is no question who is in charge: the authority, the source, the expert, the ultimate backstop. And for many, so begins the road of resentment. A road on which it is very difficult to make a U-turn.
For many women and couples, having a baby is an epochal event, after which a tenuous level of shared responsibility and psychological equality can be recovered. Half a year of exclusive breastfeeding would make such reparations nearly impossible.
I suffer this bizarrely narcissistic relationship to many of the challenges of parenting and find myself frequently thinking, "If it’s this hard for me, imagine what it’s like for..." Breastfeeding was no exception.
For me, nursing was fine. Which is a far cry from saying it was easy. I can still recall the nights with my firstborn when we’d play our own little game of "who can cry longer, baby or mother?" And of course, it’s strategic cousin, "who can cry louder?" (That one was more fun during daylight hours while Slim was away.)
I nursed each of my children for respectable terms – 3 months, 5 months and an almost embarrassing 10 months. I stayed at home. I worked. I used a pump (and there is nothing stylish about the Pump-In-Style). I nursed in the Nordstrom’s "Mother’s Lounge" and pumped in the dressing room at The Gap. I breastfed in the front seat of the car on I-95, though never while driving. I even breastfed on a bathroom floor in Dallas while wearing a bridesmaid’s dress. It was novel, it was never elegant, and it always struck me as more science fiction than biblical.
I do not resent breastfeeding, my children, or my nearly perfect husband. I do resent the expectation that after carrying a baby for nine months, American women should surrender control for six more months.
Because it’s not just the physical and time commitments that breastfeeding requires (which at 6 to 18 hours a day is, no doubt, significant). Being a nursing mother overrides everything. It dictates what you do and don’t eat and drink, your sleep schedule and where you can go, when and for how long. It even holds sway over what you wear. For an entire six months.
If that weren’t enough, the real rub is what women give up psychologically during that time. There’s the illusion that you can return to any previously held status of equality at home or in the workplace, and that others’ perception of you, your value, and indispensability will not be affected. Well, that notion is a four-ounce Avent bottle of expressed milk gone bad.
An entirely different, more compelling study was released just last month: You Can’t Be Happier than Your Wife: Happiness Gaps and Divorce. I know, sounds like complete common sense, but I love a good study by German experts in "economy and well-being." And here’s what they found: the happiness gap increased when the wife handled most of the housework. As they say in German, "duh." But they also discovered that unlike other benefits in a marriage, happiness cannot be redistributed between spouses. You can share happiness. And be happy for one another. But his happiness cannot become her happiness.
Its conclusions? "When spouses 'agree' on too unequal a distribution of welfare, this puts the durability of their marriage at risk... public policy should avoid giving spouses incentives that lead to diverging levels of happiness. Individual income and employment have been shown to be among the main determinants of happiness; policies that affect the division of labor inside households should keep this in mind."
In a word, be careful what you wish for. Blue-ribbon breastfeeding goals could -- in the extreme -- lead to increased divorce, depression, and long-term damage to the delicate ecosystem of gender roles in our families, workplaces and society. At the very least, the effort sanctions the message to women that their children and domestic duties come first. For women and researchers for whom long-term breastfeeding is the answer, the question certainly needs to be asked: at what cost?
Molly Baker writes at Playgroup with Sylvia Plath and is a freelance reporter for The Wall Street Journal and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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