I’ve just finished reading the recent interview in Macleans with author Joan B. Wolf, titled “Why breastfeeding is overrated”. Wolf is the author of the new book Is Breast best?: Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Motherhood. In the interview, Wolf discusses her opinion that “Science has not demonstrated that breastfeeding is medically superior to formula-feeding”
Breastmilk is not a “magical elixir”, it is biologically normal. As much as some people would like to forget the truth, we are all in fact mammals, and mammals nurse their young. Common sense should tell us that milk from our own species is better for us than the milk of a species whose stomach has four chambers. Cow’s milk is meant for baby cows and has to be extensively processed, with some components taken out and others added, in order for it to be somewhat of an approximation of human milk. Formula has it’s place, and thank goodness we have it available in those times when it is truly needed, however the risks of not breastfeeding are well documented and supported by a large body of evidence. You can read more about why Ms. Wolf’s arguments against the breastfeeding research don’t make sense at Analytical Armadillo.
What amazes me though, is the fact that so many people need “evidence” to tell them that breastmilk is better suited to human biology than formula. How did we, as a society get that so bass ackwards? (I do know the answer to that, but that’s another post). Breastmilk, and breastfeeding are the biological norm for our species and the reason the formula companies spend billions of dollars every year on marketing, is because they don’t have the evidence to prove that their product is better than breastmilk. The research about breastmilk is fascinating, but it shouldn’t be news to anyone that all of the various components of breastmilk have an important impact on the health of our children. It also shouldn’t be news that there are negative consequences to our children missing out on human milk and the breastfeeding relationship.
Ms. Wolf feels that breastfeeding is a feminist issue, and that there is too much pressure on mothers to breastfeed. The article in Macleans got me thinking about my own ideas about feminism, and for me, it isn’t about demanding to be equal to men in every aspect of society. Sure, women can do almost anything a man can, however as women and mothers, we have a unique contribution to make that is different from what a man can contribute (just as men have their own unique contributions that are different from women’s). That unique contribution should be valued and integrated into society without forcing women to reject their own biology.
In trying to conform and be accepted into a patriarchal society, women have learned to ignore their instincts for mothering. Those who are still able to hear their instincts are not supported in trying to follow them. Why are we as women so desperate to ignore our own biology in order to fit into an outdated model of what society should be? My idea of an inclusive society is one where mothering is valued for the profound impact it has on our children. Women would be supported and possibly compensated in their choice to stay home, but also supported and included in the workforce if they choose to return to work. On-site daycares, flexible scheduling, dedicated pumping rooms, etc. would allow women to maintain the closeness to their children that is so important for their development, and yet still remain as an active part of the workforce.
All mothers want what is best for their children, and most mothers want to breastfeed (which is why breastfeeding initiation rates are high). Many women stop breastfeeding however, in the first few weeks after birth. This is not because mothers are failing at breastfeeding, or because breastfeeding isn’t natural. It is because society is failing mothers. Doctors and other health care providers have little to no training about breastfeeding, there is a lack of publicly funded support for breastfeeding mothers, formula marketing and misinformation about breastfeeding are rampant, and mothers are made to feel ashamed to nurse their children in public. To me it is the opposite of feminism to be trying to fit ourselves into our patriarchal society rather than demanding that society change to welcome and include mothers. The fact that many women in North America still do not have at least one full year of maternity leave shows how little our society values the role of the mother. It also shows how little understanding there is about the importance of mothering. I don’t think that we expect too much of mothers, I think we expect far too little from society.