A few months after my boys were born I stumbled across a message board for twin moms, I really started to enjoy the tips and the sense of community that I gained from reading and posting on the site. One of the things I enjoyed most was the forum for breastfeeding mothers, which gave me a strong sense of belonging and encouragement, and at that time, I needed encouragement. Breastfeeding was and is a struggle for me. I don’t know how things would be different if I was trying to feed only one baby, but I know breastfeeding two babies is one of the hardest things I have done. While the Mommy message board is a great source of support for breastfeeding, it’s also a place where many of the most contentious elements of motherhood and womanhood are laid bare. Sometimes it’s the stereotypical Mommy Wars– women in the paid labor force and women not in the paid labor force– but one of the more contentious debates is the bottle vs. breast debate.
And I’ve become aware of what might, for lack of a better term, be called the “boob war” — a sub-conflict within the larger “Mommy War” that continues to rage, exasperating and frightening and dividing women. And into this fight comes a bombshell article in the new Atlantic Monthly: Hanna Rosin’s The Case Against Breastfeeding. More on the article later. (Cap taps, belatedly and with apologies, to Rod Dreher and to Scott.)
The term “Mommy Wars” generally refers to the public and private debates, common among the middle and upper-middle classes of the developed world, about what makes a “good” mother. For years, the chief front in these wars has been the battle over daycare and work outside the home, though other conflicts rage in areas like nutrition and natural childbirth….
I read the Rosin piece; someone posted it on the twin Mommy board. I felt a great deal of sympathy for the mother who posted it. She said it helped her to feel less guilt about not breastfeeding, and from that point a discussion ensued with many formula feeding mother’s talking about how they feel that breastfeeding mothers are looking upon them unfavorably.
I’ll be frank; I don’t like the article, but there is one part of the article that stands out as true to me1 :
In her critique of the awareness campaign, Joan Wolf, a women’s-studies professor at Texas A&M University, chalks up the overzealous ads to a new ethic of “total motherhood.” Mothers these days are expected to “optimize every dimension of children’s lives,” she writes. Choices are often presented as the mother’s selfish desires versus the baby’s needs.
I have a great deal of empathy with mothers today who are striving to mother under a mothering ideology that demands perfection. What I also find fascinating is how both breastfeeding and formula feeding mothers really have the same underlying feelings; both groups feeling that their decision on infant feeding is not respected. Anytime these kinds of issues come up the Mommy board mantra is “do what works for you” “don’t judge each other’s parenting.” The down side is that this places limitations on honest communications between these mothers, and the upside is that mother’s, who are already operating under ideology that demands parenting perfection, feel validated.
Nevertheless, topics like this are hotly contested on Mommy boards, and one thing I find most fascinating is that many Mommies blame each other, not the dominant ideology. Here’s how I respond to the debate over this article on the Mommy board:
Women’s “choices” are often very heavily scrutinized, I wouldn’t say it’s primarily from women but from the entire society, and the hidden radical feminist in me says it’s because women as a class are not truly free. Every behavior that we engage in is held to a different set of standards than our male counterparts, and as you say we damned if we do and damned if we don’t. The can be extended to the abortion debate, the SAHM (stay at home mom) vs. working mom debate, debates over women and domestic violence, debates over women and plastic surgery, debates over hormone replacement therapy, and the list could go on and on. And I guess what bothers me is that we consistently divide women into dichotomies–e.i. virgins/w*hores, good girls and bad girls, bi*ches and nice girls. Thus, all of our behaviors are viewed in this context. I use the term choices loosely because I think that society convinces us that we have more choices than we really do. So many of our behaviors (or “choices”) occur in a societal context where we are so heavily scrutinized that our freedom is limited. It’s limited by peer pressure, it’s limited by sexism; it’s limited by patriarchal ideology; it’s limited by bottom line capitalism; it’s limited by racism; it’s limited by poverty; and I’m sure I could come up with a host of other factors that tell us “choices” are not just personal decisions.
Unfortunately this is where this crabs in a barrel problem comes in because we all feel heavily scrutinized but rather than blaming the social system that creates this mess we blame each other, and no matter what our so called “choice,” the constraints on our full personhood are still there.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also say that constraints on mothering are radically different in diverse groups of women. For example, the breastfeeding vs. formula feeding debate has much different meaning for middle and upper income white women living in the US than it does for poor women of color in developing countries. The the structures of gender, race, class, sexuality, and nationhood operate simultaneously.
I’m not one who think women all have to tow the line and agree with each other, but what gets lost in translation is how social forces much greater than us shape our “choices” to formula feed, breastfeed, or combo feed our kids.
- I have several critiques of the Atlantic Monthly article that I would like to touch on in another post. [↩]