It’s Mat Leave Monday! Today I’m talking about an article that appeared in The Atlantic, called “The Case Against Breast-Feeding“. What does this have to do with maternity leave? Read on to find out. 🙂
“The Case Against Breast-Feeding“, written by Hanna Rosin, has been tearing up the blogosphere for a little over a week. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading the article. For a few days I read only various bloggers’ reactions, and I found that my impression was off-base. Although I disagree with most of what Rosin has to say, I think it’s an interesting read and it helped me clarify my own beliefs, if only for myself.
Anyways, here are Rosin’s main points as I see them:
1. Breastfeeding takes a lot of time, and is difficult (or impossible) to juggle with paid employment.
2. Breastfeeding is the exclusive domain of women, creating inequity in shared parenting.
3. The health benefits of breastfeeding may be exaggerated.
4. It’s perfectly valid to choose not to breastfeed, and maybe even preferable for some people.
Here is a quote from the article:
The debate about breast-feeding takes place without any reference to its actual context in women’s lives. Breast-feeding exclusively is not like taking a prenatal vitamin. It is a serious time commitment that pretty much guarantees that you will not work in any meaningful way. Let’s say a baby feeds seven times a day and then a couple more times at night. That’s nine times for about a half hour each, which adds up to more than half of a working day, every day, for at least six months. This is why, when people say that breast-feeding is ‘free,’ I want to hit them with a two-by-four. It’s only free if a woman’s time is worth nothing.
I think that instead of making a case against breast-feeding, Rosin is actually making a very good case for long-term, paid maternity leave. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, short maternity leaves correlate with lower breastfeeding rates. And it makes sense to me, as a nursing mom. You can pump and exclusively breastfeed while you’re working, but it’s often challenging, particularly if you work in an environment where break time and private space are not readily available. It’s simply easier to breastfeed when you have easy around-the-clock access to your baby, like I enjoy right now on maternity leave.
But let’s say you don’t breastfeed. Does that mean you don’t need access to maternity leave? Not at all. As Rosin also points out, one of the issues with breastfeeding studies is that it’s difficult to filter out other factors that contribute to infant health and development. It may look like the magic of breast milk creates benefits when it’s really something else entirely, like more interaction while the baby’s nursing. Many nursing behaviours create benefits that have nothing to do with the magic of breast milk, and everything to do with the way an infant attaches to a primary caregiver.
If that’s true, then it means that all babies benefit from good maternity leave policies. They all share the same need for attachment and stimulation. And by extending parental leave to fathers and partners as well, infants receive the opportunity to form bonds with multiple caregivers. Babies benefit, and if they choose to parents can resume their careers at a point when their babies are more developmentally ready for separation. No one is forced to choose between spending the critical early days with their baby and maintaining paid employment.
I haven’t really addressed the argument for or against breastfeeding here. And I won’t, beyond saying that I’m not sure I agree with Rosin’s assessment of the science. But either way I don’t think that matters. I think the point is that while women often bear the lion’s share of the childbearing load, family-friendly policies help make it manageable. Policies such as maternity leave value the time parents spend parenting, and also value their contribution to the work force.
What about you? Have you read Rosin’s article? Do you have another take? I’d love to hear your thoughts.