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The Politics of the Pump

How breast-feeding became the new front in the Mommy Wars — and why I'm going to breast-feed my first child.

The Mommy Wars are alive and well. In the latest skirmish, the attack is squarely on the most womanly of arts: breast-feeding. Harvard historian Jill Lepore fires the first volley in the January issue of The New Yorker. "Is human milk an elixir, a commodity, a right?" she asks. Apparently, it has been all three and more, including a weapon of terrorism and life-saving medication:

Can a woman carry containers of her own milk on an airplane? Before the summer of 2007, not more than three ounces, because the Transportation Security Administration classed human milk with shampoo, toothpaste, and Gatorade, until a Minneapolis woman heading home after a business trip was reduced to tears when a security guard at LaGuardia poured a two-day supply of her milk into a garbage bin. Dr. Ruth Lawrence, of the breast-feeding committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics, promptly told the press, "She needs every drop of that precious golden fluid for her baby"; lactivists, who often stage "nurse-ins," sent petitions; and the T.S.A. eventually reclassified human milk as "liquid medication."

The breast vs. bottle battle is not new, as Lepore's fascinating history of breast-feeding points out. In the mid-18th century, wet nurses abounded; as many as 95 percent of Parisian women hired servants to breast-feed their babies. A few decades later, breast-feeding was back. Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) waxed rhapsodically about the "milky fountain, the source of such variety and happiness." Almost as quickly as the cult of true womanhood extolled the virtues of the breast, civilized American women at the turn of the 20th century decided their milk was drying up. Wet nurses were replaced with milk banks, which facilitated the medicalizing of breast milk. Then came the technological innovation of formula, which most American women were feeding their babies by the mid-1900s.

Thanks in large part to the work of La Leche League (started by seven Catholic women), the pendulum has swung again, and we are now solidly in a pro-breast-feeding time. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises mothers to breast-feed exclusively for the first six months, with a combination of solid food and breast milk through the first year. But mothers do not appear to be cooperating. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that only 12 percent of mothers of babies born in 2005 breast-fed exclusively for six months. Here is where things get political. Lepore writes:

One big reason so many women stop breast-feeding is that more than half of mothers of infants under six months old go to work. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees only twelve weeks of (unpaid) maternity leave and, in marked contrast to established practice in other industrial nations, neither the government nor the typical employer offers much more. To follow a doctor's orders, a woman who returns to work twelve weeks after childbirth has to find a way to feed her baby her own milk for another nine months. The nation suffers, in short, from a Human Milk Gap.

The solution to the Human Milk Gap? The breast pump, which some feel lets employers off the hook by allowing breast-feeding to continue while avoiding the provision of adequate maternity leave to allow the milk to actually come from the breast instead of the bottle.

And this is where the political gets personal. As a first-time expectant mother and a tenure-track professor at Wheaton College, many people have asked if I will continue teaching (I will), but no one has asked me if I'm planning to breast-feed. Perhaps it is assumed to be both my maternal right as well as duty. For many women, breast-pumping is not a right or a duty but a necessity, where the desire to breast-feed collides with the basic imperative of earning a paycheck.

Last week I skipped ahead in my "What to Freak Out About When You Are Expecting" book to the section on lactation. There in black and white is a hand-drawn picture of a woman hooked up to an electronic double pump. There's a reason many women say the device makes them feel like cows: As Lepore points out, bovine milking machines are cited in patents for breast-pump designs. To add to this private humiliation, breast milk may not be the "magic elixir" it's cracked up to be.

So it was with great interest that, during one of my regular bouts of third-trimester wakefulness at 3:00 a.m., I read Hanna Rosin's article in the April issue of The Atlantic, "The Case Against Breast-feeding." Rosin says she "dutifully" breast-fed her first two children for the recommended full year. But with her third child, competing demands of home and work made the task seem like a "prison." In an apparent attempt to justify her new maternal ambivalence, she digs into the few scientific studies that exist on the subject to show that the much-touted health benefits are minimal. The real benefit from breast-feeding may have less to do with the milk and more to do with the mother-child bonding time.

Judith Warner at The New York Times has entered the fray, and is seconding the motion for a ban on breast pumps. "Why, as a society, have we privileged the magic elixir of maternal milk over actual maternal contact, denying the vast, vast majority of mothers the kind of extended maternity leave that would make them physically present for their babies?" she asks. "Why do we, as women, accept all the guilt and pressure about breast-feeding that comes our way instead of standing up for what we need in order, in the broadest possible sense, to nourish and sustain ourselves and our families?"

I agree: Fixating on the breast vs. bottle divide is unproductive for women. But I suspect that a ban on breast pumps will not force the issue on extended maternity leave; it will merely reduce the choice to breast or formula. The breast pump is not the bad guy here. If you need a technological bogey man, the bottle — whether filled with breast milk or formula — renders the mother's nourishing role as portable. But, really, is this where women want to take the debate? At some level, don't breast pumps increase choices and flexibility for women? I thought the point of the women's movement — and modern-day motherhood in particular — was to increase choices as wide and varied as the paraphernalia in those cavernous children's warehouse stores. Maternity leave is a worthy battle, but the breast vs. bottle vs. pump skirmish should be left out of it.

And here's where the personal becomes spiritual: I know breast-feeding doesn't work for everyone, but I am planning to give it a try. For me, breast-feeding is not about asserting my body as a site of workplace discrimination protest or reclaiming my body from the patriarchal medical establishment. For me, it's about worshiping God with the gift of my body, which he amazingly and intricately designed to nurture and nourish new life. Now, if we could just figure out how to do this without forgetting to nurture and nourish the variety of women's vocational callings, as well.

Christine Gardner is assistant professor of rhetoric and culture in the communication department at Wheaton College. She is working on a book about evangelical sexual-abstinence campaigns, and will be writing for the new CT women's blog, Her.meneutics.

Related Elsewhere:

LaVonne Neff also wrote about breast-feeding on the women's blog.

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