The Cruelty of Asking Women to Breastfeed More, in a Formula Shortage, While Restricting Reproductive Rights

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The Cruelty of Asking Women to Breastfeed More, in a Formula Shortage, While Restricting Reproductive Rights

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As a new mom, this news cycle feels engineered to drive us to exhaustion

Three news stories have dominated my social media feeds recently, all pertaining to motherhood and algorithmically hurled at me, the mom of a 9 month-old.

  • First, there’s the ongoing formula shortage.
  • Then, of course, there’s the nightmare that is the overturning of Roe v Wade, making me terrified for my daughter’s future.
  • And then there’s the seemingly banal news that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has updated its guidelines to emphasize the benefits of breastfeeding for “up to two years,” which is double its previous recommendation of one year.

There’s something inexplicably haunting about the convergence of these stories. If it only made sense, I could just be angry. And of course, like so many people right now, I am angry. But if I’m being honest, I’m also just straight up confused. Like Alice at the Mad Hatter tea party confused.

It’s as if we’re obsessed with motherhood as an abstract concept, but have no interest in helping actual mothers.

We want all the babies to be born but welcome them into a world with neither reliable access to formula nor sustainable conditions for most women to breastfeed.

We champion traditional practices like nursing and staying home to raise children, without accommodating these choices in our fast-paced economy, with no maternity leave and no job security.

In Alice in Wonderland, the White Queen explains the logic of the Looking Glass world by saying, “The rule is, you can have jam tomorrow and jam yesterday—but never jam today.” This is how having a child feels right now: “Rest tomorrow and rights yesterday, but never help today.”

If there were a central logic to our beliefs about motherhood, how could we tell people that they must have babies they don’t want, and then turn around and offer them zero help raising those babies?

Not only are we the only industrialized country in the world with no paid parental leave, but 44 percent of workers aren’t even guaranteed unpaid family leave, meaning that they could lose their jobs for taking any time off at all. That might partly explain why one in four women return to work within two weeks after childbirth.

Much has already been written about how inhumane that expectation is, but suffice to say I was still peeing my pants and averaging four hours of total sleep a night two weeks after giving birth. I know I’m lucky – I had paid maternity leave thanks to my job and the fact that I lived in one of only ten states with its own paid family leave policy. Incidentally, there’s an inverse relationship between states that still don’t offer any maternity leave and states where one can choose whether to have children, as illustrated by this post:

Even if a mother can survive the experience of pregnancy and early postpartum (and I’m using the term survive literally here as it seems pretty certain that more pregnancy related deaths will occur as the result of restricting abortion), she’ll still have to pay for childcare, which often costs $10,000 per year or more, probably because the U.S. spends far below the average of other O.E.C.D countries on early child care. What meager childcare subsidizes exist are generally only available to those in the lowest income bracket, and even then only one in six eligible children receive them. The logic seems to be, “have all the babies, but we don’t care what happens after you do.”

If our country made any sense, why would we tell women to breastfeed for two years, when our economy is clearly not set up in a way to support that, and three-quarters of women currently stop breastfeeding before six months?

Having just passed the nine-month mark myself, it’s easy for me to see why other women stop. While I took a long maternity leave (by this country’s standards) and continue to work from home, millions of women must return to in-person work, with inflexible or unpredictable hours – conditions making it extremely difficult to keep up pumping and nursing for long.

In the AAP’s defense, the organization does recommend progressive policies along with their guidelines, including universal paid maternity leave and on-site child care. Still, given how far off we seem to be from any those policies getting anywhere close to reality, the recommendations read more like a fantasy wish list than a pragmatic call-to-action.

In fact, just this past June the Senate shot down one policy aimed to support breastfeeding women. The PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act, which passed in the House last October, would have extended current protections to at least 9 million parents. As of now, the Break Time for Nursing Mothers law requires employers to provide time for women to pump and a private space that’s not a bathroom. But the law excludes many types of workers, including teachers, some nurses, and other salaried employees who earn above the law’s threshold for qualification. The new act would have closed that loophole, but apparently that’s too much to ask for.

If we weren’t living in a paradoxical funhouse, how could we tell women that they should relax about the formula shortage because “breastfeeding is free” while ignoring the fact that a year of breastfeeding amounts to nearly the same hours as a full-time job.

If I were to exclusively breastfeed for a year and was paid New York state minimum wage of $15 per hour to do it, the labor I put in would add up to $27,000.

And that’s to say nothing of emotional costs. Currently I’m giving my baby mostly formula but still breastfeeding a bit, and I regularly debate how long to continue. While I do enjoy it, the internal voice arguing for weaning sooner felt pretty loud a month ago while pumping in an airport bathroom. But then, there’s still a pandemic we’ve failed spectacularly at containing, and nursing is associated with helping babies’ immune systems. And also, there might not be enough formula? Like, in the entire country? So I continue.

But again, I’m one of the lucky women because I can afford to pay for my baby’s formula myself and choose from a variety of brands. Were I reliant on government assistance, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of formula purchases in the U.S., I may only have access to one brand due to a bidding system in which states make only one formula manufacturer their sole provider. The system saves the program money, but has left low-income families scrambling to find enough food for their babies and is yet another way in which disadvantaged mothers are hit the hardest.

The only way to make any sense of these contradictory expectations is through the lens of a logic that basically doesn’t care about women’s wellbeing.

I have to turn the lens I was trying to use upside-down. Because if women, especially poor women and women of color, are too exhausted to fight back, then business can continue as usual. Put that way, it makes a lot of sense – just not for me.

Annie Midori Atherton is a writer, content producer and parent living in Seattle. She’s interested in exploring how culture impacts everyday life and questions about why we are the way we are.

Image: Karl Tapales/Moment via GettyImages

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