Skip to main content

Breastfeeding is intuitive and easy? No!

By Orit Avishai, Special to CNN
updated 1:09 PM EDT, Thu May 17, 2012
Successful breastfeeding takes a lot of money and resources, says Orit Avishai.
Successful breastfeeding takes a lot of money and resources, says Orit Avishai.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Time magazine published a controversial article about attachment parenting
  • Orit Avishai: Not all women can be 'mom enough;' breastfeeding is not for all women
  • She thought breastfeeding was intuitive and cheap, but found it to be difficult and expensive
  • Avishai: Given the realities of juggling career and family, it's OK to be 'good enough'

Editor's note: Orit Avishai is an assistant professor of sociology at Fordham University. She is the author of "Managing the Lactating Body: The Breast-Feeding Project and Privileged Motherhood."

(CNN) -- Time magazine's recent cover story featuring Jamie Lynne Grumet breastfeeding her almost four-year-old son raised a firestorm about different styles of parenting. Along with the headline -- "Are you mom enough?" -- the piece makes every mother question whether she should practice attachment parenting and in the process, embrace all things natural. Wear your baby! Make your own baby food! Breastfeed! Sleep with your baby! Give birth at home -- and don't use painkillers!

Like the white, radiant and married woman on Time's cover, many mothers who embrace natural mothering are likely to be educated, middle class, married, fit and savvy. They take motherhood as seriously as they take their education and careers. Which is not a bad thing. The kids will surely benefit.

But the pressure to be the best mother misses a point: Given the realities of the 21st century society, not every woman can be "mom enough." For one thing, breastfeeding is not for all mothers.

Orit Avishai
Orit Avishai

Successful breastfeeding -- especially extended breastfeeding -- takes a lot of planning, time off from paid work, money and resources.

I, too, decided to breastfeed when I had my first baby. Everything I read said that breastfeeding was natural, intuitive, cheap and easy. But I found breastfeeding painful, time-consuming and difficult. And, when you factor in the extra amounts of healthy foods I was consuming (organic only, of course), the money I spent on gadgets and experts, and the house cleaner who allowed me to catch up on my sleep -- it wasn't cheap.

Time's breastfeeding cover mom talks
Old issue, new controversy

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion

I was not alone. A graduate student in sociology at the time when I had my baby, I interviewed women about breastfeeding. Most of them shared my experience. One woman listed the accessories she invested in: a special "Boppy" nursing pillow, a rocking chair, nursing bras, a pump, and herbal supplements (rumored to enhance milk supply). She estimated that by the time she got into a groove she'd spent close to a thousand dollars. And that's not counting household help.

Another woman told me that for weeks she was fatigued, in pain and dreading every feeding. But she was a go-getter. The same attitude that got her through an Ivy League PhD program and helped her succeed in Silicon Valley helped her master breastfeeding. Granted, she saw a lactation consultant twice a week.

Then there was a woman who likened her one-year breastfeeding goal to running a marathon (she had completed two). She was happy to finally swear off the three daily pumping sessions that allowed her to keep her baby off formula after her maternity leave ended.

No mother really needs all the paraphernalia and experts in order to breastfeed. Most of the time, mothers' breasts produce sufficient milk and babies are adept at getting their food. So shouldn't we know better?

Since the early 20th century, women were told that breast milk alternatives were the modern, scientific, superior and American way to go. The result? By the 1970s fewer than 25% of American women even tried to breastfeed and experiential knowledge had been lost. This explains why new mothers feel ill-prepared: They can't get advice from their mothers, aunts, grandmothers and neighbors. The women I interviewed took classes, read books, practiced with dolls, and met with lactation experts. Helpful, yes. Intuitive? Not really.

Breastfeeding advocates raised legitimate concerns about breast milk alternatives (corn syrups for babies?) and many women who decided to breastfeed and practice attachment parenting genuinely believed that going natural was the better route. Hence, breastfeeding rates have been growing steadily for the last several decades for all groups of women, but especially for those who are white, educated and married.

However, touting breastfeeding as the way to go defies logic. For all of its benefits to infants, breastfeeding on demand 24/7 is challenging when our sleep cycles are regulated by artificial light and we are separated from our baby for hours on end because of our jobs.

Yes, we can use breast pumps to provide babies with breast milk. But pumps just aren't as efficient as babies at extracting milk. Mothers who go back to work find themselves fighting an uphill battle to maintain an adequate milk supply. Many spend hours a day at the pump before, during and after work. The lucky ones have a private space in which to pump and a fridge to store their milk. Some of the women I talked to weren't so lucky; they pumped in public bathrooms or cubicles that offered little privacy. One woman used a supply closet.

Some mothers may have the financial means to quit their jobs and dedicate themselves to full-time parenting. For most women, this is not a viable choice, since the more time they spend away from work, the larger the negative impact on their potential lifetime earnings. Even for women who aim to be great mothers, breastfeeding is not always a feasible option.

Branding breastfeeding as natural and economical without fully acknowledging the difficulties of balancing family and career creates unnecessary pressure and guilt. British psychologist Donald Winnicot understood this when he set his bar for good parenting. Rather than challenging women to be "mom enough," he urged mothers to be "good enough" -- bottles of formula included. I was certainly happy to be a good enough mother. And by the time my kids hit preschool, nobody really cared whether and how long I had breastfed my children.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Orit Avishai.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT