Every so often newspaper and magazine execs must think to themselves “How can we drive more traffic to our website? How can we get those mommy-bloggers everyone is talking about to pick us up? We know! Let’s write about breastfeeding — that gets ‘em every time!” And, for some reason, it does get us every time. We leave comments, post on blogs, and get down and dirty over breast versus bottle. But by now we must all know that the only people who are benefiting from these articles are writers and media execs.
Such is the case with Ruth Mantell’s recent piece in The Wall Street Journal on “The Economic Consequences of Breastfeeding,” which suggests that working mothers should think twice about pumping at the office. Mantell joins the ranks of other mommy agitators like Jill Lepore and Hanna Rosin in suggesting that the costs of time and equipment might not be worth the benefits.
Just one problem: Mantell is a reporter/writer who was able to take a 6-month maternity leave. Sound like most working mothers out there? Nope, not even remotely. Did she take the time to interview anyone more representative of the various working mother communities? Nope. Not a professional working mother, not a fast-food employee, not a middle manager or a factory worker — all of whom would have vastly different experiences with pumping in the workplace. The only perspective she got on this issue is her own, and that doesn’t reflect most of us in the trenches trying to sync our parenting choices with our career ambitions.
Those of us in the corporate world who have breastfed on the job understand that the real issue is not the costs and benefits of pumping (that is going to be a very personal calculation), but the ability to make the choice. This kind of article drums up traffic-driving mommy-wars, but doesn’t shed light on or challenge the corporate culture that forces women to choose between work and feeding their babies.
Full disclosure: after going back to work at 8 weeks, I pumped on the job until my son was a year old, and I found it to be a difficult but incredibly enriching and wonderful experience. Here’s my take on Mantell’s assertions about the costs of pumping:
First, if you are only able to take a 6 to 12-week maternity leave it can be hard to establish a milk supply that would allow you to do what Mantell says she plans: breastfeed at home and formula feed during the day. Many working women need to pump during the day to maintain the ability to nurse at all. So when Mantell blithely suggests that women stop pumping, we need to understand that for many this means losing the opportunity to breastfeed and moving to formula exclusively.
Second, Mantell cites research indicating that mothers who breastfeed longer than 6 months experience declines in income compared with those who choose to stop. But the article goes on to say that this research is not causal — it’s correlative. Mothers who choose to breastfeed are more likely to cut back on their hours or opt out. It’s the opting out, not the breastfeeding that’s leading to reduced income. Is the solution here to stop pumping? No, it’s to find ways of normalizing breastfeeding in the workplace so that mothers don’t feel they have to leave the workforce to make the best parenting choices for their kids. This is actually happening — many states are now mandating that employers provide pumping breaks and lactation spaces for their nursing employees.
Third, let’s talk about the “direct costs” Mantell cites in her piece. Anne Bulin over at Breastfeeding.com did a very thoughtful analysis of this that suggests that even if you buy everything top-notch and new (not necessary in the case of pumps and nursing shirts), formula still comes out more expensive than breastfeeding. And while pumping takes time at work, there is time cost to getting up in the middle of the night and preparing bottles rather than nursing, which requires no prep if you have the baby and the boobs.
Finally, if we are really going to talk costs, the journal Pediatrics is reporting that billions of dollars in healthcare costs could be saved if 90% of women chose to breastfeed their babies in the first six months of life. The report indicates that diseases such as “stomach viruses, ear infections, asthma, juvenile diabetes, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and even childhood leukemia” might be prevented by increased breastfeeding.
I’m not putting down anyone’s choices here — breastfeeding was right for me; it may not be so for everyone. But I think we need to challenge so-called journalism on this subject that addresses breastfeeding (and other parenting topics) from a rarified perspective that gives the wrong impression about costs and benefits for a majority of working mothers. From this piece, the corporate execs who read The Journal might deduce that making pumping an option at work isn’t worth it for business or women — in fact, just the opposite is true. But it takes more than the lazy reporting in this and other articles like it to get the real story.
- Great post from Blacktating on the “cost of breastfeeding.”
- Tips from The Mama Bee for nursing and pumping on the job; more resources for working mothers who are breastfeeding are available at Kellymom’s Working and Pumping page.
- Momania asks whether 90% of moms can breastfeed without workplace reform. (The answer is no.)
- Bettina Forbes at MomsRising wrote an excellent response to Hanna Rosin’s Atlantic piece — much of this is also relevant to the Ruth Mantell article.