In Gayle Lemmon’s recent Atlantic post about Marissa Mayer, Lemmon quotes an aunt as once telling her “never import other people’s limitations.” I was reminded of this reading New York Times health columnist Jane Brody’s piece today The Ideal and the Real of Breast-feeding, in which she argues that the “breast is best” campaign is making women, particularly working women, feel profoundly guilty.
First let’s acknowledge that breast-feeding is very hard, regardless of whether you work or not, and some women are better off not doing it for various reasons. And working mothers do face some particular challenges in this area, especially if they are hourly employees who have limited break time. But acting like nursing and working are deeply onerous, even mutually exclusive, for most women ignores the many thousands who do it successfully — some even happily — every day.
Even more troubling, Brody’s article exudes a “feel-good” feminism (this is a feminist issue) that is more and more present in these sorts of discussions. In this framework, the individual choices that make us happiest are “the best” for us. Women who argue passionately for one thing or another are shut down as fueling “mommy wars.”
This promotes a kind of magical thinking that ignores the data. Empirically, not every choice that makes us happiest is “the best.” In the case of breast-feeding, the American Association of Pediatrics, the National Institutes of Health, and the World Health Organization all say that breast is best in the first six months of life. That’s a lot of doctors and research that Brody dismisses. The same thing happens when we talk about women leaving the paid workforce: we have the longitudinal studies, and they suggest that statistically women who stay in the workforce are happier, healthier, and more prosperous, even if they do face some difficult years.
Would a columnist like Brody suggest that we shouldn’t promote exercise because circumstances make it difficult for some, leading to guilt? We don’t stop encouraging people to moderate unhealthy eating and drinking habits because it leads to guilt. And yet with breast-feeding, where there is equally good evidence of benefit to children’s health, protecting the mother from “guilt” becomes more important than giving mothers all the information they need for optimal decision-making.
This doesn’t mean that every mother should breast-feed. There are lots of reasons not to do it, and babies (including me!) who are not breast-fed do just fine. But we shouldn’t tell ourselves half-truths about the data — studies show that breast-milk has important benefits, and that it is ideal for women to nurse for at least six months. Women can and should be able to handle this truth without going haywire.
One of the things that bothers me most about the Brody piece is her complete disregard for evidence. Over and over again she quotes a 2009 article by Hanna Rosin that was condemned by the American Association for Pediatrics as ill-researched. Rosin’s data was very thin, and the piece was meant to be provocative above informative. It should never have been used as a primary source in the New York Times. Furthermore, for women who live in places with a compromised water supply or weak controls on formula manufacturing, breast-feeding does have important health ramifications for babies.
So why would a journalist of Brody’s caliber rest her case on shaky unscience? Because she wants all women to feel good about their choices. Because women need to honor and support each other.
But we can honor and support each other without throwing out rational thinking, math, and science. The women’s movement, feminism, and indeed, women’s personal relationships need not be about consensus, and we should expose magical thinking for what it is. On an individual basis, women need to be very, very careful not to import other people’s limitations.