Got Milk? Breastfeeding’s Not Free–or Easy

Moms who nurse their infants longer than six months experience greater financial setbacks than moms who nurse for less time, or not at all, according to new research. Tom Jacobs writes in the Pacific Standard:

A study of 1,313 American women who gave birth between 1980 and 1993 finds those who breastfed for six months or more suffered “more severe and more prolonged earnings losses” than mothers who breastfed for a shorter amount of time, or not at all. “Our results suggest that breastfeeding, at least for six months or longer, is not free in an economic sense,” write sociologists Phyllis Rippeyoung and Mary Noonan. Their findings are published in the American Sociological Review.

Rippeyoung and Noonan say women who nurse longer may leave the workforce at higher rates due to personal desires or cultural pressure, or they may be forced out because the workplace is incompatible with breastfeeding.

Easier Said than Done

Society doesn’t make it easy for breastfeeding moms. Whether in the workplace, at church or in public, hurdles exist.

Last November, for example, Michelle Hickman, a Houston-area mother, said she was asked repeatedly by Target employees to relocate to a fitting room after she sat on the floor in the women’s clothing department to discreetly nurse her 5-month-old son. Time’s Healthland reported that Hickman’s experience led to a national “nurse-in” in December. Women staged more than 250 peaceful protests at Target stores across the country.

Around the same time as the Target nurse-in, NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne encountered a nursing mom in a supermarket and described it on Twitter as “nasty.” Though he later apologized, his remarks drew ire and, as the Healthland piece points out, “reflect how uncomfortable some people remain about seeing women breast-feed in public.”

Doubting In-Laws

Sometimes reproach comes from extended family. I queried several mom-friends about their breastfeeding experiences, and three shared stories about disapproving mothers-in-law.

Lori Fields Dupes, a fellow writer, nursed all four of her children in the 1980s and early 1990s. But she faced a skeptical mother-in-law who thought the children were starving. The mother-in-law’s constant pressure forced Lori into an uncomfortable position where she felt disrespected.

Molly Scarpa, a friend of mine since college, nursed both of her sons. She said her mother-in-law “thought it was nuts.” In the first days of her oldest son’s life, her mother-in-law repeatedly suggested that one day Molly would come to her senses, and find bottle-feeding so much easier.

Jennifer Mathieu Blessington, another college friend, said her mother-in-law regarded breastfeeding as “totally weird.” “She only bottlefed. She wasn’t rude about it, but she asked a lot of questions and you could tell she thought it was odd and sort of pointless,” Jennifer explained.

Despite roadblocks and skeptics, healthcare professionals tout nursing as the best option. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding for at least 12 months, and the World Health Organization suggests breastfeeding up to two years or longer.

Signs of Support

Breastfeeding challenges abound, but signs of hope are surfacing. President Obama’s healthcare legislation, for example, strives to make life easier for working moms who breastfeed. According to MSNBC:

The Affordable Care Act, which was signed into law in March 2010, amended the Fair Labor Standards Act, and for the first time employers are now federally mandated to provide women with breaks and a place to breastfeed.

The U.S. Department of Labor is cracking down on companies that haven’t made provisions for working mothers, including Starbucks, McDonald’s, Dillard’s and Dollar General.

Just last week, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance making it illegal to require breast-feeding women to cover up, or to suggest they move to another location.

Mother Knows Best

Breastfeeding is a choice. It’s not feasible or desirable for every mom. Healthcare professionals may say it’s the best choice. In-laws may say it’s the worst choice. At the end of the day, their opinions don’t count. Only mom knows what’s best.

All of the moms I’ve been interviewing share stories about doing the best they can. Very often, they give more than their best. They doubt, they cry, they yearn for perfection. As moms, they have often thankless, usually tricky and always important jobs.

Instituions, government and family members sometimes make their jobs harder, or fail to provide adequate support. But each day these moms push a bit more, in pursuit of that elusive perfection. And in their striving, they reach the best place–for themselves, for their precious babies.

My next few posts will examine breastfeeding experiences of  several moms. I’ll run their stories as a series of Q&As. This format best illuminates how deeply emotional a new mom’s first days are. I hope their testimonies encourage and empower other women to trust their instincts, and disregard the sometimes toxic realm of public opinion.

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  1. Kris, great post! I meant to e-mail before, I apologize…. I nursed both my boys, my 1st son until he was 16 months and my second son until he was 18 months. My firm refused to pay to put a lock on my office door so I could pump – instead I was instructed by a senior FEMALE partner that putting a chair underneath the door handle would be sufficient. Ridiculous. My mother-in-law also had a similar reaction to Jen & Molly’s MILs…. and as the boys got older, I had people make snarky comments about whether I would be nursing them at age 3…. so what if I did?! Nursing was one of the best experiences about motherhood for me ~ such an amazing bonding time ~ and it really was my savior from the wretched postpartum anxiety I suffered from after son #1. THANK YOU for your post, Kris – you are awesome! – and let’s talk soon!!

    • Thanks for the feedback, Angela. It’s interesting that you also encountered a certain lack of support from other women. The more women I speak to about issues related to motherhood, the more I find that true. As moms and women, we need to do a better job supporting one another. Judging and undermining one another is pointless. If women refused to partkake in the dialogue surrounding the so-called mommy wars, would they cease to exist?

      I’m so pleased to hear that nursing was such a wonderful experience for you, that it was a life boat amid choppy postpartum seas. I had the same experience after Noah. Nursing was the one thing that seemed entirely within my control. It was wonderful; even in the early days, when it seemed like an hourly ritual.

  2. Thanks for posting. I breastfed all 4 of my kids. For different lenghts of time but they were all breastfed. I nursed my son for 3 weeks in 1995. The pressure to breastfeed at that time was immense! I stopped due to intense pain and other issues. My midwife did everything possible to get me to continue, but the pain was too much. My sister nursed all 3 of her boys, one of which was being nursed at the same time as my son. I cried for a week (my poor husband)because I just couldnt continue nursing him. My husbands words were “your main goal is feed this baby and no matter how you do it he needs to be fed, so what’s the big deal”. He was right. 17 years later, that’s was the attitude of my lactation consultant and midwife when I had my daughter 2 1/2 years ago. As for nursing in public, I remember nursing one of my daughters in the grocery store while pushing a cart. People asked if the baby was sleeping, I just answered “yes”. They didnt need to know that she was really nursing. I have a 42 yr old friend who is currently nursing her 7th baby. I will ask her to respond to your blog as well. What amazes me most is the amount of flack women are getting from their family members about their choice to breastfeed. According to Wikipedia infant formula was first created in 1867. How do people think women fed their babies before that time? Again, thanks for posting!

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Jeanmarie. I’m happy to hear that you gained useful perspective during the interim between the births of your oldest and youngest children. And hats off to your hsband for helping take the pressure off! Self-condemnation can be a sly foe for moms, especially when we’re new to motherhood. We want so badly to live up to expectations we have for ourselves. At the end of the day, it’s as you suggested: As long as baby is happily nourished, we’re doing our jobs.

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