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 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT