Honor and beauty, not economic incentives, can bring birth rates back up.
Up by Your Boobstraps
What the formula shortage exposes about America’s view of womanhood.
To breastfeed, or not to breastfeed? it is one of those parenting decisions that, at first pass, seems to carry little to no political import. For most people most of the time, it’s the sort of thing that you can safely ignore as someone else’s personal preference, having nothing to do with anything or anyone else—none of your business especially. And for all intents and purposes, that’s right. To challenge a new mom on how she feeds her child would be utterly presumptuous, let alone extremely rude.
But as mothers across the country scramble to find ways to feed their infants in the face of a formula shortage, people have begun to wonder—why don’t more American mothers breastfeed? It’s a good question, even if for some, it carries an air of malice and blame. Unbeknownst to the critic, the economic, political, and social environment makes things infinitely more complicated than “you’re just not trying hard enough.”
Political forces bear heavily on decisions we might rather assume are exclusively personal. Put simply, “demonstrated preference” is the wrong frame here. The way that many American mothers feed their children is in fact not the way they would prefer to feed their children. Yet the forces that push women into premature lactation cessation (i.e., putting an end, voluntarily or involuntarily, to breastfeeding before the baby is ready to be weaned) are convoluted. In some ways it seems that the process is deliberately obfuscated, so that even mothers themselves are confounded by the mystery of their own lactation or lack thereof.
Any conversation about breastfeeding must begin with a concession: it’s hard. Breastfeeding an infant means bleeding nipples, sleepless months, and clogged ducts that can cause extreme pain and illness (mastitis) in the mother. It’s totally draining—hormonally, nutritionally, physically, emotionally, and temporally. Basically, exclusive breastfeeding is a round-the-clock, often painful, generally unappreciated labor of love that requires basically six months of unbroken, skin-to-skin attachment to one’s child for total success. Despite the challenges, the vast majority of American mothers want to breastfeed—75% of them try. The near-magical benefits of the practice for the immediate health of the infant, the child’s long-term wellness, and maternal bonding outweigh the downsides for most moms, at least when they begin. But by the six-month mark, only 13% of American children are exclusively breastfed.
In this sense, the real question isn’t “why don’t American moms breastfeed?” but instead “why do they give up?”
The most obvious reason is the fact that most women are not around their infants full-time for the first six months of life. Most American women work and, especially in a hyperinflationary environment, more and more of them must—a fact celebrated by the GOP and liberal feminists alike. Of these women who work and have children, most find themselves back in the office, with their babies in daycare, just weeks after giving birth. One in four are back at work within two weeks.
What this means for women who would like to continue to offer their child breastmilk is that the teat telepathy that comes from being with your child (for instance, ducts filling with milk to correspond to hunger cues or leaking when the baby cries) goes away. Working women must pump their milk throughout the day in order to maintain supply. The new mother must find a private space (which, aside from some unsanitary bathroom, may or may not exist) where she can hook her nipples to a sucking machine to extract as much liquid gold as possible, keep it on ice all day, and bring it home as soon as possible to freeze or offer the baby. Pumping can work, and some mostly white collar companies offer dedicated space to it make it work, but its effects on the mother’s milk supply, the quality of the milk, and her willingness to continue are markedly negative.
The hellish uphill climb that is the American postpartum experience cannot be laid totally at the feet of unsympathetic corporate policy. The American medical system is equally if not more careless with regard to new moms. The United States has a 34% rate (double the “ideal”) of cesarean section, a procedure that often results in women’s milk never coming in. Additionally, the inclusion of heavy narcotics like fentanyl in the epidural (the default intervention of hospital-managed birth) transfers in no small part to the infant, often leaving him or her incapable of latching immediately.
Beyond these procedural habits, meaningful breastfeeding support is in many cases only available to women who can afford to see “lactation consultants” or doulas, who often practice privately and do not accept insurance. If the baby has a lip or tongue tie, which are increasingly common ailments that can greatly disrupt if not completely derail the breastfeeding journey, he or she must be taken to a pediatric dentist where it can be fixed with a laser—but, again, insurance rarely covers the cost of this procedure. Additionally, if mom can’t be home to regularly stretch the wound and follow up with breastmilk, the tie will grow back.
Six weeks after having a baby, American mothers are typically scheduled for one postpartum checkup, where their vaginas (which were probably torn or cut through childbirth) or cesarean scars are examined to determine whether or not it’s safe to exercise or have sex again. That is the primary purpose of the appointment. At this point, at least half of the women who began with breastfeeding are struggling to continue; they will likely cease completely within the next four weeks. Most are losing their hair and dealing with hormonal problems of their own—weight gain, excessive weight loss, skin issues, emotional issues, sleep issues, et cetera. A detailed blood panel would reveal severe nutritional deficiencies in most American adults, and these facts are severely exacerbated by the intense nutritional demands of both pregnancy and nursing. Largely because of a general nutritional deficit in the American food system, many women’s bodies struggle to achieve homeostasis during this time. But unless she has chosen to see a (once again, expensive) functional medicine doctor or endocrinologist, no one is checking her blood levels. The average new mom leaves her only postpartum appointment with two prescriptions—one for birth control, one for depression—and zero actionable answers to her deeper problems.
The Assault on Womanhood
It’s easier to use formula. It isn’t better for the baby’s health, especially in America where the formula cartel insists that all formulas be filled with corn and soy sludge while also ensuring that no natural, animal-based European alternatives can be made available. Many moms are wracked with guilt, especially now during the shortage. But the alternative is to quit your job, be with your children full time, and essentially become your own doctor and nutritionist. This is one way to revolt against the modern world—a noble one, at that! But if you are capable and motivated as a woman to do such a thing, you must also be prepared for the heavy social costs that come with it, including loneliness, economic precarity, the condescension of the culture of feminism, and institutional resistance to true bodily autonomy, especially in medicine.
This final fact indicates the common thread uniting all of the reasons most American mothers give up on breastfeeding by six months of age: a fundamentally demeaning, widespread cultural attitude toward the prospect, process, and practice of motherhood. Only in a world where women are regarded as more useful, valuable, important, and respected in their workspace than at home do women, within two weeks of childbirth, abandon their infants to daycares while they themselves are still bleeding out from a placental wound the size of a dinner plate. It’s the sort of thing that only needs to be said aloud in order to reveal itself as utterly barbaric.
Breastfeeding, a beautiful and uniquely feminine art form that, when mastered, produces untold benefits for children and families, is not the only nor the most tragic casualty of this culture of maternal disregard. Contraception, abortion, divorce, and transgenderism can also be counted as similar symptoms of this deep confusion about the meaning of womanhood. If marriage or gender or motherhood is just another consumer choice, what is to prevent anyone from participating in any of those experiments at will?
As wellsprings of unique human life, mothers are where the neoliberal regime, insisting on infinite fungibility, meets its terminus. The ineffable bond between mother and child transcends any other. The symbiotic, totally intuitive communication between mother and child, reflected in breastfeeding, is indicative of this essentially spiritual bond, but is completely illegible to rationalists and communists and capitalists and everyone else whose souls have been crushed by the machinery of postmodernity. Perhaps this is why womanhood has become a target for the transatlantic corporation and transhumanist publication alike. In many ways, Woman is the final barrier between human as human and human as machine.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.