Refusing the Question

Via a comment over at Pandagon, I discovered a brilliant op-ed by a post-partum doula working in California that takes up the issue of breastfeeding infants and the politics thereof. What I like most about this piece is that the author, Meredith Lichtenberg, refuses to accept the usual terms of this particular controversy.

In popular debates, the question of whether or not it's preferable to breastfeed or bottle-feed infants and young children is often cast in starkly either/or terms. One camp argues that breastfeeding is of negligiable benefit to babies and a burden to mothers; the other camp argues that lack of breastmilk will do irreperable harm to infants.

Lichetenberg, rather than step into the frey on one side or another, asks us to re-frame the question. The important point is not whether one parenting choice is better or best for everyone, but what parenting choice is best for each individual family. In her column, she is responding to a recent article by Hanna Rosin in the Atlantic Monthly that explores the potential benefits of breastfeeding (and concludes they are minimal). Lichtenberg writes:

The reason [Rosin and I] part ways, ironically, is that she’s missing her own point. Rosin is enraged that Society told her she should breastfeed because it was healthy for babies. Society told her that her own wishes or needs didn’t factor in.

But instead of saying, “Hey, Society, don’t tell me what I need to do! I’m the mom here, and I’ll decide for myself what’s best for me and my baby!” she succumbed to the “pressure”. Three babies later, she’s really mad. And she thinks that that makes a case against breastfeeding.

Lichtenberg's article is a great example of how to refuse the terms of debate on a controversial topic and re-frame the conversation in a way that is more holistic, more specific, and ultimately (I would argue) more feminist: she reminds women (and their partners) that they, too, can refuse the terms of debate and place the needs of their own families -- including their own needs -- front and center. That is a feminist position that can encompass all manner of individual parenting decisions, and one that I firmly believe is best for us all.

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