Criminals, potential killers and, above all, bad mothers.
That’s how a group of high-profile French women say moms are being treated if they dare make the increasingly fraught choice to bottle-feed their babies.
Alarmed at the escalating insistence of the international medical establishment that only breast is best — and therefore anything but exclusive long-term nursing is an extreme danger to their children’s survival and health — leading identities from France’s media, business, medical and cultural world have launched a campaign called “Stop making women guilty!”
The push is being driven by nightly cable network current affairs commentator Lauren Bastide, and feminist blogger and author Titiou Lecoq, supported by women including cartoonist Penelope Bagieu, President of Maman Travaille (Mum Works) Marlene Schiappa and Elle magazine’s Alix Girod de l’Ain.
The collective published a feisty Op-Ed in French daily newspaper Liberation, accompanied by an online petition initially signed by 1,000 (now 4,500) demanding an end to what they say is intolerable pressure on mothers of infants to breast-feed, no matter what their personal wishes and circumstances.
And, despite being viciously attacked online for speaking out against the breast-feeding orthodoxy, they believe their concerns are likely to be shared by women around the world. “Every woman deserves equal respect for her choices and we demand our right to choose without being affronted by the constant guilt-trips,” the women wrote.
“I (each co-author) didn’t breast-feed my children. And I find it disturbing that this choice has become more and more difficult in our society. It is a sign that women’s fundamental rights are being called into question and that they are being constrained by an oppressive maternal ideal.
“Those of us who have chosen the bottle are bad mothers, privileging our comfort to the detriment of our children, and refusing to assume our biological functions. In reality, we simply believe that our bodies belong to us. Progress has allowed those of us who don’t want to breast-feed to not breast-feed.
“This is an extremely personal choice that only concerns the individual. We have to stop constantly dismissing a woman’s rights, and her right to decide what she does with her body, in favor of a mother’s duty to be the body and soul of her children.”
“But it gets worse: society is trying to persuade us that our ‘egotistical’ choice is putting our children’s health in danger.”
The campaign to reclaim the right to bottle-feed without the shame and guilt was sparked by last week’s widely reported research declaring more than 800,000 babies’ lives could be saved annually if global breast-feeding rates were dramatically lifted. The findings were published in The Lancet and co-authored by the World Health Organization’s Nigel Rollins.
In one of the more striking examples of what Texas A&M University gender studies professor Joan Wolf calls the ideology of “total motherhood,” in which non-breast-feeding moms are shamed as subversive “agents of risk” to their children, formula feeding was linked to sudden infant death, diabetes and obesity, lower IQs and hundreds of billions of dollars in economic losses, in both rich and poor countries.
Women in wealthier countries were associated with much lower breast-feeding rates, with only one in five children still being nursed by their mothers, even partly, at age 1, compared with most children at the same age in lower and middle-income nations. “There is a widespread misconception that breast milk can be replaced with artificial products without detrimental consequences,” study co-author Cesar Victora, of Brazil’s Federal University of Pelotas said in a statement to media. “The evidence … leaves no doubt that the decision not to breast-feed has major long-term negative effects on the health, nutrition and development of children and on women’s health.”
Bastide, a nightly commentator on Canal Plus network’s Grand Journal, and the former editor-in-chief for French Elle magazine told Women in the World her friends’ and peers’ decision to go public with their anger was “very spontaneous”.
“It was really about being totally fed up and wanting to express ourselves. We wanted to test public opinion to see if there were women and men who had the same reactions as us.
“We want to prick the public conscience and tell people to leave us alone!”.
Bastide is open about what motivated her to bottle feed her own children. “I was very firm in my decision that I didn’t want to breast-feed and like everyone it was for very personal reasons — I wanted to get my body back quickly; I worked again quickly. And I wanted as much as possible to be able to call on the father of my children who wanted to share the care of our baby,” she says. “But, yes I felt judged sometimes. At the hospital the midwife said ‘but aren’t you going to nurse?’ When I said ‘no’ she looked at me as if I wasn’t going to feed my baby!
“We ask that question ‘do you nurse?’ but it is problematic. Because yes, I nurse, but not with my milk!”
The bottle-feeding defenders said the latest Lancet/WHO study and the way it was circulated unquestioningly by many international media outlets was evidence of “generalizing at a planetary level.”
“How can we put a woman who gives birth in a poor country with poor environmental and hygiene standards on the same equal level as a woman in an industrialized country with easy access not only to clean drinking water but also to medical treatment?” they asked.
The petitioners also deplored the lumping together of mothers within countries, with scant regard for their income, education and other factors that can influence children’s health and development.
“No, the situation of mothers is not the same in every country.
“When we are not being accused of endangering the survival of our children we are told we are disadvantaging them intellectually. Because, yes, we can also find a study that explains that breastfed babies are smarter — a study that doesn’t even take into account the socio-economic backgrounds of the families in question. And then finally breast-feeding is said to be great for the economy. Again, these declarations do not take into account the situation of each woman.”
The women are concerned society is moving back towards the idea that mothers must take two years of full maternity leave which they believe is “the only situation where exclusive long-term breast-feeding on demand that we are told we must be doing would be possible”.
“But do we also say to this woman that she is hurting the economy by not actively participating in global productivity?” they said.
“The medical milieu is very patriarchal”
Especially disturbing, according to the Paris-based group, was the Lancet study’s exploitation of every new parent’s principal fear: sudden infant death syndrome. The researchers said SIDS would be reduced by more than a third in developed countries if more mothers nursed.
Yet, say Paris’s self-confessed bottle-feeders, the study made no clear distinction between breast-feeding and other factors such as suffocation, the presence of a pillow, smoking or overheating of a child’s room.
“No doctor or pediatrician in the world has succeeded with certainty in identifying the exact causes of SIDS,” Bastide counters. “So are we criminals? I find the studies quite biased. What if we launched a study asking whether a baby who has been given the bottle by its father from birth has better psychological development? These kinds of studies are not commissioned just by chance. I am not a conspiracy theorist but the medical milieu is very patriarchal like all milieus of power and decision-making.
“And were studies done on the impact two years of breast-feeding could have on a woman’s professional career, her relationship with her partner, her sexual life, her romantic life, her levels of neurosis and fatigue?”
Like her co-petitioners, Bastide affirms she has “profound respect” for all women whatever their choice. If women choose to breast-feed she wants them to be able to do it as comfortably as possible, and they must be allowed to nurse at work if they wish. “I am only in admiration but I don’t want to do it!” she adds. “Our mothers didn’t protest for the legal right to bottle feed. But we are starting to discover that despite this, it is a genuine right and we should not let it be taken away from us.”
Notwithstanding the tensions and sensitivities Bastide and Lecoq’s group are determined to avoid the “trap” that is being laid for them: to divide women against each other. “We should not make either bottle feeders feel guilty or mock the choices of breast-feeders. Everything comes back to the same problem: the judgement of others,” they wrote. “The first group are considered women who are committing infanticide and the second group old-fashioned and outdated. Each woman deserves equal respect for her personal choices. We are simply asking to keep our right to decide without being constantly made to feel guilty.”
Still, the feminist mothers found themselves vilified after the publication of their appeal. Thousands of often vicious detractors, many — but not all — of them men, took to Facebook, the comments sections of Liberation newspaper and to Twitter to label them willing “poisoners” of their babies, and selfish, deluded women who should never have become moms in the first place.
International breast-feeding wars
The French campaign is another skirmish in the ongoing international breast-feeding wars focused on women fighting for the right to breast-feed in parliaments, on public transport, at work and in the broader public space. Unlike most public discussion, however, this petition has drawn attention to the often-silent majority of women who don’t want to or cannot suckle their young at all or for long periods of time.
It is unsurprising the activism is emerging in Paris.
In France women have historically never taken meekly to intermittent calls imploring women to breast-feed. Wealthy women in pre-revolutionary France were encouraged to send their babies out to wet nurses so they could participate in high society and salons. Throughout the twentieth century and particularly after the May 1968 student demonstrations, French women more often than not saw breast-feeding as their personal decision, because it was their body, and also they needed to work.
Today France has one of the lowest breast-feeding rates in Europe (9 percent at age 1, compared to 23 percent in Spain and 35 percent in Norway) but also one of the highest full time workforce participation rates for women and mothers in the world. Over the past decade it has also had one of the consistently highest birth rates in Europe.
Fecund, yes they are but from the birth of second-wave feminism under Simone de Beauvoir up until today women have dissented from the breast-feeding dogma and its associated guilt. Philosophers like Elisabeth Badinter, author of The Woman and the Mother, rail against the “ayatollahs of breast-feeding” for trying to reduce women to their “natural” biological state and thus deny them choice.
For Lecoq, the backlash against the stop-the-guilt petition is a worrying sign French women are enduring the same kind of pressures as their sisters in English-speaking countries. “As de Beauvoir warned already in The Second Sex, it’s always women’s rights that are in the front line (when society moves backwards),” she told Women in the World. “It’s a bit of a vicious circle. We serve up news that people want to hear. At the moment they want news that is a bit reactionary and that tells them things were better before.”
Bizarrely, women are paying for their decision to have children, she says. “The freedom to choose to have a child or not has also led to the idea that a mother owes everything to her baby. She must sacrifice herself. And that is an enormous pressure that weighs on new mothers.
“Society increasingly allows itself to judge mothers no matter what their choices. I can’t count the number of times that people I don’t know have stopped me in the street to make a comment ‘you shouldn’t let him run,’ ‘you should put a hat on him.’
“We are constantly being judged (which is of course not the case for fathers) and seen as lacking. We mothers never do enough and it’s never good enough.”
This judgement denies women their individual rational identity, she argued. “It is as if we were incapable, immature, irresponsible egoists in comparison with the good mothers before (before obviously equals before women worked, when they sacrificed their lives for their families),” Lecoq said.
For Texas A&M University’s Professor Wolf, author of Is Breast Best? the WHO/Lancet research, like the breast-feeding advocates behind it, is getting repetitive and deliberately “hysterical.”
“This is the same story we have been hearing for years and years,” Wolf told Women in the World. “It is mostly the same group of researchers making the same claims, ignoring the critiques of the research that have become increasingly pervasive. And women are getting a little frustrated with people who are telling them that they have to breast-feed, that it is the most important thing they have to do and that they’ll save their babies lives.
“Women are bright folks. They have begun to get a more balanced presentation of the evidence and the costs and benefits and they are making a decision about how they are going to feed their babies.”
Wolf argues there is a “deeply problematic paradigm” with studies that argue a causal relationship between breast-feeding and better health. Evidence existed to suggest breastfed babies are on average healthier “but there is no evidence indicating that it’s because they were breastfed,” she says.
All sorts of other behaviors associated with breast-feeding could explain any health benefits.
The frenzy surrounding breast-feeding was fast reaching a point where the public was going to stop listening to anything because they’re being told “everything is potentially catastrophic,” Wolf claimed. “It’s not helpful at all to think about women in sub-Saharan Africa and women in Paris or low-income women and middle-income women as all having the same kinds of issues. But when you can manipulate the evidence and foment hysteria you make the message seem more urgent.
“The women who wrote into Liberation and lots of women in the U.S. and Britain (where only 27 percent and fewer than 1 percent respectively of babies are still breastfed at age 1) and elsewhere have had enough and they’re tired of it.
“When you must exclusively breast-feed your baby for six months or the baby is going to die of leukemia or be dumb you discredit the whole enterprise of science.
“This is a dynamic that is ultimately going to spell the end of breast-feeding advocacy,” she added. “Making more and more dire claims that babies are dying in London and New York and Paris because women aren’t breast-feeding is going to come back to bite them, and make women say ‘forget it I don’t trust these people who are giving me advice’.”
Follow Emma-Kate Symons on Twitter @eksymons