bottle fed baby

More than Milk: The Moral Lives of Mothers

February 22, 2016

Greg Popcak has written a stunningly nasty post against mothers who feed their babies formula: The Myth of Optional Breastfeeding & Why You Might Not be Breastfeeding Long Enough

Popcak’s post is largely cut and pasted from an article by “Dr. Darcia Narvaez … a moral developmental psychologist at the Univ. of Notre Dame.” The thesis of Popcak’s post is that breastfeeding is so vastly superior to formula-feeding, in so many ways, that there is no doubt: women who breastfeed are doing the moral thing, and women who don’t are not.

Before we go any further, I’d like to sit for a moment with Narvaez’s title, “moral developmental psychologist.” Kind of a Dagwood sandwich of a title, ain’t it? (Does she ever hang out at the Museum of Science and Trucking?) In general, I’m wary of people who call themselves specialists in several different fields at once, especially when they synthesize all of that expertise into something absurdly reductionist, like mandatory breastfeeding.  I am more likely to trust people who acknowledge the limits of their field.

My therapist will do the same thing. When I ask him for advice about something that isn’t in his purview, he’ll make it clear what are the boundaries of his expertise, and will be very cautious about wading into unfamiliar waters. He’ll remind me, “This is just a theory I’ve formulated, based on my experience. You may want to read so-and-so — that’s more his field.” This is the kind of humility that we see in learned people, who truly understand the scope of their authority. In people who are concerned mainly with promoting an agenda, though, we do not see this humility.

Keep this in mind while you read Popcak’s insistence that breastfeeding is a moral issue.

Now, we do care about making moral choices as parents, right? Of course we do. As an expert in nothing but typing, I always give the same advice: for moral teaching, we go to the Church. The Church has the authority to tell us which actions are moral and which are immoral.

The Church gets specific in some things (Not just “be pure,” but “don’t fornicate or masturbate”); but in other things, she gives us the latitude to discern on our own the best way to follow broad moral principles.

Many parenting issues fall into this latter category. The Church tells us, for instance, that we have a serious obligation to educate our children, both academically and in the Faith. She does not, however, tell us that we must send them to Catholic school or public school or private school or that we must home school. She says, “Here’s what you’re trying to achieve. Now you pray about it, and then, using prudence and being the expert in your own life, go do that in the way that makes sense to you.”

In the same way, the Church tells us that we have a serious moral obligation to care for the physical, emotional, and psychological needs of our children, even if that means making personal sacrifices. We have a serious moral obligation not to neglect them, and to do our best to care for them according to our abilities and circumstances.

But the Church does not tell us we must breastfeed. The Church does not tell us this, because breastfeeding is not always the best way to care for babies’ physical, emotional, and psychological needs, which are bound up intimately with the physical, emotional, and psychological needs of the mother and the rest of the family.

In my case, breastfeeding was and is the best way to nurture my babies, both physically, emotionally, and psychologically. I’m a healthy woman with healthy babies, and my lifestyle meshes well with the pleasures and demands of breastfeeding. I’m cognizant of the existential chorus of significance that carols around me as I nourish my child with my own body, feeding her with my food, breathing with her, relaxing with her, passing back and forth unspoken communication of a million kinds. Breastfeeding is easy and natural for me — so much so that when my one premature child was failing to thrive at my breast, I made gargantuan sacrifices to work through it with the help of experts, and to establish a good nursing relationship. I did this not because breastfeeding was always the only moral choice, but because breastfeeding made sense for me and my family then, and was therefore the moral choice.  For someone else in other circumstances, switching to formula may very well have been the moral choice.

I have friends who are on medications for physical medical reasons, and can’t breastfeed. I have friends who are on medications for psychological medical reasons, and can’t breastfeed. I have friends who must work, and can’t breastfeed, or can’t breastfeed full time. I have friends who have psychological difficulties regarding their bodies, and so they don’t breastfeed. I have friends whose babies have such byzantine allergies that the mother cannot keep her milk allergen-free and also eat enough to stay alive and care for her other kids, and so they don’t breastfeed. I have friends who adopt orphans, and never even considered breastfeeding, even though it might be possible to induce milk production with drugs. They just didn’t feel it was necessary. They showed their love in so many other ways.

I have friends who don’t breastfeed, and I don’t know why they don’t. I never asked, because it’s none of my business. I can see in ten thousand other ways that they love their babies, that they care for them, are attached to them in every meaningful way, and want the best for them.

I don’t assume, like Dr. Darcia Narvaez, that these women who feed their babies formula would probably just tell me some “make-my-life-easy story.” I assume that they’d say, if I dared to ask, “We decided that this was the best way to care for my baby.” And I would believe them, because there are many, many good and moral ways to care for a baby.

I do not believe that we are required to move mountains, turn our lives upside down, or be willing to go through enormous upheaval to produce milk, even if it would be possible to do so. It may even be the wrong choice, if all that mountain-moving and upside-downing bleeds into the rest of a mother’s life (as how could it not?). Women are more than the milk they can make. Their mothering is more than the milk they can make.

And what about children? What about their needs?

Being devoted to your children is what is valuable to them. That’s what gives them a shot at growing up happy and moral and grounded. What’s damaging to children, short-term and long-term, emotionally and physically and psychologically? Being raised a mother who breastfeeds because she is terrified not to — because she can’t trust herself to make the decision that it’s time to try something else, something that will make life run more smoothly for the entire family. When we make parenting decisions based on horror stories and threats of imaginary sin, then that is not an act of love — and never doubt, that aura of fear makes its mark on a child, breastmilk or no.

Mercifully, Popcak does interject one joke into his essay, saying:

Baby will usually stay alive with infant formula.

That was a joke, right?

Because I laughed. I looked around, utterly failed to see heaps of baby corpses pickled in nasty, loveless formula, and I laughed, and annoyed my one-year-old, who was attached to my breast as I read. I was nursing her because I wanted her to be quiet, the noisy thing. I was, dare I say it, trying to make my life easy. Trying to keep her occupied while I pursued my feminist career path as a writer –just like I was doing when I left my husband with breastmilk and formula and flew across the country to speak to other Catholic moms. Everyone was cared for. Everyone was fed. Everyone was fine. And my sons and daughters got to see my virile, conservative, bread-winning husband caring for his beloved baby girl ’round the clock, and that was good for our family, too.

I haven’t the energy to go through Popcak’s entire piece and take on all the nonsense, all the sloppiness, all the sneers and scaremongering. He ends with this paragraph:

The science is there for those who are willing to look at it.  Breastfeeding is a moral issue. God gives moms breastmilk to hold in trust for their babies.  Don’t take away your baby’s inheritance.

Moms, your baby’s inheritance is the love of his parents. Don’t take that away. Do consider breastfeeding, because when it works well, it’s very nice indeed. But most of all, make your decisions based in love, not in fear of bullies, no matter what their title is. Look for the best way to love your children, and be at peace.