The breast-feeding controversy: A French feminist stirs up debate (and, in my opinion, gets it wrong)

This month’s issue of Harper’s contains an article titled “The Tyranny of Breast-feeding: New Mothers versus La Leche League.” It’s an excerpt from the latest book by Elisabeth Badinter, perhaps France’s best-known feminist: ‘The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women.” (Published two years ago in France, the book incited a big controversy there, over Badinter’s views on breast-feeding and motherhood more generally).

I disagree with Badinter’s views on breast-feeding, and found the article to be one-sided. But I decided to blog about it because it is expressive of some of the attitudes I encountered in France, so it sheds some interesting light on this issue in the French context.

To sum up her argument, Badinter (a mother of three) opposes what she views as an extremist campaign of moral suasion to convince all women they must breast-feed (or risk being labeled bad mothers). Her opposition rests on both political and scientific grounds. Her political argument is, briefly, that the expectation that women should breast-feed is oppressive to women: it reinforces traditional gender roles and ties them to home, making it difficult for women to go back to work. I find this to be a ‘straw man’ argument: many women, in France and elsewhere, manage to breast-feed and go back to work if they choose. Moreover, in making this political argument, I think that Badinter exaggerates the power of what she calls the ‘militant’ and ‘ideological’ La Leche League. Many women (myself amongst them) happily breast-fed their children without being members of, or necessarily sharing the views of the La Leche League.

Badinter’s scientific arguments point to disagreements amongst researchers about the studies that have been done to date on breast-feeding. Although the majority of the scientific literature suggests that breast-feeding has multiple benefits (in terms of intellectual development and physical health), some scientists question the robustness of some of these studies. She is on thin ground here, in my opinion. For example, Badinter cites the Society of French Pediatrics as one of the organizations with a ‘balanced’ view’, but they (and France’s National Nutrition & Health Program) both promote breast-feeding. My assessment: of course the science isn’t perfect, but the weight of evidence, and expert consensus, still points towards the conclusion that breast-feeding is generally good for babies, for a wide range of reasons.

So, I disagree with Badinter. But I find her views interesting, because they express a belief that I often encountered in France, that breast-feeding is distasteful for the mother. One French friend of mine who had moved to Canada with her young family remarked: “Here, you all believe breast-feeding is natural and easy, and most women do it. In France, we believe it’s difficult and unpleasant, and fewer women do it.” Another example is Badinter’s comment on pumping breast milk, which (she says) ‘many women find repulsive’ (I personally didn’t, but maybe that’s just me). These views have a complicated history: in France in the 1970s (Badinter’s generation), women were told that breast-feeding was unhygienic and discouraged from doing so. Older people’s attitudes (including my mother-in-law) are still shaped by this period. Of course, I don’t want to generalize from my personal anecdotes–many French women happily breastfeed–but I find it interesting that many French women I know found breast-feeding distasteful or difficult, as articulated by Badinter.

However, it’s also true that the same ‘scientific’ advice was also handed out in the US, which has experienced a resurgence in breast-feeding rates. So why has France lagged? As Badinter points out: 60% of French babies are breast-fed at birth (versus 75% in the US, and nearly 100% in Norway and Sweden). There are now over 200 La Leche League chapters in France, but the organization doesn’t have the same visibility it does in the US.

Economic factors are an important part of the explanation: France has a higher participation of mothers in the workforce than almost any other European country, and the highest birth rate of any G8 country–all of this enabled by government-paid 2-month maternity leaves and an elaborate daycare system (as well as subsidized in-home nanny care). Encouraging breast-feeding while maintaining the high birth rate (a top policy priority for the French government) would require (expensive) changes to this system. So the French government does support breast-feeding to a degree, but perhaps not to the same extent as in North America, Scandinavia, or other parts of the world.

But there are also cultural reasons. The French people I know (again, I’m aware this is anecdotal) consider breast-feeding beyond the age of 2 or 3 months to be extremely odd. My in-laws did not approve of the fact that I breast-fed both my daughters until they were a year old (supplemented by solid food and, in the case of my second daughter, formula). The French have a cultural expectation that babies should be weaned early; they are generally weaned at 2 months, coinciding with the mother’s return to work. So lower breast-feeding rates in France are also an expression of a cultural view that breast-feeding is not, somehow, ‘normal’ to do for very long.

So what’s my personal view? As I said earlier, I think Badinter is wrong. The weight of scientific evidence is firmly behind the benefits of breast-feeding. And to suggest it is oppressive, as Badinter does, stems from a narrow, rigid view of parenting and motherhood. Rather, why can’t we have what Scandinavian countries have: policies which support breast-feeding mothers, and support both moms and dads at home and at work? In some cases, this might require changing some of our policies and views about work and motherhood (and fatherhood, too). I believe that’s where we should focus our energies–not in mud-slinging against breast-feeding proponents.

I also think that North Americans have more tolerance for women’s right to choose whether or not to breast-feed than portrayed in Badinter’s book. Tolerance for individual choice and a pluralistic approach to parenting (which doesn’t assume one-size-fits-all) are strengths of North American culture. Interestingly, the US has the same rate of participation of women in the workforce as the French, but higher breast-feeding rates. Maybe there is something that Badinter (and perhaps the French) could learn from those on this side of the pond.

2 thoughts on “The breast-feeding controversy: A French feminist stirs up debate (and, in my opinion, gets it wrong)

  1. I’m french, and I have 5 sisters. I think the average French woman would say a baby should be weaned around 6 months. Some wean them earlier because of work constraints, or extract the milk so someone else can feed the baby, but that’s tough to do. I myself had 4 kids and wanted nothing more but to breastfeed them as long as possible because I just love it, and my work gave me the flexibility to do so. However, all of them were weaned between 6 to 8 months. I say it was the babies choice…after a while, they just didn’t want to suck anymore.Right about when you introduce them to other foods around 6 months. My other problem is that, with my first child, I wasn’t producing enough milk, even though he was on my breast all the time, and being in Canada it was very much frowned upon to give the baby a supplement. So he was screaming, and screaming because he was hungry. The way it is in Canada, mothers really feel guilty if they don’t breastfeed, or if they give a supplement because of what the nurses and doctors tell them. But I say there are cases, if you feel you just don’t have enough milk, and your baby still looks hungry after a feeding give him a supplement after giving him the breast…at least just enough to make him happy. You don’t want your baby to be starving

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  2. As an American self-proclaimed card-carrying feminist, I feel that enabling mothers to fulfill their unique biological role is absolutely essential, and supporting mothers in this does not in any way put pressure on women to have children, or breastfeed, or raise their kids a certain way. Just because you have 3 months of paid maternity leave doesn’t mean you HAVE to take it, but isn’t it good to know that it’s there.

    I think the American (and overall industrialized) workforce needs to realize that for women to fully participate in the workforce, we can’t keep trying to make women behave like men. Someone has to have the babies, and it’s not an option open to makes, so allowances need to be made to enable women to do what nature has designed for us to do… grow and birth new little people.

    And since biology makes it impossible for women to be like men, then to promote egalitarianism between the sexes, we should be trying to balance things out on the other end — namely, offer paternity leave equal to maternity leave, and extend to dad the same flexible work options that mothers take advantage of, such as flex time and being able to work partly or entirely from home and not judge them negatively for it). Babies need their dads, too, and the more dad can be there to support mom, the faster she will recover, and the easier it will be for her to return to her own job.

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