Moralizing Motherhood: America’s Long History of the Breastfeeding Police

Moralizing Motherhood: America’s Long History of the Breastfeeding Police

A recent Facebook post by our own Jacqueline Antonovich weighed in on one of the most contentious issues in the mommy wars — breastfeeding. She was responding to another Facebook post by a well-known feminist blogger who goes by the name The Feminist Breeder. Antonovich wrote, “I finally had to unfollow a page about feminism and birth/parenting. I’m all for breastfeeding, but if you are going to say you are not trying to judge, but you just ‘don’t get’ women who bottle feed, then you are too wrapped up in your liberal, upper-class, white world to understand how economics, culture, body type, cancer, and/or sexual trauma can make breastfeeding difficult or impossible. So tired of sanctimonious mommies.”

Antonovich’s exasperation reflects the way that “sanctimonious mommies,” or “sanctimommies” as they are known in the blogosphere, are often moms who say they don’t want to judge other moms but just “don’t get” why a mom doesn’t do X, Y, and Z exactly the way they do. If you visit any “birth club” on the popular Baby Center website, you’ll witness the mommy wars playing out over and over, often between women who haven’t even given birth yet. For example, a recent post in the August 2015 birth club provides an excellent example of the type of moralizing comments common in these kinds of interactions between mothers. Even though this particular poster is pregnant with her first child and has therefore never actually raised a child, she feels that she really understands the challenges and rewards of breastfeeding because she is the oldest of five breastfed children and had been a nanny for several women who had breastfed. As she states, “The moms I worked for had one thing in common- they were very driven and determined women who made great sacrifices to prioritize their families” — namely, breastfeeding them. The poster claims that she doesn’t “consider breastfeeding to be an optional part of raising a baby.” She describes her perception of why women choose not to breastfeed, making it clear that their reasons are not good enough:

The few women I know who do not breastfeed seemed to decide not to do it because they just weren’t that into it, or some other odd reason. They were inconvenienced by the hours it took or they got paranoid that the baby would starve before their milk supply increased. Even in bad moments, can’t you just remind yourself that you were made to nourish your baby and that it WILL work out?

She laments that women on the board are being “cut a lot of more slack than they should be when it comes to formula vs breast. Formula is like giving your child mandarin oranges from a can instead of a clementine straight from the tree.” Apparently, this particular sanctimommy not only wants to make sure that other women know that breastfeeding is not “optional” and that choosing not to breastfeed for some “odd reason” means that they aren’t making “great sacrifices” for their children. In fact, she believes that more public shaming is in order for those selfish women who choose not to breastfeed. So, even though she ends the post by asserting that she has “no intention of judging,” her post and the one by The Feminist Breeder, and the many, many other ones like them that populate birth clubs, mommy blogs, and Facebook are all collectively judging women and their parenting choices under the guise of “just not getting it.”

Ad for "Humanized Milk for Infant Feeding," undated. (Wellcome Images, Wellcome Library, London CC BY)
Ad for “Humanized Milk for Infant Feeding,” undated. (Wellcome Images, Wellcome Library, London CC BY)

Moralizing about breastfeeding, though, has a much longer history that we realize. Our perception is that prior to the production of commercial formula, there was no breastfeeding debate. Women breastfed their infants because they had no other choice and they knew, as the birth club poster puts it, that women’s bodies were “made to nourish [a] baby” and that everything would work out naturally. Of course, despite our notions about the ease of breastfeeding for our foremothers, women throughout history have struggled with nursing, just as women do today. And just as women do today, women in the past made choices about how to nourish their child, choices that depended on their economic, cultural, and practical realities. And also just like women today, those women were judged for their choices.

Jodi Vandenberg-Daves, a guest author for Nursing Clio and writer of the compelling work Modern Motherhood, notes that for nineteenth century mothers, the choice to use a wet nurse, a common practice, often resulted in censure and moralizing from society and particularly from other women. One doctor claimed that mothers who did not breastfeed lacked “conjugal love, fidelity, modesty, chastity, or any other virtue.” (61) Mary Palmer Tyler, a writer of childcare manuals, wrote that mothers “who neglect this sweet endearing office are more fit objects of censure than pity.” (20) And despite our notions that breastfeeding just “worked out” in the past, the hard truth is that many women have struggled with nursing their infants for a long time. Before the days of modern formula – and before the days of sanitation, pasteurizing, and clean water — babies who were fed substitutes, such as cow’s milk or other concoctions, sometimes died. One woman wrote in 1918 to the Children’s Bureau of her child’s death, “I could not nurse my baby, and he just faded away, never gaining, or rather losing weight all of the time on the many foods the different doctors tried.” (77) Nature has never been a perfect system.

The "Grip-tight miniature feeder," a glass infant feeding bottle. Photo from about 1935. (Wellcome Images, Wellcome Library, London CC BY)
The “Grip-tight miniature feeder,” a glass infant feeding bottle. Photo from about 1935. (Wellcome Images, Wellcome Library, London CC BY)

While the poster on the message board asserts that women are “paranoid that the baby would starve before their milk supply increased,” she reveals a common thread in the moralizing of breastfeeding — that any worry or concern about breastfeeding is silly, wrong-headed, or simply a mask for the selfish desire to quit nursing. As Vandenberg-Daves writes about women in the early twentieth century, “Women claimed they resorted to bottle feeding out of fear that their milk was inadequate, either in quality or quantity, a concern bolstered by the anxiety of the industrial and scientific age.” (83) But the fact that women worried about their supplies and had fears about the quality and quantify of their milk long before formula’s stranglehold on infant feeding indicates that fears about an ability to nurse is not a purely contemporary phenomenon.

The truth is that women have breastfed, and have chosen not to breastfeed, for a variety of personal, social, cultural, economic, and practical reasons for quite a long time. The moralizing of women’s mothering practices relies on harmful expectations of mothers — that if they don’t do everything humanly possible, stretch themselves beyond the boundaries of their abilities, their time, and their own desires in their roles as mothers and completely subsume their own needs, desires, and even health in the service of their child, then they are bad, selfish, lazy, mothers. Women today, like women in the past, face harsh judgments if they fail in any way as a mother in society’s eyes. There is no middle ground, no compromise, no “good enough.”

Designated breastfeeding spaces reflect societal discomfort with it. (Rob/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND)
Designated breastfeeding spaces reflect societal discomfort with it. (Rob/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND)

Everything in our society — from the lack of access to quality lactation support to our lack of paid maternity leave to a lack of protection for nursing mothers on the job to societal discomfort with public nursing to continued inequities in childcare — is set up to discourage women from nursing. Despite these issues, the blame for a woman’s choice not to breastfeed given these harsh realities is heaped on individual women and individual circumstances. We need to recognize that as a society, if we really value the health of infants and want to encourage breastfeeding, we need to change the realities of women’s post-natal lives to make nursing less of a herculean feat. Until we address these large-scale societal issues, the solution in the meantime seems frustratingly simple — we need to stop judging women’s choices, even under the guise of just “not getting it.”

Further Reading

Apple, Rima and Janet Golden. ed. Mothers and Motherhood. Columbus: Ohio State Press, 1997.

Blum, Linda. At the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in the Contemporary United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.

Rosenberg, Charles. ed. Right Living: An Anglo-American Tradition of Self-Help, Medicine, and Hygiene. Baltimore: Johns Hopskins Press, 2003.

Vandenberg-Daves, Jodi. Modern Motherhood. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2014.

Feature image: WPA Federal Art Project poster by Erik Hans Krause, “Nurse the Baby/Your Protection Against Trouble: Inform yourself through the Health Bureau publications and consult your doctor,” c. 1936-1938. (Library of Congress)

Ginny Engholm recently completed her Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky in the department of English. Her interdisciplinary dissertation, titled “The Power of Multiplying: Reproductive Control in American Culture, 1850-1930,” traces the rise of modern birth control in the 19th and 20th centuries. Her current work-in-progress examines miscarriage, pregnancy loss, and stillbirth in American culture. She teaches at a small college in the Liberal Arts department in Baton Rouge, LA.