The Breast-Feeding Battles

March 16, 2009

Hanna Rosin’s analysis of breast-feeding in the most recent Atlantic is a fascinating look at the pressures and repercussions of nursing babies.  One of the most fascinating concepts put forth is the idea of the pressure of “total motherhood.”  

In her critique of the awareness campaign, Joan Wolf, a women’s-studies professor at Texas A&M University, chalks up the overzealous ads to a new ethic of “total motherhood.” Mothers these days are expected to “optimize every dimension of children’s lives,” she writes. Choices are often presented as the mother’s selfish desires versus the baby’s needs. 

I think this is an amazing description of one aspect of what many of us are struggling with.  There is this overwhelming pressure to be the “total mother,”  to focus all of our actions on what is best for the baby.  

The other side of the dynamic, the one that Rosin doesn’t really touch on, is that we are also faced with pressure to be a “total professional.”  We are expected to maintain and advance in our career while also being the total mother.  At a baby shower this past weekend I was witness to a very uncomfortable exchange between two women- one who has decided to stay home with her children for the next few years and one who seemed to think that the only rational reason for making such a decision would be monetary.  It was all very polite and civilized but the tension (and judgment) was clear.

It seems to me that women at this point are expected to be able to not only balance it all but to master it all- to be a completely devoted and self-less mother while also making partner, getting that promotion or, at least, moving forward with professional development.  At one time, I think there was an understanding that certain things would have to slide- that maybe you wouldn’t be the most involved mother, but at least you would be making the world a better place for women who followed or maybe you wouldn’t be the ultimate professional but you would be providing amazing care to your children- now there seems to be this assumption that things are “evolved” enough that it should be possible to do it all (while also finding time for yoga, nights out with girlfriends, and the occasional mani and pedi).

In the end, what it comes down to is that we are all trying to do what is best for our families.  We are working with our partners (at least most of the time) to make the best, rational, logical, equal decisions we can.  It never works out the way it should, the way we expect it to.  But perhaps those difficulties, and articles like Rosin’s, are what keep the dialogue going and will get us to the next, better stage in this struggle for a true balance between work and family.

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