Tuesday, January 27, 2009


America seems to be in a state of denial about the purpose of breasts. Biologically speaking they exist to produce milk for our young. A full 50% of the population has them. Significantly more of the population has used them. But, when it comes time to actually put those babies to the test, we are quietly told it would be best if we could limit ourselves to 2 months of "that". And if we must continue, perhaps we could do it in a nice closet or bathroom, with a safe, quiet, electrical device.

Study after study has shown the benefits of extended breastfeeding. Breastfeeding reduces your risk of metabolic syndrome, and reduces your risk of rheumatoid arthritis by half. Breastfeeding protects babies from breast cancer as adults, improves intelligence scores, reduces the risk of childhood obesity and reduces asthma risk.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months, and thereafter for as long as mother and baby desire. The World Health Organization recommends continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond. SOURCE

Sadly, American women have to deal with the least amount of maternity leave of any industrial nation. In fact, the U.S is one of only 4 countries that doesn't offer paid leave to new mothers -- the others are Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Lesotho. (http://www.momsrising.org/maternity) Really nice guys. Super. This of course leads to the wrenching decision that faces most women in the US, stay at home to breastfeed and deal with the lost wages and probably lost job, or go back to work mere weeks after delivery. Not surprisingly, this leads to the CDC's reporting that among American children born in 2005, less than a third were breastfed to 3 months and only 11% are breastfed to 6 months.

Now, I can already hear my father voice in my head, "Yes, but Jennie, those other countries have MUCH higher taxes to bear the burden of all that maternity leave." True. But here in the US, childbirth is a leading cause of "poverty spells" in the U.S. -- when income dips below what's needed for basic living expenses. And can anyone tell me what happens when income dips below living expenses? Mommy and baby get on WIC, they get on food stamps, they get on Medicare, sometimes all three at the same time. Those services most definitely get paid for through taxes. And they have the added "benefit" of being horribly inefficient and usually overwhelmed. In my opinion, taxes are part of what it means to belong to a society. You all pitch in as a group to help out those who need it. And yea, sure if you are a working, healthy man, you'll likely get less of that help. But, it's quite possible the reason you are healthy is that your mother had enough support to breastfeed you. Not to mention your offspring are more likely to be healthy if your partner has adequate support and can stay home and breast feed.

This is more than a women's dilemma, this is a public health dilemma. I would argue that the savings with less doctor visits for sick children would almost make up for the "cost" of supporting the women so they can stay home and nurse.

Again I hear an argument, perhaps not my father this time, but a voice piping up with, "But Jennie, noone is saying women have to stop feeding their babies breastmilk, they can pump!" Yes, we can pump. That voice must belong to a man, because really, how can anything that plugs into the wall be compared to breastfeeding? Most women have to do their pumping in bathrooms. Eeew. Most employers will not pay for pump breaks. So women who have to take 3 pump breaks of 20 minutes have to work an hour later every evening, keeping them away from their babies even longer. If said baby is in daycare, that extra hour can be costly. Not to mention the ecological impact of the extra electricity to run both the pump and the fridge at work to keep the milk cold, the manufacture and disposal of plastic milk bags, etc. Is it any wonder women give up the fight?

So, what's the solution? What's an ecologically minded, caring mother to do? I don't know.

There are options, none of them are great, but options exist. If you are lucky, you can scrounge together all your paid sick leave and vacation time and tack it on to the FMLA 6 weeks unpaid and skate through 3 months.

Maybe you can stay home and use old fashioned home economics to make the household work off one check. i.e. cloth diapers, cook from scratch, bake, preserve garden produce, etc. Sometimes those things can be enough when combined with no daycare costs and reduced commuting costs.

Maybe you can work at home. I've not looked in depth into this yet, but supposedly there are transcription jobs you can do from home. There are mothers who sew childrens clothing and cloth diapers and sell them online. There are mothers who make soaps and lotions at home and sell them at local natural stores.

I'm going to try and do the latter two and skate through 3 or 4 months with baby. I'm not sure if we'll make it or not, and I'm not sure what I'm going to do after those 3 or 4 months. I imagine it partially depends on how the economy does. But, at least I'll feel better knowing I tried. I'll feel better knowing my baby had at least 3 months of breastfeeding and I know my ecological footpring will be smaller because of it.

I'm just a little angered that the wealthiest nation in the world can't figure out a more elegant solution.


Sarah said...

Depending on your situation, there may be other ways to be creative in addition to pumping or supplementing with formula:

1) My husband, who took care of my son while I was working, often took the bus to my workplace at lunchtime and I nursed then.

2) Find childcare near your worksite so you can take breaks to nurse when needed.

3) Depending on what kind of work you do, an easy baby might be content for much of the day in a sling with you.

4) Find another new mother and trade off nursing each other's kids when you each need to be away

Some of these are long shots, yes, but you might be surprised at what you can come up with if you keep working on it.

Mountain Girl said...

Wow, I'm really surprised at the lack of paid maternity leave in the US. Crazy!

Emily and Drew said...

I was only able to stay home with my first for 6 weeks. I had to pump three times a day at work. It was worth it though for the bonding that we got when we were together, the health of my son, and the money saved (hubbies favorite). It can work, but it does take hard work.

greek4 from DS