“This is the craziest thing!” my husband said to me on Sunday morning, when the story broke: A New York Times report registered health officials’ disbelief that the United States — a rich nation with no federal paid family leave — opposed an international resolution designed to encourage breastfeeding. The U.S. reportedly went so far as to bully Ecuador, the country planning to introduce the resolution at the World Health Assembly, by threatening to withdraw military aid and impose punitive trade measures if it did not cease support.
Not crazy at all, I insisted. All you have to do is look at the language the U.S. took issue with, which asked countries to “protect, promote and support breastfeeding.” What would America need in order to better do that? Paid family leave, first and foremost, and the continuation of the Affordable Care Act, which supports breastfeeding by requiring insurance companies to cover breast pumps and certain employers to provide pumping breaks and lactation rooms. But we do not have the first, and the current administration is opposed to maintaining the second.
What’s saddest about this particular development is that, in keeping with the current immigration crisis, it goes beyond America’s usual reluctance to help its own most vulnerable and extends the effort globally.
As Angela Garbes points out in Like a Mother, the benefits of breastfeeding depend on who and where you are: “A premature infant in the neonatal intensive-care unit or a baby growing up in a rural African village with a high rate of infectious disease and no access to clean water will benefit significantly more from breast milk over artificial milk, called formula, than a healthy, full-term baby born in a modern Seattle hospital.” (Formula, for the uninitiated, is a strange-smelling powder you measure out and mix into water.)
In America, the conversation around breastfeeding versus formula is one many parents have heard before, and the administration’s response shows they’re prepared to use what they’ve heard against us. “The resolution as originally drafted placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children,” an HHS spokesman said in an email to the Times. “We recognize not all women are able to breast-feed for a variety of reasons. These women should have the choice and access to alternatives for the health of their babies, and not be stigmatized for the ways in which they are able to do so.”
This language is a shrewd echo of many millennial mothers, who in recent years have pushed back against particularly militant factions of breastfeeding advocates, expressed doubts about breastfeeding’s benefits in a developed country, and embraced formula as a choice. It’s also an attempt to reignite the long-tired Mommy Wars — to posit that supporting breastfeeding women necessarily undermines women who use formula.
A day after the Times reported this, the president weighed in:
Beyond the puzzling claim that a country with no paid leave “strongly supports breast feeding,” the president’s tweet has some hazy points. Formula is useful if you’re trying to get your baby to gain weight. It is also useful if you’re too poor to take more than two weeks off of work, which is the case for about a quarter of American mothers. But formula certainly isn’t free, and neither is breastfeeding, if a woman’s time is at all taken into consideration. Poverty absolutely plays a role in some usages of formula, which is absolutely the result of the lack of policies that make it easier to feed a baby, period. Paid leave gives women more availability to breastfeed and more money to buy formula, in whatever ratio of those options they pursue.
This is also something that’s not often underlined: It’s not at all uncommon for an infant’s diet to be part breast milk, part formula. About half of all American babies receive breast milk at 6 months, but only about 20 percent are exclusively breastfeed. Despite mythology that would have you believe mothers fall firmly into one camp, each stigmatizing the other, in reality, about a third of us are crossing supposed battle lines and using some combination of breast milk and formula to feed our babies.
It’s exactly what I did. After I went back to work, my supply dropped, and my son’s doctor told me he was too thin and needed formula in addition to breast milk. I went to the store and bought some; it was right there on the shelf, waiting for me. At home, I measured out scoops and stirred them into clean water from the tap. At work, I collected breast milk with what my friends and I call an “Obama pump,” after the ACA’s requirement that insurance companies cover breast pumps. Every night, I consulted a chart taped to my fridge to mix the bottles I dropped off at day care the next day: so many ounces of breast milk to so many ounces of formula. This went on for about a year and a half. Like all new parents, I fed my child to the best of my ability.
After the U.S threatened Ecuador, Russia stepped in to introduce the resolution in its place. In Ecuador, maternity leave is 12 weeks, fully paid. Paternity leave is two weeks, also fully paid. Russia offers 20 weeks of fully paid leave to mothers, plus 18 months of leave that can be taken by either parent at 40 percent of their salary. In the United States, all new parents have access to zero weeks of federally mandated paid leave. Is it any surprise that this country is not fully onboard with resolutions to support breastfeeding — or that our current administration is willing to stoke a supposed Mommy War at the expense of actual mothers and their babies?