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previously in Letters:

Politics of Breastfeeding

I had been eagerly awaiting the February issue of The Mothers Movement Online for some time. After all, I heavily relied on MMO during my daughter's newborn period to remind me that I did, indeed, still have a self -- and that there were lots of valid definitions of "good mothering." So, I have to confess, I am disappointed by MMO's coverage of breastfeeding and politics.

I am disappointed despite the fact that the contributing authors all make cogent points about issues of class, empowerment, workplace discrimination, and medical misinformation. I admire the courage and determination shown by many women who breastfeed and who help others to do so. I agree about the risks of formula use, and I believe breastfeeding is normal and natural. So why am I disappointed?

Because all of the authors breastfed successfully. As compassionate as they may be, the unspoken assumption is that "given the right information, the right workplace, and enough selflessness, any woman can do this."

I speak as someone who was unable to breastfeed my daughter due to postpartum mental illness. The only medications to which I responded are known to be toxic in nursing newborns. Despite the rhetoric of choice around breastfeeding, in reality my only "choice" in refusing or taking these medications was whether I wanted to remain hospitalized or to recover and go home to my family.

What a difficult and lonely decision that was, particularly since my physicians supported medication at the expense of nursing, and La Leche League (which I venerated) supported nursing at the expense of medication. Neither of these felt like viable options at the time. It was so hard -- to value breastfeeding as much as I do; to choose to save my own health; and to know that this meant denying myself and my baby a core experience of mothering. It turned out to be the right decision. I could not have cared for my baby in a state of profound, disabling depression. But using a bottle with a newborn baby raised some eyebrows in my well-educated community, and I struggled with guilt for a long, long time.

I got through that period by finding blogs and chat rooms that supported mothers who, for various reasons, could not maintain breastfeeding. I met women who, like me, required rest and medications to survive postpartum mental illness. I met women who developed postpartum mental illness while struggling with Haberman feeders, nipple shields, and round-the-clock pumping. I met women who'd had breast reductions, women with autoimmune diseases, and women who just couldn't tolerate the physical pain of nursing.

We all had a tendency to introduce ourselves with a blow-by-blow description of our many attempts to breastfeed, presumably to forestall criticism from other mothers. We felt so insecure, so vulnerable. Now that we were (according to the media) empowered to breastfeed no matter what, the responsibility that came with that power was staggering, and it all fell on our heads. It reminded me of the welfare reform movement of the '90s, in which former welfare moms were expected to somehow find child care, transportation, and sustainable employment in this land of opportunity. If they couldn't, it was not society's problem -- it was their private, moral failure. Just like bottle-feeding was my failure. The internalized, frustrated rage I felt was echoed by my fellow bottle-feeding moms.

We all felt incredibly invalidated by the pro-nursing books and pamphlets we'd read. The idea that the only "excuses" for not breastfeeding are those that show up on a mammogram or HIV test appears logical, but in fact is loaded with presumptions. For one, the breast is presumed to be something the mother offers or withholds just like a rattle or other object. It is not intimately connected with her feelings, needs, and limitations--she simply shouldn't have any. The only attitude she is allowed is that of enjoying the sacrifice --or at least, acquiescing to it. This view simply does not take into account the lived experiences of many new mothers. It denies not just the socioeconomic and cultural barriers to breastfeeding, but also the physical and emotional ones.

I am deeply concerned that some breastfeeding groups, which are ostensibly feminist, are unaware of how their campaigns minimize the subjectivity of women like me. After all, if 70 percent of new moms start out breastfeeding, and half that number quit within the first six weeks, that's an awful lot of women feeling like failures.

As we work toward a world in which more mothers and babies obtain the wonderful benefits of nursing, let's not forget those who don't make it. Let's mourn with them, and offer some simple acceptance of what happened. Ironically, it is the same symbiotic mother-child bond that dictates the importance of breastfeeding, which also should compel us to validate all new mothers' experiences of nursing. A mother's self-blame and grief is not an acceptable casualty of the campaign for more breastfed babies. Unresolved guilt creates barriers in her relationship to her child for years, even decades, as long-term studies of maternal depression have shown.

Breastfeeding advocates are definitely pro-baby, but they often seem pro-mother only under the condition that she breastfeeds. I respectfully suggest that these individuals and groups begin to embrace and support all mothers, so that those who stumble at breastfeeding don't have to retreat into chat rooms -- or their own self-recriminating thoughts. In place of the present culture of "personal responsibility," I offer an alternative: "It takes a village to help a mother breastfeed."

Lisa Sniderman
Mental health worker and mother of one, Chicago, IL

February 2007

Editor's response:

Lisa Sniderman offers valuable criticism regarding the missing voices in MMO's issue on the politics of breastfeeding. I want to assure readers that those voices are not absent due to an editorial decision to exclude them -- unfortunately, I did not receive the hoped-for submissions from mothers willing to comment on the experience of being unable to breastfeed, or from those who genuinely did not want to.

I'm grateful to Ms. Sniderman's for providing a corrective perspective. However, her critique raises crucial questions about the limitations of MMO's publishing model to represent the diversity of maternal experience. This is a challenge which all online -- and most print publications -- face, particularly those who depend on contributing writers for a substantial portion of content.

Indirectly, Ms. Sniderman's letter also raises critical questions about which mothers feel more comfortable challenging the status quo of contemporary motherhood and have the time to write about it -- let alone the self-confidence to subject their personal stories to editorial review and ultimately, public scrutiny. The problem of inclusion has always been an issue in feminist movements, and the emerging mothers' movement is no exception. Efforts to increase the movement's diversity are further hampered by the fact that so much of today's maternal activism -- including the distribution of time-sensitive information and strategic consciousness-raising -- begins, and usually remains, in the digital sphere.

As a publisher and activist, I am constantly frustrated by these limitations, and by my lack of resources to overcome them. I welcome readers' suggestions for -- and participation in -- broadening the range of maternal perspectives represented on the site.

In solidarity,

Judith Stadtman Tucker
Editor, The Mothers Movement Online

"Learning the Lessons of History," by Jackie Regales

Author Jackie Regales asserts that current efforts to raise awareness about motherhood's social, economic, and political issues fail to acknowledge the decades of effort and activism poor women have already put in. Clearly, the work she describes is significant and impressive. MOTHERS certainly agrees with her on a number of points, including but not limited to "that society has a vested interest in the health and welfare of children and families" and therefore some solutions can be found in the context of public policy. We also agree that "women's issues" such as work/life pressures, access to paid leave, increasing the minimum wage, recognition for caregiving, social security credits for family caregivers, and healthcare issues impact women across all economic, social, and racial lines, and ought not to be perceived as mere "welfare reform". And certainly, the media's pre-occupation with the alleged "mommy wars" is a waste of everybody's time!

Motherhood is a mainstream condition. Efforts to improve the economic impact of motherhood are mainstream efforts. The mothers movement gains steam as more and more women realize that the difficulties they encounter are not unique to them, nor the result of their own personal failures, but rather evidence of a systemic problem -- the fact that modern life in dual income or single parent families fits very poorly on the outdated infrastructure underlying the American work/tax/benefit culture. While some women mobilized earlier, the problems Regales' describes are now seen by more and more women as impacting them. This cannot be a bad thing.

The mothers' movement is growing because women in all sorts of circumstances are connecting the dots between their own lives and the workplace policies, tax regulations, and restrictive attitudes which affect them. Many of these women would not describe themselves as feminists or activists, and are neither authors nor students of social history. It is not surprising they don't know about the activists and organizations Ms. Regales describes. However, they have every right to be as angry and frustrated as she is about inequitable public policies and the sluggishness of change. And the efforts to lessen the economic impact of motherhood and improve the condition of women will only be strengthened by their involvement.

Valerie A. Young
Advocacy Coordinator
National Association of Mothers' Centers (NAMC)
Coordinating Committee- MOTHERS Initiative

Jackie Regales responds:

I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Young's views on the problems facing the mothers' movement today and also that many women who have been radicalized by motherhood would not describe themselves as "feminists, activists, authors or students of social history." I also don't expect every woman involved in the movement to be familiar with the history I described in my article. However, I do feel that those who do call themselves activists, feminists and authors, like Joan Blades or many of the women involved in the formation of MOTHERS, should have been familiar with this history and should have acknowledged it when they began their own initiatives or projects. It is also partially my claim that this history itself has been shamefully overlooked by many outside the mothers' movement as well, so I certainly don't intend to lay any blame at only one particular doorstep.

I also agree that every woman in the United States today has the right to be angry and frustrated about the inequitable policies and sluggish change we face in many arenas of American life and government, and I join Ms. Young in welcoming any and all women to the struggle to "lessen the economic impact of motherhood and improve the condition of all women" who are part of families in this country, families that are being shortchanged in many different and terrible ways.

October 2006

The MMO received an unprecedented volume of reader mail in response to our June 2005 coverage of the fathers' rights movement (Fathers' Fight by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser and War of the Wounds by Judith Stadtman Tucker, June 2005). Some of this heightened interest was undoubtedly generated by an entry on radio host Glenn Sacks' web site -- Sacks is mentioned in both articles as a vocal supporter of the fathers' rights agenda -- which included the MMO's mail link. Although Sacks' commentary, which was brief and described the articles as "slanderous," was only online for about two weeks, his post -- including the mail link -- was copied and circulated on several other fathers' rights discussion boards, blogs and web sites, including the web site of Fathers4Justice Canada. I was initially reluctant to prolong what has been, for the most part, an unpleasant experience, but decided to publish all the letters verbatim.

Fathers fight back:
Letters on the fathers' rights movement

Dear Judith;

Thanks so much for the opportunity to respond to your recent review of "The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter." I doubly appreciate it since I have generally found Mothers Movement Online to be a very admirable and enlightening source of news and opinion about mothers. Yet despite some lovely compliments, which I appreciate!, this review said some things with which I feel I must take issue.

Some of the research I cited, for instance, was called "speculative," and an example of this was what's known about oxytocin, a hormone with important roles in motherhood, social relations, stress-management and memory. The objection was that since oxytocin doesn't cross the blood-brain barrier in humans, "it's nearly impossible for scientists to study the net effects" on human response. In fact, this isn't true. The recent news from Swiss and U.S. scientists, reported in Nature in June, of a relationship between oxytocin and trust in humans (using an oxytocin nasal spray that does impact the brain) is just one example of the cutting-edge research cropping up all the time on this important hormone.

In a broader sense, "The Mommy Brain" was faulted for relying to some extent on animal studies to give clues about human experience. This is an argument I was prepared for, and which I deal with in the book. While there are some fascinating examples of new research on mothers, the bulk of what we know about the "maternal mind" does come from studying other mammals. This is so for many good reasons, including that rats, for example, have very similar brain architecture as humans, and are subject to the same neurochemicals as are we. And, obviously, it's not so easy for scientists to send humans running around mazes to hunt for Froot Loops, or to later dissect their brains. Add to this, there are many fewer confusing variables at work with animals, who don't boost their brains with bridge or taking Ritalin, for instance; thus it's easier and more reliable to extract truths common to all mammals. This is why a great deal of what we know about human physiology and brain mechanics comes from studying our fellow mammals. While I grant that we have a larger neo-cortex than other animals, in addition to other important variables, I do believe that our reluctance to accept that we, too, are mammals often gets in the way of our self knowledge.

I do agree heartily with the conclusion of the review, that the main problem with people's perceptions of mothers is less that they generally think we're mentally diminished -- though that is true and offensive -- but that what we think about isn't very important. Challenging this assumption is one of my dearest goals, which I think is plainly expressed in the book. I hope your subscribers can read it for themselves; I welcome the debate!

Yours truly,

Katherine Ellison
Author, "The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter"

June 2005

Dear MMO

Thank you very much for your very accurate summary, of my article “A Nation of Wimps,” which appeared in Psychology Today magazine [February 2005].

I wish to make a few additional comments.

I have been thinking, gathering information on and writing about the phenomenon of hothouse parenting at least since 1998. But way back then I was most concerned that kids are losing social skills. As I make clear in “A Nation of Wimps,” the evidence is clear that they are losing a lot more than that. Yes, the material I've reported is anecdotal, because no one has studied the consequences of overmonitoring and overparenting kids. I made an attempt to look at the downstream effects.

The phenomenon of overparenting and overmonitoring kids is by no means limited to mothers. Parents tend to be complicit in this. Parenting is the arena in which men today are both getting their emotional toes wet and making up for the distant parenting they got from their own fathers. I think it’s interesting that the [over]parenting boom has coincided with the new interest in fathering.

And, perhaps most important, I don’t think parents are to blame. Actually, let me restate that: blame is the wrong concept here. I believe there are powerful forces that have driven parents to this point, that have shifted too much responsibility to individual parents in a culture that has failed to provide adequately supportive social institutions to help raise the next generation of society. Parents, however, filter the culture, at least to a point. And it is there that some values could be exerted.

Kids have a natural curiosity and a natural drive for effectiveness as human beings that hothouse parenting seems to squash out of them. I think we need to trust nature a little more and back off.

I speak, of course, as a parent myself.

I have always said that the best lessons I have learned in life have come from raising my kids. I took that knowledge of mothering (which is essentially the art of managing and motivating) and used it in my professional life. Now I think we are going in the opposite direction— applying professional values to parenting. And that isn’t good for our kids (or us).

Hara Estroff Marano
Editor At Large
Psychology Today

Dear MMO:

I just learned of your website... We are very excited to know that we are not so alone. Welfare Warriors have been fighting for the lives of mothers and children in poverty since 1986. We publish an international mothers activist news journal. We came together in 1986 to create mamas media and give a voice to moms struggling to survive systems not working for us. Our mission is to create a Government Guaranteed Child Support program in the US similar to that in all European countries. We also use the US Social Security Survivors Benefits program for a model, with two adjustments: no requirement that a parent be dead or disabled, and no work quarters required. Social Security Survivors Benefits guarantees support for minors until they are 18 with no punishments for mom if she is employed, remarried or a student— and no social stigma. This is our only successful family support program in the USA, but it only covers dependents of dead and disabled, not all children.

Our first mamas media creation was our newspaper, Mother Warriors Voice. It is now 18 years old and distributed in the US, Canada, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Africa, India and Mexico. We have published hundreds of pamphlets, written an organizing handbook, and a Moms Survival Guide, filmed several videos, wrote fifty songs to traditional tunes with new lyrics, made a cassette with our music and history. And this year we published a songbook with all fifty songs and lots of photos from our 18-year history of activism. We invented the word “Motherwork” to validate the labor of caregiving. We created t-shirts and bumper stickers saying “Motherwork IS Work” and also “Stop the War on the poor.”

In addition to creating a voice for moms through media, we also take our activism to the streets with public actions, music, street theatre, photo bus tours, caroling caravans etc. Children participate in office work, actions, distribution and newspaper production via participation in our MAY (Mothers and Youth) project. Since 1990 we have staffed a MOMS Line to teach moms a three Step Plan of Self-Defense to protect their families from bureaucratic abuse, especially from public benefits institutions.

Right now we are struggling to survive financially and will appreciate any funding tips or donations.

Pat Gowens
Editor, Mother Warriors Voice

Mother Warriors Voice is an 18-year old international news journal reporting on world news from an activist mothers' perspective. Subscribe for $15 individuals, $25 Organizations, $5 victims of poverty. Send to 2711 W. Michigan, Milwaukee, WI 53208, 414-342-6662, or subscribe online at www.welfarewarriors.org.

Dear MMO:

I don't know where I've been, but I had never heard of your website before today. And all I can say is THANK GOD!

I am a working mother, I have two sons (5 and 11 months) and I was starting to think I was going crazy. I really love my job, I love my boss, I love making good money, and I really love my kids. I'm starting to feel like a pariah for being a working mom. Childless friends don't even ask me out anymore because I have kids, or ask me out the day of, when it's too late to get a sitter. Paying for childcare for two children is costing me $1000 a month, and even though I make a nice salary, I'm barely able to cover my bills. I have a loving and sweet domestic partner, who is a total workaholic and is only home to sleep because he has two jobs. So last night, there I am, doing the dishes while the baby is clanging pots and pans and eating cheerios off the ground next to me, while my 5 year old is watching Pokemon in the living room. And I am thinking, God, you know this is not what I expected it to be.

When I was a kid -- my mom is a feminist -- I spent lots of time with my mom being read books about Golda Meier, Indira Gandhi, etc... “you can be anything you want to be”, going to NOW rallys etc… No one ever told me, oh and by the way you're not only going to be responsible for your career, but also most of the childcare, and the housework, and you're not going to get to have a social life anymore, unless you count going to the zoo, circus, and Barney on Ice.

Yesterday, I called the cousin of my best friend, who used to be a nanny and knows a lot about childcare stuff. She is a stay at home mom, who has an Internet business, with two small kids (she's still nursing the 2 year old, the 3 year old goes to preschool, part-time). I asked her if she knew anyone in our area (she lives near me) who has a good day care, or anyone who likes their daycare a lot.

She laughed and said, "You know, I don't really know, because most of my friends are stay at home moms, who even home school their children, so I really don't know anything about finding daycare." I felt like I'd been slapped in the face. There was so much in that statement to me. "Not only am I don't something good for my child by staying home and nursing him until he's old enough to go to college, because that's what's best for him. And all of my friends do the same because they care about their kids, but you're a bad mom because you're going to leave your baby with a stranger." is what I heard.

When I was on maternity leave with both my first and second son, although I liked being at home, I was also looking forward to going back to work. Being mentally stimulated, talking with grownups, getting the thrill of the sale, meeting my professional goals. I don't see anything wrong with that. I also don't see anything wrong with having a free nanny and a free housekeeper, so I can achieve my goals and not worry about the quality of life my kids have.

I do feel guilt, I feel guilt taking my kid to daycare, because I know he's going to be around a ton of other germy kids, and get sick, and there's nothing I can do about it, because I need to work, and more than that, I want to work. And even if I were a millionaire and didn't have to work, I'd still want to go to school or something because I like being challenged. And I don't mean challenged by which works better to get up dried applesauce, 409 or Mr. Clean -- I mean mentally challenged, meeting new people, hearing new ideas.

So thank you thank you thank you. I know this is long and rambling, but it's nice to know that I'm not the only one, and nice to know that it’s OK to want to work, and be successful and be a mom/wife/partner at the same time.

Liz Casmier
Los Angeles, CA

January 2004

MMO welcomes letters from readers in response to content on the site, social issues, or just to share personal observations about the experience of motherhood.

Updates will be scheduled according to the volume of mail. Address your letters to mail@mothersmovement.org. All letters featured on the MMO Web site are published with the prior permission of the writer. Letters may be edited for length.

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