The XX Factor

Breast: Incompetent, but Best

Breastfeeding women are viewed as less competent. It’s a study result , it’s a headline, and to many women who breastfed their children, it’s not exactly news. I spent years as a nursing mother, and the longer it went on, the more I realized how infantilizing the process was. Of course a nursing woman looks incompetent, I thought when I saw that headline. Her boob is hanging out and she can’t move! Forget how others see you-when I was nursing, I saw myself as less competent at anything except the incessant feeding of this very needy infant.

But that’s not really the result of the study at all. Study participants weren’t looking at and judging an actual woman nursing an actual baby. Instead, they were assessing the general competency (and specifically the math abilities) of a woman they had not seen or met, based on a set of facts or a recorded message that included the information that the woman was or had been a nursing mother. When a detail was included that referenced the nursing, the hypothetical woman’s apparent competence went down. When that detail was replaced by a detail suggesting bottle-feeding, or the need to bathe a baby, or the wearing of a strapless bra (in that case, research subjects were told they were hearing a voicemail about the changing the time of a dinner date so that the woman could go home and either nurse, bathe the baby, or “change into a strapless bra”), the woman became, in the view of the participants, more competent in every respect. Both male and female participants in the research that included the voicemail were least likely to hire the nursing woman for a job, preferring both the woman with the clean baby and the woman in the strapless bra.

What does this tiny study (30 subjects in one part of the research, 55 in another) mean? Did the study participants assume that the nursing mothers were “those” mothers-the ones preoccupied with their children at the expense of everything else? Or did they, on some level, mentally add up the time investment and loss of sleep the nursing mother experiences and write her off for that reason? Or were they, male and female alike, just so distracted by the mention of those sexy breasts that they couldn’t see past them? The researchers, as quoted in Miller-McCune , don’t know. What they do know is that breastfeeding is apparently a “devalued social category.” They suggest that women be warned about “the sexism they might encounter,” but write that this only means women should breastfeed more, and more openly. “With time, greater numbers of women who breastfeed translates to less prejudice.”

Maybe. But maybe, as we consider ourselves as breastfeeding mothers, we need to take into account that prejudice as well. Hanna Rosin rather famously wrote in the  Atlantic Monthly that the benefits of breastfeeding have been oversold ( The Case Against Breastfeeding ). Here’s a small piece of research supporting the idea that the costs of breastfeeding are similarly underreported. Despite popular perception, breastfeeding isn’t “free” unless you completely devalue the time of the woman providing the service. Clearly there’s a social cost as well. We don’t have to like it, and should certainly fight against it (always remembering that women seem just as guilty as men). But when, as women, we make our decisions about when, where, and for how long we should nurse our children, we should take those costs into account along with the possible health gains-which are just too numerous for me to link here.

I did nurse three of my kids, each for more than a year. And now I’m parenting one who was never nursed at all as well, and her general glowing health and well-being has me wondering if at least some of those hours I spent in that rocking chair could have been put to a different use. Nursing, even long-term, happened to fit reasonably well into my life. But if it hadn’t, knowing what I know now, I’d have weaned and moved on. Maybe it’s not greater numbers of breastfeeding women that will lessen the prejudice, but greater numbers of women nursing and not making a big deal about it.