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Life Support: Got milk?

If you're a working mother, it will likely go to waste

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

By Linda M. Blum

A new study showing soaring rates of breast-feeding in the United States is being widely celebrated. The survey of 400,000 new moms in the journal Pediatrics found that 70 percent nursed their newborns before leaving the hospital -- the highest percentage in modern history.

(Illustrated by Anita Dufalla, Post-Gazette)

This may be good news for American babies, but for American moms there is more to the story. With a scarcity of family-friendly policies, many make infant-feeding choices amid guilt, exhaustion, embarrassment and financial worry.

Most employed mothers in the survey stopped nursing when they returned to work, although health officials urge exclusive breast-feeding for at least six months. Lots of families need a second paycheck, and more than 50 percent of new mothers go right back to work.

Some states now require employers to provide "lactation stations," private spaces where women can pump their breasts during the workday. But the lack of time and privacy at most jobs -- not to mention the need to appear professional -- makes pumping unappealing to many mothers.

In fact, one researcher found that even where there were good "stations" in place, most new moms did not use them. After all, plugging in your pump while you try not to think about your supervisor or the files piled on your desk is hardly the same as snuggling up to your baby.

Few realize that the United States stands alone as the stingiest country in the industrialized world in supporting breast-feeding mothers. Federal law requires only 12 weeks of unpaid family leave, a luxury many cannot afford. Only California offers more. Signed into law in September, a new law allows for six weeks' paid leave, funded solely by employee contributions with no help from business or government.

This great victory for U.S. working families looks downright miserly by European standards. Even so, the Bush administration is trying to ensure that we go no further: It just put the kibosh on tapping unemployment funds to help new parents, an option some 16 states were developing.

Few also realize that even in sunny, liberal California the sight of a breast-feeding mother is considered unseemly. Although almost half the states, including California, have laws protecting a woman's right to breast-feed in public, contemporary cultural attitudes enshrining breasts as sex objects are rigidly resistant to change. (With the demand for breast-implant surgery also soaring, I guess we think breasts are meant only to be sex objects.)

Earlier this year, in an upscale mall near my mother's home in Santa Monica, Calif., a woman was asked to stop nursing or leave. But you can see more skin every day at the beach or the 10-plex movie theater nearby.

Those of us in such white communities rarely stop to think what this oversexualization is like for black mothers. Even with today's high breast-feeding rates, black mothers remain less likely to nurse than white women. Public health officials have explained this gap by seeing black women as either less aware of the health benefits or less motivated to follow health advice. In my research, I have found neither to be true.

Besides what I view as a healthy skepticism to often-exaggerated medical claims, black women are already stereotyped in the United States as oversexed and irresponsible. The vulnerability to public exposure and censure they face is a very real danger. Most know that they cannot risk such exposure in the mall, and certainly not at work.

Until we have offered all mothers better options, let's not believe that the United States is such a pro-breast-feeding nation. We are such a wealthy nation, with more super-rich citizens than any other, that I wonder why we can't do better. In Europe, where months of paid leave are common, it is true that taxes are higher. But these nations also tax the rich far more and -- what an idea! -- make the well-being of mothers a social contribution.

Linda M. Blum, author of "At the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in the Contemporary United States," teaches sociology and women's studies at the University of New Hampshire. She wrote this piece for Newsday.

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