CAN PHI­LOS­O­PHY END THE MOMMY WARS?

Dr Fiona Wool­lard elab­o­rates on the philo­soph­i­cal mis­takes in the way we think about women’s bod­ies and be­hav­iour, par­tic­u­larly when they be­come moth­ers. More­over, fix­ing these mis­takes can help pro­mote and sup­port pub­lic breast­feed­ing, while com­bat­ing gu

Mother & Baby - - CONTENTS -

Pub­lic nurs­ing and other nag­ging doubts

How do you feed your baby? It might sound like a sim­ple ques­tion, but emo­tions run high around in­fant­feed­ing de­ci­sions: for­mula feed­ers are told that they are ‘self­ish’ while breast­feed­ing moth­ers are la­belled ‘ex­hi­bi­tion­ists’ for breast­feed­ing in pub­lic. A lot of the guilt, shame and blame sur­round­ing how we choose to feed our ba­bies, springs from philo­soph­i­cal mis­takes in the way we think and talk about women’s bod­ies and be­hav­iour —par­tic­u­larly when they be­come moth­ers. Fix­ing these mis­takes can help us to pro­mote and sup­port breast­feed­ing, while com­bat­ing guilt and shame sur­round­ing in­fant feed­ing.

The blame game

Many new moth­ers feel guilt and shame about how they feed their ba­bies. For­mula feed­ing is as­so­ci­ated with guilt and blame, while women breast­feed­ing in pub­lic feel dis­com­fort, hu­mil­i­a­tion and fear. So­ci­ol­o­gist El­iz­a­beth Mur­phy de­scribes in­fant feed­ing de­ci­sions as ‘an ac­count­able mat­ter’; moth­ers feel they have to jus­tify their de­ci­sions to avoid be­ing seen as bad moth­ers. And be­cause new moth­ers are so vul­ner­a­ble, this can have dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects. At the same time, how ba­bies are fed is a ma­jor pub­lic health is­sue. A re­port by UNICEF UK es­ti­mates that im­prov­ing breast­feed­ing rates could save the Na­tional Health Ser­vice (NHS) £31 mil­lion for each an­nual group of first-time moth­ers, by pro­tect­ing moth­ers and ba­bies from se­ri­ous ill­nesses. This means, we face a huge chal­lenge: we need to pro­mote and sup­port breast­feed­ing with­out sham­ing for­mula feed­ers. I think phi­los­o­phy can help by iden­ti­fy­ing mis­takes in the way we think and talk about a mother’s body and be­hav­iour.

Mis­takes about moth­ers

I’ll pick out two mis­takes in the way that we think and talk about how ba­bies are fed. First, I think we im­plic­itly as­sume that if breast­feed­ing is good, moth­ers must have what philoso­phers call a de­fea­si­ble duty to breast­feed. If some­thing is my duty, I have to do it. If I don’t, I should feel guilty. A de­fea­si­ble duty is sim­ply a duty that can be over-rid­den or de­feated. If I have a de­fea­si­ble duty to do some­thing then I have to do it, un­less I have some good ex­cuse. De­fea­si­ble du­ties also make us ac­count­able: if I have a de­fea­si­ble duty to do some­thing and I don’t do it, oth­ers can ask me why. If I don’t do my duty and I can’t give a good ex­cuse, I should feel guilty and oth­ers can blame me. Here’s an ex­am­ple: I have a de­fea­si­ble duty to teach my class. If I don’t turn up with­out a good ex­cuse, I should feel guilty. My stu­dents can de­mand an ex­pla­na­tion and if I can’t give one, they could blame me. When we ask moth­ers to de­fend the choice to bot­tle feed, we treat them as if they have a de­fea­si­ble duty to breast­feed. When we see ar­gu­ments sup­port­ing breast­feed­ing as attacks on for­mula feed­ers, we are as­sum­ing that if breast­feed­ing is good,

then moth­ers must have a duty to breast­feed. But when some­thing is good, this nor­mally only gives me a rea­son to do it. I can have a rea­son to do some­thing with­out hav­ing a duty. Rea­sons ex­plain why some­thing is worth do­ing or worth sup­port­ing, but they don’t make us ac­count­able like du­ties do. Let’s look at an­other ex­am­ple: I have rea­son to run a marathon to sup­port can­cer re­search, but not a duty to do so. If I de­cide not to, I don’t need to feel guilty about it. The con­fu­sion be­tween rea­sons and du­ties is bound to­gether with an­other mis­take: un­less moth­ers have a duty to breast­feed, they should not breast­feed in pub­lic. Breasts are highly sex­u­alised. There are ex­tremely strong taboos against re­veal­ing your breasts in pub­lic—un­less, of course, you are a model or film star. So it might seem as you should only breast­feed in pub­lic if you ab­so­lutely have to. We might think we need a duty to breast­feed to break the taboo. This sets those who want to de­fend women’s rights to breast­feed in pub­lic, against those who use for­mula. But, of course, there is an un­der­ly­ing mis­take. It should be ac­cept­able to breast­feed in pub­lic even if there is no duty to breast­feed. The right to breast­feed in pub­lic is based on the women’s right to con­tinue her daily life while feed­ing her baby in the man­ner that works for her. Recog­nis­ing these mis­taken as­sump­tions can help us to pro­mote and sup­port breast­feed­ing, while de­creas­ing shame around in­fant feed­ing. We can recog­nise the rea­sons to breast­feed, and the right to breast­feed in pub­lic, with­out a duty to breast­feed.

Dr Fiona Wool­lard, As­so­ci­ate Pro­fes­sor of Phi­los­o­phy at the School of Hu­man­i­ties, Univer­sity of Southamp­ton, UK, dis­cusses pub­lic breast­feed­ing and nurs­ing is­sues that most women tend to ig­nore

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