Judging Mothers

A mother’s choice about whether to breast feed or bottle feed her infant may seem like a purely personal decision. In fact, for decades it has been an individual decision with wide-reaching social, economic and political ramifications. Issues have ranged from the economic interests of large baby formula manufacturers to the introduction of formula in developing countries where there are problems with its safe use to medical advice suggesting that breast milk is superior for babies and social disapproval of women who either don’t nurse their babies or who stop nursing before the recommended one-year mark.

In an opinion piece in today’s New York Times, author Alissa Quart discusses the fact that less than 50% of American babies are breast-fed for at least six months, despite a medical culture that sometimes portrays formula as “evil” and a competitive mothering society where women ask each other “How long did you go?” Quart opines that this is understandable, given the time-consuming nature of breast-feeding, and the demands of many women’s workplaces which offer little or no maternity leave, little on-site daycare, and not enough flexibility to allow women to either structure their hours to allow nursing, or to pump milk while at work for later use by a caregiver. She argues that this breast-feeding obsession is part of a social phenomenon that seeks to eliminate all risks to children, and that we need to allow women to make individual decisions without subjecting them to guilt trips.

In The Conflict: How Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women (newly released in an English edition), French sociologist Elisabeth Badinter argues that the aggressive push for breast-feeding engineered by doctors, governments, and private groups such as the international La Leche League, is a significant part of a larger social agenda to demand perfection in parenting and especially in mothering. This has huge social and economic ramifications, according to Badinter, because seeking mothering perfection along these lines precludes women from equal competition in many professions, and leaves them at a permanent economic disadvantage in the workplace.

So what relevance do these discussions have for a legal blog?

Those specializing in children’s law or divorce law know that social decisions about what constitutes “good-enough” parenting can have important legal ramifications. In divorce cases, a woman’s decision to reduce or refrain from paid employment in order to take care of children will have important repercussions for that woman’s ability to be financially self-supporting (or not) after a divorce, and may impact decisions about alimony, child support and custody. In cases where child maltreatment is alleged, judgments are made about whether a parent has provided appropriate care and avoided unnecessary risks to her child. I am especially concerned about the cases where parents are suspected of child neglect, since the deliberately nebulous concept of neglect can lead to well-meaning but family-damaging interventions in cases where the family should best be left to its own devices.

Does adequate parenting require a mother to nurse her baby for twelve months? Six months? Ever? On the one hand, research does show that breast-feeding strengthens the immune systems of infants, and may reduce the likelihood that children will be overweight in later years. On the other hand, it is certainly possible for bottle-fed infants to receive excellent nutrition as well as maternal cuddling and bonding. If a woman’s job situation makes breast-feeding difficult or impossible, she might make the decision that the overall good of her child and family require that she bend to the demands of the job. After all, parents can be found to be neglectful for failing to provide adequate food, shelter or medical care, and paid employment is a good way to ensure adequate family resources for all of these. In fact, the “ideal” of long-term breast-feeding may only be a viable option for upper-middle class and wealthy mothers. Working class and poor mothers are likely to be employed in the sorts of service jobs that pay by the hour and allow little leeway for parental duties.

Admittedly, nobody is currently suggesting that bottle-fed infants be removed from their homes or even be subjected to state supervision. However, social fashions in parenting always make me nervous. Expert advice has its place, but by definition it is handed down from elite, educated, and well-paid professionals to ordinary folks on the front lines of parenting. Some have alleged that the child protection system judges poor parents by standards imposed by members of the more privileged classes, and that this results in unfair and damaging interventions into families who are already struggling. Although many neglect statutes, including Wisconsin’s, exempt parents from a finding of neglect if the failure to provide is due to poverty, the fact is that a myriad of social and economic factors make findings of neglect much more likely for poor parents than for wealthier parents.

As lawyers and lawmakers, we need to be wary of pronouncements that purport to definitively establish that certain specific practices define good parenting. Perhaps these statements are justified, perhaps they are not. But before we use the law to enforce them, we need to carefully consider possible biases towards less economically advantaged parents.

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