It’s hard to imagine what critical constituency Michael Bloomberg was reaching out to this week when he pushed New York’s maternity wards to hide their infant formula: the International Doula Association, Dr. and Mrs. Sears, the citizens of Portland? Starting September 3, the city will start urging hospitals to keep infant formula in locked boxes or in out of the way, secure storerooms. Already New York has one of the most pro-breast milk policies in the nation. With a program called Latch On NYC, the mayor has convinced most of the city’s hospitals to stop giving out swag bags containing formula, and to have nurses record a medical reason for giving a baby a bottle. But this takes the policy one step further by sending the message that formula is like dangerous medicine, only to be dispensed in case of an emergency.
The question here is not whether breastfeeding is better or worse, we can all agree that breastfeeding infants is somewhat better than not breastfeeding them. The question is, as I have written many times before, that we do not want to feed into a culture that has made the failure or lack of desire to breastfeed seem like a shameful and even criminal affair. By the statistical odds, that woman those nurses are talking down to at the hospital probably has to go back to work in less than a month. The last thing she needs is a nurse frowning at her and making her sign a form because she wants to give her baby a bottle.
Then there is the question of general condescension. When I was a brand new, righteous vigilant mother I too got that swag bag with the packet of Infamil in it. I was outraged, horrified, I probably cursed for the first time in front of my precious infant. But that little packet did not break down my resolve and compromise my moral rectitude. I did with it the same thing I do when I get a swag bag from a PR company or my dentist: I threw it into the garbage, because I am grown person and I can do things like that.
Now that I am older and wiser and ten years into parenting I have realized something about that packet. Infant formula is not poison. It is one of the great and completely unheralded engines of women’s liberation. Take away infant formula and the millions of women who fuel our economy would no longer be able to work, because American employers are certainly not going to pay them to stay home and breastfeed.
There is only one good thing about Bloomberg’s announcement: it seems to have pissed women off, by turning the breastfeeding debate into a question of self determination. For a few years I have been relatively alone in complaining about the enormous pressure to breastfeed but now there are more angry voices joining the chorus. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon called Bloomberg’s announcement the new war on women in the Atlantic today. “Giving birth to a baby does not make you an infant,” she wrote. Hear hear.