The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Breastfeeding and Feminist Frustration

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Public-health officials continue to encourage new mothers to breastfeed their babies for at least six months because of the short- and long-term health benefits to both mothers and children. Yet adversarial feminists continue to whine that the responsibilities of motherhood, particularly exercised by mothers who choose to do what is best for their children, generate gender “inequality.”

Indeed, in their study of 1,300 first-time mothers, Phyllis Rippeyoung of Acadia University and Mary Noonan of the University of Iowa lament that breastfeeding constricts mothers’ employment opportunities. Compared to mothers who use baby formula or who breastfeed for less than six months, “long-duration breastfeeders,” they found, “are more likely to be non-employed in the years following childbirth and they work fewer hours when they are employed.” They further complain that breastfeeding hinders “women’s full participation in public life.”

Yet mothers exiting “the public square for the private” do not appear to be the researchers’ main beef. Because their study found that long-term breastfeeders are more likely to be white, married, and college-educated, the two lady sociologists assert that encouragement of mothers to breastfeed amounts to the perpetuation of privilege that fosters class and racial inequality as well. They aren’t against breastfeeding per se, but they believe that disparities require “social and economic supports” so that unmarried mothers might have more breastfeeding options, particularly while working outside the home.

These musings aside, the researchers’ findings are revealing. Examining data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Rippeyoung and Noonan quantify “the conflict between breastfeeding and [paid] work.” So they measure the relationship between three types of infant nursing (formula feeders; short-term breastfeeders; and long-term breastfeeders) and employment outcomes in the five years after birth. They confine their sample to mothers who gave birth to their first child between 1980 and 1993, while excluding teen mothers as well as mothers who were not employed for at least twenty-four weeks prior to giving birth.

It will surely disappoint health experts that long-term breastfeeders represented the smallest percent of the sample (about 17 percent) while exclusive formula-feeders were the largest percent (about 45 percent). Breastfeeders are also more likely to have a husband—and less likely to be never married—than formula feeders in the year prior to giving birth. Surprisingly, formula users are the least committed to working outside the home; short-term breastfeeders are the most committed to working outside the home.

Not surprisingly, average earnings for all three types of mothers declined in the year of giving birth, yet the percentage drop in earnings “is most extreme for long-term breastfeeders and more modest (and similar) for short-duration breastfeeders and formula-feeders.” Earnings stop declining, on average, once the child is two years old, “but remain much lower post-birth through the fifth year post-birth.” Yet among long-term breastfeeders, “earnings drop more precipitously in the year after they have a baby and their post-birth earnings trajectory remains lower than for the other two groups of mothers.” Moreover, at this stage, the long-term breastfeeders are significantly more likely to have given birth to additional children than the other two categories of mothers.

These real-world findings frustrate Rippeyoung and Noonan, who seem unwilling to accept the reality that childrearing responsibilities—especially with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers—do not easily mix with outside employment for the average mother, and never will. They do concede the possibility that the very act of breastfeeding may direct a mother’s affection towards family life and away from outside employment. But they nonetheless think that if federal law protected rights of mothers to breastfeed at the job site, mothers would more quickly reenter the labor force after giving birth—as if that is what most mothers want to do, not what feminist researchers want them to do.

Given how marriage, childbearing, and breastfeeding more strongly correlate with the well-being of women and children than does outside employment, perhaps the researchers ought to reconsider their imaginary world and instead call for “social and economic supports” that would ensure a husband for every mother, and married father for every child, resolving disparities that really matter.

(Phyllis L. F. Rippeyoung and Mary C. Noonan, “Is Breastfeeding Truly Cost Free? Income Consequences of Breastfeeding for Women,” American Sociological Review 77.2 [April 2012]: 244–67.)