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Month May 2017

The Big Letdown: A Book Review

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It’s been a long time since a book has hit the scene that really resonated with me to the point of wanting to discuss or promote it. The Big Letdown: How Medicine, Big Business, and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding, by Kimberly Seals Allers, is the first book in a while that not only chronicles the path taken to where we are, but also lays out a plan for next steps.

The first part of the book covers history, politics, and science and is well researched. The middle of the book really gets to the heart of structural barriers, racial disparities and lack of meaningful support for breastfeeding.

I find it interesting that some of the negative reaction to the book I have seen is rooted in the notion that being a feminist means that you are not allowed to look at how women are approaching issues of equity and decide that there are new ways to approach it. Women need to continue to demand the same opportunities, pay and influence as men have. Of course we need and want more and better and longer paid family leave in the US so that (all) parents can take time off to care for a new baby or a sick relative or themselves if they have an unexpected health issue. This would most definitely ease the burden on those who have just experienced childbirth, or adopted, breastfeeding or not.  Addressing policy is the first point that Ms. Sears Allers invites us to focus on next. Yet at the same time, we need to push the needle forward on valuing things such as breastfeeding and mothering.

Valuing mothering does not mean devaluing fathering or parenting or grandparenting or dictating a strict set of rules for how to parent. This passage from Chapter 5, Nipple-omics and the Value of Motherhood, sums it up: “In a world where we are fixated on time and overwhelmed with overscheduling, breastfeeding is framed as confining and restrictive because it works best unscheduled. Instead, we should challenge why we have no freedom to be temporarily unstructured or unscheduled or made to feel like less of a woman for exercising this freedom.” I agree. Not everyone wants to choose an unstructured and unscheduled path, but as a person who supports new parents, I sure can’t keep up with the inquiries from new mothers who wish they did not have to return to work so soon or would like to relax and slow down as they adjust to parenthood but just don’t know if it is ok to do that.

The book challenges whether or not aspects of the feminist movement have helped mothers. It’s a fair question. Is choice really choice as far as breastfeeding goes when there are so many obstacles? Just like with health care, is it really impossible to have health care for everyone or does America just not value that? Is it really impossible to make breastfeeding easier for people or are we just not willing to ask the questions or have the conversations that seek to support the idea that breastfeeding is really valuable. Not just nutritionally, but societally.

Ms. Sears Allers outlines a set of seven starting points for taking action. The time is right for moving the needle forward and these areas to focus on are clear and well articulated. No doubt the task at hand is a challenging one, and complicated! There is a lot to consider in discussing how society, politics, and women themselves, intersect to create the current lactation landscape. Yet I am inspired and motivated by reading her perspective and I urge you to get a hold of a copy and consider how you might be able to incorporate some of her ideas on the way forward into your work.