Dr Charlotte Faircloth on why shared parenting and a growing emphasis on breastfeeding might not be the perfect match.
As a new parent, there can be little doubt about the ‘best’ way to feed a baby: breastfeeding, ideally exclusively for six months, and for anything ‘up to two years or beyond’ is the official line. Midwives, health visitors and parenting experts are unequivocal: formula feeding is presented as an option which comes with emotional, physical and ecological risks; breastfeeding is ‘natural’, ‘healthiest’ and the only real choice for responsible mothers.
And it is mothers to whom these parental recommendations are directed, because fathers (or partners), clearly, cannot breastfeed. Even giving expressed milk from a bottle is often presented as second best – putting the bonding that accompanies breastfeeding at risk. Instead, a partner’s job is to be as ‘supportive’ as possible, by not ‘undermining’ women’s decision to breastfeed. Whilst this kind of support is clearly very important, especially during the early stages of breastfeeding, this sole-responsibility for feeding brings with it a range of implications: which parent can soothe the baby in the night, how many hours each of them can be apart from the child, which of them has to monitor their diet and so on.
This intensive, embodied, mother-based form of care being promoted by policy makers and parenting professionals, of which breastfeeding is just one example, obviously chafes with recent government measures around parental leave which aim to equalise parenting within couples. After a two-week period of medical leave, women will now be able to transfer their entire leave allowance (of up to a year) to their partner.
So how do these messages about the importance of breastfeeding and embodied care for children affect women’s career patterns? My research with parents into these questions reveals some interesting findings. For the majority of couples, these measures will do little to change the status-quo: it is by and large women who take extended periods of time off work. Interestingly, breastfeeding featured as a major rationale for these patterns (whether women actually ended up breastfeeding or not). Many said that they felt a ‘responsibility’ to give their children the ‘best’ (i.e., breastfeed, or at least try to). In line with the recommendations, they were therefore the ones to take at least the first six months off work, and reduce their hours on going back, if they went back at all.
This use of breastfeeding to justify career patterns is particularly interesting, because recent research has shown how arguments about the health benefits of breastfeeding are in fact based on a rather clumsy reading of the clinical evidence. Correlation between breastfeeding and positive health outcomes are often taken to be evidence of causation, with the differentials between formula fed and breastfed babies typically being overplayed in a developed context like the UK. Instead, the ‘health benefits’ of breastfeeding often serve as a way of making for moral arguments about what is thought to be the ‘best’ form of care – chiming with what the sociologist Sharon Hays calls ‘intensive’, mothering; a belief that motherhood should be both totally absorbing and personally fulfilling for women.
Talking about moral arguments might sound fluffy and unimportant, but these messages around infant feeding have real implications for women’s career prospects, as well as for setting patterns in care-taking for years to come. This study from the US showed how women who breastfed suffered more prolonged and severe earning-losses than women who used formula milk (an argument against those who say breastfeeding is ‘free’, not to mention the tiredness that can accompany combining work and breastfeeding). And perhaps more worrying is the pressure that a culture of ‘intensive’ motherhood brings: It leaves women very little space to admit that embodied care does not suit them, that they want to return to work full-time, before six months, or that childcare is a good option for them. All of these decisions, if they are made, must be spoken of in a language of regret and guilt.
Women do need to be supported in enacting their feeding choices (and certainly, many women also talked about how important good, material support was when breastfeeding). But promotion which fudges the evidence, or assumes a one-size fits-all approach, and fails to take into account the real-life costs and benefits to the various feeding options can have very negative, if unintended, consequences – both for individual families and for society more broadly. Thus, even where policy makes ‘equal parenting’ possible in theory, little will change in practice until this culture of intensive motherhood is also challenged.