Breastfeeding harangue just the tip of the iceberg
Saturday, August 17, 2013
Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen

I read Professor Karla Erickson’s opinion piece (“Explaining why, next time, I won't breastfeed,” Aug.9) with interest and amusement. My amusement was due to her manifestly absurd reason not to breastfeed an infant:  because it promotes “gender inequality.” Only in academia….

But my interest was due to the hundreds of reader comments. They perfectly illustrate an unfortunate issue: the intolerance of people to any parenting decisions different than their own decisions, and the increasing willingness of people to freely and viciously express that intolerance.

This starts from the moment we make our pregnancies known. Total strangers feel justified in informing a visibly pregnant woman holding a glass of wine that she is doing irreparable harm to her child by selfishly enjoying herself. This is despite the fact that widespread studies have never shown any harm from drinking up to two drinks a day, every single day during pregnancy. (Read the Wall Street Journal’s recent article, “Take Back Your Pregnancy,” written by an economist who discovered that many of the “rules” of pregnancy are not based on reliable research and conclusions.)

Following birth, everyone seems to have a strongly held opinion on whether/how long/how to breastfeed, like such a personal decision is anyone’s business other than the parents’ and their medical caregivers’.

Then the unsolicited parenting advice comes in spades: sleeping arrangements, pacifier use, daycare vs. staying home, whether it’s OK to leave your child alone for one second, educational methods and school choice, college or not; everyone is free with their opinions.

And heaven help the parent who makes a tragic mistake or whose child has a serious accident – there is no compassion for them, only blame and possible criminal prosecution.

How have we come to feel we have a right to tell people how to raise their children? I think there are several factors:

  1. *We Americans must feel we have control over everything. We can mold our children, give them the perfect start, make them smarter, eliminate 100% of risk (see for more about this)… we can even save the planet with our parenting decisions!

  2. *Americans have a residual puritanical streak and seize upon any reason to deny pleasure and convenience to ourselves and others. Drinking wine while pregnant or taking a moment to see to our own needs instead of vigilantly watching our children every minute?  Selfishness!

  3. *We feel that any rude, meddlesome interference is fully justified by our excuse that we are Saving Children’s Lives!

  4. * Commenting in online forums has accustomed us to sharing our opinions publicly, and we are no longer taught the manners that dictated holding our tongues out of politeness and minding our own business.


But surely these people are well-intentioned, helping parents make beneficial decisions?

Actually, it seems to me that research will eventually discover that most of our parenting decisions won’t really have much of a lasting impact on what kind of people our children turn out to be.

Yes, I know, studies show breastfeeding to be superior to formula (please don’t start that harangue again). But I was born in 1970, and was among the 80% of American infants who never received a drop of breast milk at that time. Where’s the epidemic of low intelligence and poor health among my generation?

And education does matter; I wouldn’t homeschool my own two children if I didn’t think so.
But most kids will learn enough to get along in society, most kids will make it to adulthood without death or injury, most health problems they will experience will be due to genetics or their own adult decisions.

It’s frightening and depressing to admit that we don’t actually control very much in this world – only how we live our own lives; not our children’s lives (for more than a few years) and certainly no one else’s.

But understanding this leads to tolerance, and better manners too.