When I first began babysitting in Brooklyn following my move to the east coast, I worked for a new mother so enthused with breastfeeding that she would always bookend her exclamations with “and it’s free!” While pushing her newborn to the park, I would often encounter other mothers who replicated this same verbal pattern, punctuating their breastfeeding stories with “it’s free!” “and “it doesn’t cost anything!” Yet the idea that breastfeeding is more economically sound to women and families doesn’t really square with some new research in American Sociological Review, which found that the cost to maintaining that breastmilk is actually pretty high.
Upon examining the data of 1,313 American women who gave birth between 1980 and 1993, researchers learned that breastfeeding mothers who nursed for six months or more endured “more severe and more prolonged earnings losses” than those mommies who opted for Satan’s Formula. When looking into how breastfeeding and childrearing affect that average, non-celebrity woman’s earnings, researchers uncovered what a lot of mothers know from personal experience: the workplace tends to not take too kindly to your breast pump. We don’t exactly need stories like that of the Colorado teacher who was fired for pumping at the job to remind us that many women work fewer hours, or straight up leave the workforce, in an effort to nurse. And unless you’ve married an awesome college-educated man who can support you in your privileged dedication to solely breastfeed, most women are looking at a hostile postpartum professional environment. So in the long term for many many women, this means significantly less money in the bank for the first five years of the child’s life — a breastfeeding tax, if you will.
Miller-McCune reports that this class divide and slim earnings reveal the need for women to have some sort of protection at the job, much like how the EU demanded daily two-hour pumping breaks at work:
“Rather than continuing to pressure women to breastfeed for their children’s well-being while providing no provisions for the sacrifices women make to do so,” they conclude, “an alternative solution would be to pass a federal law protecting women’s rights to breastfeed at work.”
Researchers did note that it was quite difficult to “tease out” why so many long-term breastfeeders quit the workforce at such higher rates. Yet, they have a few observations of note:
may leave work because of their own personal desires or cultural pressure, or they may be pushed out because of the incompatibility of breastfeeding in the workplace.”
Personal desires and cultural pressures aren’t really much of anyone’s business as they reflect individual women’s choices. But “incompatibility” with the workplace is one that deserves to challenged and rectified for the sake of healthy kids. Especially when we know that women who have maternity leave for six months or more tend to stick to breastfeeding longer than those mothers who are scrambling back into the office one to six weeks after delivery. It’s mighty difficult to keep with that six-month American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation when you have to hide lugging your pump into the bathroom stall.