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  • The Work of Breastfeeding
  • Cindy A. Stearns (bio)

Breast milk is now the gold standard for infant feeding. The encouragement to breastfeed is consistent in a range of public forums. In the United States, all the major medical and public health organizations are strong promoters of breastfeeding, citing the health benefits to both baby and mother (Kukla 2006). The American Academy of Pediatrics describes human milk as "uniquely superior for infant feeding" (2005, 1). Recommendations to breastfeed are echoed in popular baby care manuals (Knaak 2005), in a recent Department of Health and Human Services–sponsored advertising campaign (Wolf 2007), and in guidelines for supplemental government food programs for women and children (USDA 2005).

In line with public health messages about the value of breast milk for babies, breastfeeding is increasingly a symbol and a measure of good mothering in the West (Avishai 2007; Lee 2007). Murphy suggests that by "deciding to formula feed, the woman exposes herself to the charge that she is a 'poor mother' who places her own needs, preferences or convenience over her baby's welfare. By contrast, the 'good mother' is deemed to be one who prioritizes her child's needs even (or perhaps especially) where this entails personal inconvenience or distress" (1999, 187–88). Breastfeeding is thus an integral component of the child-centered and demanding maternal practices inherent in the ideology of intensive mothering (Hays 1996). Lee's recent study of mothers in Great Britain provides clear evidence of this. She describes women's despair when they can't breastfeed and must turn instead to formula and concludes "how good a mother a woman is has come to be measured by whether she breastfeeds" (2007, 1088).

The cultural and medical mandate to breastfeed has important implications for the work of mothering. While often unacknowledged as such, breastfeeding is time- and labor-intensive work and it is work only mothers in families can perform. For example, child care duties such as preparing bottles of infant formula, changing diapers, and doing laundry [End Page 63] are activities that can be shared by other members of a household including men and other children. In contrast, producing breast milk is an exclusively maternal body job.1

Some previous work takes note of the maternal effort involved in the doing of breastfeeding (Bartlett 2002; Blum 1999; Kelleher 2006; Shaw 2004; Stearns 1999). However, there has not been a comprehensive exploration of breastfeeding as embodied labor and the impact this may have on women and on the division of labor in families. In a social climate that prioritizes and often valorizes breastfeeding as the gold standard for infant care, the meanings and consequences of the labor of breastfeeding demand closer scrutiny.

In this paper I add to our understanding of the embodied dimensions of mothering by exploring breastfeeding as body work through an analysis of in-depth interviews with breastfeeding mothers. The concept of body work refers to "work that individuals undertake on their own bodies and to the paid work performed on the bodies of others" (Gimlin 2007, 365). In recent years, feminists and social scientists have established a growing body of empirical research on both types of body work: the body work of appearance enhancement, including practices such as cosmetic surgery, exercise, and dieting; the body work involved in paid care work of the elderly and infirm; and paid beauty work and aesthetic labor performed by workers in nail and hair salons and retail work (for a review of research in this area, see Gimlin 2007; Wolkowitz 2006). This empirical focus has produced enlightening descriptions of the subjective experience of embodiment and the gendered, racialized, and classed social relations of providing paid services to others' bodies. In the following analysis, I describe both aspects of body work identified above: work on a woman's own breastfeeding body and the unpaid maternal body work of breastfeeding a baby. Furthermore, I explore the potential impact of the body work of breastfeeding on the division of labor in families.


This paper is based on in-depth, open-ended interviews with sixty-six women living in California. The interviews were completed in two stages: fifty-one were interviewed from 1996...


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