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The Cost of Breastfeeding
What currency is suitable to measure care?
Next week, I’ll return to my usual posting schedule. For this holiday week, a post about work and how we measure it.
Over at the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg had a piece on why breastfeeding isn’t a “free” solution to feeding a child. It’s a piece prompted by the formula shortage, and the sometimes flip advice given to mothers to simply return to breastfeeding (that’s not how it works).
It’s a well put-together piece, drawing on Rosenberg’s own data from all her nursing and pumping sessions for her baby’s first six months. She does the math and counts the cost of time spent nursing at $11,460 (for a woman making the median woman’s salary—the cost to Rosenberg herself is presumably higher). The cost of supplies pushes the number up.
When I shared the piece, I got some pushback from friends about using this as the measure of breastfeeding’s cost or value. And Rosenberg clearly did, too. She included this clarification in a thread of responses to questions about the piece:
It leaves me torn, in the same way that the Wages for Housework movement does. As one of my friends put it, when pushing back, this framework of cost-per-hour frames every human relationship as a loss of Time Spent Working. A dinner with a spouse, theater tickets with a friend, time spent being a horsie for a little child—do these activities really have a meter running alongside them of foregone wages?
The part of the article that meant the most to me was this graph of Rosenberg’s nursing time.
I’m in month four right now, and I’m writing after a particularly tricky day. It’s a big relief to see that graph, with interruptions speckled over the day, and think, Oh right, this takes a lot of time. If nursing were a part-time job, it would be a substantial one, with terrible hours.
With our first baby, I tracked time nursing more intensively, with one long, unspooling note on my phone. This time, I realized I never really needed to look back at that note, and I just track day by day, erasing the previous day’s data sometime in the middle of the night, when my daughter gets me up again.
I don’t really need this level of data either. I just need to keep track of switching sides (which I know other moms have done by just moving a bracelet or scrunchie from wrist to wrist). But I like writing it down, because it’s satisfying at the end of the day to highlight the whole thing, think that was a lot, and then erase it to start again.
I like the heft of the tracking, in the same way I would if I just piled up stones each day in a little cairn. I like having a way to make the work that vanishes visible.
The big graphs feel like they do more to point at the necessity and the dignity of this unwaged work than the dollar figures do. But they also point to just how hard it is to accommodate women as women, and not as generic workers.
Very few jobs make space for a dozen unpredictable interruptions. A mother and a father use parental leave differently, and, when they come back to work, they are not available in the same way.
I wrote a little while ago for Deseret on this as a problem with gender-neutral family policy:
Drawing attention to these difficulties can feel like letting other women down — if women carry heavier burdens as parents, admitting to them gives employers an excuse to prefer men. But women aren’t helped by pretending to an equivalency that doesn’t exist.
Rosenberg’s piece feels like an illustration of this point. Women, by virtue of being women, need different supports as parents than men do. That asymmetry of need doesn’t point to a difference in dignity, or in value as a parent, but if it isn’t acknowledged, it can’t be met.