Nursing Mothers, Working Mothers, Competence & Image

It’s said that every mother is a working mother.

I am a mostly-stay-at-home mom: I work two mornings a week outside the home.  I like the work, the change of pace, and–to be honest–the paycheck.  My husband stays home with the kids the mornings I work.  (The myriad ways us switching roles these two mornings a week has benefited our marriage is a story for another post.)  My schedule gives me the flexibility to homeschool my children, breastfeed my baby, and take care of things at home.

Over the past month, for a variety of reasons, my office hours have been closer to full-time than the usual two-halves-make-a-whole workday I typically put in over the course of a week.  My kids are spending a lot of time at Grandma’s.  I’m using my lunch break to run breastfeed the baby.  But I think I’m doing good work at my office.

In the midst of this work-life craziness, my husband emailed me this article from the Wall Street Journal, complete with provocative title:  Nursing moms seen as less competent. The article discussed a Montana State study about attitudes towards breastfeeding.  College psychology students were asked to assess a woman’s talents in several areas, and they were incidentally informed as to whether she was a mother, or even a breastfeeding mother.  “The students rated the “breastfeeding” woman lowest…on overall competence, workplace capabilities, math ability—and also whether they’d hire her, if they were in a position to do so.”

Critics said the study didn’t have much bearing on how breastfeeding mothers would be perceived in the workplace, because what this study truly measured was the attitude of college students.  And college students aren’t the ones doing the hiring.  (Yet.)

The critics have a small point, but they are missing the larger one:  the study found that college students perceive breastfeeding women to be less competent than other women!

I found this study disheartening–not because of what it said about women’s job prospects, but because of what it said about the image of women in general, specifically the nursing mothers. In the workplace, women are doing great.  Discrimination has plummeted, the pay gap is gone, and women are redefining what success in the workplace looks like.  We are working vastly fewer hours than employed men, and we are doing it so we can spend more time with our families. Many of us have even stepped out of the workforce entirely to stay home full-time.

And yet these women–who are seeking success on their own terms–are perceived as being less competent by some silly college students just because they breastfeed.  (Haven’t they seen the stats?  Breastfeeding women are statistically more affluent, better educated, healthier and have better support systems than those that forgo nursing.)

So, from one breastfeeding mom to women everywhere:  Continue to redefine success on your terms. As for those college students?  We must teach our own children better.  To respect other people–and their choices.  To honor mothers–and not just their own.  Don’t worry about your image.  Do the right thing, and teach the next generation to do it.

What do you think?  Post thoughts to comments.

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  1. Rebecca says:

    Wow! This surprised me a LOT. Coming from an economically challenged area, it is the “welfare” moms who bottle feed. The career women are pumping or even using on-site childcare so they can breastfeed on coffee and lunch breaks.

    • Anne says:

      Rebecca–the stats confirm your impression–the higher the level of education and income, the more likely a woman is to breastfeed. This is why I find the study so galling! It’s unfair that these women are judged for breastfeeding at all; but downgrading their intelligence because they breastfeed is blatantly inaccurate. Statistics indicate that nursing mothers should be better at math, by virtue of being better educated. I would love to know exactly what those students were thinking!

  2. Since I just wrapped up graduate school, I was on campus quite a bit with college students. It doesn’t surprise me that they view breastfeeding women this way. In my experience, so many young women at college were just intrigued that I would A) bring my son to work with me and B) breastfeed. It was a bit annoying at times to answer some questions, or feel the (almost) disapproving looks I would get. But, in the end, I hope that I shed some light for these young women to be more open minded about breastfeeding and to see how practical and wonderful it is (not to mention all of the health benefits for mom and baby).

    • Anne says:

      What a great story; I appreciate the woman-on-campus perspective. As a breastfeeding mom, thanks for helping to educate the next generation of moms.

    • Michelle says:

      College is for learning? College is for enlightment? Really? I thought it was about the next hot party!

  3. College students of today become the work force of tomorow. While it is frustrating to hear that opinion prevalent on campus, the hope for that generations’ opinions on breastfeeding moms is that they too may soon become parents. Before children (I now have three incredible boys), I thought I could never breastfeed. I even thought it a little creepy. I remember drilling my good friend, and mother of a nursing infant, about nursing before the birth of my first. The amazing thing is that three breastfed babies later, I couldn’t be more positive about the experiences. I loved nursing my babies. I am sad that I am now weaning my youngest. I try to encourage friends to consider the option, if they are wavering. College students are young. They most likely have yet to consider the option for themselves and their own children. Much growth is possible after leaving the halls of higher learning. I am living proof.

  4. VERY disturbing but not surprising- I thought that we who put our breasts to this very good, natural, and enriching-soceity-one-babe-at-a time use were making more of a dent into these dense cultural repesentatives… They are not getting educated by their culture their professors- We can only hope that when they face the role of parenting they will gain some common sense and appreciation.

  5. I read this study several weeks ago and was appalled, upset, and discouraged. I work in a predominately male field, and I struggle against discrimination based on my gender quite frequently. It was upsetting to have added to that the fact that I care about my daughter’s nutrition! It boggles my mind how we have so perverted our views of a woman’s body that nursing is perceived in this way.
    Thanks for talking about this! Education is the only way we can change this!

  6. Kasey says:

    I would take this study with a grain of salt. The only reason why college students would feel this way is simply they haven’t had to truly think about breastfeeding yet. They haven’t had to weigh the benifits and costs seriously for their child, because they don’t have one. In fact as previous commenters have pointed out they will be more likely in the future to choose breast-feeding and stick with it than their non-college educated counterparts. I think stay at home mothers and breast feeding mothers as a whole tend to be generalized, but it’s not generaliztions that will get us hired into the future, rather how we come across to whoever is interviewing us. And at least we know they won’t be asking us how we chose to feed our baby : )

  7. Holly says:

    This is horrifying to me. I had lactation problems and still perservered to breastfeed and pump while working full time! I have a college degree and only a few people who supported me while I struggled to nurse my son–people thought I was crazy and it took “too much work”. (I blogged all about it if you want to read it 🙂

    Anyway thanks for the post–hopefully it sheds some light on the issue 🙂 Godbless!

  8. Elaine says:

    Sadly just another commentary on where our society is headed. As the mother of four 3-20, I can tell you that the time spent invested in guiding our children is the most important thing ever. You reap what you sow and this is for sure.

  9. Lucky says:

    Strangely, I read this while I was taking a break to pump in my office here at work. It is disturbing. However, I do agree that the study is flawed. I’d like to read more about it, but it seems I can only get the abstract on-line. 60 psychology students does not a representative sample make. If this study was more representative or if it was a survey of HR VPs or CEOs then I’d be a lot more worried.

    I’m new to your blog — I got here from Booking It on Life As Mom.

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