In the first season of Workin’ Moms, a nanny is fired for giving Kate’s (Catherine Reitman) hungry baby formula. Just one episode later, Kate concludes that formula is the right choice because she is not producing enough to satisfy her baby. "Sometimes you only have time for fast food,” says her husband. “Gets the job done." His reassurance echoes popular criticisms of formula as both “unhealthy” (it’s not) and “the easy way out” (certainly not). The difficulty with producing enough milk and the confusion over the right course of action signify the greater difficulties Kate has reconciling her ambitions with motherhood. In simplifying breastfeeding this way, the show, which has been lauded for its progressive and sometimes ambivalent look at motherhood, fumbled an issue that wraps itself like an umbilical cord around our guilt complexes, but Workin’ Moms is by no means outside of the trend. It’s merely the latest example in a long line of television shows relying on tired tropes and lazy symbolism around breastfeeding as a kind of magic stand in for all the complexities of becoming a mother.
It took some time for breastfeeding to appear on TV screens. There was a time, and not too long ago, when breastfeeding was taboo. In its first appearance on television, in a 1975 episode of Sesame Street, breastfeeding was explained to the millions of children watching as “nice and warm and sweet and natural, and it’s good for (the baby).” Afterwards, there was a suspension of breastfeeding on TV. Despite an increase in popularity through the 1970s, the number of women breastfeeding dropped, then remained relatively unchanged through the late 1980s into the mid-90s, with roughly half of new moms choosing it.
When breastfeeding did appear onscreen, it was usually as a joke (remember the Friends episode about adult men drinking the breast milk?) or as a weird slightly sexually charged aside (the image of a far-past-the-baby-stage boy drinking from his mother’s breast on Game of Thrones). Sex and the City was an exception in which television came closest to getting it right: scattered new-mom Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) struggling to latch her fussing baby was a clear metaphor for the overwhelm every mom feels postpartum.
The message is clear: if she can breastfeed, she can do anything; if she can breastfeed, she can be a mom.
Then the tides turned. Over the last decade, breastfeeding became the thing to do. Despite questionable studies, breastfeeding was hailed as a way to lower instances of sickness and infection, fight obesity, raise IQs, even promote bonding, citing the warmth and closeness a mother gets when breastfeeding. Breastfeeding supposedly allowed for everything a new mother would want to give her offspring; a free elixir that practically guaranteed a leg up in life. The sea change was so great that if one couldn’t or didn’t want to breastfeed it was often seen, and felt, as failure. Even though many parents are unable to breastfeed exclusively, for physical and/or environmental reasons, everyone from the World Health Organization to strangers on the street was extolling the catchy finger-wagging exclusive “breast is best!” mantra.
And while our cultural zeitgeist has begun to walk this back — “breast is best” is slowly evolving to “fed is best” — television has remained doggedly obsessed with the idea, continually showing breastfeeding as some sort of magic bullet to characters’ true motherhood.
I hadn’t thought much about the depiction of breastfeeding on television until I had my own daughter. We struggled with breastfeeding as I had anticipated, based on family history. In the hospital the night she was born, I felt little hesitation asking the nurses to give her formula to bridge the days-long gap I expected before my milk was supposed to come in.
It never did.
At our first pediatrician appointment, after two days in the hospital, the doctor glanced at my still-flat chest and declared breastfeeding was “unlikely” for me. Dragging my broken body, held together with five stitches, to a free lactation class the next day, I was told the same thing, but with the suggestion to rent a hospital-grade breast pump and start “power pumping”: a torturous routine of putting the baby to your breast, then formula feeding, then pumping to stimulate milk production, repeated every two to three hours. My exhausted husband dutifully drove back to the hospital and rented the pump, which was the size of airplane carry-on luggage, and I attached myself to it every two hours, crying as he cradled our daughter while I sat half-naked watching and wishing it was me holding her. We quit that routine by the end of the week and began combination feeding (nursing followed by formula).
Three months later, I weaned completely. My first day back at work, my first full day away from my baby, I attached the breast pump to make up for our missed nursing session and sat listening to the rhythmic sucking, waiting for whatever “liquid gold” I could extract to feed her later before giving the increasing amounts of formula needed to fill her belly. But after 15 minutes, the little bottles were still empty. I packed the pump away and that night we stopped our pre-bottle nursing session. At three months my baby became exclusively formula fed.
My husband was fine with this. My pediatrician said “great” and moved on to sleep-training techniques. My friends and family didn’t bat an eye when I shook up a bottle of powder formula. None of them made me feel guilty.
But television did.
The Office was one of the first shows to jump on the breastfeeding-equals-motherhood idea. In 2010, after a surprising and refreshing realistic portrayal of labor (it’s not always exciting and joyous, sometimes it’s long and scary) and those first hours with a newborn, The Office leaned in hard to the magical breastfeeding myth, first with a cliched “mean nurse” who, to Pam and Jim’s shock and appall, suggests giving formula when their crying, hungry baby has latch issues. Then, the episode ends with Pam, alone in the parking lot with her baby: a final struggle followed by a gasp of joy and relief when her baby finally latches. The message is clear: if she can breastfeed, she can do anything; if she can breastfeed, she can be a mom.
The series ends not with the truth of early motherhood but with a cliched reassurance: Hannah can breastfeed, thus she’s become a mom.
Breastfeeding came back in vogue with the 2017 series finale of Girls, unambiguously titled “Latching.” Around that period, the obsession with new mothers breastfeeding was reaching its manic height, with a proliferation of off-label teas and bars, message boards and mommy groups, and expensive lactation consultants all promising to boost supply for desperate new mothers. At this point, we had endured years of misguided “breast is best” policy, including attempts to lock up formula on labor and delivery floors, and “baby friendly” hospitals that were forced to adhere to strict breastfeeding-promotional guidelines, meanwhile the availability of free, pricey breast pumps thanks to the Affordable Care Act meant there were no excuses not to breastfeed. (It’s hard not to think breastfeeding is of tantamount importance when a thousand-dollar medical device shows up free-of-charge at your door but you’re nickled and dimed out of sick and vacation days when negotiating maternity leave.)
As on The Office, the magic-breastfeeding moment comes on Girls, frustratingly, at the end of an episode that chronicled the struggles of new motherhood in unexpected, brutally honest ways. I marathoned the series during maternity leave and found myself crying at the depiction of how terrifying those first few months could be, recognizing in Hannah something that I’d never seen on television and had rarely heard discussed at my new mom’s group. When Hannah (Lena Dunham) fearfully, anxiously, asks Marnie (Allison Williams) not to go into town for the night (the unspoken, underlying plea being “please don’t leave me alone with this baby, I have no idea what I’m doing”), I felt such a shot of truth it was as if I’d been punched in the gut. Here, I thought, we are finally getting to the heart of motherhood in all its messy, emotional, chaos. Here we are finally seeing that not every person takes to motherhood easily, that not everyone is flooded with love the moment their baby is placed in their arms, that becoming a mom can be downright terrifying.
Unfortunately, all this real talk, all this beautiful, blunt honesty, gets undone in the final moments of the series. Hannah, having returned after fleeing in an emotional fit, responds to crying Grover, settling into the rocking chair, and putting the baby to her breast. And despite beginning the episode in a doctor’s office for a continued refusal to latch, in the final moments everything is made right. Hannah’s face fills the screen. She gasps, a tiny bit of pain but more in awed shock. She sighs, flooded with relief. The series ends not with the truth of early motherhood but with a cliched reassurance: Hannah can breastfeed, thus she’s become a mom (and is no longer a "girl"). As it was happening in real life, so was it shown on television — the inextricable link between breastfeeding and true motherhood (that undefinable moment when someone transforms from a person who gave birth into a mother).
Throughout 2018 and early 2019, the real world pushed back. Outlets published evidence against the problematic “breast is best” dogma; a spat of celebrity mothers, from Hilary Duff to Khloe Kardashian, posted about their own breastfeeding struggles and explanations as to why they stopped; and the motherhood vernacular began to include and embrace “fed is best” and “combo feeding”; television, meanwhile, stuck like a dog with a bone to this Madonna and Child image.
The Letdown and the aforementioned Workin Moms (both Netflix imports and billed as “getting real” about motherhood) feature episodes where characters go to extreme lengths to avoid formula feeding. In The Letdown, it comes in episode 6 of the first season, when dad Jeremy (Duncan Fellows) is left with his baby daughter for the weekend. But after a great and necessary plot about the lack of changing tables in men’s rooms, it ends with Jeremy having to call in a lactating friend because baby won’t take a bottle. It’s meant to be funny (“That’ll just be 20 bucks, love” the friend jokes, handing the baby back after nursing), and while the situation, in hindsight, is humorous, it also plays on frustrating tropes about breastfeeding being more “natural” than bottle feeding and how babies are readily primed for it versus bottle feeding. One only has to look at the uptick in expensive “breastfeeding in a bottle” bottles available nowadays to see how ingrained this idea is, the desire to make something supposedly unnatural (bottles) into natural (breasts.)
Viewers are supposed to see both women as the baby’s mother, the one who can nourish the baby from her body and the one who sacrificed for the best for her child both doing what mothers are supposed to, expected to do.
Even speculative worlds can’t escape the lazy storytelling crutch of breastfeeding standing in for motherhood. Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale builds an episode around birth mother June/Offred (Elisabeth Moss) being forced to pump milk for baby Nichole after the child is taken to be raised by Serena Joy and Fred Waterford. Despite several people telling her Nichole is not getting enough milk from the pumping, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) initially refuses to let June breastfeed, the unspoken understanding being that breastfeeding, for both her and viewers watching, signals motherhood.
Later, this underlying idea gets full credit when Serena secretly puts Nichole to her dry breast, becoming angry and frustrated when the baby won’t take, clearly feeling her failings as a mother due to her inability to breastfeed. In the end, it is resolved with Serena inviting June/Offred back into their house, a scene of June/Offred nursing baby Nichole as Serena looks on placidly, secure in her decision. In that moment, viewers are supposed to see both women as the baby’s mother, the one who can nourish the baby from her body and the one who sacrificed for the best for her child both doing what mothers are supposed to, expected to do. This episode actually aligned, semi-prophetically, just days after it premiered, with a sudden jolt of energy to the breastfeeding mommy wars after the Trump administration opposed a breastfeeding resolution at the World Health Assembly, kicking off a slew of think pieces reviving the “breast is best!” rallying cry, resurfacing old, outdated arguments about “health” and “natural” choices, and once again pitting breastmilk against formula as an all-or-nothing decision.
Thankfully, society is recognizing the dangers of this thinking (the pressure to breastfeed can be a contributor to cases of postpartum depression) and we are beginning to understand that systemic changes and seismic shifts in work-place and cultural attitudes, including guaranteed, paid parental leave and affordable childcare, are what will truly help all children and parents thrive, not simply converting the janitor’s closet into a pumping room. But television, so often a normalizing medium, needs to catch up.
Over and over, breastfeeding is treated like magic, complete with the gasps of astonishment from mom — her slingshot over months of sleep deprivation, hormonal mood swings, and permanent changes in her brain and body. Too often breastfeeding is shown as a cheap stand-in for those big things that come with being a parent: a new understanding of your own mortality, a realization that you may not be the most important person in your life anymore, the fact that you are suddenly responsible for another soul’s health and happiness. Too often breastfeeding is meant to telegraph bonding; the love between a mother and her baby — a gender-normative idea that excludes parents who cannot breastfeed.
But what television doesn’t show, and what I discovered after I weaned my daughter, is that no parent can hold something as delicate and wondrous as their child, no parent can press their baby to their body and feel their warmth, smell their purely innocent newborn smell, watch with anxiousness and their chest rises and falls, feel the feral need to protect them from all the harms and ills of the world deep in their bones, and not bond. Maybe that is what television should be trying to show.