It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that mothers, provided they are able, should breastfeed their babies. This consensus has only grown stronger in the 30 years since the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and advocacy groups around the world signed the Innocenti Declaration on the protection, promotion, and support of breastfeeding, turning a personal choice into a political issue.
But for many mothers, the societal expectation that they breastfeed can be a huge physical and mental strain. From the initial adjustment period, to figuring out how to increase one’s milk supply or pump milk after returning to work, and finally to weaning, each step presents unexpected new challenges.
Since 2017, I have been researching the day-to-day childrearing practices of urban Chinese families with infants aged 0-18 months. In that time, I’ve interviewed 22 mothers in Beijing about their daily lives and approaches to parenting. To my surprise, among the many mothers I interviewed, one of the most common complaints was not the initial challenges of breastfeeding, but the difficulties associated with weaning.
Their problems generally fell into one of three main categories: physical discomfort and pain, mental guilt and stress, and discrimination and intolerance against nursing at work or in public spaces.
Feng Qing is typical of the mothers I surveyed. She and her husband, Pan Ming, both work at the same state-owned enterprise in Beijing, have stable incomes, and enjoy a good marital relationship. In 2017, when Feng was 31, the couple welcomed their son Longlong into the world. Despite some initial struggles, Feng was soon able to breastfeed exclusively. (To protect the identities of my research participants, I have given them all pseudonyms.)
Feng’s maternity leave ended when Longlong was 3 months old. In order to breastfeed while working, she decided to pump milk when she could, taking a breast pump, bottles, ice packs, and other necessities to her office. She expressed milk during her breaks, and then took it home each evening for her son to have the following day. The couple also rented an apartment near their home for Feng’s parents, so that they could help look after Longlong during working hours.
Not long after Feng returned to work, however, her company assigned her to a new position with a much higher workload. In a more demanding role, Feng found that her supply of milk dropped sharply. Not only that, but she was embarrassed about having to regularly pump at work. When she returned from pumping, her male colleagues often asked awkward questions about what she had been doing. Gradually, she began to feel that breastfeeding was something that should be done at home, and that the workplace was unsuited for such “private” matters.
Feng’s experiences reflect a common quandary. On the one hand, she felt societal pressure to continue breastfeeding for the good of her child. On the other hand, the societal expectation that she breastfeed did not exempt her from leering comments or from pressure to keep her private needs as a mother separate from her professional life.
After talking things over with her husband, Feng decided to stop pumping milk at work and to rent a new apartment near her workplace for her parents. Every morning before work, Feng would drop her son off at her parents’ home. Around noon or whenever she had free time, she would walk over to breastfeed him. In the evenings, the whole family shared a simple dinner at the small apartment, and then Feng and her husband would take Longlong home for the night.
However, while Feng gradually adapted to this new feeding routine, Longlong lost interest in breastmilk. A doctor told Feng her son had entered the “milk aversion period.” When Feng’s friends heard, they recommended that she take the opportunity to start weaning him, but Feng hesitated, worrying that he needed calcium, or nutrition for the approaching winter.
She also had a simple desire to bond with her son. “I couldn’t bear to not see those looks and the actions he’d make when he wanted milk,” she recalled. “After weaning, that would all be over for good. Just thinking about it makes me want to cry.”
After some consideration, Feng finally decided to wean her son when he was seven months old. After five days of separation between mother and infant, Longlong accepted milk powder, and Feng ushered in the “return to normality” she had long been waiting for. However, she soon found that she was struggling to re-adjust to the workplace. Her efficiency and problem-solving fell sharply. She also experienced acute exhaustion, headaches, and dizziness — all of which were common complaints among the women I interviewed for my research.
Meanwhile, when Longlong fell sick, Feng didn’t dare ask for time off from her bosses, which only exacerbated her anxiety and feelings that she was an unfit mother.
A care room in Hefei, Anhui province, 2020. VCG
A younger colleague saw that Feng was having trouble and helped her with her work, but this left Feng feeling even more depressed, as the coworker was less experienced than her, but was now clearly much more capable at her job. Feeling frustrated, Feng contemplated quitting to become a stay-at-home mother, but her husband talked her out of it, citing the family’s economic situation.
In the end, Feng adopted an approach typical of many middle-class women —compensating for the discrimination she faced and lack of support she received by attempting to improve herself. She designed a strict weight-loss plan, changed her dress style and make-up, and even got a nose job. “I wanted to reinvent myself,” she told me, referring to the cosmetic procedure. “A rhinoplasty would make me look more elegant and boost my professional image.”
From a certain perspective, Feng’s pursuit of self-improvement was a way for her to change perceptions of her as a mother and professional. On the surface, it might seem like a positive example of a woman reclaiming agency by pursuing her best self at work and in the home after giving birth. However, it is important to recognize that it is also the result of Feng internalizing external, structural problems with Chinese society after several failed attempts to juggle her own needs, those of her family, and the expectations placed on her by society.
I have heard many stories like Feng’s during my research. From having to restrict their sense of self, to the physical pain of breastfeeding and the cost of rebuilding their bodies; from the embarrassment of constantly having to pump milk, to failed attempts to wean and the struggles inherent to mother-infant separation, mothers are in an almost impossible situation.
In the absence of a proper institutional support system, new mothers are on an island. Ironically, that’s the opposite of what the Innocenti Declaration, with its calls for increased social support for mothers, was supposed to accomplish.
It’s become increasingly common in ads and public discourse to stress the “strength” of mothers. But individual strength is not sufficient to resolve structural problems like the continued lack of consensus within Chinese society about breastfeeding. So long as China fails to create the right institutional and cultural environment for new mothers, it will be difficult to ease their anxieties.
This article draws on research from the author’s new book, “The Ethical Moment: Infant Rearing of Chinese Family in the Transformation Society.”
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Mothers breastfeed their babies during an awareness event in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 2018. Tan Qingju/Southern Metropolis Daily/VCG)