American Sociological Association

Good, Bad, and Extraordinary Mothers: Infant Feeding and Mothering in African American Mothers' Breastfeeding Narratives

Dominant discourses promote breastfeeding as essential to "good mothering," shown in research to set a difficult standard that many white mothers internalize. Little is known about African American mothers’ perceptions of the connection between breastfeeding and mothering ideals. We analyzed perceptions of the relationship between breastfeeding and formula feeding and mothering through in-depth semistructured interviews with 22 predominantly middle-class African American mothers in the southeastern United States who breastfeed. One-third of participants upheld the dominant ideology that breastfeeding is required for good mothering, constructing formula feeding as lazy and selfish. Two-thirds associated breastfeeding with "extraordinary mothering," exceeding good mothering through additional hard work, self-sacrifice, and dedication. These participants were divided, with half (one-third of total) stating that mothers who formula feed are also good mothers and half (one-third of total sample) expressing ambivalence toward formula. Both groups acknowledged structural barriers and personal circumstances that prevent some mothers from breastfeeding, and therefore they either withheld or were conflicted about applying judgment. These findings confirm that although a powerful cultural association between breastfeeding and good mothering is evident, it is not uniform across race and class.


Carter, S. K., Anthony, A. K.





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