My daughter was born in 1993, during the "cowboy" days of the internet. I was one part of the first wave of mothers to seek out information and support online, subscribing to email lists like parent-l and posting on usenet boards like misc.kids.breastfeeding. As a young, single, high school drop-out, I committed to breastfeeding in part because I was aware of the many things I couldn't give my baby, and I knew that breastfeeding was one wonderful thing I could. For the first few years of her life I followed these online discussions about breastfeeding almost daily, learning about the health benefits, political issues, and the lived experiences of breastfeeding from people around the world.
Although my personal breastfeeding experiences ended many years ago, my interest remained, and twenty years later, I'm a doctoral candidate in sociocultural anthropology at Washington University doing dissertation research on breastfeeding in St. Louis. Anthropology is about trying to understand people's experiences from the inside-out, which we call the emic perspective. We look at how people think, perceive, and categorize the world, what cultural norms exist, and what things are important to them. This is different from public health in that we don't try to change behavior, but the data gathered by anthropologists can often be useful to public health programs trying to understand why people are making certain decisions.
I'm looking specifically at how ideas of cost and value influence breastfeeding. As far as costs, I'm trying to understand what women see as the literal costs of breastfeeding (things necessary for breastfeeding that cost money) as well as more metaphorical costs. I'm also investigating how valuable breastfeeding is to women - how important is it to them, and why? I'm gathering data in a number of ways, such as attending breastfeeding support groups and talking informally with mothers. I'm also hoping to do a more in-depth study of a small number of women who will we willing to meet with me monthly during the first year of their babies' lives. I'm specifically looking for a racially and socioeconomically diverse sample of women, so that I can understand if, how, and when those factors influence breastfeeding.