By Monica Hesse / The Washington Post
A colleague and I have a little ritual for whenever either of us receives a spectacularly sexist email or reader comment. “Submission to Ugh! magazine,” we write at the top of the message, and then we forward it to the other, and then we cackle, and then we sob in our hearts. Ugh! exists only in our imagination. It’s thousands of issues long, composed entirely of readers suggesting, for example, that menstruating women could just “hold it” until they got to the bathroom rather than wasting money on tampons.
The most recent submissions to Ugh! came via online commenters who had the bright idea that, because of the nationwide baby formula shortage — supply is down 40 percent from normal inventory levels across the country — women should just “embrace your womanhood and nurture your children” via nursing, as insisted one such random guy.
A more patient columnist might respond to each reader in turn, explaining that breasts are not spigots that can be turned on and off. If you’re not currently breastfeeding, you can’t wake up tomorrow and suddenly produce enough milk. Building up your supply could take weeks or months or infinity. It’s physically impossible for some women and logistically impossible for others, and anyway, I would personally explain all of this to every correspondent, but in between pumping four times a day myself and scouring nearby grocery stores for my 10-month-old’s supplemental Similac, I’m pretty tapped out, so usually I just submit their notes to Ugh! magazine and call it a day.
But the ignorance is still frustrating because it makes you wonder if it’s partly why we haven’t solved the horror of the formula shortage already. It’s been brewing since February, when a recall by one of the largest formula companies left supermarket shelves scant. The House Energy and Commerce Committee announced Wednesday that it will hold a hearing May 25 to discuss the scarcity; May 25, as in two weeks from now. Maybe my daughter is weird, but she seems to want to eat every day.
How have lawmakers and government agencies, at the local or national level, not fixed this already?
I find it hard to believe that they dislike babies, but I find it easy to believe that many of them are not particularly curious or thoughtful about what it means to be a mother of one. The House of Representatives is 73 percent male with a median age of 58; in the Senate, it’s 76 percent and 64 years old. I wonder how long it’s been since any of them sat bleary-eyed at 3 a.m. trying to get an infant to latch or knew exactly which aisle sold baby formula at Target. I wonder how many of those lawmakers have never done either. Or how many Americans, for that matter.
Figuring out how to feed a baby is a task that, like a lot of stereotypical mothering work, is often done in secret: accomplished without fuss or complaint or any acknowledgment that it can also be blisteringly stressful.
With particularly dystopian flair, the formula shortage came to a head around the same time that a draft opinion leaked from the Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade. On one hand, women would be forced to birth children. But on the other hand, once those children arrive, there might not be food to feed them.
A footnote from Samuel Alito’s draft opinion that gained some traction this week was about adoption. The footnote quoted a 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which had noted that the “domestic supply of infants relinquished at birth or within the first month of life and available to be adopted has become virtually nonexistent.” The inclusion of the study in an opinion that would overturn Roe seemed to suggest that there was no need to have an abortion as there were plenty of American couples who wanted children but not enough American babies for them to adopt.
This was immediately pounced on by critics who noted the broodmare implications. Women, it seemed, should remain pregnant not only because abortion is evil, but also because the deserving couples of Gilead need them to provide children.
Send that notion to Ugh! magazine, along with the rest of the draft opinion.
Because what it tells me is: You have no idea. No idea how hard pregnancy is on a body. No idea that don’t worry, you can give it away does not respond to the reasons that many abortion seekers might be seeking abortions to begin with.
The opinion’s biggest problem isn’t that it was cruel, it’s that it was incurious. It did not attempt to understand pregnancy or motherhood. It was the 98-page equivalent of, “Why don’t you just embrace your womanhood and nurture your children?”
The root problem isn’t a domestic supply chain issue, either of formula or of babies. The root problem is that too many of the people whom we elect to power are shielded from the mess and stress of reproduction and motherhood.
On Thursday, President Biden released a plan to return infant formula to store shelves, involving the Federal Trade Commission, individual states and the private sector. It could still take weeks, though, before baby formula is reliably back in stores.
Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.
Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section, who frequently writes about gender and its impact on society.