One of the most repetitive arguments we’ve seen on FFF is that there is no such thing as an anti-formula-feeding culture; that breastfeeding mothers are always the minority, no matter where you live in America. I find myself living a lactation-centric Groundhog’s Day as I try and explain that infant feeding trends vary greatly, depending on the city. I also add the caveat that while there are, indeed, many parts of the country where bottle feeding is still the norm, and I understand why breastfeeding moms might feel marginalized and angry….even in areas where bottle feeding is prevalent, women can still feel guilty and defective if they do not nurse.
I’m visiting my in-laws right now, who live in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. About half of our childbearing friends live in the city; the others are back in the ‘burbs. They run the gamut with breastfeeding; most nursed for 3-6 months, with some supplementation; one breastfed exclusively, and a few others pumped and bottle fed, later turning to formula. Some say they felt pressured to breastfeed at the hospital, but for the most part, none of them appear to have struggled too dramatically with their feeding decisions.
On Sunday, my in-laws threw us a party, a kind of “meet-and-greet” for Fearlette, who was visiting her midwest posse for the first time. I got into quite a few conversations about my work, since all of my friends either had small children and wanted to reflect on their experiences, or are currently pregnant and facing these inevitable decisions. By the end of the party, I was starting to think that some of the FFF critics were right – I must live in some odd sort of ivory tower (milky white, maybe, instead of ivory) where breastfeeders are the majority, where breastfeeding pressure is so insidiously rampant. It seemed as if Chicago, despite its status as a progressive, urban, intellectual hub, was still a place where bottlefeeding was universally acceptable.
Then, on Monday, Fearless Husband and I left FC in the burbs with his grandparents, and took Fearlette with us to visit a few city-dwelling friends – including one couple who had just had their first baby 10 days earlier. We stopped at a baby store to buy said couple a gift, and somehow, my stupid clumsy self managed to trip while holding the 5-month-old Fearlette, and knocked her beautiful, fragile face on the cold, dirty Chicago sidewalk. (Incidentally, not breastfeeding is nothing compared to dropping your infant on its head on the Parental Guilt Scale. But don’t worry, I’m not going to start the Fearless Baby Dropper blog or anything.)
We ended up seeing a friend’s pediatrician for an emergency visit, and Fearlette was luckily fine, except for a small bruise on her forehead and a tiny scratch on her adorable nose. As the doctor was checking her out, she asked us how Fearlette had been in the time between the accident and arriving at the pediatricians office (about fifteen minutes, with Fearless Husband barreling down Michigan Avenue, cutting off bird-flipping cabbies and honking furiously). I told her that I’d fed her and she’d ate well. That was all I said – “I fed her, and she ate normally.” To which the doctor replied, “Oh, cool… so she finished her bottle like normal?”
To my ears, this was shocking. Why would she assume I was bottlefeeding? Did my reputation proceed me? Maybe breastfeeding moms didn’t drop babies on their heads? Could she tell Fearlette was a formula-fed kid? Was the trademark Alimentum smell permeating the room?
But you know, I don’t think it was any of those options. I think it was simply a normal default response, just like how at my Californian pediatric office, the default is to assume you’re breastfeeding.
Again, I wondered: maybe it is just Los Angeles, New York, and parts of the Pacific Northwest that house overwhelmingly breastfeeding-prevalent cultures. Which didn’t make my blog very relevant, or bode well for future book sales.
After we confirmed that Fearlette was no worse for the wear, we continued on to our friends’ loft, to meet their new bundle of joy. The new mom was calmer and cooler than I’d ever been, and seemed to have her head on straight in an incredibly admirable way. She told me she was pumping, but only managing to provide a small amount (her daughter had never been able to latch, despite the assistance of the hospital lactation consultants; they’d told her to consult with a private LC who charged $200/visit, to which she replied no freaking way), so they were feeding a combo of breastmilk and formula. She told me that they’d pushed breastfeeding at the hospital, but she’d wanted to do it, so it hadn’t bothered her. Later though, she admitted that her friends kept telling her she should keep pumping, keep trying to get her daughter to latch, asking her about it constantly, telling her how important it was… and these were all Midwesterners. Living in the supposedly bottle-feeding Heartland. Hmmm.
We later stopped by another friend’s house, who didn’t have kids of her own, but told me about her three closest friends, all Midwestern new moms, who had struggled, “failed”, and felt morally compelled to breastfeed. How depressed they’d been. How they’d felt like failures.
Today, while the kids were napping, I checked out the Facebook site of a Chicago-area expectant mom’s group, where it mentioned that the thing most of their members were most stressed out about was breastfeeding. I reread an email I got from a Chicago-dwelling professor I interviewed, who spoke of her own exclusively-nursing peer group in a way that reminded me, eerily, of mine.
Later in the day, we went to a suburban children’s museum where there were “nursing areas” in every corner of the building. And yet I didn’t see any moms using them. I did see a couple of other parents bottle feeding.
And I realized: I have no clue if Chicago is a bottle-feeding or breastfeeding “culture”. These things are constantly in flux; for all I know, the friends who gave birth three years ago might have lived in an entirely different environment than the ones giving birth now. Heck, my own hospital in Southern California had gone all Baby-Friendly in the two year span between my two births. You just never know what the winds of change will bring.
Coming from Los Angeles, I felt far more comfortable bottle-feeding in the suburbs of Chicago. But that doesn’t mean that my friend doesn’t feel comparable pressure from her breastfeeding friends and pro-breastfeeding hospital, even if her general environment is not 100% anti-formula.
We also don’t know what is in somebody’s heart. If you are a person who desperately wanted to nurse, who always saw yourself as a “counterculture mama” and now feel like you don’t qualify as one because your boobs don’t work, living in a “bottle feeding culture” isn’t going to help.
I realize this post is going nowhere. I’m still feeling kinda out of sorts for causing even a small moment of pain for my daughter (I’m turning in my sling and wrap for a bucket seat – attachment parenting is apparently not for klutzes). I guess what I’m trying to say is that the number of baby-friendly hospitals, or pediatricians who allow formula samples in their waiting rooms, is not necessarily indicative of what “culture” we live in. So much depends on your individual OB, pediatrician, and hospital. On your own peer group. On where you work, what neighborhood you are in. Where you went to college, and what blogs you read. Social pressure comes from many places, and in this global world we live in, we just can’t know what someone’s “culture” really is.
In the meantime, I am retreating to my breastmilky-white ivory tower of Los Angeles, where we mostly drive in cars. I can’t be trusted to walk on sidewalks.