When you hear the term “goal-oriented”, what word associations does it bring to mind? Marathoners; job interviews; Type A personalities. Nurturing, love, and parenting? Not so much.
And yet, today’s headlines announced that more than two thirds of women “aren’t meeting their breastfeeding goals”. This is apparently a problem, presumably because breastfeeding has been deemed so inherently important to raising healthy, happy kids, and not because falling short of these goals is particularly heartbreaking to most women (although, as anyone who reads the Fearless Friday posts knows, it is heartbreaking).
The headlines were referring to a study in this month’s issue of Pediatrics, which followed over 3,000 women through their pregnancies and first year, between 2005-2007. While 60% of these women had stated on surveys that they intended on exclusively breastfeeding for anywhere between a few weeks to a year, only 32% achieved these goals. Now, I could drone on about the flaws in the study itself (the fact that it was based on self-reported data from women in one of the most hormonal, impressionable times of their lives, for one) but overall, I think the study’s intentions were good. We should be focused on helping women who want to breastfeed do so successfully. (And for the record, the study authors actually gave a very measured interpretation of their results to MedPageToday, which was misinterpreted by the rest of the media. Most articles stated that avoiding formula and pacifiers in the hospital would help the situation, based on the fact that women in this study who were not exposed to these instruments of doom were less likely to fall short of their goals; however, even the women giving birth in Baby Friendly hospitals weren’t immune to “failure” – only half met their personal goals. I also have to wonder if the women who were not given these items were more committed to breastfeeding in the first place, and had specifically chosen Baby Friendly hospitals or informed hospital staff that they wanted to adhere to BFHI regulations – considering the data used for the study was based on surveys filled out by the women, it’s hard to know what the realities of their situations were.) I agree that women need better breastfeeding support, and should not be left to figure it all out on their own in those key first weeks.
But I’m not going to talk about the study. I’m going to talk about the fundamental flaw in how it’s being framed in the media, as a study which shows that “women are not meeting their breastfeeding goals.”
Parenting is not a marathon, nor a job for which you must produce results for an employer. And you don’t have to be Type A to do it well. Why the heck are we talking about goals?
The way we birth, the way we feed our babies, and the way we parent in general, is something that should be fluid, organic, and based on individual needs and situational factors. By setting goals, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Breastfeeding should be approached as something we want to do; it is a method of feeding our children, and quite a miraculous one at that. Making it a regimented, quantifiable process sucks (no pun intended) the joy right out of that act. Why are we not asking women what their breastfeeding hopes are? Their breastfeeding expectations? Their breastfeeding worries? These are things which can be considered and assisted in a more sensitive, nuanced way; goals, on the other hand, are cold and exact. You meet them or you don’t. Succeed or fail.
This morning, a reader over on the FFF Facebook page asked how she could celebrate meeting her breastfeeding goals if people were saying that it didn’t matter if she breastfed or not. I understand where she is coming from – this woman has breastfed for 16 months while being gainfully employed; that’s hard work, and she has ample right to feel proud about achieving something which meant something to her. But this woman should feel proud without having to lean on the plethora of studies stating that breastfeeding is necessary for good health and intelligence. She should feel proud because she is feeding her infant in a manner which feels right to her – not because she has “met a goal”, not because the meme that breast is optimal/best/normal is tattooed on her frontal lobe.
Typically, goals are made for acts which are challenging and daunting, like conquering the Appalachian Trail or losing 30 pounds before bikini season. They are not made for enjoyable things. You don’t make a goal to eat chocolate cake or get a massage. How can we expect women to want to breastfeed, to enjoy breastfeeding, if we are framing it as something so unpalatable?
I know- probably more than most- how challenging breastfeeding can be. But I have also seen it go smoothly and naturally, and in most cases, this happens for the women who go in without expectations or “goals”. It’s the women who want to breastfeed, but go in armed with the reassurance that even if it doesn’t work, their babies will be loved and fed, who tend to fare the best. Until we stop making infant feeding – and motherhood in general – a pass/fail experience, we are going to have a large percentage of women feeling like failures. And that isn’t optimal/best/normal, for anybody.