Support versus advocacy: how finding balance is like keeping a white carpet clean

I lost a few very dear followers over on the Facebook page recently (and I assume on the blog as well), and I’ve been obsessing over their departure. As too often happens on the FFF community page, we have been visited by a few breastfeeding advocates who have, at times, pushed their agenda to an uncomfortable (and sometimes quite emotionally triggering) point. Tempers flared, statistics and studies were tossed around like grenades, and my failure to wield the “ban stick” resulted in a loss of security for some members. They no longer felt safe around the FFF community; no longer felt like it was a positive and healthy place to heal their postpartum wounds and work through their feelings about infant feeding.

Yeah. Shitty.

What really burns me up about this is that in trying to stay open and neutral, I have singlehandedly sullied a place which I’d built to be the safe haven I personally craved. Even I have felt a pit in my stomach when I’ve gone over there lately, wincing in anticipation for the latest infiltration of misplaced “education” or not-so-thinly-veiled hatred (like a comment the other day that referred to me as the “Bitter Formula Feeder.”) When you don’t want to visit your own page, you know there’s a problem.

Some colleagues have suggested that I haven’t protected my community from the types of voices which have already caused so much hurt in their hearts. I fear this is true – people come to a page called “The Fearless Formula Feeder”, not knowing squat about my blog, and assuming that it will be a safe place to discuss bottle feeding and negative feelings about breastfeeding. Instead, they find acrimonious debates about the dangers of formula and critiques of the way that they are choosing to nourish their children. It ignites anger (quite justifiably) and people lash out, sometimes in the wrong direction. They expect me to come to their defense, and it takes every ounce of my being not to lunge like a bloodthirsty mama lioness, but I usually don’t.

What kind of fearless leader does this make me? Not a very good one, I fear. I completely sympathize with the people who feel betrayed by my allowance of dissenting voices, and encouragement of highly emotional debate. There was a time, not so long ago, that I would have felt the same way.

The problem is, I’m against hypocrisy more than I’m against anything (well, maybe not anything. I mean I’m probably more against human trafficking or the unethical treatment of animals or John Wayne Gacy… but you get the point). It would be agonizingly hypocritical of me to only allow those who agree with me to post on this blog, or on my Facebook page. Now, there’s a fine line between being outright obnoxious and posting things which challenge someone else’s beliefs. In the case of the former, I have no problem wielding my ban stick with a theatrical flourish. But with the latter? Well, I’ve had that happen to me on other anti-formula blogs, just because I politely dissented, and it sucks. I don’t want to be part of the very problem I rage against.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to know where to draw the line. Having someone come and throw the same studies we’ve discussed and (I believe quite fairly) critiqued on this blog in our faces every day can feel rather antagonizing and confrontational. Sometimes, I will attempt to express this – telling the person in question that we are well aware that WHO ranks formula feeding fourth in its hierarchy of feeding, and that breastfeeding contains live blood cells, and that studies have shown that formula feeding leads to SIDS, cancer, and the plague, and the slaughter of innocent lambs at the alter of Enfamil, and so forth. And sometimes they keep pushing. And sometimes it makes me want to stick my head in the oven.

When this happens – when the attempt at “education” or “correcting misinformation” becomes aggressive and contrary to the purpose of my page (which is outlined here, if you’re wondering), people begin to get bitterly angry. I understand this, because I feel the same anger. I have to fight against it, sometimes ranting to Fearless Husband for hours on end to get the rage out. But I have the advantage of having done this for nearly four years, and I’ve heard so much hate, passive aggressive “education”, pity, and condescension that it begins to blur into a nice, easy-to-ignore din. For many of you, the wounds are just too fresh, and these people are pouring salt into a wound, and then pouring on some vinegar for good measure even after you’ve asked them to stop the salt. It sucks, I get that.

At the same time, though, I also notice myself allowing people on “our side” to engage in name calling and, at times, unfair attacks. That’s because, on the most fundamental level, I think we are in the right. It is our territory – a place that is supposed to be free from drama, free from the usual critical voices. If someone wants to come into our house and visit for awhile, I’d appreciate they didn’t stomp around with muddy boots.

The thing is, sometimes the boots aren’t exactly caked in mud – sometimes these guests just have a bit of sand on the bottoms. We’re already so sick of vaccuuming up after rude guests, though, that the tiniest bit of sand is enough to turn us apoplectic. And that is where I get uncomfortable, because I don’t want to stoop to the level of other communities, where the slightest disagreement is treated like a federal offense. If it’s just a little sand, maybe it’s better to just kick it aside, and see if offering the guest a drink of water might just make them sit tight for a minute and stop tracking sand all over the floor.

I get that this can veer into uncomfortable interactions for some people, because hey, when you’ve been treated like freaking Cinderella and forced to clean up someone else’s shit while simultaneously ridiculed and insulted, a tiny bit of sand can be a huge pain in the ass. But I’ve seen the same people who initially came in tracking mud on the floor turn around and ask if they could help mop it up. Sometimes you just need to give someone a chance. Sometimes you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar (a nice reminder for those perpetuating the salt-and-vinegar torture I alluded to above).

I see Fearless Formula Feeder – the site, the Facebook page, and the persona- as standing for infant feeding freedom first and foremost. But FFF also stands for honesty, open-mindedness, respect, and fairness. We have to give people a chance to engage with us if we’re going to make any progress in ending this ridiculous breast vs bottle war. I know, I know – many of us feel like it’s only a war because the “other side” has made it so, and I think there is a lot of truth to that. And I know it feels really sucky to have to be the bigger person and treat others how you want to be treated, especially when they aren’t giving you the same respect.

Don’t get me wrong – this doesn’t mean you can’t fight fire with fire. I love the articulate, targeted way some of you choose to fight back. You fight science with science, studies with studies, anecdotes with anecdotes. That’s the way to do it. Stooping to calling someone a “lactonazi” or making blanket statements about breastfeeding mothers is only perpetuating the belief that all formula feeders are anti-breastfeeding, when I know most of us are the farthest thing from it. I don’t want to feel like a sanctimonious jerk by reminding the community about that. I also don’t want to seem like I am not jumping to the defense of those I care so deeply about defending.

I think the point of this rant is as follows: FFF serves a few purposes – it exists to support mothers who are bottle feeding in a practical manner, both emotionally and with research-based and peer-oriented advice on feeding logistics. It also exists as an advocacy site, to protect the rights of formula feeding, tube feeding, and combo feeding parents. It supports  women in their individual breastfeeding journeys (i.e., helping with encouragement for moms wanting to try again, or moms who are currently struggling but want to continue to breastfeed). And it promotes a conversation between infant feeding activists, mothers, physicians, researchers, and interested parties to try and make some progress so that things aren’t so crappy for future generations of mothers.

Therefore, the Facebook page is sometimes not going to be a safe haven. There are going to be times when someone might say something that hurts you deeply, and I invite you to express that hurt, and strike out in the most powerful way you can – by speaking your truth, being proud of your choices, and knowing that the power of the community is behind you. And my promise to you is that while I will gladly allow the sandy shoed folks to hang around and contribute, I will not stand for people tracking mud all over my living room. Or if they do, they better plan to stick around and Hoover the crap out of the place.

 

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.


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5 thoughts on “Support versus advocacy: how finding balance is like keeping a white carpet clean

  1. I was talking on the phone to a friend tonight who is trying to have a baby and she’s really worried about the whole infant feeding stress. I told her that if she wants to breastfeed I will bake her lactation cookies, buy her breast pads and clean her house so that all she has to do is nurse that baby. And if she decides she’s done with all that then I’ll still do all of the above after I go out and buy her a can of Good Start. Not all moms are at war and you should give yourself some real credit for that.

    • Love it, Abigail. That’s so perfect.

      Maybe in the the Family Friendly Hospital equivalent would go something like this:

      “If you decide to breastfeed, we have classes, LCs, pumps, nipple cream, nipple shields, extra pillows, comfortable chairs, plenty of water and snacks, etc. and give the staff who work with you and your baby extra training on how to help you breastfeed and troubleshoot any problems you might have.

      If you decide to formula feed, we have bottles, formula, Dostinex, ice packs, no more milk tea, etc. and give the staff who work you and your baby extra training on how to help you formula feed, dry up your milk and troubleshoot any problems you might have.

      [Enter similar paragraphs about combo feeding and pumping here.]

      Regardless of how you feed you baby, both rooming in (including facilities for the father/ partner/ other adult, if possible) and a nursery are available. (We will bring your baby to you for night feedings if you wish.) And you may have meals (for both mom and dad or other support person) delivered to your room. This is a special time for you and you family and often a physically challenging time for the mother. We encourage you to focus on the enjoyment of your baby and your recovery.”

  2. I saw your comment on a probreastfeeding article about formulas marketing practices and thought it was intriguing but fully expected to be against almost everything on your site. I am pro breastfeeding and am on my 4th breastfed baby after nursing up to 17 months with the others. And definitely dont understand mothers choosing to formula feed exclusively and not even trying to give their children the benefits of colustrum and milk at first. But I have found the stories shared to be moving tales of Moms concerned about the welfare of their families, making thoughtful decisions about what is best for them. I havent gone back very far find your site to be comforting and accepting. Breastfeeding moms often feel pressure from those around them about their decisions too. (Nursing in public, psychological effects of extended nursing, people asking why Dad isnt shouldering more responsibilty) And i was pleaseantly surprised to feel as though I could very much relate to the stories you share rather than be feel ostrisized by them.

  3. Wow, you weren’t kidding when you said the Facebook page might not always be a safe place. I wish that total strangers’ hurtful words didn’t wound me so deeply, but they do. I “liked” your page just a few days ago and already had to unlike it. I guess I’ll stick with this site and stay away from Facebook. Everytime someone comments on your page, it tells all that person’s friends so they come to your page and that just brings out the crazies. And the nastiness. Yikes. I am so grateful you’re here for us. But I think I gotta stay away from your Facebook page precisely because you are right. It’s not always a safe place.

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