Getting a grip on the Strong Mom Empowerment Pledge Controversy

The latest outrage in the breastfeeding advocacy world doesn’t have to do with dying children in resource poor nations, cialis or bogus “breastfeeding advice” hotlines run with the nefarious goal of undermining a mother’s goals. It’s not even about someone questioning the benefits of breastfeeding, or urging the government to rethink some of its public health messaging.

No, this week’s rage-fest is over a campaign asking women to pledge not to bully one another based on their parenting choices.

Sound silly? Well, according to a handful of well-respected bloggers, it’s about as silly as a car wreck. This is because the campaign is sponsored by Similac, a formula company, which has everything to gain by women feeling “empowered” to use their second-best (or fourth best, if we’re going by the WHO hierarchy) product in a world made less judgmental by a pledge such as this.

On a purely anti-capitalist, anti-marketing level , I understand why some may feel a little queasy about this campaign. I’ve seen some backlash against the Dove Real Beauty ads for the same reason – the message is great, but the fact that it was created by a group of advertising executives rather than a non-profit, purely altruistic group, sullies it. There’s an ad term for what Dove and Similac are doing – the “halo effect” – meaning that when you use the product, you’ll have positive, do-gooder type feelings about it. Coke’s done it, too. (Remember that catchy “I’d like to teach the world to sing” jingle? Halo effect, right there.)

I assume this is what was behind tweets I came across today suggesting that formula companies have no place talking about parenting issues. My counter argument to this is that many of us formula feeders feel abandoned by the parenting gurus (paging Dr. Sears) and in some cases, even our own pediatricians – the message we receive is that if we’re formula feeding, we’re pretty much a lost cause. So while I can’t say I’m thrilled that a formula company stepped up to fill this gap, I think we need to think a little more critically about why the gap was there in the first place.

For the record, with this particular campaign, Similac isn’t giving parenting advice, but rather advocating for an end to mother-to-mother judgment. More of an anti-bullying campaign than anything about parenting issues. Which is probably why they have Michele Borba as one of the spokespeople – she’s a well-known expert on bullying as well as parenting issues, but she barely deals with the infant/toddler set. For that matter, I don’t think babies are mentioned at all in the campaign literature –most of it has to do with embracing your parenting choices and not allowing other people to make you feel less-than.

But I’m not even all that interested in discussing the campaign itself – I’m more concerned with the response to it. Comments I’ve seen; articles I’ve read from some folks I have utmost respect for, but whom I feel really missed the mark on this one. Some of these arguments include: Similac has no right to talk about mommy judgment because formula feeding shouldn’t be a lifestyle choice; the bloggers who came on board to support the campaign are sell-outs or shills for Big Forma; and that the campaign is one big booby trap.

In a thought-provoking and controversial NY Times Motherlode column, KJ Dell’Antonia quotes Kimberly Sears Allers, who maintains that the Strong Moms Empowerment campaign is faulty because formula feeding is a public health issue, not a personal choice:

One centimeter beneath the surface of Similac’s “Strong Moms” Summit and online campaign you will find that framing of infant formula use as a “lifestyle choice” that is not to be judged has been its primary marketing strategy for decades. … And since choices are individual, they have no social consequences; women are therefore relieved of responsibility of considering the broader implications of their decisions. And once I make my choice, no one is to challenge me. We can’t talk about it. And if you do, you are judging me.

Admittedly, I’m taking major poetic license here, but my take-away from Allers’ post was that we can’t not judge other moms for doing something which puts babies at risk. KJ’s own argument is more nuanced and balanced; she suggests that this whole conversation has become too personal, and the “judgment” rhetoric just dilutes the real issues.

I agree with KJ, actually – it’s a point I’ve made myself, in my own somewhat pissy rants about how the only anti-breastfeeding-promotion opinions we hear come in the form of personal stories (which are important in their own right – don’t get me wrong – but hardly a match against scientific studies and “fact”-driven articles). But making things “less personal” doesn’t just mean that every blog post discussing breastfeeding must stop devolving into a who-had-it-harder string of comments. The onus can’t purely be on those whose choices are being questioned to buck up and be “strong”. If we’re going to make it less personal, than breastfeeding advocates cannot be in charge of conducting research on infant feeding. We need to ensure that voices from both sides are heard, so that formula feeding mothers don’t need to sit in awkward, shameful silence while the food that so beautifully nourishes their infants is compared to tobacco, lest they be accused of “taking things so personally”.  And outlets like the New York Times need to post intellectually-driven or research-based pieces from the “other” perspective, rather than just personal stories of breastfeeding failure, so that the conversation isn’t so one-sided.

But I think, in some ways, KJ’s point gets convoluted by Allers’ quote. It can’t not be personal, when a woman’s decision to formula feed is being equated to a public health issue. This is where the misinterpretation of risk within the breastfeeding canon is problematic; it is where people like Joan Wolf are so vitally important. And yet, Joan Wolf can’t participate in the conversation because it has become so personal: her assessment of the literature is brushed off as anti-breastfeeding, lost in the fervor of those who fear that discussing breastmilk as anything less than a miraculous and perfect substance, and breastfeeding as anything less than a moral imperative, will negate their admirable efforts to normalize what should be a human right.

The other common refrain in the past few days is that formula feeding mothers should be offended by this campaign. I’m crying foul. First of all, I take issue with breastfeeding advocates speaking for me – someone who felt completely ousted, chastised, and disenfranchised from their community, and their ideal of good mothering. Just like I will never know the hot rage felt by a nursing mom who is asked to leave a restaurant, someone who has a fundamental belief that breast is best will never know what it feels like to be told that your maternal instinct is faulty, due to susceptibility to marketing, stupidity, selfishness, or some combination of the three.  To hear a company which created a product that nurtured my babies echoing the same sentiments I’ve been preaching for years – that the judgment must stop; that moms need to stop fighting each other and work together for better parenting rights; that women need to stop engaging in sorority-level hazing in order to wear the label of “Good Mommy/Good Radical Feminist/Strong Woman – makes me happy. I don’t feel preyed upon; I am well aware that they are hoping to sell more formula, and you know what? If I had to decide between a brand that is marketing to breastfeeding moms and one that is finally trying to appeal to its actual audience, I’d probably choose the latter.

Someone commented on the NYT article that it would’ve been nice if this campaign came from an individual or group without profit-driven motives. Spoiler alert: that would be me. That would be Bottle Babies. We’re out there, doing this. But most people aren’t aware of us – we each top out at about 3k Facebook followers, opposed to the popular breastfeeding blogger-activists, who are all in the 200k range or higher (some of whom, incidentally, could benefit from a pledge not to bully other moms. Just sayin’.)  We have nothing behind us – no advertising, no sponsors. No money. It’s slow going, trying to make a dent, attempting to create change in a positive and real and measured way. We waste a lot of time defending ourselves against accusations of working for the formula companies; of being anti-breastfeeding; of being uninformed and defensive.  And trying to run our ad-free websites and blogs and attend conference on our own dime and BE HEARD when there are so many more powerful, louder people out there. I realize this sounds like a whiny me-me-me rant, but I’m trying to paint a picture here – because it helps explains why I’m okay with the Similac campaign. Until the indie, unsponsored voices are able to reach the masses, I’m just happy that someone can. I’m happy that women who are feeling judged and guilty and embarrassed about their choices, who are forced to read “Breast is Best” every time they see a formula ad, or open a can of food for their baby, can finally have an opportunity to feel good about the product they are using. That for once, we can feel like part of the sorority – part of the “empowered” group – even if it’s all manufactured and for profit, even if it’s bullshit.  It’s not even about the cheesy “empowerment” pledge – it’s about seeing a formula company treat formula feeding as something matter-a-fact, rather than constantly comparing itself to breastmilk, and in a more subtle and unintentional way, comparing formula feeding mothers to breastfeeding mothers. It’s about being able to feel okay about the way a formula company is operating, rather than cringing at how they are sending free samples to moms intending on breastfeeding (rather than those of us who’ve filled out the damn internet form 300 times and never received a single coupon, but I digress) or marketing some asinine product (like the company in question, with its new “formula for supplementation”. Jesus, Similac. I’m wasting time defending you and then you pull something like this? For real?)

Yes, it’s not perfect. But it’s a start. And if you think it’s sad that we are so desperate for acceptance and celebration that we are willing to get into bed with a formula company that thinks of us like an easy booty call, I’d recommend taking a long, hard look at yourself: at the comments you make; the Facebook posts you share; the policies you write; the initiatives you implement; the articles you publish.

Because yes, it is sad. It is sad that Similac has been able to capitalize on this need. It is sad that there is the need to capitalize on. And it’s sad that those who have created that need are refusing to see how implicit they are in the development of such a sad situation.

It’s just sad.


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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22 thoughts on “Getting a grip on the Strong Mom Empowerment Pledge Controversy

  1. I had my first child at 17, big oops, Its OK he is a beautiful 36 year old man with a happy life and a beautiful wife. best”choice” I ever made. Long story short, at 17 I lived with my mom who drove me nutty to breastfeed this 9lb tongue-tied MOOSE…. I gave him Similac at by the time he was 2 1/2 months old he was 17 pounds!! I think that bottle feeding is great!! I hated breast feeding, it hurt like hell !! And my doctor told me not to because I had an emergency C-section, at 17 that is ALOT TO handle!!
    I have the most wonderful, healthy, handsome, sweet, son……brestfeeding is for farm animals!!

    • Breastfeeding is for whoever wants to do it and can do it – sounds like it wasn’t for you, and it’s great that you had the option to do what was best for you. I combo fed, and that worked for me. I don’t think it helps to make remarks like “BFing is for farm animals,” in fact the whole point of the post above and of how many of us feel about BFing pressure is that we should NOT be making blanket statements about whether one perfectly safe healthy feeding choice is better than another without knowing a person’s circumstances or respecting their right to make their own decisions.

    • I totally get feeling like breastfeeding is not for you – but I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s “for farm animals”. Breastfeeding is a totally natural, normal, beautiful way to feed a child – just not the ONLY way. But I really feel strongly that we stay away from comments that disparage mothers making different choices than we are – it’s counterproductive to the goal of this site.

  2. I had my daughter a few decades ago when formula feeding was the norm. I decided I wanted to breastfeed and the doctor and nursing staff were like “oh, hippie chick eh?”. I had no education, and other than the other older mom in the bed next to me, no support. Fortunately it all just worked – she latched and I lactated and it was all just no big deal. Did it help with our bonding? Well, we chatted and gazed into each others eyes and she seemed to like me – so I’ll say yes. Did it make her super healthy – nope. She had colic and ear infections and she’s grown up to have asthma and the warm fuzzy bond took a serious hit during adolescence … so while having a baby doing breastfeeding was a magic time for me, breastfeeding itself was just feeding my baby. Now my baby has just had her 2nd baby and in spite of all the support in the world and all the will in the world, she was just unable to breastfeed. She made a valiant effort with both babies and ended up in the hospital both times with depression, severe breast infections and starving babies. So on the advice of her lactation nurse she started formula feeds – has this impacted the mother / baby bonding? Well, they chat and they gaze into each other’s eyes and both babies obviously adore their mom (oh – and their dad) so I will say – no impact. Is this “inferior dangerous food” impacting the babies health? Haha, both are thriving (of course). I think as long as you are feeding your baby the best you can (breast, or clean safe water and best fit reliable brand formula) and loving your baby then you are doing everything. Everything. And no matter whether you breast feed or formula feed you will still have to do adolescence and you might need the support of one of the mothers you’re currently making feel bad.

    • Gramma B, Well said! you sound like a great mom/grandma.
      As my mom reminds me regularly (because I had BF problems and infections and was so stubborn to continue it caused severe anxiety and depression), the baby stage is such a SMALL part of your child’s life. Enjoy them and take care of them, that’s what matters! (she BF all her children too).

    • “And no matter whether you breast feed or formula feed you will still have to do adolescence and you might need the support of one of the mothers you’re currently making feel bad.”

      Well said. Thank you for sharing such a practical, empathetic point of view.

  3. Thank you for this perspective, and for being a voice for so many of us. My daughter is 19 months old, so I am beyond my formula feeding days, but oh, how I wish I’d known about this blog when I was in the throes of them and getting so much hate from people. A public health issue? Come on. How do you not take that personally? Especially as I sit with my perfectly healthy formula fed little one. There is much to be examined about the rhetoric surrounding baby feeding, and I agree with you: it’s all very sad, indeed.

  4. I was one of those people attempting to subvert Similac’s Twitter/Summit campaign yesterday. And, in my Tweets, I tried to make it clear it was about Similac hiring shills – not actually facilitating this conversation that really needs to take place. Yes, breastfeeding is a public health issue. Yes, breastfeeding is a personal choice. And, yes quite critically, it is not a choice for many with no support, unaccommodating employers, or lives that simple do not present enough options.

    I saw Similac exploiting mommy wars. It was precisely the “halo effect” p.r. ploy you describe. So where can we meet in safe space? I condemn people who are critical of a person formula feeding as quickly as I condemn someone who is critical of a someone breastfeeding. Parenting is just too damn hard already. And it honestly is just plain none of my business.

    Can you suggest a safe sponsor free meeting ground?

    • Thanks for this comment, Jake. I really appreciate your perspective – big fan of your work and your approach.

      I would LOVE to meet in a safe space. I’ve played with the idea of getting some sort of sponsor-free, casual get-together happening around one of the big blogging conferences, since so many of the key players in this debate are blogging about it. My high school insecurities arise, though, and make me worry that no one would show up and I’d end up sitting in a bar at some corporate hotel nursing my sorrows (no pun intended) with a glass of cheap wine.

      I suppose it could happen virtually, but I often think that the virtual world contributes to these problems – I think face-to-face interaction is necessary to really understand someone’s perspective. I’m certainly open to ideas, from anyone who has them, as to how we could get some sort of grassroots campaign going that promotes the same sentiments as the Similac one without the corporate presence…

      • I love, love, love this idea. I’m a total newbie to the mommy blogger scene, but talking about parenting without judging/hurting each other is one of my passions. If I had the financial ability, I would totally come to a conference like this and sit with you at that bar if no one else came. 🙂

        I think that having an IBCLC behind my name makes me even more determined to “fix” mommy judgment because there are so many in my field who have hurt a lot of women. Some intentionally, many not, but when I tell people I’m an LC I’m so scared they’re going to think, “Oh great now she’s going to lecture me on boobs” and tune out. I feel an obligation to “clean up” the image of the LC in the eyes of women who formula feed, because I hear so many stories about how they were frankly abused by the LCs they turned to for help. I hope that doesn’t make me sound preachy and self-righteous. I’m really just another mom, trying to do the best I know for my family and help other moms along the way.

      • People say an awful lot online that I am old enough to know they never would have the guts to say to anyone’s face. Really had some new perspective on how some of my “friend” felt about things when Facebook came around. I now know who is actually, formerly secretively, a jerk.

  5. This is such a thought-provoking and well-written piece. My heart kind of aches that there was a necessity for it to be written – but I understand the need with all the outrage from the breastfeeding bloggers. I, too, shared the NYT article and condemned Similac’s marketing technique. Reading your piece has given me a more balanced perspective on the issue. Thank you, for being the non-corporate-sponsored voice out there. 🙂

  6. Thanks for this post – I came across this ’empowerment summit’ through the Motherlode blog, and I really couldn’t understand their outrage over it. Is the idea of it wrong? No – anyone who has tried to bottle feed a baby in the last few years has been inundated with the myriad of reasons why you are an irresponsible mother who is likely going to produce a child with some kind of dissociative disorder. Seeking advice on bottle feeding on the internet or often even in person often results in insulting personal attacks. Is it so reprehensible that it is corporate sponsored? I guess it depends on whether you think its wrong for companies to want to market their products. Would it be so insulting if Medela sponsored a breastfeeding summit? Probably not. Do they have a vested interest in people using their products to facilitate breastfeeding? Sure, but I guess its assumed that they’re doing it from a place of concern for health rather than insidious corporate greed (hmm.. while I’ve never really researched this but, I’m sure the original marketers of formula weren’t in it to get rich but rather to provide a healthy alternative to make women’s lives with their newborns easier).

    I think most mothers are reasonable and understand that all mothers are just trying to do their best to take care of their babies and they park the judgement at the door. There is definitely a large subset of mothers that would benefit from understanding that formula is not poison and that the harsh judgement they dish out to bottle feeding mothers is not only cruel, its uninformed.I guess its human nature to want to ferociously justify a choice you make, especially if you really struggle with breastfeeding and are ultimately successful after such a struggle. I’m 100% sure that Simulac’s efforts won’t reach this subset, but its nice to see the message getting out there – even if it falls on deaf ears. I ultimately breastfed both of my children, but when I had my first and suffered through months of low milk supply and having to supplement with formula for my severely underweight baby, it was not helpful to seek advice and just be met with a barrage of “you’re not trying hard enough, and if you loved your baby you wouldn’t be bottlefeeding”. Relax people – I work as a scientist and I can tell you that the benefits of breast milk are overstated in the lactivist community. Breastfeeding has its benefits, and I ultimately found it cheaper and easier, but its not mandatory. As my lactation consultant told me, a baby has many needs: he needs to be fed, and he needs is mother to be functional to take care of him, and if breastfeeding isn’t going to help you meet all of your baby’s needs, then don’t do it.

  7. /slowclap

    The end is really the most important part. Combined with Sara’s post about how LCs have hurt so many women, it’s very easy to see that those lactivist orgs with tens of thousands of followers and who claim to be so overpowered by the formula companies ought to look in the mirror.

  8. Ugh. Seriously?
    1. Do not use “history” or developing nations to back-up your choice to breastfeed. You forget what a luxury it is to have choice.
    2. Alternate feeding probably dates back as far as abortion, which is pretty much to the beginning of humanity. One of the first things women have CHOSEN since any choosing became available is to move their children to another room, have fewer of them, and NOT breastfeed. I’m not saying no one actually likes to breastfeed but clearly historically some women did not want to. They had black slaves wet nurse their kids. They didn’t even think they were entirely evolved humans and they STILL let them nurse their children. As a side note many of their own (the slaves) babies died from “failure to thrive” because supply issues are real.
    3. I think everyone is so focused on breastfeeding and being adamant about it because they’ve managed to convince themselves that it will guarentee that their children smart and thin. And that they gave their child “the best start,” even if you HAVE given them the best start take a good look around at the size of children today and plenty of adults as well. You are looking for breastfeeding to be a magic FAST anwer. Much easier to adamantly parent for a year or so than REALLY parent for the other 17 years. If you are so good at saying no start saying it to yourself and your own children before you start on other women.

  9. Amen! I was standing up screaming at my screen at the end of this post. I’ve been running a campaign to stop judgment between moms for a few years know, with no corporate sponsorship. Just like you. And I have had very limited success. One thing I will say about the Similac campaign – they have at least brought a lot of attention to this issue (not breast vs bottle but the judging among moms). Something I have been unable to achieve on my own with no funding.

    So, “dubious” or not (and I completely understand the feelings about it), I’m grateful this is getting more women to discuss the overall issue of how we treat one another, particularly online. I try to provide tools to help women discuss these “hot” topics rationally and respectfully. Because I believe we can and should.

    I know you are a strong supporter and active participant in our community, and I appreciate that very much. Great post!

    • Hi Elizabeth-

      Just wanted to tell you how much I love what you’re doing with the Mom Pledge. I should have mentioned you in this post, as you are a great example of someone trying to get the same message across without the corporate backing. 🙂 Anyway – I love your work, and hope we can chat more in the future.

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