Back in drama school, we used to play this game called “Yes, And”. Basically, one person would start an improvisational scene by saying something wacky, and her partner would need to accept the challenge by acknowledging the setup and running with it.
“This meatball is causing a traffic jam.”
“Yes, and… I wish we hadn’t decided to take a left turn and run smack into the middle of the annual Butcher’s Parade. Next time, listen to the damn GPS, will you?”
Ok, so I kind of sucked at that game, which is why I never pursed improv as a career. But I always thought that the concept was one that should be applied to debates. Instead of immediately challenging someone’s point of view, what if people listened, accepted the challenge by acknowledging the perspective, and ran with it?
“Breastfeeding needs to be promoted and supported.”
“Yes, and… there needs to be a way to do it without limiting a woman’s autonomy, ignoring social and cultural barriers, and marginalizing those who end up formula feeding.”
This, to me, is what the “I Support You” movement is all about. Offering the yes, and proposing the and. Telling the powers that be, and each other, that what’s currently happening in the world of infant feeding isn’t good enough; that we can’t support some women while penalizing the rest.
When I first approached Jamie and Kim about initiating a supportive, inclusive movement that could bring moms together, I wasn’t 100% sure what it would look like. All I knew was that as Breastfeeding Week approached, I was starting to see more pain in my inbox, more anger on my Facebook page. Memes popped up like snarling Jack-in-the-Boxes, taunting us with images of baby bottles lying in caskets, misquoted statistics, careless messages that divided moms into categories of “good” and “less-than”; “us” and “them”. Women I greatly respect began resorting to schoolyard taunts, when a few weeks prior they were able to discuss the same issues respectfully and calmly.
This happens every year. Breastfeeding Week brings out the best and the worst of breastfeeding advocacy, and thus the best and the worst in the women that this advocacy has failed. No matter how much we support breastfeeding, the current atmosphere in the media and the blogosphere infects our wounds, whether fresh or scabbed over, and immediately puts us on the defensive. Some of us would love to go to one of the incredible “Latch On” events happening in our towns, but worry that by showing up with bottles full of formula we’d be viewed as unwelcome intruders. It’s hard to imagine we wouldn’t be, when so much of what we see online is about how our method of feeding our children is dangerous and a direct threat to the efforts of breastfeeding moms. We want to share “Happy World Breastfeeding Week” messages, but worry that posting something like this is an invitation to be tortured by comments about how sub-par the food we feed our babies is.
I wanted to find a way to celebrate the efforts of our breastfeeding sisters, and to show that we support them – that we aren’t the enemy, not by a long shot. Jamie and Kim felt the same way, from their respective “sides” of this perceived mommy war. So, we asked women to share photos and messages of support, whatever that meant to them. The response was incredible; far more than we ever expected. I put some of these photos into a video slideshow, which you can see below. I’ll also be putting up all the submissions as a static webpage in the next week, so that we will have a permanent collection of these messages of commiseration, empathy, and hope.
We’ve been getting some backlash about the fact that we launched this project during World Breastfeeding Week, and we understand where this is coming from; we’re not trying to steal the thunder of those advocating for more awareness for breastfeeding throughout the world. But we also feel that the best way to support breastfeeding is to ensure that every woman feels empowered and equipped to feed her baby in the best way possible. That may not always mean breastfeeding; this doesn’t mean that we are ignoring the science, but rather performing our own risk/benefit assessment and making a highly personalized decision. This may not be your choice, and it may not be the best choice on paper, but parenting is not a standardized test. It’s more like an open-ended essay question. By listening to each other’s stories, as long-winded, convoluted, and complex as they so often are, we can start fresh. This can wash away the negativity, judgment and defensiveness, so that we can more adequately address the real reasons women are not meeting breastfeeding recommendations. And we can do all of this without ruining a mother’s sense of self or well-being. I think that’s a pretty clear win-win.
So… yes. And… how do we actually go about doing this? Jamie has written a great post about how we can better support breastfeeding mothers, and why we need to take a global perspective on these issues. Kim has offered some amazing practical tips on how to best support a new mom who is trying to breastfeed. Go and read these; then read them again. Think. Digest. Process.
I’d like to offer my own suggestions, about how we can better support moms who either choose to or have to formula feed, whether partially or exclusively. This may seem counterproductive to Breastfeeding Week, but I don’t see it that way. According to our latest Breastfeeding Report Card, by 3 months out, 63% of us are using some formula. While advocates are fighting to raise these rates for the future, we need to address the NOW. And besides, there have been, and always will be, women who choose not to breastfeed. By ignoring their needs, we are putting their babies’ health and their mental health at risk – and that’s certainly not conducive to improving maternal and infant outcomes.
Start addressing the REAL reasons women are unable to meet their breastfeeding goals.
In the past 4 years, I’ve heard countless stories of women who feel immense loss, pain and guilt due to their infant feeding experiences. Very few mention the reasons for “suboptimal breastfeeding” that are so often cited in breastfeeding advocacy literature – formula marketing, embarrassment over the process, lack of education. What they do mention is feeling incredible pressure to “succeed”; physical impediments that were probably foreseeable, had anyone thought to examine their breasts prenatally; and varying degrees of support that felt more like judgment. To counteract this, we need to time our education and preparation for breastfeeding better. By having more realistic conversations – both with our care providers and each other – we can raise awareness for the problems that might make breastfeeding difficult, so that we can properly manage them. For example, I’ve heard from many women who had never heard of IGT (Insufficient Glandular Tissue) until they read about it in an FFF Friday story, and realized that they had all the symptoms and markers for the condition. If they’d known about it, they may have been able to seek specialized lactation assistance that could have helped them at least partially breastfeed, if that’s what they wanted to do.
As for the pressure to succeed – this is what “I Support You” is trying to counteract. While some people work better under pressure, others are rendered impotent by it. If you know that those around you support you and have your back no matter what happens, you can go into birth and breastfeeding with a sense of confidence and flow.
Provide better educational materials and assistance for formula feeding parents.
Since formula is seen as a competitor to breastmilk, any mention of it is perceived as a threat to breastfeeding success. For those of us who are formula feeding, this means that every article we read about the basic how-to’s of formula begin with long caveats about the benefits of breastmilk, which can feel really punitive, especially to someone who feels crappy about using formula in the first place. We don’t have the formula equivalent of LLL, so there’s little peer support, and prenatal classes don’t typically discuss bottle feeding. The clearest, easiest-to-find information about formula comes from the formula companies – and when we’ve been taught not to trust them, this causes internal conflict and confusion.
I keep hearing stories from parents whose daycare providers are mixing or handling formula in very unsafe ways – and god only knows how they are handling pumped breastmilk. Until we all get a year’s paid maternity leave, the fact remains that a large portion of America’s kids are going to be in daycare. Improper formula handling can make babies extremely ill, so this is a matter of public health. While we are promoting breastfeeding, we can’t throw the baby out with the sterilized, pre-boiled formula water. If we stopped viewing this issue as breast vs bottle, perhaps we could ensure that bottle-feeding parents were given adequate education and information so that they too could feed babies in the healthiest way possible. We have a right to know that we can still do skin-to-skin, that we can “bottle-nurse”, and that we can practice paced feeding and treat mealtimes as bonding times, just like breastfeeding moms can. We have a right to know that there are differences between formulas, and to have more options (donor milk, new types of formula, organic and GMO-free varieties) available to us.
Focus on peer support and maternal mental health as well as breastfeeding support.
Breastfeeding has a learning curve, and it can be really difficult to get through the first few weeks. It’s essential that we have organizations like LLL and hospital-sponsored breastfeeding support groups. But there’s no reason we can’t promote social interaction and professional facilitation of peer support for ALL moms. Postpartum depression is a major problem in this country, and maternal mental health affects breastfeeding in a myriad of ways. Since the only care providers that typically encounter a mother between birth and the 6-week postpartum visit are the pediatrician and the lactation consultant, we need to make sure that these professionals are taught to pay as much attention to a mother’s eyes, behavior and words as the functionality of her breasts.
Don’t put yourself in an us vs. them mindset.
We all want to find our tribe, but try and remember that tribes are made up of individuals. Just because someone doesn’t parent exactly the way that you do does not mean they are judging your choices. The I Support You movement is a launching pad for us to start fresh – to teach the next generation of moms that to be a breastfeeding advocate does not necessarily mean you have to vilify formula; that there’s a way to be positive and empowering in your advocacy. And, for formula feeding moms, I Support You challenges us to stand up for breastfeeding rights; to understand that nurse-ins are not about formula hate, but rather a protest against misogyny and conflicting messages (“breastfeed or else, but not for too long or in front of me”… I mean seriously, what kind of bullshit is that?).
It may seem overly simplistic to think that we can hold up a bunch of signs, snap a few photos, and change the world. But this week, we’ve witnessed how many people are hurting, and how many people are in dire need of support. This doesn’t negate the need for breastfeeding advocacy; if anything, we need it more than ever. But we also need to find a way to reframe this ridiculous battle between breast and bottle. And that isn’t the responsibility of breastfeeding advocates; it’s the responsibility of the rest of us, the moms who have the power to reach out to another mom and let her know you’ve got her back. We can start in our own social circles, and create an atmosphere that counteracts whatever muddled messages society may throw at us. This is a way of saying yes to the positive actions breastfeeding advocates are taking to help mothers reach their breastfeeding goals. But let’s not forget the and.
So, yes. And… I support you.
Interested in joining the “I Support You” movement? Here are more ways to get involved:
1) Check back later this week, when I’ll be posting a collection of the stories, messages and photos I’ve received from women all over the world, responding to the “I Support You” call for submissions.
2) “I Support You” is thrilled to be partnering with Huffington Post Parents to celebrate Breastfeeding Awareness Month. Our friends at HuffPo believe that it’s time to celebrate ALL feeding choices, and they’ll be working with us throughout the month to share stories about what feeding with love really looks like. Let’s make sure that they know how much we appreciate their message that we are all doing our best to feed in a way that works for our family, by joining the conversation here.
3) Join us on August 7th for a Twitter Party at 5 pm PST/8 pm EST. We will be encouraging all of you to share your stories and connect with parents who are making similar choices. We’d love to hear your suggestions about how I Support You can take shape in your community, so we hope you’ll join us by using the hashtag #ISupportYou
4)Link your blog up by clicking on the button below, and show us how you feed with love; share an interview with someone you did who has an entirely different feeding experience than you. In the subject line, please state HOW you feed and WHERE you feed so that other parents can connect to someone who feeds the same way they do. Or even better, they can learn from someone who feeds differently than they do. (Example: “1st Time Breastfeeder, CA” or “Formula, foster mom, TX” or “EP mom, NICU twins, MI”)