Tamara Ecclestone, breastfeeding, and how it feels to see representations of love that you’re unable to give

Last week I was interested to see a picture of celebrity Tamara Ecclestone pop up on my newsfeed.

 

Source: BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/38932320

Source: BBC.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/38932320

Tamara was shocked. Shocked and saddened that her valiant attempt to normalise breastfeeding through a stunning photoshoot had not been received with the blanket adulation that she had expected. More than that though, for Tamara there is nothing but love in the images and it’s such a shame that it brings out anger in some of you it’s sad for you that that’s how you choose to live.  Personally, I think that love may well have been the order of the day, but there were also probably more scatter cushions than there were in the John Lewis Christmas sale this year.

I don’t know why she would expect blanket adulation because my experience of being a woman and having access to the internet has shown me that I could post an image of a packet of crisps with a vagina and somebody would try to concern troll over what birth control it was using.  Post a picture of breastfeeding and you are guaranteed to uncover that very special type of person who is mortally offended by a nipple.  This is annoying and these people deserve to be treated as the newts that they are and I delight in doing so. However, the four of five newts come with legions of likes, shares and messages of support, as I’m sure Tamara’s PR team know well.

The thing is, we’ve seen these images before, Gisele did it, [here]. Body confidence advocate Tess Holliday used the women’s marches two weeks ago to do it [here] and this week, it’s Tamara’s turn [here].  All of these images have striking similarities.  We see beautiful, wealthy, white and glamorous women gazing off into the distance while effortlessly nurturing wide-eyed babies (scatter cushions optional).  These women are professionals at re-packaging our bodies as an ideal and selling them back to us, they have a team of PR execs and agents to help them in their quest for self-promotion and this is exactly what’s happening here. Usually we are allowed to be angry about the lack of realism and unattainability of things like the thigh gap, but here the product is breastmilk and it’s different rules.

In the UK, 81% or women initiate breastfeeding whilst they are in hospital.  Given that figure, it’s hard to keep a straight face when someone tells you that seeing someone breastfeed is some sort of revelation, but they do.  By the time the baby is six weeks old that figure falls to 55% and by six months, it’s at 1%.  Of those women who stop breastfeeding, 80% of them desperately wanted to but could not. These women have internalised the mantra breast is best and they’ve given it everything they’ve got but come away feeling like abject failures when their breastfeeding dreams didn’t come true.

For them, when they see an image like that with the words powerful demonstration of love and nurturing it feels like a kick in the teeth. As I imagine it does for those among the 20% who don’t attempt to breastfeed because they’re transgender or survivors of sexual violence, on certain medications or adoptive parents, or because it simply isn’t the best choice for their family.  For those parents all they can hear is:

A powerful demonstration of love and nurturing THAT YOU CAN’T GIVE.

That you can’t give, written as if by sparkler; bright, hot, fleeting and gas lit. Or worse, that you are too selfish to give. Of course there is anger.

The late John Berger wrote a lot about advertising and how it works.  To skim it, a good advertising campaign creates a tableau that we all recognise subconsciously to some extent, like the Madonna and Child. You foreground a product of lifestyle that is difficult but perhaps not impossible to imagine yourself attaining, this creates envy.  Then you distribute it far and wide. If it’s something that everybody can have it simply won’t sell as either an image or product.  I mean I love my Henry the Hoover, it never lets me down. I’m never going to make it look like Tamara makes breastmilk look because it is so very mundane and attainable.

If you haven’t yet read Berger’s book Ways of Seeing then you should, because he also makes the point that:

“[P]ublicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats […] takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world.” [Berger: Ways of Seeing, p. 149]

 

Tamara and her photographer’s image, and those that came before are the epitome of the genre. Glamorous and unattainable, always just slightly beyond reach.  Why? Because for all of the hashtags and so called ‘normalising’, they do nothing to address the structural inequalities that mean that none of us really gets to choose to live the way we would really like. They are publicity as a mask.

The NHS is struggling and with maternity services, according to the National Health Executive report of January 2017, disturbingly high numbers of women are experiencing so-called ‘red-flag’ events.  What are ‘red-flag events’? They’re events that happen because we simply do not have enough care for women, even to the point that of women not receiving one-to-one care during established labour. If we can’t even ensure that women have that level of care when they’re giving birth can we hope for better during the post natal period and with breastfeeding support? No prizes here for guessing that no, we can’t:

During the post natal period, women were most likely to express disappointment with their experience in the postnatal wards and breastfeeding support. (Source:  National Health Executive report of January 2017)

On occasions where we have actually spoken to women who found themselves unable to breastfeed over dismissing them as bitter and hateful trolls, we find that something like 80% cite pain as a key reason that they were unable to continue. If a mother simply cannot get the help that she needs from a dedicated professional then she cannot continue.

Since 2010 the UK has faced austerity and whether or not you agree with the necessity, in March 2016 the Women’s Budget Group found that women are hit harder than men and households headed by women such as lone parents […] are hit harder. What does this mean for mothers? It means cash in hand, manual labour jobs where you can’t have your children with you. It means no maternity leave because you’re restricted to short-term, temporary contracts. It means not being able to afford the bus fare to get to the doctors when you have mastitis or to pay for the prescription for medicines you might need to treat it. It means choosing between heating and eating. It means that having the time, energy or will to go through the pain of establishing breastfeeding may well not be at the very top of your agenda.

If you do have a job that you are able to go back to, there is unsurprisingly yet more bad news. The House of Commons committee on Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination, tells us that not only is there more discrimination reported now than a decade ago, but also there is no legal duty to provide a place to breastfeed or store milk. So even women who are able to afford the highest levels of childcare may not be able to continue to breastfeed their babies until two years of age.

These images are beautiful and modern reinterpretations of the Madonna and child tableau, chic and classic, but they do nothing to address any of the challenges faced by women today. baby-jesusEven if women in their droves started saying that had they just seen one more photo they could have breastfed on, I don’t know if this one would really help. We already know that wealthy, well-educated and thirty something are more likely to breastfeed, it’s already normal. Most of us could only dream of owning that many scatter cushions in a lifetime and one of her shoes could probably cover at least a month’s rent. As a twenty-two year old, pregnant dropout who just couldn’t get her breasts to co-operate, the only thing that image would have done for me is amplify my failure on every single count.  With the benefit of hindsight, and good research, I now know that I’m not alone.

 

Breastfeeding a new baby is already normal, breastfeeding a two year old has yet to become the norm. When every parent has the luxury of choice over how and for how long they feed their babies, it most likely will. Papering over the cracks with a few Instagram snaps and calling your critics angry and bitter isn’t going to cut it.  We need to meet every obstacle head on. We need to treat our fellow parents with empathy.  Above all, we need to support each other.

#ISupportYou.

Stephanie Maia is a UK-based writer for FearlessFormulaFeeder.com and the #ISupportYou movement.

FFF: Furious Formula Feeders?

“The community of women who choose to formula feed, and the moms who have so many challenges with nursing that they formula feed, tend to feel that the lactation professionals are insensitive, pushy and overstate the amazing-ness of nursing a baby. And they are ANGRY!! Check out the Fearless Formula Feeder page and you will get a massive dose of angry. They seem to take so much personally and cannot seem to see the broader cultural ramifications of the formula companies’ marketing campaigns. They also do not seem to understand that successful nursing is time sensitive. It has to be initiated early after birth or there is really no going back.”

 

After seven years of working in the infant feeding space, I’ve become rather immune to criticism. There are people who will never understand why a site like this is needed; people who think what I do “promotes” formula feeding; people who don’t think there should be any sort of choice in how babies are fed. Recently, my Facebook readers were threatened by someone claiming they would be reporting them to social services for child endangerment, due to their feeding method. It happens. People suck, and all that.

But last night, I saw the above comment on the page of someone who claimed to be all about female empowerment, empowered choice, and sisterhood. This was someone I collaborated with – or, rather, allowed to use my image and words in a way that resulted in no financial compensation, favorable publicity, or support for my own cause (the exact opposite, actually – it was a film which portrayed formula as the devil and romanticized mostly white, upper class, celebrity women and their breastmilk). Someone I welcomed on the FFF page. Someone, I assumed, who respected that our opinions were different, but whose goals were ultimately the same: ensuring that mothers were informed, autonomous, and supported in their choices.

Seeing her comment did, indeed, make me “ANGRY!!”

Then, I started thinking… maybe she’s right. Maybe we really are ANGRY!!. For a moment, I felt self-conscious and defensive, wondering if I should post something sweet and positive to counteract this negative portrayal.

But then I stopped myself, because damn straight, I’m angry.

I’m angry that despite sharing hundreds of stories of what the “breast at all costs’ mentality does to women, the people who are responsible for perpetuating this culture refuse to listen.

I’m angry that these same people spend so much time and energy hating the formula companies, when the formula companies are not the ones mishandling women in the hospital, leaving IGT and other potential breastfeeding complications undiagnosed, ignoring the mental health needs of new parents, or forcing women to go back to work after a few short weeks in order to support their families.

I’m angry that they can’t see the difference between “anti-breastfeeding” and “anti-breastfeeding-extremism’. These are not the same things. quotescover-JPG-32

I’m angry that they continue to gaslight the women who come to me for help, sometimes suicidal, over their perceived “failure” to breastfeed.

I’m angry that they are allowed to be angry at anyone and everyone who doesn’t think the way they do, but insist on absolute complacency and infinite patience from us.

I’m angry that they think we are uninformed about breastfeeding, when the most common reason parents come to my page is that they were blindsided by formula feeding; they had read books and taken classes on breastfeeding, but never even thought of using formula. These women know more breastfeeding than most. They know about jaundice protocols, Thomas Hale, SNS feeding, galactogogues, tongue ties, lip ties, skin-to-skin, the magic hour, the breast crawl, good latches and bad latches, exclusive pumping, power pumping, and more. They know how important it is to breastfeed immediately after birth. There’s a reason nearly every FFF Friday starts with a scene in the delivery room.

I’m angry that some of the “new voices” in this debate are doing more harm than good, making claims that can’t be supported, confusing the issues, and making it harder for the rest of us.

I’m angry that my community members are told that they are victims when they don’t feel like victims. I’m angry that when they do feel victimized, they are dismissed, brushed off as unfortunate casualties in the War Against Big Bad Formula.

I’m angry that the formula companies continue to make stupid marketing moves, adding fuel to a fire that should’ve been extinguished back in the early 1980s.

I’m angry that “celebrating moms” always means “celebrating breastfeeding”. Moms should not be celebrated for feeding their babies. They should be celebrated for doing a job that is often hard and thankless, for bringing home the bacon, frying it up, and cleaning all the dishes afterwards before putting the kids to sleep and working on tomorrow’s quarterly reports. I’m angry that this myopic focus, this fetishizing of what should be a perfectly normal act, marginalizes adoptive parents, primary caregiving fathers, and anyone without working mammary glands.

I’m angry that moms can’t nurse in public without it being a fucking federal case. Literally.

I’m angry that moms don’t get sufficient support in the hospital for breastfeeding – especially if they are young and/or non-white.

I’m angry that parents get no support whatsoever about formula feeding, and that parents in the UK need to preemptively bring their own supplies if they think there’s even a chance they might need or want to supplement. (Has anyone else thought about how this might be more self-sabotaging than having formula available in the hospital? Not that I think either is actually self-sabotaging, but for those constantly making that argument… let’s use basic logic for a minute.)

I’m angry that my use of formula is somehow threatening to your efforts to encourage other women to breastfeed.

 

I’m angry that women insist on battling each other in these snarky ways, like life is just one big junior high school. Grow up. Grow. The. Hell. Up. There are so many problems in the world – you really want to spend time arguing about whether we feed babies breastmilk or a perfectly viable substitute? Is live and let live really that hard a concept? Do you really have nothing better to do than tell random women on the internet how they are Doing It All Wrong? And formula-feeding moms who hang out on breastfeeding sites to cause trouble – I’m talking to you, too. You’re part of the problem. Making shitty comments about breastfeeding moms, who have just as much right to community and support as you do, is hypocritical and mean. Mean girl behavior is not “venting”.

I’m angry that comments like the ones above leave my community no choice but to stay silent. If they respond, and say what they want to say, they sound ANGRY!! If they don’t respond, they are silenced. Neither is an attractive or empowering choice.

I’m angry that I still feel the need to write posts like this, when my kids are in elementary school. I am angry that I care. I am angry because it doesn’t change anything, and I’d probably be a much happier person if I never said the word “lactivism” again.

So yes, I am angry. In fact, I am ANGRY!! And I’m sure much of it is self-imposed, because I could be focusing my own efforts on something more important, like the Syrian refugee crisis, the poverty and inequality in my own city. I could be focusing this energy on my children – sometimes I think that formula feeding made me a better mom, but Fearless Formula Feeder made me a pretty crappy one.

As for the FFF community? Sure, I suppose they are ANGRY!!, too. But no more than they should be. And if they are talking and venting and crying and supporting each other on my page, they are handling that anger appropriately. They have a safe space to work through that anger – but there are many people who want to take that away from them. “Concern Trolls” who repeatedly post inflammatory pieces (and if you’re going to argue that “information” isn’t ever inflammatory, ask yourself: would you post a piece on how easy it was for you to get pregnant on an infertility support page? Or an article about a plane crash on a Fear of Flying support group?), “experts” who try to school them, people who don’t believe they have any right t feel bad because formula feeding is so prevalent. (So is obesity. Doesn’t make the kid who gets relentlessly teased in school for their weight feel any better.)

Most of my readers work through their anger, and move on. Many go on to breastfeed future kids, armed with the knowledge they now have that there’s no such thing as failure. They understand relative risk. They know how to spot problems, and what can and can’t be done about them. They aren’t trapped in the sticky spider web of dogma. They know they have a soft place to land, should things not go as planned.

ANGRY!! isn’t a bad thing. ANGRY!! is what makes us act up, speak out, and create change. ANGRY!! is a healthy, justified emotion when you’ve been shamed, mistreated, embarrassed, ignored, and insulted. ANGRY!! is empowering, as opposed to sad, depressed, lonely, ashamed.

So yes, you’re right. We are ANGRY!! We don’t enjoy it. We don’t want it. We want to move on and be HAPPY!! CONFIDENT!! ACCEPTED!!

Maybe if you could just let us be, you could let us be.

_______

The following are some additional comments sent to me by FFF members, reacting to this piece.

“Well yes I am angry. I am angry for being bullied into breastfeeding even though it was clearly not the right path for me. I’m angry my sons were left to go hungry and get sick because nobody would believe I wasn’t producing breast milk. I’m angry my midwives believed in breastfeeding at all costs. I’m angry there were entries in my post natal notes essentially calling me lazy and not trying hard enough to breastfeed. I’m angry that “normalise breastfeeding” has caused the vilification of formula feeding. I’m angry that I have been made to feel like a second rate mother who is poisoning her children and condemning them to a life time of low intelligence and obesity. That is, of course, if they survive child hood at all. I’m angry that I am supposed to laud and bend over backwards to accommodate breastfeeders but the courtesy is never returned. I’m angry that twaddle like “only 2% of women can’t actually breastfeed” is bandied around and taken as gospel, despite there being no respectable scientific research into such a claim. So yeah, I am angry. But as I usually say, if you kick the dog long and hard enough, sooner or later it will bite back.” – Emma

“What it comes down to is that unless you agree with the lactivist mentality that breastfeeding is a child’s “birthright” and that it’s the “end-all, be-all” of infant nutrition, then you wrong, misguided and angry. In reality, we are standing up for what we believe in just as much as they are standing up for their beliefs. However we believe in a women’s right to choose, to keep her bodily autonomy while still nurturing her children. And above all we lift one another up as mothers. I’m proud to be a part of the latter side.” – Deanna

“Being angry about having your body policed and having your parenting choices judged and shamed is a completely legitimate feeling/thing. Or are we as women only allowed to ever be happy or sad and anger is never ever appropriate?” – Nikki

“I wonder what the end game is if they actively alienate women who chose to, or had to, formula feed. I wonder, do they really care if we breastfeed? If so, do they think this kind of hurtful rhetoric will be a useful tool in convincing women to try breastfeeding again with the next child? Or are they just turning women off to their agenda through causing them pain? I for one have found the most support and kindness in caring for my child in the ff community, so I’d stick with what worked to keep myself and my family healthy and safe. It just seems so disingenuous that they are trying to “help” through hurting people. I don’t think they give a fig in the long run what I or any of you do, or for the health of our children. They just want to stare into their own reflections in solipsistic fantasy.” – Jessie

“I’m not angry that I couldn’t breastfeed. Not anymore, at least. You know what DOES make me angry though? A bunch of sanctimonious women (and men too, I guess) telling me how wrong I am for feeding my children formula. You know what? Formula saved BOTH of my kids’ lives. And it saved my sanity! My kids are happy, healthy, and thriving.” – Tasha

“I’m not angry or disappointed that BFing didn’t work out for us. I really don’t care anymore. Shit happens. I’m angry about the way moms are treated and babies put at risk for something that doesn’t really matter.” – Amy

“It’s funny because I’m not angry at all. Formula helped my son’s life from the beginning and formula helped me through PPD and other issues with my two girls. Not angry, grateful.” – Shannon

” I honestly think we are entitled to stand up for ourselves. All of us have at least one, if not many more, stories of being shamed for feeding our healthy and beautiful babies. The whole reason we’re here is to receive support from each other, that we are amazing mothers and parents, regardless of how we feed. We aren’t here to just bash breastfeeding, we are here for each other when everyone else is bashing us. were an amazing group of women who need support. We may come off as angry, but if these individuals who bash were in our shoes, they would see just how wrong their opinions of us are.” – Alexis

“They don’t even get *why* I’m angry. It’s not about me, I don’t give two shits I’m angry for two reasons. 1-All of the lovely ladies and GOOD MOMS who come here with broken hearts because of how the lactivist community has treated them and 2- Because their judgement doesn’t end with their side eye and snarky comments, they are changing public policy (think BFHI and all the horror stories from WIC offices) and that affects all of us. I don’t care if you sit there and comment about my bottles til the cows come home, but when you’re changing policies based on bad info that’s dangerous.” – Maria

“As someone who had no desire to BF whatsoever I have never gotten used to the opinion that we’re not allowed to decide what we want to do with their bodies and we’re not allowed to get angry when people tell us we’re not allowed to decide– or act as if we are stupid or misled when I KNOW we are some of the most informed women when it comes to this issue.” – Nicole

 

“How can they read the stories of what the mothers and babies went through to establish breastfeeding, and still blame women and claim everyone can Bf!!. DARN RIGHT I am angry!!!!!. I bought the “everyone can breastfeed” BS. None of those brilliant nurses (who were also licenses LCs) managed to help my baby latch. My baby had hypoglycemia, jaundice and lost 10% of her birth weight within two days, under their ‘watchful eye’.” -Bahan

“The justification for why why “should not be angry” is both condescending and misdirecting. Also, I’m pretty sure a lot of us are way more educated on formula and breastfeeding, and have given far more thought about the rhetoric surrounding it and it’s implications than most people.” – Bethanny

“They’re silencing us, undermining our autonomy. ‘They make X choice because they’re angry and stupid so X isn’t valid'” – Stephanie

Mean People Suck

Back in the 90’s, sick before the age of memes, bumper stickers were the best of sending the world (or at least the person stuck behind you in traffic) a message about your political leanings, philosophy, or the status of your child’s “Good Citizenship” in school. People got seriously creative with these little strips of adhesive, but there was one that seemed to be strike a chord with the folks I typically associated with. The Birkenstocks-wearing, Ani-DiFranco-listening, liberal-arts-major types. The message that seemed to be stuck to the back of everyone’s used Volvo was this:

Mean People Suck

 

Catchy, isn’t it?

 

But what I’ve realized in my late thirties is that mean people do more than just “suck”. The screw things up for the rest of us, in serious, systemic ways. They are the cops who brutalize minor offenders based on the color of their skin; the politicians who refuse to see the human side of their voting record, the instigators of road rage. And in the parenting world, they are the women who perpetuate the mommy wars (such a stupid and patronizing term, for a stupid and patronizing problem).

 

The thing is, mommy “wars” may be stupid, but their effect is far-reaching and profound. They make us believe we need to take sides, choose a team, thus dividing us and making it ridiculously easy to conquer us. And by conquering us, I mean keeping us from fighting collectively for better family leave, better maternal health care, better resources and options for our children and ourselves. We’re so busy trying to prove we’re an Alpha Female, conveniently forgetting that alpha males are generally assholes.

 

Speaking of Alpha Females, there’s a woman who has built up an impressive following on the Internet who I’ve tried to avoid giving airtime for the past year or so, after a few run-ins that made it clear her only motivation in life is to fight. I’ve tried thinking about her in a new-agey way, considering what made her the way she is, and trying to feel sympathy for her anger and vitriol rather than letting her make me act in turn. But when Jessica from the Leaky Boob – a woman I admire greatly and am proud to consider a friend – reached out to me about this Alpha person’s latest assault, I agreed to speak up.

 

I agreed to speak up because my friendship with Jessica is based on everything that this other person is trying her damndest to destroy. Jessica runs one of the most respected and beloved communities for breastfeeding women. I run a modest but pretty vocal community of people who take issue with the current state of breastfeeding promotion (as well as people who are totally cool with breastfeeding promotion, but ended up using formula for whatever reason and are willing to put up with the constant drama and debate because they have few other communities where they feel safe asking questions about formula feeding). We’re part of an informal community of breastfeeding advocates (and me, although I do consider myself a breastfeeding advocate, albeit a strange hybrid of one) where we discuss ways to better serve all mothers and provide REAL support and education. It’s actually really awesome to see how women can work together to find solutions even when they come from opposite ends of the parenting spectrum.

 

The Alpha individual operates on the premise that working relationships (and friendships) like this cannot – or should not – exist. Her page and blog are consistently dedicated to making fun of those who haven’t lived up to her own personal standards. Her work wouldn’t be worth mentioning at all, except for the fact that she has gotten the seal of approval from several notable breastfeeding researchers and advocates, including James Akre, who writes regular (and strikingly misogynist) guest posts for her blog. The woman knows how to get page views and Facebook likes. You have to admire her for that.

 

But in the immortal words of Stan Lee (and as I keep telling my Marvel comic-obsessed son), with great power comes great responsibility. And when someone with a fair share of public attention does something incredibly harmful, not only to a movement (those invested in creating a more supportive environment among mothers) but more importantly to an individual, that is an abuse of power, and seriously irresponsible.

 

Here are the facts: The blogger in question stole a photo of a woman in an emotional moment and used it to promote her recurring message that formula feeding parents are lazy and un-invested in their children. The photo was of a woman hooked up to wires, looking at least semi-unconscious, with a baby being held up to her breast. The blogger superimposed the word “obsessed” on the photo, meant in a “positive” way, as in, yes; this woman was obsessed with breastfeeding, which was a good thing because it meant she was properly dedicated. Unlike the rest of you nitwits.

 

The thing is, that was the antithesis of what this photo meant to the mom featured in it. This was, for her, a memory of something she went through with her child. I don’t know if that memory was positive or negative or something in between, as most postpartum memories are when something goes awry. It’s not my business to know. It’s hers. She didn’t intend for her image to be used this way. We don’t know the backstory behind the image, which I’m sure is human and flawed and beautiful and complicated.

 

But bloggers like the Alpha person are not complicated. They are simple. They are mean. And mean people suck.

 

They suck the life out of images like this; make them fodder for a contrived mommy war. They suck the life out of breastfeeding advocacy efforts, because they perpetuate the myth of the “breastapo” by becoming a caricature of that concept.  They suck the joy out of parenting, by making it a competition. They suck the intelligence and nuance out of what could be a productive debate between people who genuinely care about maternal and child health. And they suck the energy out of bloggers like Jessica and myself, who resent that we feel forced into a corner and made to confront this type of bottom-feeding behavior, when we could be focusing our collective efforts on something more productive.

 

Alpha types will always exist, these parasites that feed on fear, loneliness and feelings of inferiority. But parasites can be stopped if their food source is cut off. That’s why we are asking both of our communities to stop engaging. Don’t be a food source. Don’t visit her site. Don’t comment on the Facebook page, even if it’s to fight back against the hate. Just don’t engage.

 

If you see people you respect at risk of an infestation, let them know the true nature of the beast. Speak up when respected advocates are partnering with her or linking to her work. Let those around you know that this type of behavior does not advocate breastfeeding; it advocates bullying, shaming and hate.

 

And if you see one of her memes, post one of your own. One from a time before the internet allowed the best and worst of humanity to be distributed worldwide: Mean People Suck. Because they do.

 

Mean-People-Breed-Bumper-Sticker-(5567)

An open letter to Chris Bingley: Your wife deserved better.

This is an open letter to Chris Bingley in honor of his wife, Joe Bingley, whom he lost to severe postpartum depression. 

Dear Chris,

I read about your beautiful wife Joe’s battle with postpartum depression, and I wanted to say… oh hell, I don’t know what to say. Because I’m afraid my anger about what happened to your wife will just feed your grief, and that is the last thing I’d ever want to do.

I write about the pressure to breastfeed, and what it is doing to women, and I hear stories every day that mirror what Joe went through. Women who suffer from a growing desperation, an inner knowledge that something isn’t right, even when everyone around them is willing it to be so; even when everyone around them is telling them it will all be okay if they just get some sleep, get some help around the house, or get over the “hump” of the baby blues.

And these women – more often than not – are seen by an array of healthcare professionals as they try to dig themselves out of this tunnel. The stories I hear have a common refrain – all they cared about was if the baby was breastfeeding. I came second. And all I heard was that breastfeeding was the most important thing a mother can do for her child and I was failing at that. This was my refrain, 5 years ago. I sang it and sang it until someone listened, until thousands of other women answered it with a song of their own. And our collective voices are rising, growing stronger by the day, shouting our song, screaming that we deserve more, that Joe deserved more, and that we will. Not. Let. This. Happen. Again.

PPD is a strange and mysterious beast; it’s not always tamed easily, and it feeds on different aspects of different people. For some, breastfeeding is a lifeline, the one thing they can do “right”. For others, it is the sandbag strapped to them as they are already sinking. But the problem is not breastfeeding. The problems is that we are so focused on breastfeeding that all of resources and energy are going to this one aspect of postnatal care – that we have forgotten that the mother’s mental and physical health should come first. I know most people will think that is a terrible thing to say – because doesn’t the baby’s physical and emotional health matter? But what they are forgetting is that a mother’s mental and physical health can afford to be a priority because there are other options to ensure the physical and emotional needs of the baby. Formula or donor milk can suffice. A father’s loving embrace, or a grandmother’s or aunt’s or uncle’s, can fulfill all needs until a mother is well. We are lucky to live in a time where moms can get well without sacrificing their babies’ well being.

But we are unlucky to live in a time where people are unwilling to see things this way.

Joe should have been helped. The professionals who she encountered should have looked at her face rather than her breasts. They should have seen she was sinking; they should have insisted that either a lifeline be thrown or a sandbag removed. There should have been protocols in place for her prenatal, delivery and postnatal care so that she was   screened for and treated for PPD. There should not have been so much pressure put on her to breastfeed; she should have been told that all that mattered was her health and happiness, and that her breastmilk or lack thereof had nothing to do with her worth as a person or as a mother.

I didn’t know Joe. I wish I’d had a chance to. I wish she could be one of the voices in our choir of healing and hope. That she could yell with us and demand better of our governments, our healthcare providers, and our society, so that no woman would be left to drown; so that no woman would ever have to sing that stupid refrain again.

Because I’m sick of the same old song. And I’m sure Joe would be, too.

Sending love from across the pond,

Suzanne Barston, aka The Fearless Formula Feeder

Of nanny states and nonsense

This is why I hate politics.

Earlier today, Jennifer Doverspike’s scathing indictment of Latch On NYC popped up on the Federalist website. By this evening, Amanda Marcotte had written a similarly scathing indictment of Jennifer’s piece on Slate. Both talked about hospital policies, formula feeder paranoia, and boobs. But in the end, what should have been a smart point-counterpoint between two passionate, intelligent women turned into a steaming pile of another bodily substance.

Yep, I’m talking about shit. 

Look, guys, I’m sorry for the language, but I’m done being classy, at least for tonight. Tonight, my Boston-bred, townie self is coming out, because I. Have. Flipping. HAD IT.

 

Doverspike’s piece does veer into political territory, mostly from the use of the term “nanny state”, a phrase that is undoubtably evocative (and apparently intoxicating) in today’s partisan climate. There were portions of her article that made me (a self-proclaimed, sole member of the Turtle party – our platform is that we just hide our heads in our shells whenever political issues arise. Anyone’s welcome to join!) a little uncomfortable, mostly because I worried that her important message would get lost by those on the Left. But I naively thought (us Turtles are naive about such things, considering we start singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” whenever someone brings up Congress and prefer to our news from the Colbert Report) that she’d covered these bases with her final paragraph:

 

There are, of course, many laws the government issues for our protection and those of our children. Seatbelt laws, child car seat booster requirements, bans on drop side cribs and helmet laws. Regardless of whether or not these encompass valid risks (many do, some don’t), they do not encroach on personal freedom the way laws regarding parenting methods do. And don’t get me wrong; this goes in all directions. Infant feeding, and the personal freedoms associated with it, is not a liberal or conservative issue.

 

Apparently, it is a liberal or conservative issue, at least according to Marcotte, whose response to Doverspike felt far nastier than necessary. Marcotte accuses Doverspike of not doing her homework regarding the implementation of the WHO Code, for example:

 

What Doverspike fails to mention is why the WHO wrote out these regulations in the first place, something a quick Google search reveals. As reported at the time by theNew York Times, researchers had discovered that poor parents were stretching out formula by watering it down, which was leading to malnutrition in infants. In addition, places that lack clean drinking water are places where formula feeding is downright dangerous. There are substantial benefits, particularly worldwide, to creating a culture where breast-feeding is the go-to way to feed children, and formula is only viewed as a supplement for cases where breast-feeding isn’t working. Of course, that does cut into formula company profits, so if that’s your priority, by all means, bash the WHO’s efforts to keep babies healthy some more.

 

Huh. See, that’s odd, because I clearly remember reading something in Doverspike’s piece about this very issue… let’s see… ah, right:

 

Unlike the city of New York, the WHO  has valid reasons to be concerned with breastfeeding rates worldwide. After all, in less developed countries not breastfeeding may mean instead using cow’s milk for infants. When formula is used, the risks of it being prepared incorrectly and using contaminated water is rather high…The WHO should focus being on how to educate and support women in developing countries regarding the dangers of cow’s milk, the benefits of breastfeeding, and the importance of correctly mixing formula. Unfortunately, the WHO Code saves most of its energy in marginalizing formula companies, requiring hospitals to under no circumstances allow formula advertising and requiring that product samples only be given for research at the institutional level — “In no case,” it stipulates, “should these samples be passed on to mothers.” The WHO is also requiring labels stating the superiority of breastfeeding and warning to not use the product until consulting with a health professional.

True, she didn’t delve into the issues surrounding formula use in developing nations as deeply as she could have, but Marcotte’s take on the subject wasn’t exactly accurate, either. The Nestle controversy which she alludes to involved corporate subterfuge (women dressed as nurses convincing new mothers to use formula; these “health workers” then packed up and left, abandoning the moms with no established milk supply, no resources to procure more formula, and dirty water to use for what formula they did have), and this was what drove well-meaning individuals to create the WHO Code… but the problems that exist which lead women in these same countries away from breastfeeding are so much more complex than our Western understanding of “unethical marketing”. And to compare the risks of not breastfeeding in these countries to the risks in countries which are debating baby-friendly initiatives isn’t fair nor useful. These are two entirely separate issues.

Marcotte also dismisses Doverspike’s concerns that under Latch On, formula “must be guarded and distributed with roughly the same precautions as addictive and harmful narcotics” by citing a “sober-minded assessment” that she claims “shows that no such things are happening”. This “sober-minded assessment” is a CNN option piece from writer Taylor Newman, who repeatedly brings up her own breastfeeding experience in a hospital with piss-poor support. Newman engages in some of the most immature name-calling I’ve seen in a respected news source – those who disagree with her opinion of Latch On are “obnoxious”, “unhinged” they write “badly-written” posts that are just ‘kicking up dust”. (If this is sober-minded, hand over the vodka. This is mean-girl, bitchy, completely anti-feminist bullshit, is what it is. If a man called a fellow woman writer “unhinged” or accused her of being hysterical, I bet we’d see plenty of backlash from Slate. ) She also makes the fatal mistake so many reporters, pundits and advocates have made in this tiresome debate: she’s only seeing it through the lens of her own experience. It may not seem like a huge deal to someone who wanted to breastfeed (and ultimately did, successfully) that new moms will have to ask for formula each time a baby needs to eat, or that they will have to endure a lecture on the risks and intense questioning of their decision. But try living through that experience as, say, a single mom who was molested as a child. Imagine you don’t have anyone around to defend you, to demand that the nurses treat your decision not to use your body in a particular manner with respect. Imagine that you don’t feel like reliving your abuse and telling a total stranger – repeatedly – why the idea of letting a baby suck on your breasts makes you want to throw up.

I know I’m digressing here, and again, I’m sorry to be throwing my usual I-Support-You, let’s all hold hands and braid each other’s hair Pollyanna-esque, evolved FFF persona out the window. This is old school FFF, the angry one, the one whose claws come out when I see that women are being told their voices don’t matter, their concerns don’t matter, their choices don’t matter. The one who refuses to allow an important discussion – a women’s rights discussion, not a political one – get bogged down in right vs. left rhetoric.

Marquette’s choice of image to go along with her article is a baby holding a bottle with the caption “Freedom Fighters”. Again, I have to ask – really? Fine, be mad that the Libertarian Federalist invoked the Nanny State and beat up on poor old Bloomberg. Rage against that. But to belittle those of us who care about this issue is petty and cruel. And to ignore – once again – that what Latch On’s PR machine told the press was quite different from what was written in the actual materials used to implement the program; to ignore that no one has actually done a follow-up story since the initiative was announced which reports actual accounts from actual women who actually delivered in actual Latch On hospitals and used actual formula – this is just poor journalism.

Feminists, journalists, bloggers – I belong to all of your clubs, and I’m sure you’re about to revoke my membership, but I have to ask: Why are we rehashing the same arguments over and over, instead of discussing how we could come to a more beneficial, neutral ground? For example – couldn’t women be counseled on the benefits of breastfeeding before they enter the emotional sauna of the postpartum ward? Yes, I realize that not all women have access to prenatal care, but for those who do, this seems like a practical and  beneficial adjustment. If these issues are discussed beforehand, at least a mom who knows from the start that she doesn’t want to nurse can sign whatever documentation is necessary to tell the state s has been fully informed of the “risks” and “still insists” (Latch On’s term, not mine) on formula feeding. For those who change their minds while in the maternity ward – well, couldn’t we just agree that she gets one lecture on why it’s a bad decision, and then receives the education, support and materials she needs to feed her baby safely, rather than having to go through the whole rigamarole every time her infant begins rooting?

Or here’s another idea – take the hyperbole out of the initiative. Stop saying these things are “baby-friendly” or “progressive” or “empowering” because they aren’t necessarily so. And by saying that they are, you get people all riled up, politically. You start hearing terms like “nanny state” because some of us don’t want to be told how we should feel (or how our babies should feel, for that matter. If my mom couldn’t feed me and some nurses weren’t letting me access the next best thing, I’d be hella pissed, and that environment would become decidedly baby unfriendly. Especially when I punched the person refusing my mom the formula in the nose with my tiny baby fist). You start getting feminists shouting about second waves and third waves and whether women should feel empowered by their ladyparts or held down by them. It’s one big mess, is what I’m saying. So can we stop it, now? Can we start writing articles that are balanced reports rather than press releases for a particular administration or cause? Can we stop hurling insults at each other just because we don’t agree on what being a mother should mean?

Can we please, for the love of all things holy, just flipping stop?

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