How the other half lives: Negative perceptions of formula feeding and breastfeeding, and why they both suck

Over on Twitter, I follow a woman who goes by “WolfMommy”. It’s an appropriate handle; she’s an incredible advocate for breastfeeding moms, a mother-wolf who hunts a nasty prey comprised of people making disparaging remarks about nursing in public, and confronts them. The stuff she unearths is simultaneously depressing and infuriating; people making comments like “This lady Just pulled her saggy ass Boob out & started Breast Feeding in. my face”  and “Come on lady breast feeding your baby in steak and shake that’s disgusting!!”   (To which WolfMommy aptly responded “Another women’s breasts are none of your business. And if she was feeding her baby ‘in your face’ you should step back”  and “A baby eating is not disgusting”, respectively. See? Told you she was awesome.)

I love following her for several reasons – first, she’s funny and brave, and a true champion for women’s rights. But I also like getting a feed of all the crap breastfeeding moms have to endure, because in my fight to end the stigma of formula feeding, I can’t let myself forget that breastfeeding women are being punished for feeding their babies, too. Here are some more comments that I’ve seen via WolfMommy’s rage-inducing Twitter feed:

LIVE PORN!!!!!!! RT @AyeImShanzii: This lady breast feeding the child in front of us 😐

Just saw a Mexican lady breast feeding in the parking lot of work. Broad daylight. Happy Tuesday!

Queen Windjammer@Graceeellen

Some bitch is breast feeding in A&E. Bitch put your titties away.

 

Shall I go on? Or have you vomited at the ignorance and utter disgustingness of it already?

It’s a complicated issue for me to write about, this shaming of women for different feeding methods. My personal shit rises to the surface – I can’t help feel resentful that breastfeeding moms get New York Times articles and fundraising campaigns and nurse-ins to help them counteract the ignorance and cruelty, while formula feeding moms are told they are being defensive, whiny and overly-sensitive when we complain about the insults directed at us. It’s hard to be objective, because I’m human, and I spend hours every evening reading emails from women who’ve been intensely hurt by this vitriol. So I want to preface this post by admitting to a strong personal bias; I admit that I never had the opportunity to nurse in public (or anywhere other than my house, my hospital room, or my doctor’s office – all places that were unilaterally supportive of breastfeeding) and thus have no experience with that particular brand of shame. I am sure, knowing myself as well as I do, that if some asshat store manager had ever asked me to leave or cover up I’d have been livid, and I’d like to think I’d have turned into the kind of warrior that WolfMommy is (rather than the type of breastfeeding advocate who wastes her passion and anger trying to prove the inferiority of formula and formula feeding moms, as if we were the enemy, instead of the actual, ignorant asshats). But that’s not my story, and my role is to defend a group that (in my estimation) has been ignored, misunderstood, and dismissed, so that’s where I’m coming from.

In preparation for this post, I asked the FFF community to send me examples of negative comments about formula-feeders; things on par with calling a woman “gross” for breastfeeding, or inflicting a sexual overtone to her nurturing act. I wanted to compare the types of hate directed at breastfeeding moms to that directed at formula feeding moms, to try and help people understand where we are coming from.

No offense, but…

Interestingly, a lot of what people sent me were not direct insults towards formula feeders but rather negative comments about formula itself – that it was crap, poison, junk food, etc. I understand how that can be triggering; the implication being that anyone who knowingly fed her baby poison/junk food/crap must not care for her child’s welfare. But this does play into the stereotype that we are “overly sensitive”; some argue that it’s a “hate the sin, love the sinner” type of situation and that no one is blaming us for using a sub-par product since we obviously didn’t have the right education/support/personal drive to do the right thing. The problem is, we only have two choices in responding to such attitudes – we can either admit to not caring about what we feed our kids, or admit to being uneducated/unsupported/lazy victims. The only other option is to defend ourselves, and defend the product, which is often viewed as “defensive” or like we are comparing formula to breastmilk, thus belittling the efforts of those who are exclusively nursing:

“I must state that I regret ever using Enfamil or any other brand of baby formula due to the toxic ingredients that compose these products. The fact that they are developed and marketed to be used by infants that are still developing is just disgusting. I wish I had known what half the ingredients were & the potential side effects when I fed it to my boys, this applies not only to formula but all other forms of infant/toddler ‘food items’. I’m writing this as an now informed consumer not someone who is being paid by some other organization to post random things” (Source:  https://www.facebook.com/Enfamil?fref=ts)

 

“Sadly many mothers fall victim to Enfamil’s aggressive marketing. People need to wake up and understand that infant formula should only be used as a last resort. Babies don’t thrive on formula, they only survive.” (Source: https://www.facebook.com/Enfamil?fref=ts)

 

“breast is best…lord only knows the after affects of chemically made formula……..autism anyone?” (Source: http://news.yahoo.com/fatty-acids-formula-linked-quick-thinking-kids-195825033.html)

Are you mom enough?

These types of comments are particularly insidious, because of course moms have every right to feel proud if they’ve dedicated themselves to the goal of nursing and overcome hurdles. But this achievement is no more admirable than that of a mom who faced the same odds and had the strength to do what was best for her family. I also think there is a difference between tooting your own horn and smacking someone over the head with a tuba. For example, if I said, “I’m so proud that my 4-year-old has started to read! I read to him every night, and he finally started sounding out words by himself. So exciting!!”, it might make someone feel a bit defensive that their 6-year-old wasn’t reading, but it’s a lot different than saying “Wow, my 4-year-old is reading! I sacrificed my workout time every night to read to him for an hour, and all my hard work is really paying off. I wish every 4-year-old could have the gift of reading – if only their parents were willing to put their children’s education first rather than worrying about their muffin tops.”

“The past three months, I dealt with cracked bleeding nipples, trying to wean off a shield which now makes it hurt every time she latches still, double mastits, thrush, growth spurts where I thought my tits were going to fall off, not being able to take some time to myself because no one else can feed her, rude comments for feeding my child in public, plus many other obstacles. I could have chose to throw some powder and water into a bottle and have my husband feed her but I powered through and THAT is why I deserve an “award” and you don’t. Harsh? Yes. True? Yes.” (http://community.babycenter.com/post/a41326993/bronze_bottle_award)

 

“Sure some people formula feed but I EDUCATED MYSELF and LOVED MY BABY ENOUGH to breastfeed because it’s the right thing to do. Im not just going to opt for convenience at the risk of my baby’s health.” (source: unknown – sent in by reader from her friend’s Facebook feed.)

Liar, liar, pants on fire

Source: Twitter (unknown origin)

Source: Twitter (unknown origin)

These comments accuse women of lying or making excuses for formula feeding. Lately, I’ve been seeing more and more of this type of anti-formula feeder sentiment, perhaps due to the fact that we’ve found our voices – there’s a backlash happening, with women telling their stories in hopes of countering claims that nearly every woman can breastfeed. Again, there’s no real possibility of defending yourself against these comments; there is no way to prove you had a “legitimate medical reason” unless you are willing to post your official medical records; also, for those of us who believe it’s a woman’s right to choose whether to breastfeed, participating in this type of debate is a losing battle. It gives someone the power to qualify a woman’s pain – is emotional pain valid? How much physical pain is enough? – and no matter what, there’s always someone who will claim to have had the same problem and persevered. Or at least found some donor milk.

“I’ll be the bad guy and admit that I do look down on ff when it’s not for a legitimately medical reason. The times that are for real reasons (which doesn’t include not being able to tough it out past the wretched beginning) are not nearly as common as people claim. It bothers me that we have to go out of our way to make sure ff moms don’t get butt hurt but people are allowed to make comments to moms who nurse in public. I’m over it. Do babies survive on formula? Of course, but it’s there for when there are no other options because there it’s a reason breast is best. Go ahead and hate me!” ” (Source: http://community.babycenter.com/post/a41326993/bronze_bottle_award)

 

“I have no problem with women who chose not to breastfeed. My issues are with women who make every excuse in the book. Just be honest and say,’I didn’t want to BF!’ Quit saying you didn’t have enough milk or my baby was allergic, etc. It makes you look stupid to those of us who are actually educated about nursing!”

(Source: http://community.babycenter.com/post/a41326993/bronze_bottle_award)

“How can a baby ever be allergic to breast milk? I believe that is impossible, sound like your doctor works for Nestlé’s. It is the mother’s diet that has to change and that affects the baby. If I were you I’d start pumping my breasts to start nursing your baby again. Any LaLeche league leader has years of experience in this field. Any fake formula is harmful to your child.” (Source: https://www.facebook.com/askthechicks?hc_location=timeline)

Consider the source

It’s one thing to see a nasty comment from young non-parents, or teenage boys, or people who don’t have a great grasp on grammar or spelling. It’s a whole other sack of potatoes to be insulted and shamed by government officials, medical experts, and respected breastfeeding advocates. The following comments were in response to a lactivist blogger’s question about “defensive formula feeders”, i.e., people like Hannah Rosin, Joan Wolf, and presumably me, who attempt to approach breastfeeding science a bit more critically. But these experts manage to disparage any formula feeding parent who refuses to feel guilty for the way they feed their infants; this is less about a handful of specific social critics and more about the thousands of women who aren’t interested in self-flaggelating behavior:

“We’re talking exclusively gut-level stuff here. My feeling after hanging around the topic these past four decades is that based on the collective knowledge that is readily available to anyone with a keyboard and a broadband connection, if you don’t understand the facts today, you’re very unlikely to understand them tomorrow…

I suggest referring to this particularly virulent variety of obstinate critic as charter members of the Flat Earth Society. I’m not joking, at least not in terms of the implications of their brand of reality that is being bandied about. We are mammals; this is what we do, or at least what we should be doing. To suggest, imply or otherwise posit that, alone among the 5200 or so mammalian species that have been evolving for the past 200+ million years, we are able to willy-nilly forsake our mammalian imperative with impunity would be risible if it were not so serious in its individual and public health dimensions.” – James Akre (source: thealphaparent.com/2013/07/the-art-of-denouncing-breastfeeding.html)

 

 

“Of course, the reality is that for many children in the US, bottle-feeding doesn’t represent a ‘miniscule or poorly understood risk’ – it represents a well-established higher risk of many different diseases both in infancy and throughout life, as well as a risk of a lower cognitive functioning. And for some children, their mother’s choice to bottle-feed will result, directly or indirectly, in their death.” – Katherine Dettwyler (source: thealphaparent.com/2013/07/the-art-of-denouncing-breastfeeding.html)

Another brand of indirect vitriol comes from experts who irresponsibly perpetuate the idea that formula feeding parents are directly responsible for the ills of our society. One frequent offender is Darcia Navarez, who is a professor at Notre Dame and a blogger for Psychology Today, who floats the following out into the ether:

“When your fellow citizens are not breastfed, it costs you. If you were not breastfed, it is costing you. It is costly for all members of society, whether or not you are a parent or grandparent… People who are breastfed are less likely to be get a host of mental and physical diseases throughout life and are less likely to end up in prison.” (Source: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/moral-landscapes/201108/breastmilk-wipes-out-formula-responses-critical-comments)

And then, of course, there’s Dr. Jay Gordon, who either has a complete lack of understanding for the concept of correlation vs. causation, or just doesn’t give a crap:

NOT breastfeeding leads to 13 (!!) extra pounds by early teen years. Formula feeding creates increased obesity!

 

Now- none of this negates the fact that women’s rights are being infringed upon when they are being asked to leave Target for nursing their babies, or told that they have to cover up on an airplane. Those are issues of basic human rights; I wouldn’t even categorize them as “shaming” because they go so far beyond that. ALL women should be fighting against the misogyny and puritanism that contributes to this type of injustice – when a mom gets harassed for feeding her baby, that’s an insult to ALL moms. But it has to go both ways – we can’t fight for a woman’s right to breastfeed her baby based on feminist and human rights ideals, and then allow formula feeding parents to be disenfranchised instead. There must be a way to support breastfeeding without throwing formula feeding mothers under the bus. The simplistic, us-vs-them thinking that has created the Mommy Wars must end, because it serves no one, and wastes our valuable time with in-fighting. I don’t know about you, but as a working mom of young kids, I barely have time to go to the bathroom, let alone fight social inequities. It’s exhausting having to constantly defend ourselves; imagine what power we would have if we could stop blaming other mothers for our plight and instead, join together in raging against the paternalistic machine that has made infant feeding a pain in the ass for all of us, rather than the joyful experience it should be?

World Breastfeeding Week is coming up (August 1-7), with this year’s theme being “Breastfeeding Support: Close to Mothers”, and I want to throw out a challenge: I want to hear from breastfeeding and formula feeding moms about how we can support BOTH groups better. I think it’s clear that both groups are being harassed, albeit in different ways, and I am hoping that by communicating honestly with each other, we can give adequate support to all parents. I believe that by supporting all moms, we will be able to support breastfeeding mothers better. But more on that later- for now,  I want answers to the following, depending on your perspective:

For formula feeding mothers:

How would the comments made about breastfeeding (above) make you feel? Can you understand why a mother might feel embarrassed, self-conscious and fed up when her method of feeding is constantly sexualized, made fun of, or stereotyped? Do you really think breastfeeding mothers are the enemy? If not, who is?

For breastfeeding mothers:

How would the comments made about formula feeding (above) make you feel if breastfeeding hadn’t worked out? Can you understand why a mother might feel hurt, defensive and angry when her method of feeding is constantly undermined and insulted? Do you really think formula feeding mothers are the enemy? If not, who is?

For combo-feeding mothers:

Considering you have the worst of both worlds when it comes to negative comments about infant feeding, what’s your take? Which make you feel worse- the comments about formula, or the comments about breastfeeding, and why?

I know it can be hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes- er, bra?- but I think if we can all accept that both types of feeding come with their own brand of bullshit, we might be able to let go of some of the anger, resentment and defensiveness that makes this particular mommy war so violent. There are people out there who genuinely believe that formula feeding is downright irresponsible and dangerous (see above comments by Dettwyler and Akre, for starters), and those folks probably have no reason to join this particular revolution. But they are the same people who want to make every woman birth the same, parent the same, and feel the same. I don’t think that the majority of mothers are so dogmatic- I think most of us are simply too caught up in our own personal plight to take a step back and be empathetic. And please notice I said empathetic, not sympathetic. There’s a difference between the two definitions, and in this case, that difference means everything.

Dear Beverly Turner: You do realize the definition of misogyny, right?

Dear Beverly Turner,

I suppose you could call me the Queen Bee of the Gobby Women, or the Ringleader of the  “Noisy loons creating ‘Brestapo’ caricatures to appease their own consciences“. I’m quite proud to wear these labels, if you’re going to insist on stooping to schoolyard name-calling, but on behalf of my gobby, looney sisters, I wanted to respond to your allegations that we are partly to blame for the recent, slight decrease in UK breastfeeding rates.

The thing is, Ms. Turner, you’re operating under the assumption that we are incorrect in our assessment of current breastfeeding rhetoric. Your experience may not have matched ours, but why is your own truth more valid or weighty than the truths of hundreds of other women – a group so adamant, in your estimation, that we can make an impact on the collective consciousness of your great nation? Do you really believe that we are all just making this stuff up? Perhaps formula feeding correlates with a vivid imagination; I have yet to see a study showing this association, and I’ve read practically every infant feeding related study to hit a peer-reviewed journal in the past 5 years. But considering how you’ve positioned yourself as a master social critic in this arena, I suppose I should bow to your expertise in this matter.

So, let’s go with your theory for a moment. Let’s say that we all are making this up, that none of us have been bullied, shamed, scared, or downright devastated by how breastfeeding is currently promoted. If society is really so bottle-friendly, and formula feeding is “cool”, why would we be inspired to create an elaborate group fantasy to assuage our feelings of inadequacy? I’d assume that if the cool kids were formula feeding, we’d be wielding our bottles of Aptamil with pride, rather than lurking behind our anonymous keyboards, haranguing innocent breastfeeders on Mumsnet.

Or maybe – bear with me for a moment – there really are women who have been thrust breast-deep into severe postnatal depression after failing to breastfeed. Perhaps women truly exist who were raped or sexually abused in childhood, for whom a NCT nurse shoving a breast in a baby’s mouth triggers horrid memories that make a new mom want to throw her babe against a wall. Suppose there are adoptive mothers for whom the constant barrage of articles and admonishments about how superior breastfeeding mothers are to formula feeding ones is like nails on a chalkboard (if the chalkboard was your heart). Consider an alternate universe where some parents really do end up starving their babies to the point of hospitalization because they were worshipping at the altar of the almighty exclusive breastfeeding edict despite a physical inability to produce sufficient milk (there may only be 2-5% of women who are physically unable to breastfeed, but with the current British birth rate around 800,000/year, we’re talking 16,000 women at minimum- nothing to sneeze at).

I won’t discuss my reality or experience here, because I’m American. And honestly, one woman’s experience is hardly important in the grand scheme. However, I can happily point you to hundreds of personal stories British women have shared with me over the years, women who reflect the groups I’ve just “made up” in the last paragraph. I suppose they could all be lying, but I think it’s just as likely that you’re extrapolating a data set of one (yourself) to your entire country, without stopping to think about the women you’re hurting in the process.

Regardless of who is right, I would like to see these masses of vocal harpies who are crushing the hopes of expectant mothers hoping to breastfeed. I am curious why they would lobby for the NHS to cut funding for breastfeeding support, considering they tried to breastfeed and couldn’t; one would think that better support would have been welcomed by these “failures”. Claiming that the current state of breastfeeding support is harmful is not synonymous with being anti-breastfeeding; quite the contrary. With the right kind of support, not only would more women be able to meet their breastfeeding goals, but those who chose not to or could not breastfeed wouldn’t feel sufficiently disenfranchised to spend hours arguing with people like you online.

Instead of trying to understand where we are coming from; instead of listening to our experiences with an open mind and accepting that just because we dislike the posters on the maternity ward walls, we still love breastfeeding moms (and many of us wish we could have been one), instead of trusting your fellow women – you threw us under the bus.

Lastly, speaking of misogyny, I assume you know that the definition of the term is a “hatred, dislike or mistrust of women”. The only person I see hurling hatred and mistrust towards a large group of women (because formula feeding mothers who rail against a systemic failure to support our efforts while simultaneously shaming us are, in fact, still women, despite their lack of lactational abilities) is you.

Sincerely,

A particularly noisy, gobby loon (and proud of it),

Suzanne Barston

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.

 

Can formula feeding really be “fearless”?

The lovely KJ Dell’Antonia recently mentioned my book and blog in a Motherlode column she wrote about the recent onslaught of breastfeeding-pressure backlash. There was the refreshing -albeit unfortunately titled- piece by a father in the Atlantic, followed by another excellent Motherlode post by writer Marie C. Baca about “embracing” bottle feeding- these came on the heels of a number of other articles which cropped up over the summer and in the early fall, as a result of Latch On NYC and a few other initiatives that have passed in the United States and abroad. Dell’Antonia observed that in all of these writers’ submissions (including yours truly’s) to the infant feeding discourse, one thing remained consistent:

…What’s striking about Ms. Barston’s and Mr. Kornelis’s stories, and most stories of “fearless formula feeding” is still really how “fearless” they aren’t. In every narrative of not breastfeeding, there is the obligatory note of failure, as though justification were the first order of the day… for most women, not nursing, for whatever reason, remains a troubling topic. As long as women are occupied with the litany of excuses… then the conversation will stay on defending the bottle or breast, and off the more important question of how to ensure that the choice between them is dictated more by health and happiness and less by circumstance.

This struck a nerve with me. Scratch that – it pinched a nerve. Her theory was like a constant, nagging backache, reminding me that it needed attention every time I moved a bit too fast. It took me a few days to untangle what bothered me so much about these assertions; the ensuing discussion on the FFF Facebook page only served to deepen my desire for answers (or a good massage).

All of you made fantastic points about why we so often appear to be defensive about our choices. Some argued that while we may indeed give excuses, this is because we are conditioned to expect judgment. “I think our stories are tinged with defensiveness since before even sharing them we are already preparing to be attacked,” Tara mused. Lisa echoed that sentiment. “For me, it wasn’t inner guilt – it was everyone’s expectation that I SHOULD feel guilty and that I had done something wrong. Frankly, I was outright pissed off by the insinuations and outright accusations that by formula feeding my daughter, I was setting her up to be fat, stupid, and unhealthy. That’s where my defensiveness came from – the need to defend my choice.” And others thoughtfully mentioned that while we may indeed appear defensive, a lot of it may simply be our way of dealing with complex emotions over the inability to do something we wanted very badly to do:   “”I don’t believe that guilt is a simple emotion – I felt guilty because my boobs failed, I also felt guilty that I was happy that formula was working for us. I felt I was letting my daughter and others down. Guilt is often the result of being unable to change a moment in time – it’s not always about what is right or wrong,” wrote Allison.

As a few of you rightly pointed out, so much comes down to perspective. Unless you have lived through this particular kind of hell, you just can’t understand it. As Misty explained. “I think they mistake bitterness with defensiveness. Unless you’ve suffered the same societal and personal condemnation and guilt tripping that comes with the breast v bottle war, you can’t imagine what kind of damage and pain it causes to a woman’s soul. Obviously, not every woman who tried to nurse but went to formula experiences anguish about it, but many of us do, especially those who had fully embraced the ‘breast is best’ mantra. I still struggle with resentment toward the BFing friends and professionals who, in my opinion, needlessly caused me to suffer terribly as a new mother. I still have sorrow that my first year as a mother was so joyless, because others chose to reinforce my flawed views about BFing (which I’d gotten from them) instead of guiding me compassionately to a more balanced and emotionally healthier way of feeding my child.”

Perspective also plays into the issue of defensiveness in another way: the further away from it you are, the easier it is to approach the “Why I Formula Fed” question dispassionately. I guarantee that for most new mothers, ten years from now- hell, even five – this debate will bore the hell out of them. Other issues will take its place – education, bullying, puberty, safety concerns, etc. However, there are those of us for whom this isn’t just a personal tragedy, but a social problem, a cause which deserves our anger and outrage and yes, defensiveness. I don’t think it’s entirely realistic to hope that we can move away from defensiveness completely, because we are typically reacting to offensiveness.

I think you can be fearless and simultaneously feel the need to defend yourself. All “fearless” formula feeding means to me is that you feel you have made the best choice for your family, for your baby, for you. Fearless doesn’t necessarily mean regret-less, guilt-less, anger-less, resentful-less. It just means you’re not scared of your choice, because you know it is safe, and you know it was right.

But as for what KJ refers to as the “litany of excuses”… I’ve always suspected these are a necessary tool, a ticket to participate in the conversation. By explaining how much you wanted to nurse, and talking about all the struggle you went through to do it, it might help the opposition understand that this is not a matter of lack of education or drive. That it would at least start us on a level playing field, and take down the barricades at the border – I wanted to nurse, you wanted to nurse, we both believe in breastfeeding, so let’s try and discuss this rationally. I have nothing but admiration for women gutsy enough to just come out and say nursing wasn’t for them – I loved Amy Sullivan’s essay in The New Republic, and it was, indeed, the most “fearless” argument for bottle feeding I’ve seen (interestingly, Dell’Antonia felt that Baca’s piece was free from the normal guilt-ridden excuses. I thought it was an excellent piece, on every level – I mean really, really excellent, and quite fearless in a number of important ways – but the fact remains that Baca still mentioned that that she was physically unable to nurse. That gives her a “pass”, in many people’s estimation; it’s still a preemptive strike against condemnation, unconscious as it may have been). But one look at the comment section of Sullivan’s editorial, and you’ll see that it immediately erupted into a hate-fest. Breastfeeding moms took her words as an affront to their method of feeding; breastfeeding advocates told her she was misinformed; judgmental sanctimommies hurled accusations of the usual flavors- Sullivan was selfish, shouldn’t have had kids, etc.

Still, in the past few months, I’ve noticed something: no matter what the writer says, in every online piece I’ve read about formula feeding, the response thread is Exactly. The. Same. The same arguments, the same people, the same facts and studies and name-calling. So while I think we have a right to our emotions – whether these emotions are guilt or regret or anger or pride- we shouldn’t feel the need to state our case in order to create a more peaceful discourse. No matter what you tell them, haters are gonna hate, or whatever that saying is.

Ultimately, I think KJ is right: I’m not sure we can move forward in creating positive change for anyone until we can stop the vicious cycle of guilt-defensiveness-bitterness. I would argue, though, that this is not the responsibility of the women (or men) sharing their stories, but rather that the conversation at large needs to change focus and tone. This might start with media outlets allowing for more nuanced, balanced features on why breastfeeding isn’t working for so many women, rather than coping out with opinion pieces. It might continue with physicians being able to speak out against some of the newest breastfeeding promotion endeavors without risking their careers to do so. It might end with us accepting that changing our society to be more breastfeeding-friendly is far less of a public health issue than it is a question of personal freedom, women’s rights, and trusting our own instincts over what the experts deem is best.

 

 

Nothing changes…

Lately I’ve been frustrated. Like, mind-numbingly frustrated. It seems that every week there’s a new article on the infant feeding wars, rehashing the same points over and over, with the same battle being waged in the comments section: You’re judgmental. Yeah, well, you’re anti-breastfeeding! No I’m not, and I’m a better parent than you! Oh, really, well, I’m am MD/RN/LC/PhD and I KNOW I’m right, so shut up! You’re a lactofanatic! You’re selfish and misinformed and a threat to breastfeeding moms everywhere! Bloomberg! Hannah Rosin! Bottle! Breast! Bottle! Breast!

Shall I go on?

I’ve been blogging for nearly 3.5 years now, and I’m so damn tired. I’m incredibly grateful and proud of the community which has formed around FFF, but I don’t see anything changing. I want to do more than whine about how unfair the current atmosphere is; I want to change it. I want to make this blog unnecessary, because I’m truly sick of talking this subject to death. And I’m sure you guys are sick of hearing about it. How many times can I pick apart studies which fail to thoroughly consider the most basic notions of correlation and causation? How many ranty essays can I vomit out about the pressure to breastfeed? None of it seems to matter, because nothing changes.

I mean, nothing changes.

I wrote a book, one that took nearly three years of heavy research, interviews, and soul-sucking rewrites, hoping that it would help me reach a larger audience, and get people talking on a more nuanced level about this debate. But no one wants nuance.

And nothing changes.

I sit here at my computer, hiding behind the safety of our little community, preaching to the choir, holding myself up as fearless while I wallow in fear; the fear that people will judge me, criticize me; the fear that I will disappoint you.

And nothing changes.

Recently, an opportunity came up that might allow me to effect change in one tiny arena of this circus of insanity. It would allow me to meet with some other people who are uneasy with the way formula is being vilified. It would give me the ability to spread the message that we need better education and guidance for bottle-feeders. It might give me access to people willing to listen to ideas about tempering the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative to be a little more palatable to those of us who must, or choose to, formula feed.

The problem is that this opportunity necessitates my associating with a formula company. They are the ones with the means to bring me to the table, to have these conversations. It makes sense that they contacted me; they have a vested interest in protecting infant feeding “choice”, and so do I. But theirs is financial, and mine is personal. I’m not naive; I know they aren’t doing this out of the kindness of their hearts.

Formula companies- like all major corporations- are out to make money. Some of the ways they go about this do not bother me – for example, I see no harm in them advertising their product. I view formula as a healthy substitute for breastmilk – certainly not perfect, not without room for improvement (because I always suspect manufactured substances always have room for improvement – that’s just the capitalist in me), and as I explain in Bottled Up, not a competitor to breastmilk. Just another option. Considering the only industry that has major restrictions on advertising is Big Tobacco, to say formula companies shouldn’t be allowed to advertise is to compare them with the manufacturers of cigarettes- a completely unfounded, ridiculous, and irresponsible comparison, in my opinion. I don’t like when they bring breastmilk into the marketing message – lines like “closest to breastmilk” should be left on the cutting room floor- but at the same time, how can we really blame them? If we are spending so much time and effort convincing society that breastmilk is the gold standard, why wouldn’t specific formulas want to be seen as coming closer to matching this liquid gold than their competitors?

But there are other ways that formula companies handle themselves that provoke a disturbing, fundamental mistrust in my gut. They want to increase their sales; therefore, it’s in their best interest if women do not breastfeed. This is a fact that’s impossible to ignore, when we see them sponsoring breastfeeding “help” hotlines and guides. I can’t help siding with breastfeeding advocates on this one: the LAST people who should be giving breastfeeding advice are the folks with a vested interest in having women turn to the alternative.

This is the point in my ongoing internal debate where I start getting all angst-ridden. Formula marketing execs need to take a long, hard look at how they are handling their accounts. They have an incredibly smart, media-savvy audience in this country-not all moms are Little Red Riding Hoods; many of us know there’s a wolf hiding behind that grandmotherly lactation consultant. Even if the breastfeeding information they are doling out is 100% useful, encouraging, and evidence-based, it is not going to be received as such.

What I find so frustrating is that formula companies are so busy trying to market to breastfeeding moms, when they have a willing and ready market base just sitting here, waving our arms to get their attention. Ban The Bags doesn’t want them hawking their wares to mothers attempting to breastfeed? Fine. More for us. Why not urge hospitals to keep the bags on hand, to be distributed only to parents who request them? Or even better, give parents the option of signing up on a website to receive the samples in the mail. Seems like a no-brainer that most moderate people could accept as a compromise.

Likewise, why should formula companies distribute pamphlets on breastfeeding when formula advice is so needed? If you’re going to spend money sending formula samples in the mail, the literature accompanying it should be about formula feeding. Not breastfeeding. Leave that to Medela or Lansinoh.

I have plenty of ideas on how formula companies could better serve us, their true customer base, and perhaps shift the cultural opinion of formula feeding away from a “competitor” to breastmilk and towards a more moderate point of view, where it is merely seen as an option for women who cannot or choose not to breastfeed. Tough distinction, but worth making. And there’s a hopeful part of me which thinks that maybe, just maybe, the formula companies also want to protect their customer base – even if it is for entirely selfish reasons.The formula companies don’t want their customers feeling ashamed to buy their products; they want us to be proudly bragging about how great our kids did on Enfasimistart. They don’t want us improperly using the stuff and then suing them later.

If I’ve learned anything in the past few years, it’s this: breastfeeding moms have a tough time in this world. But they also have a lot of respected, smart, noble individuals fighting their fight. No one believes that formula feeders need defending, so we are left to our own devices. The only folks who have a vested interested in our well-being is the formula companies, and they haven’t really done us many favors.

I’ve been thinking that maybe I can change that, though. If I can’t make headway with the breastfeeding organizations, maybe I can at least provoke some change in the companies who are making and marketing the products that feed our babies. Maybe if they hear from us – their customers – they can put some of their considerable resources and influences to good use, rather than simply pissing off breastfeeding advocates and giving them more fodder to hate on formula, formula makers, and by association, formula feeders.

This is something I want to do; something that I think could actually provoke change in a positive way for both formula feeding parents and breastfeeding moms – because we don’t have to be at cross purposes. I support infant feeding choice – that means ensuring that breastfeeding and formula feeding are equally protected, and parents are appropriately educated about whatever feeding method is right for them. I don’t see any education or protection for formula feeding parents, and no one is willing to change this. It would be great if UNICEF or the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine wanted to listen to what I have to say, but I’m not waiting by the phone for them to call. I don’t get the impression they’re very interested in what I have to say.

While all of this sounds good in my head, these thoughts are giving me a migraine. I’m well aware that associating with the formula companies opens me up to major criticism. And yet I can’t help think that there is a major difference between being influenced by a formula company, and influencing a formula company. Being influenced by a formula company would mean having them sponsor this blog, or pay me a salary, because then my content would be soiled by bias- whether it be of the financial or subliminal persuasion. We’ve all seen how having ads or sponsors can soil the editorial style of some of our favorite bloggers; I certainly don’t blame them for it, since this blogging thing takes time and a girl’s got to eat. In my case, though, if I don’t have my neutrality, I don’t have sh-t.

But I’m not talking about being influenced – I’m talking about influencing. I’m talking about having them interface with me on MY terms, helping them move in a better direction, and walking away if I feel things are shady. I’m not sure how this is more suspect than a representative of Planned Parenthood meeting with Trojan. The former wants to advocate for safer sex, and knows abstinence is unrealistic; the latter makes condoms; if Trojan can help promote safer sex and sell more condoms due to a halo effect, it’s a win-win for both parties.

I’m opening this up to the community, because your opinions are the only ones I care about. People have been accusing me of being in the pockets of the formula industry since day one; I don’t know if it even matters to them whether I throw molotov cocktails into the lobby of Nestle headquarters, or bathe naked in a vat of Good Start. But I take my responsibility to this community very seriously, and I wouldn’t make a decision like this without your input.  Please think about this, and let me know: is it okay to associate with the formula companies on an advocacy level? Or will this destroy my neutrality, even if I vow not to let it?

Because seriously…. something has to change.

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