I am privileged.
I’m not rich, but I have never gone hungry; never been without a roof over my head; never wanted for anything (well, nothing more pressing than a better body and maybe a date with Ewan MacGregor circa Trainspotting). I don’t know how it feels to be judged by the color of my skin. I’ve been discriminated against, as a Jew and a woman; called names like kyke and jewbeggar and bitch, but I’ve never been racially profiled or held back by a language barrier, or assumed to be suspicious or uneducated because of the way I look. I have a great husband and amazing friends and ridiculously supportive parents and in laws.
I realize that in the United States, this means I am incredibly lucky. I also realize that this means I have no business assuming things about anyone else’s lived experience. It doesn’t matter how many academic texts I read or people I speak with in a clinical setting – I can’t know how it feels to be dependent on welfare, or in an abusive relationship, or at a dead-end job with a sexually harassing boss.
I often hear that the pressure to breastfeed is a problem plaguing a specific socioeconomic and geographical subset of women; that my assumption that women are being harmed by overzealous breastfeeding promotion is dripping with “privilege-laden assumptions”. The people making these claims insist that poor, minority women think formula is superior (because they’ve all been victims of unscrupulous marketing and social pressure), and do not know the benefits of breastfeeding, and that if anything they feel ostracized if they breastfeed. Formula feeding, they say, is the unfortunate norm – my concerns have no place in these communities.
I don’t deny that I am coming from a certain perspective, and I always acknowledge that things are different depending on where you live, and what your social circles are doing. I also don’t deny that these social and marketing influences are real. But I think it’s just as privileged to assume that all women in lower socioeconomic areas need to be “educated”, and to ignore the fact that the lower a woman’s status in society, the easier it is for her bodily autonomy or emotional well-being to be violated. Ensuring that the rights of these women are protected is more important than raising breastfeeding rates – and the same policies which are worrisome for a privileged white woman are even more deleterious for someone whose voice is already struggling to be heard.
Yesterday morning, I met with two women who work at an organization serving a lower income neighborhood of Manhattan, helping teenage mothers from a variety of cultural backgrounds. These women told me that in some of the ethnic groups they serve, breastfeeding is very much the norm; in others, it is not as culturally accepted. Their organization is extremely pro-breastfeeding – there is no formula available at their office to give to girls in need, and they encourage breastfeeding throughout the prenatal period and beyond. But when I brought up the idea that the girls these women work with are not being affected by the “breastfeeding makes good mothers” philosophy, I was met with disbelief. “The ivory tower ideal is even more of an ideal for someone who is already struggling to fit the definition of a good mother,” one of them explained. They expressed a need for better messaging – encouraging at-risk women to focus on mothering rather than just feeding. Things like promoting skin-to-skin, reading to your baby, eye contact… not putting the emphasis on breastfeeding as the be-all end-all of parenting.
I also learned that the breastfeeding education these girls are given mostly consists of comparisons between formula and breastmilk, and information on how breastfeeding leads to better bonding and healthier kids. There is little instruction on the actual mechanics of breastfeeding, or how to manage the lifestyle barriers that could make exclusive nursing difficult. So while these young women may go into labor wanting very badly to give their babies the best (and they are well aware its the best, as their prenatal education features lectures on the differences between formula fed and breastfed babies), once they leave the maternity ward and have to return to work or school within a few weeks, without successfully establishing breastfeeding, or knowing how to pump, or how to advocate for their right to express in the workplace (if their workplace even falls under the parameters of the latest breastfeeding laws, many end up on formula- without any advice on how to do so safely.
After that meeting, I had lunch with an FFF who lives in Brooklyn. Her story was all too familiar – wanting to breastfeed, finding herself faced with low supply, getting conflicting advice from healthcare providers, balancing her own health and sanity with her (incredibly nuanced) understanding of breastfeeding’s benefits. The same sort of story we often see on this blog, from an educated mom with a supportive partner who had the ability to hire lactation consultants, and knew how to read scientific literature well enough to suss out her own risk/benefit analysis.
Obviously, this woman came from a very different situation than the women represented in the day’s earlier conversation. But there was a remarkable similarity in what was expressed by everyone I spoke to. There was consensus on what we need: a more balanced, less hysterical, more individualized approach to infant feeding. All agreed that an honest discussion of the challenges of breastfeeding would be helpful, and that education on formula feeding safely and knowledgeably would go a long way in protecting the physical health of babies and the emotional health of mothers, regardless of their socioeconomic or ethnic background.
The stories these women are telling are not about white or black, native or immigrant, poor or rich. This isn’t about politics. It’s about what will be the best choice for an individual woman in her individual circumstances. These are stories with one moral: that we can – we must – support a woman’s right to breastfeed as well as her right to choose not to breastfeed. This isn’t about doing away with Baby Friendly, because we need to ensure that women are getting a good start to breastfeeding and every opportunity to make it work (and that means switching the focus from vilifying formula to actually helping women initiate and sustain breastfeeding in practical ways). But we need to speak up and insist that there is a way to do this without loading more pressure onto new mothers.
I have a feeling breastfeeding guilt is seen as a problem of the privileged, because we are the ones with the time, resources, and autonomy to speak up about it. That doesn’t mean women of other backgrounds aren’t feeling the same pressure, perhaps manifesting in even more damaging ways. Still, it’s not my place to pretend to understand them, or to put words in their mouths. There’s no way I could, because these women aren’t an aggregate. They are individuals. To speak for the “disenfranchised” or “minority communities” as a sole entity is asinine. My experience is extremely different from other moms in middle-class Los Angeles – that doesn’t make it any less real, or valid.
One-size-fits-all infant feeding policies do not work, because women are not one-size-fits-all. In fact, in both fashion and life, one size usually just fits a lucky few. To label breastfeeding guilt as solely an experience of one type of woman, and paternalistic “education” as necessary for another, is just plain wrong. It would be nice, instead of arguing about who has the most altruistic motives to help certain groups of moms feel empowered, we just focused on empowering all women to make choices that feel right for them, and to decide how their bodies are utilized. Because while I would never attempt to speak for anyone, I don’t think it’s a privileged assumption that most of us would appreciate the ability to speak for ourselves.