Breastfeeding pressure doesn’t care about privilege

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.

 

 

Dear Mayor Bloomberg: Please stop the smoke and mirrors

Dear Mayor Bloomberg,

I’m sure you’re sick to death of hearing about the Latch On NYC initiative. There’s been so many blog posts, opinion pieces, counter-opinion pieces, etc., inspired by the announcement of this policy… I felt it was redundant to add more fuel to the fire, after I said my piece the week the policy was made public. I was hoping to avoid making this personal, as we’re both from the same town (in fact, my mom and you were neighbors growing up) and I always had a soft spot in my heart for the local boy made good.

But unfortunately, your camp has made that an impossibility. Not necessarily because of the policy itself (although I do have many problems with it), but because they have pulled the most transparent, juvenile stunt that essentially begs for caustic commentary.

Back to the policy for a minute: I’m sure you’re aware that it has changed dramatically. So much so that everything I talked about in my prior post now sounds like the rantings of a paranoid moron, with a fondness for extrapolation. And it’s not just me – smart, rational women like Katherine Stone are enduring an onslaught of patronizing op/eds which reduce their concerns over personal autonomy and women’s rights to a “misunderstanding” of the policy.

I have serious concerns about the capabilities of our country’s journalists for not pointing out the giant, defecating elephant in the room: the reason there is a disconnect between what those of us who have raged against the policy wrote, and what is now being written by people sounding far more rational and balanced, is that the literature that was initially published online by your Dept of Health has been erased from existence. In its stead lies a “Myths and Facts” document, a step-by-step dismantling of the concerns brought forth by the initiative’s critics.

The outlining of the plan which made me so hysterical? They literally made it disappear. As in, whoosh, the hat became a rabbit. No public announcement admitting that your administration had overstepped or misjudged; not even an acknowledgment that the policy had been altered or revised. Just one day there, next day not.

Let’s walk through the new “Myths and Facts” document which took the place of the old “FAQ”. Unfortunately, I did not take screen shots of the original – I wish to god I did, but I naively never thought your office would condone such a blatantly disrespectful, Orwellian action. Luckily, a fantastic blogger at a site called Breastfeeding Without BS copied the sections I found most troubling verbatim on her post about the initiative, so we still have access to the text as it originally appeared.

What the new document says:

Myth: The city is requiring hospitals to put formula under lock and key.

Fact: Hospitals are not being required to keep formula under lock and key under the City’s voluntary initiative. Formula will be fully available to any mother who chooses to feed her baby with formula. What the program does is encourage hospitals to end what had long been common practice: putting promotional formula in a mother’s room, or in a baby’s bassinet or in a go-bag – even for breastfeeding mothers who had not requested it.

What the old document said:

What does it mean to restrict access to formula?

Restricting access to formula means storing formula away from where it is easily visible and accessible to staff and mothers. Access to formula is restricted by both:

…Storing formula in a locked location, such as a storage room, cabinet or an automated medication system or, storing formula in a location outside, but reasonably near, the maternity unit……Limiting the number of hospital staff with access to formula by implementing a system to identify which hospital member accessed the formula supply; some examples are a log book, a code or a key system. 

 

Mayor, I’m confused. How is keeping formula in a “locked location”, available to only a “limited number of hospital staff” who should use a “log book, code or a key system”, making formula “fully available to any mother who chooses to feed her baby with formula”? I don’t recall if the original document explicitly stated that hospitals must keep formula locked up or if it was merely suggested, but in either case, I don’t think it’s a stretch to see why this particular “myth” seemed like a scary truth to many of us.

 

What the new document says:

Myth: Mothers who want formula will have to convince a nurse to sign it out by giving a medical reason.

Fact: Mothers can and always will be able to simply ask for formula and receive it free of charge in the hospital – no medical necessity required, no written consent required.

Myth: Mothers requesting formula will be subject to a lecture from the nurse.

Fact: The City’s new initiative does not set a requirement that mothers asking for formula receive a lecture or mandated talk. For the last three years, New York State Law under the Breastfeeding Bill of Rights, has required that mothers simply be provided accurate information on the benefits of breastfeeding. This requirement has not changed under the City’s new initiative.

What the original document said:

What do we tell our staff to do when mothers (families) request infant formula? 

While breastfeeding is healthier for both mothers and babies, staff must respect a mother’s infant feeding choice. Educating mothers and families about breastfeeding and providing encouragement and support, both prenatally and after birth, is the best way to ensure breastfeeding success in your hospital.

While in the hospital your staff can:
Assess if breastfeeding is going well and encourage the mother to keep trying.
Provide education and support to mothers who are experiencing difficulties.
If the mother still insists on receiving formula, document it in the chart along with the  reason and distribute only the amount of formula needed for the feeding.
Train staff in breastfeeding support (CLC, IBCLC) who can be available to assist new mothers at all times regardless of day, night or weekends.

 

Notice the difference in language and tone here. “Mothers can and always will be able to simply ask for formula…no medical reason or written consent needed….” versus ‘Assess if breastfeeding is going well and encourage the mother to keep trying…if the mother still insists on receiving formula, document it in the chart along with the reason and distribute only the amount of formula needed for the feeding.” We’re talking semantics here, but policy is all about semantics – and the “myth” sounds an awful lot like what was written in their initial, official FAQ literature. Obviously it does not state simplistically that moms will have to “convince a nurse” that there is a medical reason, or be “subject to a lecture”, but I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to imagine that this will be what ends up happening when the policy enlists health care providers to “encourage” a mom who has already made a decision – for whatever personal reason – that she wants to supplement; I don’t think it’s overreacting to take umbrage at the terminology “if the mother still insists” or the fact that nurses are told to only give the amount of formula needed for that feeding. As BF without BS so eloquently put it:

But what does “Assess if breastfeeding is going well and encourage the mother to keep trying” actually mean in practice? If the mother says clearly “I don’t want to do this any more,” is the nurse required to keep urging her to continue? Where do you draw the line between support and nagging? The initiative gives us no clear answers. Certainly, the use of the word “insist” here is deeply problematic. My understanding is that a person only “insists” on doing something when they continue to state their need after having experienced a considerable amount of pressure to do the opposite.

 

What the new document says:

Myth: Latch on NYC is taking away and/or jeopardizing a woman’s right to choose how to feed her baby.

Fact: The initiative is designed to support mothers who decide to breastfeed. For those women, the program asks hospital staff to respect the mother’s wishes and refrain from supplementing her baby with formula (unless it becomes medically necessary or the mother changes her mind). It does not restrict the mother’s nursing options in any way – nor does it restrict access to formula for those who want it.

Myth: Formula will be forbidden in some fashion.

Fact: If a mother decides she wants to use formula (or a combination of formula and breastmilk), she will be supported in her decision and her baby will be given formula during the hospital stay. If a breastfeeding mother changes her mind or requests formula at any time, her baby will be given formula.

 

In the original document, considering there is no further instruction given on subsequent requests, I think it was fair fair to assume – or at least to fear – that a lecture and limited formula will be the protocol for each and every feeding. It would have been easy enough for the authors of this document to add “Once it has been established that the mother has made an informed decision to formula feed, she should be given formula without further questioning, upon request” or even better, “a supply of ready-to-feed, pre-sterilized bottles and nipples should be left in her room for feedings.” As a formula feeding mother, that is what  ”not restrict(ing) the mother’s nursing options in any way “ and not “restrict(ing) access to formula for those who want it” means.

 

What the new document says:

Myth: Positive benefits from breastfeeding are being overblown or aren’t true.

Fact: There is overwhelming evidence, supported by national and international health organizations, showing that breastfeeding produces better health outcomes for babies and mothers than formula. For mothers, breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast and ovarian cancers. Babies that are breastfed have a lower risk of ear, respiratory and gastrointestinal infections, as well as childhood asthma, than babies who are formula fed.

The American Academy of Pediatrics just published new guidance to pediatricians in February 2012, reaffirming the evidence that the health benefits of breastfeeding over formula are clear: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/129/3/e827.full.pdf+html

What the “Initiative Description” (which is still available – for now – here) says:

Formula feeding markedly increases serious health risks for infants, including:

o 257% excess risk of hospitalization for lower respiratory infection

o 178% excess risk of diarrhea and vomiting o 100% excess risk of acute ear infections

o 67% excess risk of asthma for infants with a family history of asthma (35% for infants with no family history of asthma)

 

Again, the language here is markedly different. The spin doctors who have performed surgery on this document are skilled; I’ll give them that. I don’t think most of us would argue that there have been “better health outcomes” reported for breastfed babies; it’s the inflated representation of the statistics that we found misleading – a “100% excess risk of acute ear infections” sounds like formula fed babies have a 100% greater chance of getting ear infections to the untrained ear, and most of the NY public probably doesn’t have an advanced understanding of statistics.  But that’s almost irrelevant. The more important point here is that neither of these passages addresses the concerns that scholars like Joan Wolf have brought up, or the writers who have used her work to illustrate their essays: concerns like the confusion of correlation and causation, and the inherent flaws in breastfeeding studies, which make these statistics (even in their non-puffed-up form) questionable. Where’s the acknowledgment that even the literature used to support these claims has a clear warning that these very issues need to be addressed?

As I stated in my original post on Latch On NYC, I think it is a positive thing to support breastfeeding by not shoving formula in a mother’s face at the first sign of breastfeeding challenges. I think it’s wonderful to offer more lactation support, and to encourage rooming in, and not insist on formula supplementation unless it is medically indicated.  But this is not  all that Latch On NYC, as initially put forth to the public, is doing. Notice that there has not been the sort of outrage we’ve seen regarding this initiative towards any other Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative in the country. This outrage has come from breastfeeding moms and formula feeding moms alike. It has come from Democrats and Republicans and Independents. It has come from people who don’t even have children, nor plan to. There was a reason for this outrage, and I think it is unspeakably rotten for the mayor’s office to perform this rather amateur feat of smoke and mirrors to make it look like the vast majority that disapprove of this act are either anti-breastfeeding or ignorant.

Mayor Bloomberg, I hope that the scarier aspects of this initiative have been erased along with the document that outlined them. I’d much rather have the expectant mother of NYC be spared from injustices than be “right” about what I feared regarding this policy. But I would implore you to come clean about how this all went down; to allow this initiative to start out on the right foot. It will not help raise breastfeeding rates to have women going into    NYC labor and delivery suites with their cockles up, ready for battle. There are elements of this plan which should be rightly celebrated, and you have essentially rendered that impossible by allowing for such dirty warfare. Those of us who raged against the original plan are not a bunch of uneducated militants who work for the formula companies. We are mothers, daughters, and concerned sisters, some of whom have experienced the sting of breastfeeding “failure” on a personal level, and others who have studied this discourse and its historical relevance at length, and simply feel that there are better ways to support breastfeeding than to frame formula as the enemy. I beg you to sit down with some of us and listen to what we have to say, and at the very least, make the original FAQ PDF reappear. It won’t require magic, just the small bit of courage it takes to admit you were wrong and promise to try better next time. We are all trying to win the same war (better support for new moms, and healthier babies for NYC and the country at large), so let’s not get ourselves caught up in friendly fire…okay?

Best,

Suzanne Barston, FearlessFormulaFeeder.com

 

Latch On NYC: Let’s latch off for a second and consider the repercussions

I’ve written about seven different posts about Mayor Bloomberg’s Latch On NYC initiative between yesterday morning and today, none of which said what I wanted to say.

Finally, At 2am, I fell into a fitful sleep, and had the craziest dream.

In the dream, I am a forty-two-year-old Manhattanite, in the waiting room of a fertility specialist who will hopefully assist me in becoming a mother, after a five-year struggle to conceive. As I wait in anticipation, a nurse comes into the room. She sits down and kindly – yet with an unmistakable, underlying, patronizing tone – asks me if I was sure about going down this path. She informs me that babies conceived through IVF have a higher risk of autism, a 40% higher likelihood of ADD,  and a 42%  higher risk of developing cancer later in life. She explains that nature really intended for women to have babies in their early twenties, and since I’d been too selfish busy to get around to it, it would probably be best for me to forget about it. Considering assisted reproduction is strongly correlated with preterm labor and multiple births, my “choice” is going to have public health repercussions. The choice was mine, but she wanted to make sure that I had really thought it through, and perhaps considered just getting a puppy instead.

“Oh!” she calls as she leaves the room. “I will see you next time – we’ll have this little chat each time you come in for your appointments.”

Then, my dream-world shifts. Now I am a single mother living in a poor neighborhood in New York City. I have to work, and my daughter has to stay with the only childcare provider I can afford – a woman whose idea of stimulation is setting my kid in front of Dora the Explorer. I hate it, but what can I do? I’m sitting in my living room when the doorbell rings. It’s Child Protective Services. They tell me that my child will be taken into custody because she watches far more television than the AAP likes, and plus, children of single mothers are far more likely to end up on drugs or with severe psychiatric disorders. They know it will be painful for me to give her up, but it really is for the best. She’ll be better off in a clean foster home with organic food and no screen time allowed. Maybe I should consider getting a puppy to fill the void.

Once again, the dream swirls around, and now I’m back to being me. I am sitting at a table with a friend and her kids, and she is feeding them hot dogs and cold cuts, with tall glasses of milk to wash it all down. I harshly inform her that plant-based diets have recently been proven to provide numerous health benefits, cutting down on both cancer risk and the chance of obesity. She looks uncomfortable and angry, but I press on – because I know she wants to be a good mom, and if she really loves them, she’d want to do what the studies say is best. After all, I feed my kids a vegetarian diet, and I don’t find it difficult. Look how beautiful and healthy my children are!

But she points out that her kids are beautiful and healthy, too. And while it may be true that plant-based diets are healthier, she doesn’t think it’s that cool that I allow my son to ride forward-facing, at nearly four years old. Don’t I know that recent studies have shown that extended rear facing cuts the risk of severe injury and even death due to car accidents?

And then my vegan son takes a bite of her son’s hot dog, and my friend throws a puppy at me, and I wake up in a cold sweat.

My feelings about the Latch On initiative, where women in maternity wards will be forced to beg for formula each time they want to feed their babies, and lectured on top of it, are quite clear. It’s explaining them that trips me up, because it’s so easy to stumble into tangents about flawed statistics and relative risk, and nanny states, and common sense, and all that nonsense that just gets tempers flaring and gets us nowhere. But you know, my feelings shouldn’t matter. Just like it shouldn’t matter if plant-based diets are better, or we should all get knocked up at 22 to protect the health of the nation, or we should take children out of loving homes simply because the conditions aren’t ideal. What matters is that we need to draw a line somewhere, between advocating for healthier choices, and becoming so overzealous that we set off internal alarms about human rights.

Don’t fool yourselves into thinking that this isn’t a feminist issue. It is, more so than ever. Back when our mothers were diapering our little butts, they were given hell because the studies showed that children with working mothers got the short end of the stick. When our grandmothers gave birth, they were knocked out for the whole experience because of a paternalistic view that our hysterical sensibilities couldn’t handle it. And we revolted.

Where’s the revolt here? Why is it being squashed down, ignored, accused of being in the pockets of the formula industry? Why is it being brushed off as a “mommy war”? Why is no one realizing that our anger has nothing to do with promoting breastfeeding – something the vast majority of us support – and everything to do with concrete, authentic fears about personal freedom?

I keep hoping that women’s rights organizations will rise up, speak up, and stop this insanity. But all I hear is silence.

It’s like a bad dream.

 

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