It’s Not About the Brelfie

For obvious reasons, I get excited whenever the media takes notice of how formula feeding parents are feeling.

That’s what happened yesterday, when the media (and my email, Twitter and Facebook feed) exploded with the news of a new campaign meant to fight back against breastfeeding pressure, using the hashtag “#bressure”. When I first read the articles about the movement, I noticed the positive (attention to the experience of “failing” to meet breastfeeding recommendations) and ignored the references to the “brelfies”, breastfeeding photos which apparently spurred the campaign in the first place. I even sent a letter to the creators, praising them and asking if the FFF community could contribute in some way.

But as the day wore on, red flags started popping up. First, a fellow blogger alerted me to the fact that the survey conducted by the Bressure movement alluded to breastfeeding selfies as “sexualized”. Then, every single article I read focused on how these (apparently sexualized) “brelfies” were directly causing pain and suffering to bottle feeders. Instead of talking about the systemic issues that create a cycle of guilt, fear, and competition, we were once again dragging the conversation down into the mommy-war gutter, pitting woman against woman, and continuing the seemingly endless divide between breastfeeding and formula feeding moms.

This is not progress.

I’ve run a modestly large international community of formula feeding parents for the past six years, and I know several truths:

1. Formula feeders are a diverse group, just as breastfeeders are a diverse group. There are militant, intolerant formula feeding parents who truly do believe that women shouldn’t breastfeed in public, just as there are militant, intolerant breastfeeding mothers who believe formula feeders are selfish, ignorant, and useless. I wish we could vote them all off the island, but alas, such is life. The problem is that we’re letting these factions monopolize the conversation. This is EXACTLY why we started #ISupportYou, to which there was a rather vocal backlash from the intolerant/militant faction, on both sides.

2. The media loves drama. It is so much more fun to blame “brelfies” for the pain we formula feeders endure, because then the extremists come out of the woodwork and create mile-long comment sections, boosting your traffic for the next few days. It is also easier to get inflammatory quotes when nuance is ignored. Nuance doesn’t get web traffic or media attention. Trust me on that one; I speak from experience.

3. Seeing breastfeeding photos is undeniably difficult for those of us who wanted to breastfeed and couldn’t, or feel conflicted about our choices. When we’re feeling vulnerable and judged, it can definitely feel like that model/celeb/Facebook friend’s breastfeeding selfie is intentionally meant to twist the knife a little deeper. But that shouldn’t stop a mom from posting a breastfeeding photo, any more than you should refrain from posting a shot of your newborn when your second cousin is struggling with fertility issues. Both of you have the right to your feelings – your pride, her grief. (That said, there’s the social media-era problem with all of us comparing ourselves to others, posting things we’d never say to someone’s face, and basically acting like insensitive jerks every time we hit “post”.)

4. The breastfeeding selfies themselves are not the problem, but the  ”#breastisbest #breastfeedingmomsrule #whatsyoursuperpower hashtags can be construed as an attack on formula feeding moms. That’s not me telling you to stop doing them, just explaining why the photos might hurt your best friend who switched to formula three weeks ago. That is not me telling you that the cause of normalizing breastfeeding isn’t important, just explaining why there might be better ways to achieve the same goals without adding to the conflict. Just like this latest “bressure” video series could have had a hugely positive impact, if the impetus behind it didn’t sound like bitterness and jealousy and a who-has-it-worse competition.

5. There’s enough anger, misunderstanding, and generalization on both sides of this debate to fill several football stadiums. When the media chooses to focus on something trivial (“brelfies” – for the love of god, who though of that term) instead of the real issues, we all lose. Personally, it makes me feel like I might as well jump in my DeLorean and head back to 2008, because what the hell have I wasted the past 6 years of my life on?

6. The top reasons that formula feeders are angry, based on my totally unscientific, not-peer-reviewed but at least peer-collected research, are the following:

We are made to feel like inferior mothers by medical professionals, websites, fellow moms, lactation consultants, mommy-and-me group leaders, and the media.

 

We get no guidance or education on bottle feeding from professionals, and when we seek it out, we get conflicting info peppered with constant reminders of why we really should be breastfeeding, so why even bother attempting to find the best type of formula, since they’re all crap, anyway?

 

The reasons that breastfeeding advocates and the media give for us “failing” to meet their recommendations are so far from our lived realities, it’s hard to believe we exist in the same dimension.

 

Everything having to do with babies these days – from conferences to books to radio shows – focuses on breastfeeding. If bottle feeding is mentioned, it’s typically in the context of Things To Avoid At All Costs Unless You Really Have to Go Back to Work In Which Case You Should Just Pump or At Absolute Worst Use Donor Milk.

 

Yes, there are many breastfeeding advocates who come to troll on our pages and provoke our anger. And yes, there are formula feeders who will do the same on breastfeeding pages. Ignore these people. They do not matter. There are more of us middle-ground, moderate folks than there are of them.

 

While mom-to-mom cruelty is certainly a part of the problem, we know that there’s a much larger battle to fight – the battle of scientific illiteracy and paternalistic advocate-physician/researchers who are blinded by a religious belief in breastfeeding. If the bullies didn’t have certain unnamed, infamous physicians leading their charge – people who encourage the shaming and ridiculing of formula feeding parents – they wouldn’t have so much power. If society had a better understanding of the reality of infant feeding research, and could acknowledge that correlation and causation are two different animals, it would take away the fear and guilt, on ALL sides.

We just want to be equal with you. Not better. We’re not even asking you to think that formula and breastmilk are equal – that’s a question of science, of risk/benefit analysis, and individual circumstance. All we are asking is that we do not equate the type of liquid going into our children’s bellies with how much we love them, or how bonded we are with them, or how strong/capable/dedicated we are as parents.

 

This is not about photos. This is not about who has it worse. This is not even about breastfeeding and formula feeding, anymore. It’s about how we view motherhood as a competition, how the powers that be monopolize on this competition, and how the media loves to encourage it. Instead of focusing on brelfies or bressure, let’s get the hell off Instagram and start making an impact in our own communities, with our own friends and fellow parents. Ignore the hype, and focus on the help.

A picture tells a thousand words. But they don’t have to be negative ones.

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You don’t need to know why I don’t breastfeed, because it shouldn’t matter.

This past week, Emily Wax-Thibodeux’s excellent essay, “Why I don’t breastfeed, if you must know”, went viral. As it should have. It’s a cutting, heartfelt expose of just how ridiculous the pressure to breastfeed has become, made all the more powerful by the author’s recounting of her double mastectomy.

Unfortunately, even breast cancer didn’t stop the haters from hating.

“95% of the time people don’t breastfeed for reasons other than terminal illness. This is a red herring argument. She shouldn’t feel bad for having a legitimate reason for not breastfeeding and if she does then its really a personal problem,” said one comment on a Today.com thread.

“We all understand should and can are different. A mother who cannot breast feed is different than a mother who can but chooses not to…Breast milk is better for an infant than formula, I don’t think there is a doctor, nurse or midwife who would say that formula is better…Shame people would criticize this mother who CANNOT breastfeed like it was her choice,” wrote another (who happened to be male).

And then there was the woman who insisted that “(t)here is absolutely zero systematic or general judgment against infant formula or bottle feeding. It is the absolute expected norm by the majority of adults and parents in our culture. No one cares if you feed your baby infant formula or use a bottle…Most children start on the breast. Most children are weaned. Most children are given formula and fed with bottles. There is no public backlash against infant formula or bottle feeding. But here’s an article that pretends “infant formula shaming” is some actual thing. No. It isn’t. Not in the real world of critical thought and evidence. The data doesn’t support this notion at all.”

In the FFF community, there was tremendous support for Wax-Gibodeux’s piece, but an underlying concern about the title – because why must we know why she isn’t breastfeeding? Is shaming more acceptable for some mothers than others? What is the litmus test that rewards us with a breastfeeding “pass”? If a double mastectomy doesn’t quite cut it, I don’t know what will.

So maybe we should stop giving reasons altogether.

For those who fear formula as a product, no reason in the world is sufficient for a baby to be given anything other human milk. It doesn’t matter if the baby has to be wet nursed by someone with an unknown medical history – that is still better than formula.

For those who like to shame mothers – because that’s what it really is about, enjoying the act of shaming, of making yourself feel superior, or feel better about your choices by questioning those of others – no reason in the world will make a mother above reproach. She could always have done more – after all, breastfeeding is 90% determination and only 10% milk production, as a recent meme proudly stated. Best case scenario, she might get pity – but pity carries its own heavy scent, similar to the sour stench of shame.

Giving a reason for why you didn’t breastfeed is pointless.

That doesn’t mean telling your story isn’t important, because our narratives matter; they help those floundering in their own messy journeys make sense of what’s happening and find community with those who’ve been there. But there’s a difference between telling your story and owning it, and telling it to defend yourself. One gives you power, the other takes it away. 

We are at a turning point, I hope. Jessica Martin-Weber of The Leaky Boob has taken a stand against romanticizing the reality of breastfeeding, and is helping those in the breastfeeding community feel comfortable with bottle (and formula) use. When one of the leading voices in breastfeeding advocacy speaks out against a culture of fear and rigidity, that means something. Wax-Thibodeux’s piece has brought many powerful voices out of the woodwork, allowing women who’ve swallowed their shame to regurgitate it, and make the uninitiated understand just how sour it tastes.

Now is the time to draw a line in the sand. This conversation has moved beyond breastfeeding and formula feeding and whether one party is more marginalized than the other, or how superior one product is nutritionally to the other. We’ve been there, done that, and nothing has really changed. We’re all still hurting. We’re all still feeling unsupported, unseen, and resentful, like a 3-year-old with a colicky new sibling. Now, we need to stand up, collectively, and say it doesn’t matter why I am feeding the way I am. It is not up to anyone else to deem my reason appropriate or “understandable”. I’m going to stand up for anyone who has felt shamed about how she’s feeding, instead of just people who’ve had identical experiences to me, or those who I feel tried hard enough. 

A breastfeeding advocate shouldn’t be afraid to admit she questions aspects of the WHO Code. A breast cancer survivor shouldn’t have to have awkward conversations about why she’s bottle feeding. A woman who chooses not to breastfeed for her own personal reasons should not have to lay those reasons out in front of a jury of her peers.

This Tower of (breastfeeding) Babble has reached a fever pitch. It’s time for it to come down. Pick up your axe and start chopping. And next time someone asks, simply tell them, “You don’t need to know why I don’t breastfeed. Because it shouldn’t matter.”

 

Win-win or lose-lose: Study suggests breast may not “beat” bottle in multiple long-term outcomes

Every morning, I receive Google alerts for several terms: breastfeeding, formula feeding, infant formula, breastmilk, etc. And every morning, I brace myself, waiting for the inevitable headline that will cause panic among bottle feeding moms, or re-ignite the incessant argument between breastfeeding advocates and formula feeding parents (as if it ever needs reigniting – it’s like one of those trick birthday candles, always sparking back to life even after you’ve wasted all your breath), or force me to take some semblance of a “position” on an issue that is hardly ever black and white.

One might expect that this morning, I would’ve broken out in that annoying Lego Movie song. You know, ’cause everything is awesome!!!!!

Source: connectedprincipals.com

Source: connectedprincipals.com

News broke that a study out of Ohio State, which examined sibling pairs where one child was breastfed and the other formula fed, had found that there was no statistically significant advantage to breastfeeding for 11 outcomes. These outcomes included things like obesity, asthma, and various measures of childhood intelligence and behavior. As the study explains:

“Breastfeeding rates in the U.S. are socially patterned. Previous research has documented startling racial and socioeconomic disparities in infant feeding practices. However, much of the empirical evidence regarding the effects of breastfeeding on long-term child health and wellbeing does not adequately address the high degree of selection into breastfeeding. To address this important shortcoming, we employ sibling comparisons in conjunction with 25 years of panel data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) to approximate a natural experiment and more accurately estimate what a particular child’s outcome would be if he/she had been differently fed during infancy…

 

Results from between-family comparisons suggest that both breastfeeding status and duration are associated with beneficial long-term child outcomes. This trend was evident for 10 out of the 11 outcomes examined here. When we more fully account for unobserved heterogeneity between children who are breastfed and those who are not, we are forced to reconsider the notion that breastfeeding unequivocally results in improved childhood health and wellbeing. In fact, our findings provide preliminary evidence to the contrary. When comparing results from between- to within-family estimates, coefficients for 10 of the 11 outcomes are substantially attenuated toward zero and none reach statistical significance (p < 0.05). Moreover, the signs of some of the regression coefficients actually change direction suggesting that, for some outcomes, breastfed children may actually be worse off than children who were not breastfed.”

 

Source: Colen and Ramey, Is Breast Truly Best? Estimating the Effects of Breastfeeding on Long-term Child Health and Wellbeing in the United States Using Sibling ComparisonsSocial Science & Medicine, Available online 29 January 2014

I will admit that the comments made in several news outlets by the lead author of this study, Cynthia G. Colen, have made me want to run through the streets, acting as a one-woman ticker-tape parade in her honor. (Case in point: “I’m not saying breast-feeding is not beneficial, especially for boosting nutrition and immunity in newborns. But if we really want to improve maternal and child health in this country, let’s also focus on things that can really do that in the long term – like subsidized day care, better maternity leave policies and more employment opportunities for low-income mothers that pay a living wage, for example.”) But I’m not celebrating the results of this study, any more than I’d celebrate one that said formula feeding caused children to sprout green hair from their chiny-chin-chins and opt to live under bridges.

Why? Because this shouldn’t be a freaking contest.

The backlash that comes out of studies like these feels more like if someone came out with research that claimed fried Oreos were just as healthy as raw kale. Instead, we should be approaching it as if someone came up with a way to make a vitamin supplement that would offer similar benefits to kale, for those who hated the taste. One is natural, one is synthetic; one is manufactured, one exists organically. But for those of us who don’t or can’t eat raw kale on a daily basis, a good substitute is a godsend. (And maybe helps us justify those fried Oreos. A girl can dream.) Now, a study showing comparable effects of the supplement to the organic kale would not negate the fact that kale, grown in your own garden, is a nutritious, amazing thing – and tastes quite delicious to those of us who have a palate for it. If we started telling the kale aficionados that the supplement was better in some way, that would be a problem. But if the people who loved kale insisted that the supplement wasn’t a valid option and was somehow morally wrong, that would be a problem, too. Chances are, if we were really talking about kale, nobody would care all that much. The people who liked kale would eat it, and those who didn’t, might opt for the supplement – feeling confident due to the research that suggested the supplement was a viable option.

But we’re not talking about kale. We’re talking about breastmilk. And that, apparently, is where we all fall apart, and are rendered completely incapable of rational, measured discussion.

What the Golen/Ramsey study shows should not be controversial. The results should be reassuring- evidence that formula feeding does not condemn a child to a life of obesity, poor health, and lackluster intelligence; proof that whether a woman chooses, or is capable of, feeding a baby from her breast is not what defines her as a mother.

Imagine, for a minute, if we didn’t compare breast and bottle, but rather celebrated BOTH as valid, safe, healthy options for mothers and babies. Accepting that formula has legitimacy – that there is a reason it was invented (out of a need and a desire for a safe breastmilk substitute), and a reason why a woman may decide that a substitute is preferable – should not threaten those of us who celebrate breastfeeding. Yes, we should continue to rage against predatory formula marketing, especially in the developing world. Yes, we should speak up and speak out when companies (hello, Delta) retreat to 1953 when they express their breastfeeding policies. (For that matter, we shouldn’t need breastfeeding policies – if children are allowed, breastfeeding should be allowed. End of story.) Yes, we should ensure that women are entitled to adequate pumping breaks, and given solid breastfeeding assistance, and are supported by solid research regarding medications and breastmilk and best practices from pediatric professionals. But none of that means formula has to be Public Enemy No. 1. None of that means parents who formula feed should be left floundering due to an embarrassing lack of support and education. And for the love of god, none of that means we should be smugly celebrating when formula fed babies are shown to fare poorly, or gleefully rejoicing when and if the opposite occurs.

This is one study, with its own set of limitations and biases, like any other study in the modern canon of infant feeding research. But it’s a good study, artfully designed, and one that raises some extremely important questions about how the emphasis on feeding babies might be distracting us from the real work of supporting better maternal and childhood outcomes. Because speaking of retreating to 1953, it’s awfully easy to shove the responsibility for future generations onto women’s chests, rather than addressing true social inequities that can impact children’s lives. Maybe if we stopped wasting energy trying to prove how evil formula is, and just accepted it as part of life – not a slap in the face to our mammary glands, or an excuse for idiots to treat nursing mothers as horribly as they do now – we would have more energy to understand and destroy these inequities.

Or, you know, we could do what we always do and spend time looking for vague connections to the formula industry to discredit the study authors. Because that’s a really great way of helping families thrive.

 

 

 

FFF Friday: “I’ve come to loathe the breast is best rhetoric…”

Today, I posted an incredible piece from my friend Amy West on the Facebook page. Amy is a breastfeeding counselor and advocate, but more than that, she is an independent thinker who understands that the way we support breastfeeding and formula feeding mothers (and fathers) might need an overhaul. I don’t doubt that she’ll receive some backlash for her viewpoint, just my friend Jessica over at The Leaky Boob did for daring to “work” with me (someone who, according to some of her recent critics, should be her sworn enemy. I kid you not). 

But people like Amy and Jessica are the face of the future – supporters of women and families first, who also advocate for and support breastfeeding moms. I feel confident that they are ushering in a new era of breastfeeding advocacy, and I expect it to do more in a few years than decades of the status quo has accomplished. 

In that spirit, I wanted to share Kara’s FFF Friday. It’s a bit different than the usual fare, but I absolutely love it. She describes the flaws in our current rhetoric, which the people perpetuating these flaws don’t want to hear coming from me (because of my admitted bias and position as “formula feeding defender”); I’m hoping that because Kara is a breastfeeding mom, she might carry more weight with these folks. Because as I keep trying to explain – to no avail – my work is not about promoting formula or knocking breastfeeding. It’s about reforming a system that leaves more than half of us struggling with  a lack of support and information, and the other half floundering around with something that passes as support, but often looks more like a pass/fail system that relies on fear and comparisons as a motivational tool.

Anyway. Happy Friday, fearless ones,

The FFF

***

Kara’s Story

My breastfeeding story is a success story, because I’ve breast fed my twins for six months now, but I still experienced a lot of pressure, uncertainty and guilt as a result of “lactivism,” so I agreed to share it.

I’ve come to loathe the “breast is best” rhetoric.  I went into breast feeding knowing LLL and others were overstating the benefits of breastfeeding and believing that formula is just fine no matter why a family chooses it.  But I had some difficulties getting breastfeeding started with my premature twins.* They were in the NICU for over a week.  Throughout my pregnancy I assumed breastfeeding would be easy for me.  I don’t know why since the process of getting pregnant certainly wasn’t (I started trying after reaching what doctors like to call “advanced maternal age” and ultimately succeeding with IVF), but I had read enough to know to request a breast pump a few hours after the surgery.  Things started well – I was producing amazing quantities of colostrum and the nurses started turning away my contributions before my babies came home.  But my son was on CPAP and the NICU nurses wouldn’t let me take him out of his plastic box for several days. My daughter wasn’t getting many interventions but only weighed four pounds at birth and although we tried in the NICU, she was too weak to nurse.     I gave up trying to nurse them there and focused on pumping.  I let the nurses give them pacifiers.  I told them to use formula if there ever wasn’t enough colostrum/milk.  And I ignored the hospital lactation consultant who told me I needed to pump a minimum of eight times a day to get my supply up in favor of sleeping through the night while I still could.  That was all wrong, I guess?  But here’s the thing: I hated watching them cry in their incubators with nothing to comfort them.  And I wanted my babies to be fed and grow well so they could come home as soon as possible.  I could see with each of the six pumping sessions I did manage that my supply was just fine.  The LCs gave me a little schedule of target volumes for twin moms pumping in the hospital, and I was ahead of schedule.  The hospital LCs never believed me and insisted I had to pump more often.  But I hated pumping because not only did it hurt, but the sound of the machine had already turned into a voice saying “NIPPLE, NIPPLE, NIPPLE” mockingly.

My little Twin A and Twin B came home at 5.5 and 4.5 pounds, and both were pumped bottle babies.  I still wanted to breastfeed and escape the pump, but couldn’t convince them and decided to give a private LC a try.  I got a great one who *didn’t* bully me or pressure me, and with her advice and support, in six or eight weeks (who can remember?) I had them nursing full-time.  It was hard work, and painful, but it was my choice to struggle through it because a) I’m a single mom without a ton of money and it was cheaper, and b) I had freaking TWINS and tandem nursing, once I mastered it, was the most efficient way to feed them – both at once, with the least amount of cleaning up to do afterwards.  I also got through it because I allowed myself the option of formula if it ever was too much for me.  I kept some pre-mixed formula in the apartment even though the advice I got from the pregnancy boards run by self-proclaimed “boob nazis” was not to do that, because I’d be too tempted to use it and quit.  I stuck it out…because I had the peace of mind of knowing that formula was right there if there was ever some night when I couldn’t take it anymore.**

I never planned to breast feed past six months, but when we hit that milestone a couple weeks ago I suddenly found myself doubting.  Was six months really enough?  Was formula in fact an evil poison?  Didn’t my premature twins need as much extra advantage as I could give them?  How could I be such a bad mom to want to quit now that breastfeeding was finally painless and routine?  I found myself desperately looking for support for weaning at six months and finding little.  Even the advice I found on how to wean was predicated on the assumptions that my children had never had a bottle in their lives and were ready to transition to a full solid diet, no longer requiring breast milk, but just nursing for comfort.  Eventually I found Fearless Formula Feeder, and thank goodness!  But what happened to the person who ignored all the lactivist advice in the hospital?

Online breastfeeding support groups happened, is what happened to her.  After I stopped working with my awesome LC, I consulted sites like Kellymom for information about minor issues as they arose (the thing about how after six weeks breastfeeding is easy peasy?  Not entirely true).  And I like to get information from more than one source (what can I say?  I’m a researcher at heart) and read a lot of these sites.  I found myself questioning my initial position that breastfeeding didn’t provide that many health advantages to babies.  I started to wonder “what if they’re right?”  I went through a period of deep anxiety when I thought about weaning.  The times I had referred to the breast feeding support sites had insidiously planted these doubts even though I had done my research and debunked them before I started reading them. And these sites are the top hits of any online search for breastfeeding information, unfortunately.  You have to dig deep to find the opposing views, and until I found them I felt like crap.  I didn’t want to be selfish!  But I really did want to stop and I kept digging for information until I found what I needed (which was just reaffirmation of what I already knew)

I’m going to be gradually reducing our nursing sessions over the next few weeks, because six months is plenty.  Because I’m tired of plugged ducts and the fear of mastitis.  Because I’m tired of being bitten by two babies at the same time.  Because it will be hard to pump when I go back to work full time.  Because I don’t want to pump when I go back to work full time.  Because I’d like to go out on a weekend for more than four hours without dragging my pump around and using it in a dirty public restroom to avoid engorgement.  Because my twins are doing great and eating solids now.  Because breastfeeding was never how I bonded with my babies.*** Because formula is a pretty darn good food.  Because I want to, and it’s my choice, and I shouldn’t ever have had to question myself about it.

 

*  And as a whole separate issue, I was pressured by strangers about not letting my doctors ever tell me induction was necessary because it would lead to an unnecessary c-section…but with my blood pressure skyrocketing it was necessary.  And you know what?  I did get an epidural and I did end up with an emergency section.  But I also ended up with two live children and I can sneeze without peeing, so there.

** Eventually I joined some twin parent boards and found them a lot more supportive of both supplementing and exclusive formula feeding.

*** You can’t be fully absorbed gazing into a baby’s eyes for too long when you’ve got to make sure you devote equal attention to the second baby, who also likes to squirm and try to fall off the pillow, and the other has reflux and you have an overactive letdown so you spend a lot of nursing time mopping up,**** and both of them nurse with their eyes shut anyway.

**** As glad as I am to have breastfed for six months, here is the memory of it that will last the longest for me: Tandem nursing and the refluxy baby finishes first.  He requires immediate burping, so I carefully lift him up without disrupting the latch of the other…and he promptly vomits down my back.  Since still-nursing baby is not gaining as well as the pediatrician likes and I am strapped to a giant double nursing pillow, so I find myself unable to get up, crying as vomit trickles down my back and puddles on my sheets.  At 3 AM.  This is what breastfeeding is for me. 

***

Share your story, or your thoughts: email me at formulafeeders@gmail.com.

 

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

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