Full response to “An Effort to Increase Breastfeeding” in the Philadelphia Inquirer, June 2016

An abridged version of this letter appeared in on Philly.com on June 19, mind 2016. 

Breastfeeding has been a journalistic topic du jour for years now. As an author of a book about breastfeeding promotion, viagra the founder of a website supporting all methods of infant feeding, and a trained breastfeeding counselor, I read every piece on this topic with interest; after all, public perception is affected by what we see in the media, especially in today’s shareable, digital environment. It was for this reason that I was dismayed to see the interview with Arnetta Stewart and Katja Pigur of The Maternity Care Coalition (“An effort to increase breastfeeding in Philly”, 6/5/16). Not only was the piece rife with incorrect, misleading rhetoric, but it was also sadly indicative of how our society is going terribly wrong in efforts to enhance maternal/child health.

The interview begins with a discussion of breastfeeding initiation rates. While the figures used are spot-on (78% of mothers initiating breastfeeding), the hand-wringing about their inadequacy is not. These statistics do not take into account the deeply personal reasons the remaining 22% do not breastfeed from birth – women who have undergone mastectomies, women on certain contraindicated or borderline medications, and women who have histories of sexual trauma, to name a few. Also, of the many women included in this figure, how many might be second or third time mother who have learned from prior breastfeeding attempts that the practice is not possible or preferable for them? Or women who simply do not want to breasfeed, and make a fully informed choice to use formula? Seen in proper context, 78% nationwide is pretty darn impressive.

Moving on, Ms. Stewart claims that “Babies that are breast-fed are healthier babies. They have fewer infections and colds because it boosts their immunity. Breast-fed babies are less likely to be obese. The reason is if you give a baby a bottle and turn it upside down, the milk just flows out. Breast-fed babies do not overeat. Babies that drink from a bottle are overfed, and their bodies begin to recognize being overfed as the norm.”

Notice that the language used here is absolute. Not “babies may be healthier,” but rather that they most certainly will. This is patently false; the vast majority of infant feeding research is associative, bogged down by shoddy research methodology and confounding factors. We do have enough evidence to suggest a health benefit from breastfeeding, but this does not mean that every formula fed baby will be sicker than his breastfed peer. Likewise, there are numerous ways to mitigate overfeeding in a bottle-fed baby; her description brings to mind a defenseless child choking on a rapid flow of formula, which with today’s advanced bottles is virtually unheard of. And breastfeeding has not been conclusively proven protective against obesity; this is one of the most contested and questioned benefits, with several studies suggesting otherwise.

Next, Ms. Stewart makes the mind-boggling statement that “Breast-fed babies usually speak earlier because the jaw muscles are strengthened by breast-feeding.” If there is any evidence out there to support this assertion, I haven’t come across it in 7 years in this field.
She claims that breast-feeding promotes bonding between mom and baby; perhaps in most cases, but certainly not for the women who I’ve counseled, women who despised breastfeeding or for whom the act of nursing triggered memories of sexual assault, severe physical pain, or feelings of failure. Bonding happens between two calm, connected individuals, and sometimes a bottle serves this better than the breast.

But of all the misleading claims in this piece, one stands out as particularly alarming. Says Ms. Stewart, “breast-feeding puts their children physically, mentally, and emotionally on the same playing field as moms of a higher income.” No, the way we feed our babies in the first year does not level the playing field. Better healthcare, secure and safe housing, and equal education for all begins to level it. Breastfeeding, not so much.

Breastfeeding is a human right, a healthy and empowering choice, and one that deserves support and promotion. That does not – cannot – mean over-selling its benefits or presenting it as a panacea to the real problems families face. It does not mean causing unnecessary panic for women who are unable to breastfeed with overstated blanket proclamations that mean very little on an individual basis.
The time has come for an evidence-based, culturally and emotionally sensitive discussion of infant feeding. Instead of absolutism and zealotry, we need neutral, evidence-based advocacy that put the needs and rights of both women and babies ahead of breastfeeding statistics.

Of nanny states and nonsense

This is why I hate politics.

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

Yep, I’m talking about shit. 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting a grip on the Strong Mom Empowerment Pledge Controversy

The latest outrage in the breastfeeding advocacy world doesn’t have to do with dying children in resource poor nations, cialis or bogus “breastfeeding advice” hotlines run with the nefarious goal of undermining a mother’s goals. It’s not even about someone questioning the benefits of breastfeeding, or urging the government to rethink some of its public health messaging.

No, this week’s rage-fest is over a campaign asking women to pledge not to bully one another based on their parenting choices.

Sound silly? Well, according to a handful of well-respected bloggers, it’s about as silly as a car wreck. This is because the campaign is sponsored by Similac, a formula company, which has everything to gain by women feeling “empowered” to use their second-best (or fourth best, if we’re going by the WHO hierarchy) product in a world made less judgmental by a pledge such as this.

On a purely anti-capitalist, anti-marketing level , I understand why some may feel a little queasy about this campaign. I’ve seen some backlash against the Dove Real Beauty ads for the same reason – the message is great, but the fact that it was created by a group of advertising executives rather than a non-profit, purely altruistic group, sullies it. There’s an ad term for what Dove and Similac are doing – the “halo effect” – meaning that when you use the product, you’ll have positive, do-gooder type feelings about it. Coke’s done it, too. (Remember that catchy “I’d like to teach the world to sing” jingle? Halo effect, right there.)

I assume this is what was behind tweets I came across today suggesting that formula companies have no place talking about parenting issues. My counter argument to this is that many of us formula feeders feel abandoned by the parenting gurus (paging Dr. Sears) and in some cases, even our own pediatricians – the message we receive is that if we’re formula feeding, we’re pretty much a lost cause. So while I can’t say I’m thrilled that a formula company stepped up to fill this gap, I think we need to think a little more critically about why the gap was there in the first place.

For the record, with this particular campaign, Similac isn’t giving parenting advice, but rather advocating for an end to mother-to-mother judgment. More of an anti-bullying campaign than anything about parenting issues. Which is probably why they have Michele Borba as one of the spokespeople – she’s a well-known expert on bullying as well as parenting issues, but she barely deals with the infant/toddler set. For that matter, I don’t think babies are mentioned at all in the campaign literature –most of it has to do with embracing your parenting choices and not allowing other people to make you feel less-than.

But I’m not even all that interested in discussing the campaign itself – I’m more concerned with the response to it. Comments I’ve seen; articles I’ve read from some folks I have utmost respect for, but whom I feel really missed the mark on this one. Some of these arguments include: Similac has no right to talk about mommy judgment because formula feeding shouldn’t be a lifestyle choice; the bloggers who came on board to support the campaign are sell-outs or shills for Big Forma; and that the campaign is one big booby trap.

In a thought-provoking and controversial NY Times Motherlode column, KJ Dell’Antonia quotes Kimberly Sears Allers, who maintains that the Strong Moms Empowerment campaign is faulty because formula feeding is a public health issue, not a personal choice:

One centimeter beneath the surface of Similac’s “Strong Moms” Summit and online campaign you will find that framing of infant formula use as a “lifestyle choice” that is not to be judged has been its primary marketing strategy for decades. … And since choices are individual, they have no social consequences; women are therefore relieved of responsibility of considering the broader implications of their decisions. And once I make my choice, no one is to challenge me. We can’t talk about it. And if you do, you are judging me.

Admittedly, I’m taking major poetic license here, but my take-away from Allers’ post was that we can’t not judge other moms for doing something which puts babies at risk. KJ’s own argument is more nuanced and balanced; she suggests that this whole conversation has become too personal, and the “judgment” rhetoric just dilutes the real issues.

I agree with KJ, actually – it’s a point I’ve made myself, in my own somewhat pissy rants about how the only anti-breastfeeding-promotion opinions we hear come in the form of personal stories (which are important in their own right – don’t get me wrong – but hardly a match against scientific studies and “fact”-driven articles). But making things “less personal” doesn’t just mean that every blog post discussing breastfeeding must stop devolving into a who-had-it-harder string of comments. The onus can’t purely be on those whose choices are being questioned to buck up and be “strong”. If we’re going to make it less personal, than breastfeeding advocates cannot be in charge of conducting research on infant feeding. We need to ensure that voices from both sides are heard, so that formula feeding mothers don’t need to sit in awkward, shameful silence while the food that so beautifully nourishes their infants is compared to tobacco, lest they be accused of “taking things so personally”.  And outlets like the New York Times need to post intellectually-driven or research-based pieces from the “other” perspective, rather than just personal stories of breastfeeding failure, so that the conversation isn’t so one-sided.

But I think, in some ways, KJ’s point gets convoluted by Allers’ quote. It can’t not be personal, when a woman’s decision to formula feed is being equated to a public health issue. This is where the misinterpretation of risk within the breastfeeding canon is problematic; it is where people like Joan Wolf are so vitally important. And yet, Joan Wolf can’t participate in the conversation because it has become so personal: her assessment of the literature is brushed off as anti-breastfeeding, lost in the fervor of those who fear that discussing breastmilk as anything less than a miraculous and perfect substance, and breastfeeding as anything less than a moral imperative, will negate their admirable efforts to normalize what should be a human right.

The other common refrain in the past few days is that formula feeding mothers should be offended by this campaign. I’m crying foul. First of all, I take issue with breastfeeding advocates speaking for me – someone who felt completely ousted, chastised, and disenfranchised from their community, and their ideal of good mothering. Just like I will never know the hot rage felt by a nursing mom who is asked to leave a restaurant, someone who has a fundamental belief that breast is best will never know what it feels like to be told that your maternal instinct is faulty, due to susceptibility to marketing, stupidity, selfishness, or some combination of the three.  To hear a company which created a product that nurtured my babies echoing the same sentiments I’ve been preaching for years – that the judgment must stop; that moms need to stop fighting each other and work together for better parenting rights; that women need to stop engaging in sorority-level hazing in order to wear the label of “Good Mommy/Good Radical Feminist/Strong Woman – makes me happy. I don’t feel preyed upon; I am well aware that they are hoping to sell more formula, and you know what? If I had to decide between a brand that is marketing to breastfeeding moms and one that is finally trying to appeal to its actual audience, I’d probably choose the latter.

Someone commented on the NYT article that it would’ve been nice if this campaign came from an individual or group without profit-driven motives. Spoiler alert: that would be me. That would be Bottle Babies. We’re out there, doing this. But most people aren’t aware of us – we each top out at about 3k Facebook followers, opposed to the popular breastfeeding blogger-activists, who are all in the 200k range or higher (some of whom, incidentally, could benefit from a pledge not to bully other moms. Just sayin’.)  We have nothing behind us – no advertising, no sponsors. No money. It’s slow going, trying to make a dent, attempting to create change in a positive and real and measured way. We waste a lot of time defending ourselves against accusations of working for the formula companies; of being anti-breastfeeding; of being uninformed and defensive.  And trying to run our ad-free websites and blogs and attend conference on our own dime and BE HEARD when there are so many more powerful, louder people out there. I realize this sounds like a whiny me-me-me rant, but I’m trying to paint a picture here – because it helps explains why I’m okay with the Similac campaign. Until the indie, unsponsored voices are able to reach the masses, I’m just happy that someone can. I’m happy that women who are feeling judged and guilty and embarrassed about their choices, who are forced to read “Breast is Best” every time they see a formula ad, or open a can of food for their baby, can finally have an opportunity to feel good about the product they are using. That for once, we can feel like part of the sorority – part of the “empowered” group – even if it’s all manufactured and for profit, even if it’s bullshit.  It’s not even about the cheesy “empowerment” pledge – it’s about seeing a formula company treat formula feeding as something matter-a-fact, rather than constantly comparing itself to breastmilk, and in a more subtle and unintentional way, comparing formula feeding mothers to breastfeeding mothers. It’s about being able to feel okay about the way a formula company is operating, rather than cringing at how they are sending free samples to moms intending on breastfeeding (rather than those of us who’ve filled out the damn internet form 300 times and never received a single coupon, but I digress) or marketing some asinine product (like the company in question, with its new “formula for supplementation”. Jesus, Similac. I’m wasting time defending you and then you pull something like this? For real?)

Yes, it’s not perfect. But it’s a start. And if you think it’s sad that we are so desperate for acceptance and celebration that we are willing to get into bed with a formula company that thinks of us like an easy booty call, I’d recommend taking a long, hard look at yourself: at the comments you make; the Facebook posts you share; the policies you write; the initiatives you implement; the articles you publish.

Because yes, it is sad. It is sad that Similac has been able to capitalize on this need. It is sad that there is the need to capitalize on. And it’s sad that those who have created that need are refusing to see how implicit they are in the development of such a sad situation.

It’s just sad.

 

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.

 

Elisabeth Badinter steps into the breastfeeding minefield

There’s an interesting discussion going on right now on Slate.com between two major players on the breastfeeding landscape. Hannah Rosin (whom, in the interest of self-disclosure, I personally worship as a writer and social critic) and Katie Allison Granju, one of the world’s leading lactivist voices, are in a heated debate over Elisabeth Badinter’s new book, “The Conflict.” And it is one hell of a conversation, from two very smart, and very different women.

For those of you not familiar with Badinter, she’s a French feminist who claims that “modern motherhood undermines the status of women”. She argues that we have become slaves to our infants; that we are all obsessively striving to be perfect mothers, which has come to mean “natural” mothers. She does not take too kindly to attachment parenting practices like co-sleeping, med-free birth, and mandatory, exclusive breastfeeding.

I haven’t read the book yet (because that would require several hours of free time, which if I were lucky enough to have, I would rather spend watching Teen Mom and yelling at the television) but I have read practically every interview Badinter has given since her book was announced. I understand her point of view. I do not agree with all of what she says; I think she’s rather extreme and judgmental in ways which only serve to put down other people’s choices, when the goal should be ending society’s free-for-all on mother blaming. But I do agree with what she says about breastfeeding in this recent interview with the Washington Post:

“I am not criticizing breast-feeding, only the duty to breast-feed. Even if there were more substantial “public and institutional support” to help women breast-feed, that wouldn’t change the fact that not all women necessarily want to breast-feed. And those women must be free to bottle-feed without being bullied with the idea that they are bad mothers.”

Anyway, love her or hate her, she’s certainly causing a stir. Unfortunately, any truths that she is revealing are being obscured by her too-heavy hand; she’s putting people on the defensive, and as we all know on this blog, that tends to lead to a big fat FAIL. I’m not sure Badinter cares, and I envy this about her; she isn’t trying to make friends, but rather present her theories and, let’s face it, sell books. More power to her – we need more opposing voices to counter the current trends in parenting culture. I don’t need to agree with her to appreciate that she is taking on the myths of motherhood which torment so many of us.

Some people are not so appreciative of Badinter, though. Granju has gone back and forth with Hannah Rosin (who thought the book had valid points, many of which she has made in her own writing) in a series of published exchanges, the last of which included this paragraph:

As for Badinter’s views on breast-feeding, I think that it’s important to note that her position on this issue is ethically suspect from the get-go. Elisabeth Badinter isn’t simply an incendiary and stylish French feminist theorist. She also personally holds controlling interest in Publicis, one of the world’s most powerful and profitable PR and advertising firms. As it happens, Publicis is the agency of record for Nestlé , the huge multinational corporation that makes and sells a wide variety of infant formula products all over the globe, and which is arguably best known for its lengthy and ongoing history of flagrant violations of the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. Considering that Badinter styles herself as an honest-to-God academic—a serious one with serious credentials—it’s troubling, to say the least, that she doesn’t seem to feel the need to proactively disclose the obvious conflicts posed by her millions in income from Nestlé ’s PR firm.

And there it is. The ubiquitous and inevitable Big Formula accusation. Hannah’s no stranger to it. Mitt Romney’s gotten it. Add to that list Rebecca Goldin, Joan Wolf, Dr. Alan Greene. Basically anyone who has ever dared to question the “breastfeeding at all costs” mentality. Now, in this case, Badinter probably does hold an interest in Publicis. And they probably do deal with Nestle. But for all we know, this could mean that her agency represents Nestle Chocolate. I don’t know how much Granju knows about advertising and PR, but from my cursory knowledge having been the “talent” (and being married to someone who works with a lot of these companies) it is very common for one agency to have one segment of a large corporation as a client, but not another. So for example, P&G might use J. Walter Thompson for Pampers commercials, but another company for cleaning supplies. 
I’m not going to go into a long schpiel defending Badinter’s corporate affiliations, though, because even if she were actively working on the Nestle account, unless the sales revenue from her book was going to fund Nestle formula advertising directly, it shouldn’t be relevant. Someone who is a big fan of WHO Code is not going to work with formula companies, so it stands to reason that someone with her viewpoints wouldn’t think twice about taking money from Nestle. One thing has absolutely nothing to do with the other. She is an academic who wrote a book; she also happens to have some sort of financial involvement with a PR firm who works in some capacity with a company which has a formula division (albeit one that has done some horrible things to sell formula). She’s got a diversified portfolio, if you will. Why does this make her position “ethically suspect”? Is Granju’s opinion ethically suspect because she wrote a book on Attachment Parenting? Doesn’t the trend to favor attachment parenting as the “best” way serve her financial interests? 
Do we all see how ridiculous this is? 
Dismissing people’s opinions on breastfeeding as part of some capitalist conspiracy only serves to cheapen your argument. Granju makes some excellent points in her dialogue with Rosin, but this one passage makes her look like she’s grasping at straws. She also goes on to say that if breastfeeding pressure were so intense, then our breastfeeding rates would be higher:

…if American women are, in fact, being subjected to crushing, guilt-inducing nursing shame, it doesn’t appear to be working too well. While breast-feeding rates in the U.S. have edged up overall in recent years, and are indeed crazy high in certain highly specific subpopulations of American women (Park Slope-dwellers, residents of Portlandia), the overall breast-feeding numbers in the United States tell a quite different story…Given that, by the numbers, not very many American women at all seem to be “enslaved” by breast-feeding in the way Badinter claims, how is it that breast-feeding is “undermining our status”?

… which is another common argument against the breastfeeding pressure backlash which Rosin herself inspired. This response lacks nuance: women can feel pressured and still fail at breastfeeding. In fact, I’d say that the pressure, the “all or nothing” attitude, is exactly what contributes to our high initiation/ low continuation problem. This blog is proof – if women who formula fed didn’t desperately want to breastfeed, and didn’t feel that breastfeeding was tied up with their own ideas of “perfect motherhood’, then Badinter wouldn’t be selling books, Hannah Rosin wouldn’t be a folk hero, and this blog wouldn’t need to exist. 
What do you think, fearless ones? Do Badinter’s views on breastfeeding resonate with you? Do you relate more to what Rosin is saying, or Granju? And humor me – do you live somewhere other than Park Slope or Portlandia? 
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