Can formula feeding really be “fearless”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The more things change, the more they… change.

I had an interesting conversation the other day with someone who read the galleys of my book.  This woman breastfed two children successfully in the late 80’s and 90’s when this feeding method was certainly not the norm; breastfeeding rates didn’t start really going up until the past decade, when campaigns like the log-rolling, mechanical bull-riding DHHS one began to to kick things into high gear.

Anyway, she had a good experience breastfeeding; she told me she never really experienced much pressure in either direction, and while she was aware that breastfeeding had become far more of an issue in society, she had no clue that formula feeding had become so vilified.  Her exact words were “I had no idea how bad it had gotten.”

I know it sounds ridiculous, but this comment provoked a tremendous revelation for me. Imagine a cartoon image of the FFF (imaginary-draw me with a better figure and less wrinkles, will you?) being hit with a lightening bolt, next to the caption “Doh!

Of course this person didn’t know how bad it had gotten. She hadn’t given birth in the last 5 years, when the pressure to breastfeed has gotten so ridiculously out of control. And neither have the vast majority of big-time breastfeeding advocates or policy makers, let alone the folks reading the various newspaper editorials and commenting on the heated threads of media-reported breastfeeding studies.

See where I’m going with that “Doh”?

I have had two kids in the past four years, and honestly, I saw a marked difference in the amount of breastfeeding pressure I experienced from one baby to the next. In 2008, it was tough to end up in the formula feeding category; still, most of the vitriol I encountered was the online variety, save for a few  overbearing physicians and mommy-and-me instructors. By the time I delivered Fearlette in the end of 2010, even my childless, motorcycle-driving, gun-wielding neighbor threw me a look when he saw my bottle. And since I have my eyes on what’s happening in the breast/bottle scene, I can say without a doubt that things are just getting worse.  I don’t know if these changes were spurred by Hannah Rosin taking a stand, or Joan Wolf questioning the science, or the Call to Action announced by the US government – but one thing is clear: infant feeding has become part of the national dialogue, and gone far beyond a trivial mommy war.

Mary wore the hairshirt, sans the “F”. Source:

If you were a breastfeeding advocate who’d had children before this new front blew in, you might think my pleas for a ceasefire are nonsensical. Kind of like when my mom complains she’s cold on a temperate, 78 degree day. But then again, my mom happens to be super-skinny (like 85 pounds soaking wet), and those without any padding can have issues with temperature regulation. Likewise, women giving birth today have been stripped of the padding when it comes to breastfeeding pressure; no longer are we cushioned by “encouragement” to breastfeed, but rather thrown out onto a cold street with a hairshirt labeled with a big, scarlet “F” should we fail to meet expectations; if we end up being “suboptimal” in our feeding methods.

If you’d been a new parent in a different, not-so-long-ago time, you might think things aren’t so bad. You might brush off feelings like guilt, saying that “no one can make you feel guilty”. That’s easy to say when no one has told a 3-day postpartum You that your inability to breastfeed, or your choice not to, is damning your child to a life of poor health and low intellect. (It’s also easy to say when you’re someone who has never been through this kind of hell, or when you have a penis rather than a vagina and are therefore of the non-lactating persuasion.)

If you’d been a new parent back in, say, the 1970’s or early 80’s, when breastfeeding rates were at an all-time low, it might be easy to laugh at the stories we tell on this blog. Because nobody’s really telling formula feeders they are bad parents. It’s being a breastfeeding mom that’s hard. (Which don’t get me wrong, it can be. I think you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, in this regard. But that doesn’t mean formula feeders have it any easier- it’s just that our challenges come in different flavors. My platform is that we can’t protect one group of parents by shaming or neglecting the other – we all need to be supported in feeding our babies in the way that works best for our given situation.)

If you’d been a new parent even ten years ago, when breastfeeding began to be more popular, but three months was considered medically sufficient, and six months was considered ideal, you might not fully comprehend what this breast/bottle debate is all about. You might think hey, it wasn’t so hard to breastfeed, not realizing that by today’s standards, the fact that you stopped after 4 months and had been giving relief bottles every now and then would be considered abject failure by many respected experts.

If you haven’t given birth or adopted an infant since before Obama was in office, and don’t plan to again, you might not care that much about infant feeding “wars”. And that’s okay; I get that many things begin to take on graver meaning, like ensuring a good education (we’re facing that now and I swear I’m *this* close to closing down FFF and starting the Fearless Public School Parent in a Really Awful, Underfunded District blog, but then I remember Sandra Tsing Loh beat me to it), drugs, teen sex, and so forth.

But for the breastfeeding advocates, physicians, psychologists, and media pundits out there, whose voices matter in this discourse: please, for the love of god, take a minute to consider that things may have changed dramatically since you were buying Size 1 diapers. This has nothing to do with the benefits of breastfeeding, nor am I belittling your efforts to make the world friendlier for nursing moms (which I appreciate and thank you for), but it is important that you realize this fact. You need to understand what it is to be a mom in 2012, when the internet has all but usurped the “real” world; when Facebook pages are not just about reconnecting with high school flames but are used to discuss parenting styles and form “groups” which simply exist to hate on other peoples’ choices; when a scathing blog post has the power to change the face of advocacy in a disturbingly negative way; when the media has covered stories which state that women who “fail to comply” with breastfeeding recommendations are costing our country innocent lives and billions of dollars.

I know everyone says the more things change, the more they stay the same. In this case that does not hold true. Things are not the same. The sooner society at large realizes this, the sooner this discussion will begin to evolve.

Or at least I hope it will. If it doesn’t, the silver lining is that I think I’d look pretty cool in a hairshirt.

Elisabeth Badinter steps into the breastfeeding minefield

There’s an interesting discussion going on right now on 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? 

Hanna Rosin Inspires a Breastfeeding “Action Campaign”

Back in April 2009, I was still struggling to come to terms with my feelings on switching to formula feeding. Practically every night, I would find myself searching online for some sort of support or reassurance, but I found little to none. (I was up, mind you, because despite the rumors, formula does not help all babies sleep better at night – my son was still waking every 3 hours like clockwork at four months old.)

And then one night, a night like any other, I logged on to my pregnancy loss message board, so often a source of solace during the trying time I was, well, trying – and there I saw it: a post about an article in the Atlantic Monthly, called “The Case Against Breastfeeding”, by a brave woman named Hannah Rosin.

I’m sure this is old news to most of you, so I won’t waste time rehashing what Rosin said (basically, she questioned some of the science behind the breast-is-best campaigns, and examined how nursing became a measure of good parenting in her social circle). If for some reason you haven’t read the article, go do it. Now.

Back already? Good. If you’re a formula feeder, say a big “thank you” to Ms. Rosin for taking a heck of a lot of crap for saying what she did. I don’t completely agree with her tone – I think it may have come across a tad adversarial, which just made it too easy for the other side to slam her –  but I will forever be grateful to her for making me feel less alone. Plus, I think it is always good to ask questions, especially about something that touches such a nerve in so many women.

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks so.

The United States Breastfeeding Committee, independent nonprofit organization, a “coalition of more than 40 organizations that support its mission to improve the Nation’s health by working collaboratively to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding”, has four ongoing “action campaigns” listed on its website. These include three campaigns that essentially ask for government assistance in making breastfeeding a public health issue. The fourth, well…

A storm is brewing against breastfeeding with the publication of Hanna Rosin’s article “The Case Against Breast-Feeding” in the April 2009 issue of the Atlantic. Rosin was also featured on the Today Show on March 16 with NBC News Chief Medical Editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman. Although their discussion deplorably misrepresented the medical research on breastfeeding, it also appropriately highlighted a much bigger issue: it can be very challenging to achieve optimal breastfeeding recommendations in the United States.

The United States Breastfeeding Committee has sent a letter to the editor of the Atlantic, co-signed by many of our members and other national organizations. But we also need your help to bring an end to this unnecessary and irresponsible “debate” about the proven health risks of not breastfeeding, and to reframe the discussion to focus on what’s really at stake: support for mothers and families.

No matter what you think of Rosin or her article,  I can’t believe that anyone who supports free speech can take this “call to action” seriously. They really want to waste time and resources lambasting this woman, who has already endured six months worth of personal and professional attacks? Do they actually fear her questions that much? And what exactly do they expect to get out of this – a retraction from the Atlantic Monthly?

The Atlantic Monthly is a well respected magazine. Hannah Rosin is an experienced writer. I am sure they triple checked their facts. And regardless, the piece was an Op/Ed. That means opinion or editorial. She was expressing an opinion, much like people express political opinions during election years, and are often seen as “distorting” the facts by the opposing side. The truth is, well, truth is relative. We all see things through our own lens. (A wonderful lactivist blogger, Birthing Beautiful Ideas, recently talked about this quite eloquently – and she actually referenced Rosin’s article and made a valid argument about her claims, as well.)

The letter that USBC sent to The Atlantic Monthly complains:

“Inconsistent associations are common in medical research—study designs may vary widely, and it is difficult to design a “perfect” study, especially when dealing with human subjects. It is unfortunate that the comprehensive analysis of medical experts is so often boiled down to a “sound bite” on the latest newsworthy twist in health research. Non-profit organizations like USBC exist to serve as a collective expert voice, distilling the best, evidence-based information and advocating for support for families without the bias of profit-seeking motives.”

I agree with the first half – there are definitely inconsistencies in medical research. But my reading of Rosin’s article just supported that assumption. I didn’t see it as her saying breastfeeding wasn’t good or beneficial (other than the title, which I agree was inflammatory and unnecessary, but as a former magazine editor, I can tell you that there is huge pressure to come up with startling headlines, so maybe that played a role…), just that the studies had been overstated. The USBC letter referenced a 2007 independent review of the studies that showed a “lack of breastfeeding was associated with a statistically significant increased incidence of several acute  and chronic diseases affecting both mother and child.” This may be true. But according to Wikipedia, the term statistically significant “is different from the standard use of the term “significance,” which suggests that something is important or meaningful. For example, a study that included tens of thousands of participants might be able to say with very great confidence that people of one race are more intelligent than people of another race by 1/20th of an IQ point. This result would be statistically significant, but the difference is small enough to be utterly unimportant. Many researchers urge that tests of significance should always be accompanied by effect size statistics, which approximate the size and practical importance of the difference.”

Anyway. Confusing. Wikipedia sucks.  But the point is, I don’t think Rosin did anything irresponsible as a journalist. (And I do think I am qualified to weigh in on journalistic integrity, since it is my field, unlike medicine or statistics.) She interviewed a variety of experts, quoted them, and gave her opinion. It was not a news piece. It was an editorial.

But if the USBC has nothing better to worry about, then I guess that is a positive sign for breastfeeding advocacy. So at least that’s good.

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