Mean People Suck

Back in the 90’s, before the age of memes, bumper stickers were the best of sending the world (or at least the person stuck behind you in traffic) a message about your political leanings, philosophy, or the status of your child’s “Good Citizenship” in school. People got seriously creative with these little strips of adhesive, but there was one that seemed to be strike a chord with the folks I typically associated with. The Birkenstocks-wearing, Ani-DiFranco-listening, liberal-arts-major types. The message that seemed to be stuck to the back of everyone’s used Volvo was this:

Mean People Suck

 

Catchy, isn’t it?

 

But what I’ve realized in my late thirties is that mean people do more than just “suck”. The screw things up for the rest of us, in serious, systemic ways. They are the cops who brutalize minor offenders based on the color of their skin; the politicians who refuse to see the human side of their voting record, the instigators of road rage. And in the parenting world, they are the women who perpetuate the mommy wars (such a stupid and patronizing term, for a stupid and patronizing problem).

 

The thing is, mommy “wars” may be stupid, but their effect is far-reaching and profound. They make us believe we need to take sides, choose a team, thus dividing us and making it ridiculously easy to conquer us. And by conquering us, I mean keeping us from fighting collectively for better family leave, better maternal health care, better resources and options for our children and ourselves. We’re so busy trying to prove we’re an Alpha Female, conveniently forgetting that alpha males are generally assholes.

 

Speaking of Alpha Females, there’s a woman who has built up an impressive following on the Internet who I’ve tried to avoid giving airtime for the past year or so, after a few run-ins that made it clear her only motivation in life is to fight. I’ve tried thinking about her in a new-agey way, considering what made her the way she is, and trying to feel sympathy for her anger and vitriol rather than letting her make me act in turn. But when Jessica from the Leaky Boob – a woman I admire greatly and am proud to consider a friend – reached out to me about this Alpha person’s latest assault, I agreed to speak up.

 

I agreed to speak up because my friendship with Jessica is based on everything that this other person is trying her damndest to destroy. Jessica runs one of the most respected and beloved communities for breastfeeding women. I run a modest but pretty vocal community of people who take issue with the current state of breastfeeding promotion (as well as people who are totally cool with breastfeeding promotion, but ended up using formula for whatever reason and are willing to put up with the constant drama and debate because they have few other communities where they feel safe asking questions about formula feeding). We’re part of an informal community of breastfeeding advocates (and me, although I do consider myself a breastfeeding advocate, albeit a strange hybrid of one) where we discuss ways to better serve all mothers and provide REAL support and education. It’s actually really awesome to see how women can work together to find solutions even when they come from opposite ends of the parenting spectrum.

 

The Alpha individual operates on the premise that working relationships (and friendships) like this cannot – or should not – exist. Her page and blog are consistently dedicated to making fun of those who haven’t lived up to her own personal standards. Her work wouldn’t be worth mentioning at all, except for the fact that she has gotten the seal of approval from several notable breastfeeding researchers and advocates, including James Akre, who writes regular (and strikingly misogynist) guest posts for her blog. The woman knows how to get page views and Facebook likes. You have to admire her for that.

 

But in the immortal words of Stan Lee (and as I keep telling my Marvel comic-obsessed son), with great power comes great responsibility. And when someone with a fair share of public attention does something incredibly harmful, not only to a movement (those invested in creating a more supportive environment among mothers) but more importantly to an individual, that is an abuse of power, and seriously irresponsible.

 

Here are the facts: The blogger in question stole a photo of a woman in an emotional moment and used it to promote her recurring message that formula feeding parents are lazy and un-invested in their children. The photo was of a woman hooked up to wires, looking at least semi-unconscious, with a baby being held up to her breast. The blogger superimposed the word “obsessed” on the photo, meant in a “positive” way, as in, yes; this woman was obsessed with breastfeeding, which was a good thing because it meant she was properly dedicated. Unlike the rest of you nitwits.

 

The thing is, that was the antithesis of what this photo meant to the mom featured in it. This was, for her, a memory of something she went through with her child. I don’t know if that memory was positive or negative or something in between, as most postpartum memories are when something goes awry. It’s not my business to know. It’s hers. She didn’t intend for her image to be used this way. We don’t know the backstory behind the image, which I’m sure is human and flawed and beautiful and complicated.

 

But bloggers like the Alpha person are not complicated. They are simple. They are mean. And mean people suck.

 

They suck the life out of images like this; make them fodder for a contrived mommy war. They suck the life out of breastfeeding advocacy efforts, because they perpetuate the myth of the “breastapo” by becoming a caricature of that concept.  They suck the joy out of parenting, by making it a competition. They suck the intelligence and nuance out of what could be a productive debate between people who genuinely care about maternal and child health. And they suck the energy out of bloggers like Jessica and myself, who resent that we feel forced into a corner and made to confront this type of bottom-feeding behavior, when we could be focusing our collective efforts on something more productive.

 

Alpha types will always exist, these parasites that feed on fear, loneliness and feelings of inferiority. But parasites can be stopped if their food source is cut off. That’s why we are asking both of our communities to stop engaging. Don’t be a food source. Don’t visit her site. Don’t comment on the Facebook page, even if it’s to fight back against the hate. Just don’t engage.

 

If you see people you respect at risk of an infestation, let them know the true nature of the beast. Speak up when respected advocates are partnering with her or linking to her work. Let those around you know that this type of behavior does not advocate breastfeeding; it advocates bullying, shaming and hate.

 

And if you see one of her memes, post one of your own. One from a time before the internet allowed the best and worst of humanity to be distributed worldwide: Mean People Suck. Because they do.

 

Mean-People-Breed-Bumper-Sticker-(5567)

Guest Post: Different Flavors of Kool-Aid

I didn’t post an FFF Friday this week, because I was out celebrating FC’s 5th birthday and it totally slipped my mind. I find that a little poetic, because five years into parenting, I’m realizing that we do, ultimately, let go of the newborn insecurities that feed (ha) the breast/bottle debate. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are always new parenting issues to feel vulnerable and unsure about; new problems that make you question your own choices as well as the choices of others. That said, I definitely think infant feeding is at the top of the mother-guilt food chain – ha. See, there I go again with the puns.

I often wonder if some of this mother guilt has to do with how our identities as women are intertwined with parenting. We are raised thinking that being called “mommy” at some point in our lives is a given. The adjectives that are “feminine” are also seen as “maternal” – soft, nurturing, giving, loving, sweet, caring. Being a good mom isn’t just about being a good mom, it’s about being a good woman. Hell, the way we birth and feed our babies is becoming a gauge of our feminist cred… whether you are old-school or progressive, if you don’t view motherhood as empowering and having a vagina as a superpower, forget about being mom enough, you’re not woman enough.

Melanie Holmes is the author of a forthcoming book that focuses on the cultural assumptions of motherhood, and I was thrilled to receive this submission from her. The post isn’t entirely about infant feeding, but I think it has everything to do with what FFF stands for – that women are not defined by their bodies, and that we deserve choices and options that do not reduce us to biological imperatives. I’ll be reading her book, and I hope it will remind me to raise my little Fearlette in a way that allows her to define her self-worth not by her anatomy or its actions, but by her autonomy and its actions.

Enjoy.

-The FFF

***

Guest Post: Different Flavors of Kool-Aid

by Melanie Holmes

I am a mother of 3, two adult sons and a teenage daughter.  My oldest was born in 1984 when breastfeeding was not the norm.  My mother, my older sister, nor any of my friends had breastfed.  I was totally alone to learn and I turned to La Leche League for support.  Without a doubt, I became a La Leche League Zealot.  Hear me out!  When I read about Suzanne Barston’s campaign (along with Kim Simon and Jamie Lynne Grumet), “I Support You,” I was so inspired by her goal of uniting women that I included the campaign in a book I’ve written about the cultural assumptions of motherhood (more about that later).

I was able to breastfeed all three of my kids, and I drank from the Kool-aid that states that every woman can succeed at breastfeeding.  Until the day I read a Wall Street Journal’s article (22 July 1994) titled, “Dying for Milk: Some Mothers, Trying in Vain to Breastfeed, Starve Their Infants.”  After reading that article, which I cut out and tucked into my copy of La Leche League’s book, I considered myself “reformed” on the topic of breastfeeding.  I’ve held onto that WSJ article for almost 20 years because I never ever wanted to forget the lesson it taught me – to support women who cannot or do not breastfeed.

The WSJ article told 2 heartbreaking stories:

- Pam Floyd gave birth to a son, Chaz, and did what the books and her physician advised her to do – put him to her breast.  But he didn’t seem to be getting enough milk.  24 hours after being discharged from the maternity ward, Pam made a frantic call to her doctor and a lactation consultant, who both advised, “Keep breastfeeding; don’t turn to formula.”  Six days after his birth, Chaz suffered dehydration-induced permanent brain damage.  The neurologist told Pam, “The lack of milk those first few days means that Chaz will never lead a normal life.”  A year later, Chaz wasn’t doing the things 1-year-olds should do; he wasn’t sitting up or crawling.

- Under the subheading “Silent Starvation,” lactation educator Mary Wisneski described a breastfeeding mother who told her what a “good and happy baby” she had, only he wasn’t wetting many diapers.  Wisneski, knowing that babies should wet 6-8 diapers per day, asked to see the baby immediately.  It turned out that the soft spot on his head had sunken – a sign of severe dehydration.  Doctors describe this phenomenon as, “content to starve,” such infants suffer in silence which makes it hard to identify them.

The reality:  Physicians say that some infants are incapable of learning how to breastfeed. In other cases, certain breasts are structurally incapable of producing enough milk; in addition, women who have had breast surgery are at risk.  Physicians point out that cases of breastfeeding failure used to be detected during an infant’s third or fourth day of life by professionals on maternity wards.  These days, mothers are discharged 24 hours after birth before some infants are even alert enough to try feeding.

And now my own story:  My firstborn child, a son, was born in 1984.  At that time, insurance companies let new mothers stay in the hospital 3-4 days, even for a vaginal birth, which mine was.  My son had a strong latch, but I was so inexperienced that I wasn’t getting him to latch correctly.  He had a strong suckle, however, he was latching onto other parts of my nipple, therefore, he was not getting anything.  Maternity ward nurses worked with me, and they gave him some supplemental water when he cried during the night.  To this day, I remember when my son latched on for the very first time correctly.  It was a moment of, “OH! That’s how it’s supposed to feel!”  My son was 4 days old when that happened.  To this day, I wonder:  what if I’d gone home, convinced that I was doing it right, with no maternity ward nurses to give my son supplemental water?  Without continued supervision, might my son have ended up with brain damage such as Pam Floyd’s?

Which brings me back to the book I have written which is designed to unite women around topics that, although we may not agree, what we can agree on is this:  We are all women!  We all share the same gender history where strong women who came before us fought for our rights as individuals; the right to vote, property rights, the right to advanced education, a wide array of career options, and control over our bodies pertaining to reproduction/procreation.  There are so many topics that can divide us if we let it happen.

Most of us have beloved daughters, nieces, or female friends in our lives.  I have a teenage daughter.  A book I read 10 years ago had a quote that still haunts me; spoken by a woman, “Donna” (not her real name), who grew up assuming she’d be a mother someday, having been told that motherhood was what being a woman was all about.  When she found out she was infertile, she thought, “If I can’t have a child, I may as well be dead.”  This quote is from Madelyn Cain’s, The Childless Revolution.

I began to imagine what my own daughter would feel like if she were unable to or didn’t want motherhood someday.  I began paying attention to how women who are not mothers are viewed; often judged as selfish, dysfunctional or to be pitied.  I also noticed how many women pursued motherhood despite extremely challenging circumstances, such as the lack of a strong support system (support systems come in various flavors of “Kool-aid” but they must be strong/full-flavored).  And I researched the statistics on unplanned pregnancies (half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned; and 3 in every 10 females will become pregnant before age 20).

Thus, 2 ½ years ago, I began writing a book about the cultural assumptions of motherhood; to be published in 2014:  The Female Experience: How the Assumption of Motherhood Impacts Women’s Lives.  While interviewing 200 women across the U.S. (mothers and nonmothers), I found a real-life example of Cain’s “Donna.”  Someone who remembers feeling that life was not worth living if she could not become a mother.  I also found a startling level of assumptions held by mothers of daughters — that their daughters will follow in their footsteps; and that they would communicate their disappointment if their daughters expressed disinterest in motherhood.  What child sets out to disappoint the person(s) who are most important in their lives?  Following is an excerpt from my book which quotes Suzanne Barston’s wonderful example of uniting women.  I do hope you’ll keep the females you love the most at the forefront of your mind while you read it; and perhaps let the windows of your mind open just a crack with regard to the assumptions of motherhood for the females in your life.

Quote from The Female Experience, book by Melanie Holmes to be published in 2014 (copyrighted material, not to be quoted without permission from the author):

“The vision of women without children that a number of people hold is skewed in large part based upon the assumptions that are held for females’ lives.  There are numerous books, articles, and blogs in existence designed to justify or demystify being childless, childfree or “without child,” written mainly by women who are, themselves, not mothers.  Some want to get their voices out there in hopes that people will stop pestering them with intrusive questions; others just want to set the record straight on the circumstances or choices that led to the lives they are leading; others just want to be left the hell alone to live the lives they’ve chosen that brings them happiness.

 

The media is full of “mommy war” stories, describing conflicts between warring factions of mothers on topics from breastfed versus formula-fed, to stay-at-home versus working outside the home, to attachment parenting versus other child-rearing methods.  Gathering steam is another type of war, largely fueled by women, a sort of “unmommy war,” if you will; and it has the potential to fracture the inner selves of women who are not mothers due to decisions or circumstances within or outside of their control.  Caustic, rude, judgmental comments are being hurled across the demarcation line.  One woman I interviewed, Calista (not her real name), who is not a mother and does not want children, said to me during our interview, “I’m so glad there are people on our side.”  Which makes me wonder, why must there be a demarcation line?  As women, shouldn’t we seek to understand each other?  Even when agreement is not found, can we agree to disagree and show respect and support?

 

In a wonderful show of compassion and support between women, in honor of August 2013 being National Breastfeeding Awareness Month, Suzanne Barston spearheaded a social media campaign designed to tear down the barriers separating women who breastfeed their babies from those who formula-feed.2  In a picture posted on the Internet, we see a woman with her baby and she’s holding a sign that says, “I Support You.”  Isn’t this what all women should do — support and respect each other?”

 

My book gives voice to both sides of motherhood.  I do not advocate for or against a woman’s choice to choose the path she feels will lead to an authentic, happy life.  My teenage daughter knows that the assumptions I hold for her are that she’ll be kind, independent, and live a happy life following whatever path she chooses.  We, as mothers, know how hard it is to do what we do.  We may complain about it to each other, especially on anonymous websites, but the true tales of our challenges escape our brood because we don’t want them to feel guilty, and we certainly don’t want anything we say to sound like regret.  We love our children!  But not every woman wants to be a mother.  In the only industrialized nation without paid maternity leave, with inflexible workplaces, and homes where the bulk of the load is still carried by mothers (with or without partners); and with more doors open to women than ever before to follow goals that our mothers and grandmothers never dreamed of, many women want to live their lives differently, sometimes to the exclusion of motherhood.  How open you are with your daughter will determine how she views her life options.  If your daughter (or niece or BFF) happens to express disinterest in motherhood, what will you say?  As mothers, do we feel that motherhood trumps all other experiences, such becoming a brain surgeon or biomedical engineer?  If you take a look at the list of brain surgeons at the University of Pittsburgh Schools of Health, you will find 31 neurosurgeons listed, two are female.  There are women throughout history who have done magnificent things to the exclusion of motherhood.  Are we teaching our daughters about how high our horizons are as women?  If not us, their mothers, who gives our daughters “permission” to truly choose the path that will make them happy?  Life is not perfect.  In fact, it gets downright messy.  Something we can do for our daughters is to educate them about women’s history, and help them to know that, no matter what they choose, we support them!  It’s the old, “I’m OK, You’re OK” mindset.  We’re all okay, no matter what flavor of Kool-aid we prefer.

Melanie Holmes is a mother of three (2 adult sons and a teenage daughter) and has witnessed firsthand the pain of women who are viewed as “dysfunctional” or “selfish” because they decided to pursue something other than motherhood for their lives.  She has also viewed women who have pursued motherhood despite extremely challenging circumstances, without the needed support for mother and child.  With her daughter as her inspiration (as well as many women across the U.S. whom she interviewed–women who live with criticism, judgment and intrusive questions because of their choices), Melanie has written a book examining the cultural assumptions of motherhood; along with a reality-based view of motherhood and the evolution of women’s choices.  Melanie graduated with her Bachelors of Arts from Saint Xavier University, Chicago, in 2011; a goal that took 20 years to attain as she paused along the way to raise her three kids. She lives in Chicago with her second husband and teenage daughter. To learn more about Melanie, her book, and her blog, please visit www.melanieholmesauthor.com.

First World Problems: Fill the Gap and #FeedWithLove

Yesterday was one of those days. Overslept. Kid peed the bed. Bad hair day. Traffic. Drama at work. Husband had to work late, again. House a mess. Feeling fat. Zit popped up on my chin. You know. First world problems.

http://www.stickycomics.com/first-world-problems/

http://www.stickycomics.com/first-world-problems/

 

Here’s a dirty little secret: I hate that phrase. Because we live in our own realities. No matter how much of a selfless world-view we attempt to hold, or how fully we own our privilege, we’re human. You can feel depressed about a zit while realizing how insignificant your plight is in the grand scheme. One doesn’t need to cancel out the other. I’d even argue that people who are inherently empathetic typically feel all things deeply – a news report about a displaced deer will affect them more than most, but so will a breakup or a bad day at work. Emotions are emotions – and I don’t think controlling them because of some innate sense of privileged-woman’s-burden is healthy.

 

But here’s the other the reason I hate the phase “first world problems”: there are some majorly screwed up things going on right here in the first world. First world problems are nothing to scoff at. Kim Simon, my #ISupportYou cofounder (along with Jamie Lynn Grumet), has been thinking about one of the most warped aspects of our decidedly first world nation. In the midst of our government shutdown, Kim had started worrying about the people affected by furloughs at WIC programs  - breastfeeding moms who receive extra food to ensure they have the caloric load necessary to produce milk without it taking a toll on their bodies, and formula feeding moms who obtain the powder necessary to nourish their babies from WIC. She realized that aside from emotional support for moms, there’s another kind of practical support we haven’t really discussed. As she writes for Huffington Post and her own blog, Mama by the Bay:

When Suzanne BarstonJamie Lynne Grumet and I joined together to create “I Support You“, we realized that support begins with basic care.  Basic care for many of the mothers in this country means that they need to have access to healthy food for their families.  Breastfeeding mothers don’t always need a lactation consultant or a quiet place to nurse.  Sometimes they need breakfast.  I am nursing a four month old, and I usually eat two dinners.  I am hungry all.the.time.  But I have a full pantry cupboard and a refrigerator that I frequently have to clean out.  Many mothers don’t.  Formula feeding moms don’t always need the newest bottles or the support to feed their babies proudly.  Sometimes they need enough powder left in the can to get them through until their next paycheck, so they don’t have to water each bottle down.

 

Kim goes on to suggest ways that we can put our money where are mouths are – quite literally – by donating supplies, food, money, and time to mothers in need. Her suggestions are incredibly thoughtful and I urge you to read them, consider them, and put them to use.   But Kim also reminds us that even before the government shutdown, hunger was an issue for many American families – and that it will continue to be after this dumb fight ends and WIC offices are up and running. She’s right: back in 2012, when WIC was fully functional, a study found that 1 in 8 low-income families were watering down formula in order to “stretch” their limited resources – and that “the vast majority of families” in this study were “covered by Medicaid and receive(d) food stamps as well as assistance getting infant formula through… WIC.” (Source: NBC News)

1 in 8 families in this particular study, which was performed in the very first world environment of Cincinnati. 15% of parents already getting aid from government agencies like WIC who are not able to feed their babies adequately.

I can hear the arguments starting already: But that’s why WIC is promoting breastfeeding, FFF! If we could just get these women lactating, they wouldn’t have to put their babies in danger by using diluted formula! And you know what? I agree with you. It would be fabulous if these moms didn’t need to worry about their babies’ next meals, if milk were to flow easily and freely from their breasts. But it would also be fabulous if they weren’t in need. If they had well-paying jobs that allowed them sufficient maternity leave to establish breastfeeding without putting their families at risk. It would be wonderful if they had supportive partners or parents or friends who could stay with them in the early days and take care of their other children while they worked through the breastfeeding learning curve. It would be peachy if we could guarantee that none of them were part of the 5% of women who simply can’t produce milk, or that none of them had ever been victims of sexual assault which made it emotionally complicated for them to nurse, or that none of them had babies who were allergic to milk or soy, because when you’re living with food insecurity, it’s not so simple to go on an intensive elimination diet.

 

We can argue until the cows come home about whether all women in need should or can breastfeed, but once those cows do come home, we need to make sure there’s enough milk. Period. Whether from a can or a breast. We can’t let babies starve or become malnourished while we argue. Because when it comes down to it, arguing over breastfeeding in a theoretical sense  is a first world problem. That is where our privilege will bite us in the overfed ass. No matter what you believe, politically, or about infant formula marketing, or women, or birth, or Santa Claus, we need to address the hunger of our littlest members of first world society. And for now, until issues like maternity leave and adequate prenatal and post-natal care and lactation support and childcare are solved, that means supplying formula – not just whatever brand makes a deal with WIC, but options like hypoallergenic or gentle formula for babies who need it.

 

The breast/bottle mommy war is a “first world problem”. But the solution Kim, Jamie, and I are offering to this war doesn’t have to be. #ISupportYou can support moms in their emotional journeys while also supporting those who don’t have the luxury of worrying about judgment, because they are too busy watching the contents of their Similac can diminish and praying that their babies don’t hit a growth spurt before the next WIC appointment.

 

Privilege isn’t a bad thing. Privilege gives us internet access and time and sometimes (although not always), a little extra cash. I’m asking the FFF community to embrace whatever privilege they have, and begin finding ways to address the issue of hunger in our country. I’ll be reaching out to food banks, shelters, and organizations that serve mothers with young infants to see how we can help, specifically, with formula donations. We have one of the smartest and most educated communities on the internet – I don’t doubt we can come up with ways to fill the gap – nutritionally as well as emotionally – so that all mothers, regardless of feeding method or economic situation, can feed with love.

 

First world problems, here we come.

Want to get involved with #ISupportYou or #FeedWithLove? First, read Kim Simon’s post. Then, post here or there, or email me (formulafeeders@gmail.com), with your ideas, contacts, suggestions, etc. 

Guest Post: Respecting the Bottle During Breastfeeding Awareness Month

The following is a guest post I received in response to the I Support You movement. I’m currently on deadline for a whole mess of work, but will return next week with new posts and (finally) the collection of #ISupportYou messages and photos. Until then, I hope you’ll find Kathleen’s passionate and reflective essay as cheer-worthy as I did.

- The FFF

****

Respecting the Bottle During Breastfeeding Awareness Month

by Kathleen Holscher

My daughter turns a year old next week. She’s a joyful force—climbing, cuddling, staggering around the room with growing confidence. There are a thousand things that amaze me about her, and my relationship with her, twelve months in. One thing I’m amazed by, and proud of, is that she and I are still breastfeeding. After a rocky start—a NICU stay, feeding and oxygen tubes, an early bottle given to her by a well-meaning nurse—I pumped, nearly exclusively, for the first six months of her life. For the first six weeks, she screamed at the sight of my nipples, never latching once. After that it was a long, slow, and uneven process—dreary pumping sessions, day and night, punctuated by an occasional hopeful moment when the baby would want to nurse. Most of the time she didn’t. I had just started a new job, and was teaching full time for the first semester after her birth. It wasn’t until I began my (delayed) maternity leave that she and I were able to build our breastfeeding relationship, gradually, one session at a time.

 

Today, feeding her feels comfortable, an expression of who I am, and who we are together. For a long time, though, nursing her (and not nursing her) was hard. Hearing or talking or reading about breastfeeding filled me with guilt that sometimes verged on despair. I’m the woman Americans probably imagine when they think of a breastfeeding mother—higher degree, relatively affluent, liberal leaning, with a desire to do everything from childbirth to diapering “naturally.”

It was how I imagined myself, anyway. Even as I pumped, I felt like a failure. I felt like I was failing my child. The first time we supplemented my pumped milk with formula, after a miserable series of clogged ducts tanked my supply, I cried. We’ve supplemented with formula ever since.

 

And so, while I feel fortunate and proud to be approaching the one-year mark breastfeeding, the culture of breastfeeding has left a lasting and bitter taste in my mouth. Yes, teaching women about the benefits of breastfeeding is important. It’s absolutely critical—and I can’t stress this enough– in the developing world, in places where women don’t have reliable access to formula and clean water to prepare it with. Yes, breastfeeding also benefits women and children here in the United States. It absolutely does. But for many women, breastfeeding is neither easy nor “natural.” For some women it’s not reasonable, given the demands of fulltime employment, or lots of other circumstances life throws their way.  For a few women it’s not possible. My own experience, my opportunity to build a nursing relationship gradually, isn’t typical—most American women don’t have the luxury of a maternity leave that lasts for months and months, a pediatrician for a father-in-law, a mother and a gang of friends who also breastfed. Most women don’t have the resources to build a breastfeeding relationship with their child, when that relationship takes extra time and effort to build. I know many women would love to build that relationship, and many feel like failures (are made to feel like failures) when they can’t.

 

Breastfeeding advocates in this country need to advocate not only for new babies, but also for new mothers with busy and complicated lives. That means more than just urging women on, telling them “You can do it!” (the primary message I received at the lactation class I attended). It means finding ways to continue supporting women when they do not. Until American hospitals, health insurers, and corporate and government leave policies are all transformed to provide mothers with the enormous resources it actually takes to breastfeed, a woman should feel confident and reassured when she decides to give her baby a bottle of formula. At the end of the day, a mother needs to be able to decide which option- breast or bottle- is best for her and her child, without worrying that she’s making the weak, harmful, or “lesser” choice.

 

Again and again, women I’ve met have responded to my baby’s chubby legs and cheeks with the exclamation, “Well, she must be a breastfed baby!” It’s a situation I disliked intensely when I was exclusively pumping, and I continue to dislike it, even now, when I can answer them in the affirmative. Sure that’s me being sensitive—but we new mothers are a reliably sensitive bunch. There’s a fine line between healthy encouragement of breastfeeding, and unhealthy pressure toward the same. Finding that line is easier said than done. Still, in the future, when I give advice to my friends who are approaching motherhood, it will be this:

 

Do what works for you, and do all you can to ignore the rest of them. Formula is not poison—it’s just not. Breast or bottle, your baby will turn out fine.

Kathleen Holscher is an assistant professor of American Studies, and the endowed chair of Catholic Studies, at the University of New Mexico. She lives in Albuquerque with her husband, her daughter, and her dog. 

I Support You: Yes. And.

Back in drama school, we used to play this game called “Yes, And”. Basically, one person would start an improvisational scene by saying something wacky, and her partner would need to accept the challenge by acknowledging the setup and running with it.

“This meatball is causing a traffic jam.”

“Yes, and… I wish we hadn’t decided to take a left turn and run smack into the middle of the annual Butcher’s Parade. Next time, listen to the damn GPS, will you?”

Ok, so I kind of sucked at that game, which is why I never pursed improv as a career. But I always thought that the concept was one that should be applied to debates. Instead of immediately challenging someone’s point of view, what if people listened, accepted the challenge by acknowledging the perspective, and ran with it?

“Breastfeeding needs to be promoted and supported.”

“Yes, and… there needs to be a way to do it without limiting a woman’s autonomy, ignoring social and cultural barriers, and marginalizing those who end up formula feeding.”

This, to me, is what the “I Support You” movement is all about. Offering the yes, and proposing the and. Telling the powers that be, and each other, that what’s currently happening in the world of infant feeding isn’t good enough; that we can’t support some women while penalizing the rest.

When I first approached Jamie and Kim about initiating a supportive, inclusive movement that could bring moms together, I wasn’t 100% sure what it would look like. All I knew was that as Breastfeeding Week approached, I was starting to see more pain in my inbox, more anger on my Facebook page. Memes popped up like snarling Jack-in-the-Boxes, taunting us with images of baby bottles lying in caskets, misquoted statistics, careless messages that divided moms into categories of “good” and “less-than”; “us” and “them”. Women I greatly respect began resorting to schoolyard taunts, when a few weeks prior they were able to discuss the same issues respectfully and calmly.

This happens every year. Breastfeeding Week brings out the best and the worst of breastfeeding advocacy, and thus the best and the worst in the women that this advocacy has failed. No matter how much we support breastfeeding, the current atmosphere in the media and the blogosphere infects our wounds, whether fresh or scabbed over, and immediately puts us on the defensive. Some of us would love to go to one of the incredible “Latch On” events happening in our towns, but worry that by showing up with bottles full of formula we’d be viewed as unwelcome intruders. It’s hard to imagine we wouldn’t be, when so much of what we see online is about how our method of feeding our children is dangerous and a direct threat to the efforts of breastfeeding moms. We want to share “Happy World Breastfeeding Week” messages, but worry that posting something like this is an invitation to be tortured by comments about how sub-par the food we feed our babies is.

I wanted to find a way to celebrate the efforts of our breastfeeding sisters, and to show that we support them – that we aren’t the enemy, not by a long shot.  Jamie and Kim felt the same way, from their respective “sides” of this perceived mommy war. So, we asked women to share photos and messages of support, whatever that meant to them. The response was incredible; far more than we ever expected. I put some of these photos into a video slideshow, which you can see below. I’ll also be putting up all the submissions as a static webpage in the next week, so that we will have a permanent collection of these messages of commiseration, empathy, and hope.

We’ve been getting some backlash about the fact that we launched this project during World Breastfeeding Week, and we understand where this is coming from; we’re not trying to steal the thunder of those advocating for more awareness for breastfeeding throughout the world. But we also feel that the best way to support breastfeeding is to ensure that every woman feels empowered and equipped to feed her baby in the best way possible. That may not always mean breastfeeding; this doesn’t mean that we are ignoring the science, but rather performing our own risk/benefit assessment and making a highly personalized decision. This may not be your choice, and it may not be the best choice on paper, but parenting is not a standardized test. It’s more like an open-ended essay question. By listening to each other’s stories, as long-winded, convoluted, and complex as they so often are, we can start fresh. This can wash away the negativity, judgment and defensiveness, so that we can more adequately address the real reasons women are not meeting breastfeeding recommendations. And we can do all of this without ruining a mother’s sense of self or well-being. I think that’s a pretty clear win-win.

So… yes. And… how do we actually go about doing this? Jamie has written a great post about how we can better support breastfeeding mothers, and why we need to take a global perspective on these issues. Kim has offered some amazing practical tips on how to best support a new mom who is trying to breastfeed. Go and read these; then read them again. Think. Digest. Process.

I’d like to offer my own suggestions, about how we can better support moms who either choose to or have to formula feed, whether partially or exclusively. This may seem counterproductive to Breastfeeding Week, but I don’t see it that way. According to our latest Breastfeeding Report Card, by 3 months out, 63% of us are using some formula. While advocates are fighting to raise these rates for the future, we need to address the NOW. And besides, there have been, and always will be, women who choose not to breastfeed. By ignoring their needs, we are putting their babies’ health and their mental health at risk – and that’s certainly not conducive to improving maternal and infant outcomes.

Start addressing the REAL reasons women are unable to meet their breastfeeding goals.

In the past 4 years, I’ve heard countless stories of women who feel immense loss, pain and guilt due to their infant feeding experiences. Very few mention the reasons for “suboptimal breastfeeding” that are so often cited in breastfeeding advocacy literature – formula marketing, embarrassment over the process, lack of education. What they do mention is feeling incredible pressure to “succeed”; physical impediments that were probably foreseeable, had anyone thought to examine their breasts prenatally; and varying degrees of support that felt more like judgment. To counteract this, we need to time our education and preparation for breastfeeding better. By having more realistic conversations – both with our care providers and each other – we can raise awareness for the problems that might make breastfeeding difficult, so that we can properly manage them. For example, I’ve heard from many women who had never heard of IGT (Insufficient Glandular Tissue) until they read about it in an FFF Friday story, and realized that they had all the symptoms and markers for the condition. If they’d known about it, they may have been able to seek specialized lactation assistance that could have helped them at least partially breastfeed, if that’s what they wanted to do.

As for the pressure to succeed – this is what “I Support You” is trying to counteract. While some people work better under pressure, others are rendered impotent by it. If you know that those around you support you and have your back no matter what happens, you can go into birth and breastfeeding with a sense of confidence and flow.

Provide better educational materials and assistance for formula feeding parents.

Since formula is seen as a competitor to breastmilk, any mention of it is perceived as a threat to breastfeeding success. For those of us who are formula feeding, this means that every article we read about the basic how-to’s of formula begin with long caveats about the benefits of breastmilk, which can feel really punitive, especially to someone who feels crappy about using formula in the first place. We don’t have the formula equivalent of LLL, so there’s little peer support, and prenatal classes don’t typically discuss bottle feeding. The clearest, easiest-to-find information about formula comes from the formula companies – and when we’ve been taught not to trust them, this causes internal conflict and confusion.

I keep hearing stories from parents whose daycare providers are mixing or handling formula in very unsafe ways – and god only knows how they are handling pumped breastmilk. Until we all get a year’s paid maternity leave, the fact remains that a large portion of America’s kids are going to be in daycare. Improper formula handling can make babies extremely ill, so this is a matter of public health. While we are promoting breastfeeding, we can’t throw the baby out with the sterilized, pre-boiled formula water. If we stopped viewing this issue as breast vs bottle, perhaps we could ensure that bottle-feeding parents were given adequate education and information so that they too could feed babies in the healthiest way possible. We have a right to know that we can still do skin-to-skin, that we can “bottle-nurse”, and that we can practice paced feeding and treat mealtimes as bonding times, just like breastfeeding moms can. We have a right to know that there are differences between formulas, and to have more options (donor milk, new types of formula, organic and GMO-free varieties) available to us.

Focus on peer support and maternal mental health as well as breastfeeding support.

Breastfeeding has a learning curve, and it can be really difficult to get through the first few weeks. It’s essential that we have organizations like LLL and hospital-sponsored breastfeeding support groups. But there’s no reason we can’t promote social interaction and professional facilitation of peer support for ALL moms. Postpartum depression is a major problem in this country, and maternal mental health affects breastfeeding in a myriad of ways. Since the only care providers that typically encounter a mother between birth and the 6-week postpartum visit are the pediatrician and the lactation consultant, we need to make sure that these professionals are taught to pay as much attention to a mother’s eyes, behavior and words as the functionality of her breasts.

Don’t put yourself in an us vs. them mindset.

We all want to find our tribe, but try and remember that tribes are made up of individuals. Just because someone doesn’t parent exactly the way that you do does not mean they are judging your choices. The I Support You movement is a launching pad for us to start fresh – to teach the next generation of moms that to be a breastfeeding advocate does not necessarily mean you have to vilify formula; that there’s a way to be positive and empowering in your advocacy. And, for formula feeding moms, I Support You challenges us to stand up for breastfeeding rights; to understand that nurse-ins are not about formula hate, but rather a protest against misogyny and conflicting messages (“breastfeed or else, but not for too long or in front of me”… I mean seriously, what kind of bullshit is that?).

It may seem overly simplistic to think that we can hold up a bunch of signs, snap a few photos, and change the world. But this week, we’ve witnessed how many people are hurting, and how many people are in dire need of support. This doesn’t negate the need for breastfeeding advocacy; if anything, we need it more than ever. But we also need to find a way to reframe this ridiculous battle between breast and bottle. And that isn’t the responsibility of breastfeeding advocates; it’s the responsibility of the rest of us, the moms who have the power to reach out to another mom and let her know you’ve got her back. We can start in our own social circles, and create an atmosphere that counteracts whatever muddled messages society may throw at us. This is a way of saying yes to the positive actions breastfeeding advocates are taking to help mothers reach their breastfeeding goals. But let’s not forget the and.

So, yes. And… I support you.

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Interested in joining the “I Support You” movement? Here are more ways to get involved:

1) Check back later this week, when I’ll be posting a collection of the stories, messages and photos I’ve received from women all over the world, responding to the “I Support You” call for submissions.

2) “I Support You” is thrilled to be partnering with Huffington Post Parents to celebrate Breastfeeding Awareness Month.  Our friends at HuffPo believe that it’s time to celebrate ALL feeding choices, and they’ll be working with us throughout the month to share stories about what feeding with love really looks like.  Let’s make sure that they know how much we appreciate their message that we are all doing our best to feed in a way that works for our family, by joining the conversation here.

3) Join us on August 7th for a Twitter Party at 5 pm PST/8 pm EST.  We will be encouraging all of you to share your stories and connect with parents who are making similar choices.  We’d love to hear your suggestions about how I Support You can take shape in your community, so we hope you’ll join us by using the hashtag #ISupportYou

4)Link your blog up by clicking on the button below, and show us how you feed with love; share an interview with someone you did who has an entirely different feeding experience than you.  In the subject line, please state HOW you feed and WHERE you feed so that other parents can connect to someone who feeds the same way they do.  Or even better, they can learn from someone who feeds differently than they do. (Example: “1st Time Breastfeeder, CA” or “Formula, foster mom, TX” or “EP mom, NICU twins, MI”)

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