Common Bonds: The challenge of nurturing friendships in the early days of motherhood

When I was first trying to get pregnant, I suffered a few early miscarriages. Going through that particular kind of hell actually had a silver lining: it led me to join an online “support” message board on a popular baby site, something I probably never would’ve done otherwise. But I didn’t have any close friends who’d gone through pregnancy loss, and there was something intensely comforting about turning on the computer at any time of day and finding at least one virtual “friend” at the ready, available to commiserate and connect.

This group of ours became inseparable, and over the course of a year, we bonded through fertility treatments, pregnancy scares, and subsequent, unfair, heartbreaking multiple losses.

And then, we started having babies.

And this group, which had been so strong despite our geographical, religious, political, ethnic and socioeconomic differences, did begin to splinter, but just a tiny bit. Comments tinged in tentative judgment about birthing choices, small digs about things someone would “never” do or questions met with not-so-hidden sanctimony. Things were changing, and it was hard to watch, but  overall, we were still miles above the typical mommy-chatroom behavior norm.

When I started having trouble breastfeeding, I immediately turned to this crew for help. I expected some judgment, especially as I’d started seeing so much friction in the group. But oddly, magically, there was NONE. There was only support. These friends of mine – women whose voices I’d never even heard, or whose eyes I’d only seen in photographs – reassured me, counseled me, implored me to do what was best not only for my child, but also for myself.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t find the same degree of support in real life. Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Wasn’t the World Wild Web supposed to be the cesspool, teeming with anonymous, heartless trolls, whereas the “IRL” people were grounded in the humanity forced on us by feeling someone’s breath on our skin, having their eyes meet ours?

I’ve thought a lot about this over the years… why our group was immune to the usual mommy war bullshit. I don’t think it was because we were better or kinder or more highly evolved – I’ve seen the same group disintegrate over political arguments and anti-vaccination threads on Facebook, 6 years after our merry band of miscarrying misfits had formed. No, I think our immunity had more to do with us starting out so different from one another. Unlike most friendships, we didn’t have a lot of common ground. For the most part, we only had one thing in common: grief. The rest of it never mattered. We had perspective.

Perspective, in my opinion, is what destroys friendships. Or rather, the lack of perspective is what destroys friendships. Especially when your friendship faces the hurdle of parenthood. As new mothers, we are all floundering, trying to find our way through thickets of thorny branches. Go to far to the right, you get pricked. Lean too far to the left, you get pricked. Either way, you’re going to bleed. Our friends should be there, but often they aren’t in the woods with us at all, and from their vantage point, the forest looks picturesque and cheery. If there’s someone by your side, swaying in the same direction into the same thorns, you can hold each other steady. But someone who leans in a different direction might pull you too far, topple you over. It’s easier to let go of her hand and find your way through the woods alone.

When I was struggling with breastfeeding, my friends who didn’t have kids yet couldn’t understand why I was so obsessed with what did (or didn’t) go into my baby’s mouth. Others, child-free friends who thought they “knew” how important breastfeeding was, understood why I was thinking about these things, but acted confused when I grew sensitive at their intellectual discussions about human milk. (For them, it wasn’t visceral, it wasn’t personal, it was just what they’d read in Time magazine. For me, it was my nipples, my body, my baby.) My breastfeeding friends couldn’t understand what I was going through, assuming my struggles paralleled theirs, and if they could push through, why couldn’t I?

They couldn’t understand.

But here’s the secret: they didn’t have to.

Friendship isn’t about commiseration. It’s about empathy. You don’t have to have walked through the same thorny thicket, you just have to show up with band-aids and beer.

There are many friendship theories about how like-attracts-like, and I worry that this is never more true than during the mothering period of a woman’s life. Not only do we find it hard to connect with friends who don’t have kids, but we find it hard to connect with women who have kids but parent them differently. That’s normal, I suppose; there’s a human tendency to want to validate ourselves through other people’s choices, and an innate desire to see ourselves reflected in our friends’ eyes. When we seek out new mom-friends, of course we will gravitate towards women who can relate to our everyday experience, and whose discipline, feeding, and parenting styles are close to our own.

It’s so easy to forget, in those poop-stained, exhausting, dizzy days of baby and toddlerhood, that we are more than mothers. We are sisters, aunts, daughters, employees, poets, musicians, writers, readers, dancers, athletes. We are multifaceted. Yet the part of ourselves that takes utmost priority when it comes to nurturing and developing friendships is the part that gave birth. Why can’t we connect with a woman who feeds and diapers her child differently, when three years ago we would’ve bonded quickly and powerfully over a mutual love of Ani DiFranco? Maybe it’s hard to feel close with a former friend who is formula feeding, when you’re struggling so hard to breastfeed because you feel it’s the most important thing you can do for your child – but why can’t you step back and celebrate what you do have in common?

This potent mix of hormones, hopes, fear and ambivalence – this thing we call motherhood – can create amazing friendships. It can also destroy amazing friendships.

I’m pondering all of this, because I am honored to have an essay in a new collection of stories about female friendships, which is available for purchase now. It’s called “My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Loving and Losing Friends”, and it’s part of the phenomenal HerStories Project, spearheaded by Jessica Smock and Stephanie Sprenger. Not all the stories in it are about motherhood, but many are, and nearly all focus on times of transition. Each and every story is heartbreaking in its own way, but for me, the ones about motherhood provoked a powerful sense of frustration and sadness. Because it doesn’t have to be this way. These things that divide us don’t need to do so, but they do. They almost always do. Fear, judgment, resentment, pain – emotions that should be mitigated by friendship, but are instead exacerbated by it.

 

My-Other-Ex-final-3-266x400

So tell me, FFFs – did you lose friends during your transition to motherhood? Did you patch them up later? Do you have “another ex”?

 

A World Breastfeeding Week Plea: Stop celebrating, start collaborating

Usually, I’m all over the place this week. Getting quoted in the requisite “it may be breastfeeding week but gosh darnit some women still find exclusive breastfeeding super hard” articles. Posting my own stuff here on the blog, or over on HuffPo. Talking about #ISupportYou and pissing off hundreds of people in the process, because they see it as a veiled attempt to “steal the thunder” from World Breastfeeding Week.

But this year, I’m all but invisible.

Part of this was unintentional. I’ve been going through some stressful career-change mishigas, dealing with the inevitable gaps in childcare that occur between camp and school, entertaining a ridiculous number of visiting extended family members. I’ve been too exhausted to blog, or talk to media sources, or self-promote (because let’s be honest – that’s a part of what all of us parenting bloggers do. Even the most altruistic of us. Even those of us who don’t depend on hits or advertising or who never make a cent off their blogs. We write because we want to be heard; we pray for bigger audiences, book deals, evidence that we’ve made some sort of impact. I happen to be rather shitty at this, which is why I don’t blog much anymore. I don’t have the stomach for that part of the job).

Another part of my conspicuous silence has been intentional, however. Probably more than I care to admit. See, I’ve been focusing my efforts on the supportive stuff. Reaching across the aisle, trying to understand all facets of this debate, and hoping that by creating better resources for all moms, I can help stop all the guilt/anger/resentment/confusion/hurt. I know that breastfeeding is important to many, many women. I want those women to succeed, and feel happy and proud and supported. So this year, I wanted to try and stay out of World Breastfeeding Week drama like I try and stay out of my kids’ sibling squabbles.

Yeah. Because that works so well with my kids.

The problem is, I also want formula feeding mothers to feel happy and proud and supported. And for some reason, it’s not okay to want both of these things. It’s ok to pay lip service to it, to claim #ISupportYou and tell formula feeding moms that celebrating breastfeeding isn’t about them. But if you actually do the work you need to do to ensure that non-breastfeeding parents are supported, you are violating WHO Code. You are taking attention away from the women who “need it”. You are stealing…. what? Resources? Sympathy? One-up(wo)manship?

I tried to stay out of it. I really did. I held my newly-minted CLC certification close to my non-lactating chest and bit my tongue.

And then the articles came, and came, and came. And so many this year were not about the benefits of breastfeeding, but rather how hard it was. Or how hard it was NOT to breastfeed. How this mom felt like she was poisoning her baby, or this one felt like she’d be booted from the “mom club” because she didn’t wear the EBF badge.

So much guilt/anger/resentment/confusion/hurt. None of it is stopping. There’s more this year than ever before.

Then this happened.

https://www.yahoo.com/health/olivia-wildes-breastfeeding-photo-causes-a-stir-93893024387.html

https://www.yahoo.com/health/olivia-wildes-breastfeeding-photo-causes-a-stir-93893024387.html

And I heard my community inwardly wince. Not for the reasons you might think. Not because they didn’t think it was a beautiful image, and not because it glamorized something that had been messy and painful for most of them, although those certainly were thoughts that some of us had to squash down into that endless pit of mother-guilt. No, it was because it was yet another image of a breastfeeding celebrity, with headlines and stories that spoke of her bravery for normalizing nursing, and comments all over the place about how breastfeeding was finally being celebrated.

I think, for many of us, it was the “finally” that did it. For many of us, it would seem far braver for a celebrity to do a shoot with her bottle-feeding her kid with a can of formula in the background. We have only seen breastfeeding being celebrated. There’s so much partying going on, and we feel like the crotchety old neighbors calling the cops with a noise complaint. But you know, it’s late, the music is loud, and we’re tired.

Now, just to be clear – I’m talking about breastfeeding being “celebrated” That celebration doesn’t do us much good. It does not mean that it is easy for moms to nurse in public. Obviously, it isn’t. Or that lactation services are plentiful and accessible to all. Obviously, they aren’t. Breastfeeding is celebrated, but that doesn’t stop it from being difficult for the new mom in the hospital, whose birth didn’t go as planned. Or the one who has to go back to work 2 weeks postpartum. Or the one with a job not conducive to pumping. Breastfeeding is celebrated, but not when you’re overweight. Or when you’re nursing a toddler.

Idealized images in the media of what breastfeeding looks like do not normalize nursing. In fact, I’d argue it fetishizes it – not for men, so much, but for women. Now, we don’t just have to feel inadequate for not fitting into size 2 jeans a month after giving birth, but we need to feel inadequate if we don’t meet the feeding norm and make it look gorgeous and natural and easy.

Please do not misread what I’m saying here – talking about breastfeeding, supporting breastfeeding, and implementing changes to make breastfeeding easier for those who want to do it are important, admirable, and necessary goals, as far as I’m concerned. But the comments I saw coming from my community after this photo hit the news were not about any of these things. They were from women feeling totally drained, frustrated, and alienated after a nearly a week of hearing how inferior their feeding method was, who were sick of being told they were defensive or that they feel guilty if they tried to stand up for themselves. This story was the last straw. It’s weird, when you think about it – it wasn’t the piece on the risks of formula, or the memes about the superiority of breastfed babies – what broke the camel’s back was a seemingly innocuous spread of a gorgeous, confident actress proudly nursing her baby.

This is what perpetuates the cycle of guilt/anger/resentment/confusion/hurt: our lived experiences are so damn different, that it’s like we’re constantly talking at cross-purposes. The nursing mom who is the only one in her small town not using a bottle sees a photo spread like this as thrilling, victorious, self-affirming – as she should. The formula feeding mom living in Park Slope who carries her formula-filled diaper bag like a modern-day hairshirt sees the same spread as just another celebrity being held up as a pioneer, when she’s only doing what’s expected of a woman of her stature – as she should. Both are right. Because both are personal, emotionally-driven responses.

Earlier this week, I said that deciding how to feed your baby is just one of a myriad of important parenting decisions. But somehow, it’s become the most important one. We cannot expect formula feeding moms to support their breastfeeding sisters when they don’t receive the same support. We just can’t. It’s not fair, and it’s not realistic. I feel like that’s what I’ve been asking of all of you, and somehow I just woke up to that fact.

Why are there still articles talking about how shitty we feel for not breastfeeding, instead of articles talking about what’s being done to change this? Where is the news story about the doctors who are saying enough is enough (because I know they are out there – many of them contact me, and I appreciate these emails, but I wish they were able to say these things publicly without fear of career suicide)? Where’s the NPR program about ways we can improve breastmilk substitutes so those who cannot or choose not to nurse aren’t left hanging? Where’s the Today Show, The View, The Katie Show, doing segments on why women are REALLY not meeting breastfeeding recommendations, instead of segment after segment on how brave so-and-so is for posing nursing their newborn on Instagram, or talking to dumbasses on the street about the “appropriate” age for weaning?

When we stop “celebrating” and start normalizing and supporting and being realistic about how different life can be even just a street away, maybe World Breastfeeding Week can have it’s proper due. Maybe we can actually talk about ways to help women in the most dire straits feed their babies as safely as possible – clean water, free breast pumps, free refrigeration, access to donor milk.

I want to be able to be silent during World Breastfeeding Week. It shouldn’t have to be “overshadowed” by emotional, personal pieces about breastfeeding “failure”. It shouldn’t be a time for articles about not making formula feeding moms feel “guilty”. These words shouldn’t even be part of our infant feeding lexicon, for godsakes. Failure? Guilt? For what?

This year, I want us to stop celebrating, and start having some calm, productive conversations with people outside your social circle. For many of us, the celebration feels exactly like high school, when the popular kids had parties and we sat home watching Sixteen Candles for the thirty-fifth time. That’s not to say breastfeeding isn’t worth celebrating, but the end goal should not be one group feeling triumphant and the other feeling downtrodden. Formula feeding was celebrated for decades too – and that celebration made the current atmosphere of breastfeeding promotion necessary. Please, let’s learn from our mistakes. Let’s move on. Rip down the streamers, put away the keg, and open the doors to the outsiders looking in. You never know – they could end up being the best friends you’ve ever had.

 

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. 

Announcing the “I Support You” Movement

Last week, I got together with a group of friends for a rare “mom’s night out”. We sat for hours, sipping white sangria and inhaling carcinogens from the nearby fire pit, laughing in that way only overtired, overstressed moms can when they finally get a chance to let loose.

I’d met these women at Mommy & Me when our firstborns – all boys, born within days of each other- were about 8 weeks old. So it was no surprise that as the night wore on and the wine glasses were emptied, our conversation turned to those hazy postpartum months, when we were younger, more confused versions of ourselves. I began inwardly musing how much we’d all evolved since then; how through two pregnancies each, our strength and power as women had stretched to new limits along with our bellies.

And then it happened.

“Do you guys remember breastfeeding support group? What a godsend that was!” one of my friends gushed.

“I remember sitting next to you and crying,” said another. “Eh, I think we were ALL crying,” another responded, and the whole group started laughing in self recognition and commiseration.

I felt my shoulders tense up, an ancient and forgotten ache shooting through them, down into my belly, where old pain dies hard. The ache grew deeper when one of my friends told me that my children probably didn’t sleep as long as hers did because she breastfed them, because “nursing gives them sleepy hormones”. And when another, trying so hard to be kind and include me in the conversation, reminisced about seeing my son in his infant carrier making little sucking movements with his lips as he slept, “as if he was still sucking on his bottle”.

And all I heard was “other”; all I heard was “different”.

The next day, I was interviewed for a documentary about breastfeeding, and asked about my journey from passionate breastfeeding wannabe to Fearless Formula Feeder. I’ve done interviews like this a hundred times now; told my story a hundred more. But this time, when I came to the part where I went to Mommy & Me for the first time – the first time I’d really been out in public, let alone surrounded by other moms and babies, as prior to that I’d been stuck at home attached to my pump and held down by the weight of postpartum depression and a baby who couldn’t stop crying, no matter what we did to soothe him – I felt the ancient pain rise up like bile in my throat. As I recalled sitting there, in a circle of nursing moms, feeling like all eyes were fixated on my bottle, judging me, I choked back ugly, rusty sobs. Rancid tears punctuated my typically canned tales of feeling separate, isolated, and constantly on the defensive.

I don’t think I’d realized how much the previous evening’s conversation had affected me. My children are 2.5 and 4.5; while some of my friends have younger babies or are still nursing their second-born toddlers, breast vs bottle is not something that our group is emotionally invested in. Breastfeeding, in and of itself, doesn’t really come up anymore. But breastfeeding support group does. The days we  they spent at the park discussing breastfeeding difficulties do. Those days carry a rosy glow for my friends, but my memories are tinged with gray. Those days I sat silent, clutching my son’s formula filled bottles, gritting my teeth through the inevitable comments about how terrified they were of having to supplement, smiling a frozen smile when a new mom would join our fold and ask the inevitable question “are you pumping?” which would be met with someone else in the group recounting my story of going above and beyond, as if I needed excusing.

Something I’ve heard a lot from those who don’t quite understand my passion for this issue is that “once your kids are out of the infant stage, you won’t care so much about breast or bottle.” And that’s true, to a large degree – the scary statistics and shaming memes don’t carry the same power; I’m able to dismiss them, laugh at them, debunk them without it affecting me personally. What surprised me about the other night and my subsequent breakdown over faded memories, is that while the logistics cease to matter, the old pain and doubt are always there.

There’s a lot of research out there about imprinting, and how first experiences affect infants. But isn’t new motherhood a sort of infancy, itself? Here you are, reborn into mother, your skin and organs and thoughts raw and foreign. Everything is new. Everything is a first, postpartum- your first shower, the first time you have sex, the first time you take the baby for a walk, the first time you feel confident in your new role. Is it surprising, then, that your first social interactions as a mother don’t imprint on you in the same way a new food imprints on an infant’s taste buds?

What would have my postpartum experience been like if I could’ve sat next to my new friends without being afraid of what they’d been made to believe about formula feeding? If I could’ve attended a support group in those first weeks, too, and not had to wait 8 weeks before my community allowed me the gift of peer interaction? And what would my friends’ experiences have been like if they hadn’t been made to feel like failures for the supplementing they had to do, or made to believe that their ability to breastfeed was what made a mother worth her title? What if we could have all been supported in our individual experiences and goals, without fear of some Orwellian gaze, labeling us with a “pass” or “fail”?

And most of all…. what would have happened if I’d had the courage to speak up; to give voice to my demons, to help my friends understand how their innocent words could hurt more than my Pitocin-induced labor pains? What if we could have spoken openly, and found our differences to be our power, the power that could bring light to our fundamental sameness?

World Breastfeeding Week begins in a few days, and the theme this year is “Breastfeeding Support – Close to Mothers”. This is a fantastic theme, because breastfeeding moms need tremendous support, especially in those early days. But I think we should be taking this a step further. ALL new moms need support. Hell, all moms – those with toddlers, those birthing their fourth babies, those with teenagers – need support.  I think brand new moms are the most vulnerable, though; these are the women who are not only dealing with all the craziness that babies bring, but also their own rebirth.

I want to support breastfeeding mothers. I wanted to support my friends, in those early days; I wanted to help them through their struggles, but I felt trapped by my own insecurity. Their efforts seemed like an indictment of my choice. Their well-meaning questions about whether I’d tried talking to a lactation consultant (try seven) felt like judgment.

The problem is not us, us mothers just trying to do our best for our babies, us mothers desperately seeking a tribe, a source of support, a group to someday drink sangria with and laugh about how tough those first few weeks were. The problem is with how breastfeeding has become the antithesis of formula feeding; the problem is with how the two are set up as black and white, as polar opposites, as competing interests – rather than as two entirely independent, valid ways to feed children. Those promoting breastfeeding because they honestly believe formula is risky can continue to do so, but I think there is space for a new type of breastfeeding advocacy and support: one that celebrates and honors mothers’ autonomy, and focuses energy on providing REAL support to those who need it, regardless of feeding method. If infant feeding wasn’t set up as a succeed/fail dichotomy from the beginning, imagine how moms might be able to support each other without feeling alienated or judged for different choices?

My belief that this type of advocacy would be far more powerful in helping mothers meet their breastfeeding goals is what has inspired me to join forces with Kim Simon of Mama By The Bay and Jamie Lynne Grumet of I Am Not the Babysitter, to encourage moms to stand up and say “I Support You”.

Created by Cary Lynn Davis

Created by Cary Davis

The I Support You movement is a respectful, empathetic, compassionate exchange between parents.  We all feed our children differently, but we are all feeding with love, and in ways that work for our individual circumstances and family dynamics.  I Support You is the first step in helping formula-feeding, breast-feeding, and combo-feeding parents to come together and lift each other up with kindness and understanding. We have chosen to announce this movement during World Breastfeeding Week, to honor the commitment of those who fight for better support for breastfeeding moms; we are inspired by this, but believe that by changing the focus to supporting all parents, we can truly provoke positive change without putting the needs of some mothers above the needs of others. The “I Support You” movement aims:

 

1) To bridge the gap between formula-feeding and breastfeeding parents by fostering friendships and interactions.

 

2) To dispel common myths and misperceptions about formula feeding and breastfeeding, by asking parents to share their stories, and really listening to the truth of their experiences.

 

3) To provide information and support to parents as they make decisions about how to feed their children.

 

4) To connect parents with local resources, mentors, and friends who are feeding their children in similar ways.

 

(written by Kim Simon with a tiny bit of help from me)

 

If you want to join the movement and celebrate real support with us:

 

Send us your photos. I’m creating a slideshow of photos to show how beautiful support can look. If you are willing to let me use your image, take a photo of you, your baby, your family, you and a friend – doesn’t matter – with a message of support (i.e., “I exclusively breastfed, but I know every mother does what is right for her – and I SUPPORT YOU” or “I may formula feed, but I’d fight like hell for a woman’s right to NIP. I SUPPORT YOU”) and send it to formulafeeders@gmail.com by Friday, August 2nd.

 

Interview Your Opposite. Are you a blogger?  Are you a formula-feeder who is best friends with an extended breastfeeder?  An adoptive parent who knows of a mom using an SNS nurser with a baby in the NICU?  We want you to interview someone who is feeding in a different way than you are, and then publish it on your blog.  If you’re interested in participating but don’t know where to start, feel free to email me at formulafeeders@gmail.com for a list of interview questions.  On  Sunday, August 4th, we will ask you to share your story with us, by adding your link to the I Support You blog hop. If you don’t know anyone who feeds in a different way,  send me an email and I’ll try and connect you to someone.

 

Join us for a Twitter Party on August 7th, at 5pm PST/8pm EST.  We’ll be asking you to share your truths about your feeding choices, and connecting you to other parents who might be feeding their children the same way.  You can find us with the hashtag #ISupportYou.

 

Create your own meme or message of support. If you’re tech savvy, feel free to create a meme or shareable video that honors the “I Support You” message, and share it on the FFF Facebook page.

 

Check out Kim’s incredible, spine-tingling post on the “I Support You” movement, here.

 

The best way to counteract hate is by drowning it in a sea of change. The tide is rising, and we can float above the negativity and fear; push down the us-versus-them bullshit and let it sink to the bottom, where it belongs; lure it to its death with a siren song of I support you, sung far and wide.

 

Start swimming, fearless ones. I support you.

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