FFF: Furious Formula Feeders?

“The community of women who choose to formula feed, and the moms who have so many challenges with nursing that they formula feed, tend to feel that the lactation professionals are insensitive, pushy and overstate the amazing-ness of nursing a baby. And they are ANGRY!! Check out the Fearless Formula Feeder page and you will get a massive dose of angry. They seem to take so much personally and cannot seem to see the broader cultural ramifications of the formula companies’ marketing campaigns. They also do not seem to understand that successful nursing is time sensitive. It has to be initiated early after birth or there is really no going back.”

 

After seven years of working in the infant feeding space, I’ve become rather immune to criticism. There are people who will never understand why a site like this is needed; people who think what I do “promotes” formula feeding; people who don’t think there should be any sort of choice in how babies are fed. Recently, my Facebook readers were threatened by someone claiming they would be reporting them to social services for child endangerment, due to their feeding method. It happens. People suck, and all that.

But last night, I saw the above comment on the page of someone who claimed to be all about female empowerment, empowered choice, and sisterhood. This was someone I collaborated with – or, rather, allowed to use my image and words in a way that resulted in no financial compensation, favorable publicity, or support for my own cause (the exact opposite, actually – it was a film which portrayed formula as the devil and romanticized mostly white, upper class, celebrity women and their breastmilk). Someone I welcomed on the FFF page. Someone, I assumed, who respected that our opinions were different, but whose goals were ultimately the same: ensuring that mothers were informed, autonomous, and supported in their choices.

Seeing her comment did, indeed, make me “ANGRY!!”

Then, I started thinking… maybe she’s right. Maybe we really are ANGRY!!. For a moment, I felt self-conscious and defensive, wondering if I should post something sweet and positive to counteract this negative portrayal.

But then I stopped myself, because damn straight, I’m angry.

I’m angry that despite sharing hundreds of stories of what the “breast at all costs’ mentality does to women, the people who are responsible for perpetuating this culture refuse to listen.

I’m angry that these same people spend so much time and energy hating the formula companies, when the formula companies are not the ones mishandling women in the hospital, leaving IGT and other potential breastfeeding complications undiagnosed, ignoring the mental health needs of new parents, or forcing women to go back to work after a few short weeks in order to support their families.

I’m angry that they can’t see the difference between “anti-breastfeeding” and “anti-breastfeeding-extremism’. These are not the same things. quotescover-JPG-32

I’m angry that they continue to gaslight the women who come to me for help, sometimes suicidal, over their perceived “failure” to breastfeed.

I’m angry that they are allowed to be angry at anyone and everyone who doesn’t think the way they do, but insist on absolute complacency and infinite patience from us.

I’m angry that they think we are uninformed about breastfeeding, when the most common reason parents come to my page is that they were blindsided by formula feeding; they had read books and taken classes on breastfeeding, but never even thought of using formula. These women know more breastfeeding than most. They know about jaundice protocols, Thomas Hale, SNS feeding, galactogogues, tongue ties, lip ties, skin-to-skin, the magic hour, the breast crawl, good latches and bad latches, exclusive pumping, power pumping, and more. They know how important it is to breastfeed immediately after birth. There’s a reason nearly every FFF Friday starts with a scene in the delivery room.

I’m angry that some of the “new voices” in this debate are doing more harm than good, making claims that can’t be supported, confusing the issues, and making it harder for the rest of us.

I’m angry that my community members are told that they are victims when they don’t feel like victims. I’m angry that when they do feel victimized, they are dismissed, brushed off as unfortunate casualties in the War Against Big Bad Formula.

I’m angry that the formula companies continue to make stupid marketing moves, adding fuel to a fire that should’ve been extinguished back in the early 1980s.

I’m angry that “celebrating moms” always means “celebrating breastfeeding”. Moms should not be celebrated for feeding their babies. They should be celebrated for doing a job that is often hard and thankless, for bringing home the bacon, frying it up, and cleaning all the dishes afterwards before putting the kids to sleep and working on tomorrow’s quarterly reports. I’m angry that this myopic focus, this fetishizing of what should be a perfectly normal act, marginalizes adoptive parents, primary caregiving fathers, and anyone without working mammary glands.

I’m angry that moms can’t nurse in public without it being a fucking federal case. Literally.

I’m angry that moms don’t get sufficient support in the hospital for breastfeeding – especially if they are young and/or non-white.

I’m angry that parents get no support whatsoever about formula feeding, and that parents in the UK need to preemptively bring their own supplies if they think there’s even a chance they might need or want to supplement. (Has anyone else thought about how this might be more self-sabotaging than having formula available in the hospital? Not that I think either is actually self-sabotaging, but for those constantly making that argument… let’s use basic logic for a minute.)

I’m angry that my use of formula is somehow threatening to your efforts to encourage other women to breastfeed.

 

I’m angry that women insist on battling each other in these snarky ways, like life is just one big junior high school. Grow up. Grow. The. Hell. Up. There are so many problems in the world – you really want to spend time arguing about whether we feed babies breastmilk or a perfectly viable substitute? Is live and let live really that hard a concept? Do you really have nothing better to do than tell random women on the internet how they are Doing It All Wrong? And formula-feeding moms who hang out on breastfeeding sites to cause trouble – I’m talking to you, too. You’re part of the problem. Making shitty comments about breastfeeding moms, who have just as much right to community and support as you do, is hypocritical and mean. Mean girl behavior is not “venting”.

I’m angry that comments like the ones above leave my community no choice but to stay silent. If they respond, and say what they want to say, they sound ANGRY!! If they don’t respond, they are silenced. Neither is an attractive or empowering choice.

I’m angry that I still feel the need to write posts like this, when my kids are in elementary school. I am angry that I care. I am angry because it doesn’t change anything, and I’d probably be a much happier person if I never said the word “lactivism” again.

So yes, I am angry. In fact, I am ANGRY!! And I’m sure much of it is self-imposed, because I could be focusing my own efforts on something more important, like the Syrian refugee crisis, the poverty and inequality in my own city. I could be focusing this energy on my children – sometimes I think that formula feeding made me a better mom, but Fearless Formula Feeder made me a pretty crappy one.

As for the FFF community? Sure, I suppose they are ANGRY!!, too. But no more than they should be. And if they are talking and venting and crying and supporting each other on my page, they are handling that anger appropriately. They have a safe space to work through that anger – but there are many people who want to take that away from them. “Concern Trolls” who repeatedly post inflammatory pieces (and if you’re going to argue that “information” isn’t ever inflammatory, ask yourself: would you post a piece on how easy it was for you to get pregnant on an infertility support page? Or an article about a plane crash on a Fear of Flying support group?), “experts” who try to school them, people who don’t believe they have any right t feel bad because formula feeding is so prevalent. (So is obesity. Doesn’t make the kid who gets relentlessly teased in school for their weight feel any better.)

Most of my readers work through their anger, and move on. Many go on to breastfeed future kids, armed with the knowledge they now have that there’s no such thing as failure. They understand relative risk. They know how to spot problems, and what can and can’t be done about them. They aren’t trapped in the sticky spider web of dogma. They know they have a soft place to land, should things not go as planned.

ANGRY!! isn’t a bad thing. ANGRY!! is what makes us act up, speak out, and create change. ANGRY!! is a healthy, justified emotion when you’ve been shamed, mistreated, embarrassed, ignored, and insulted. ANGRY!! is empowering, as opposed to sad, depressed, lonely, ashamed.

So yes, you’re right. We are ANGRY!! We don’t enjoy it. We don’t want it. We want to move on and be HAPPY!! CONFIDENT!! ACCEPTED!!

Maybe if you could just let us be, you could let us be.

_______

The following are some additional comments sent to me by FFF members, reacting to this piece.

“Well yes I am angry. I am angry for being bullied into breastfeeding even though it was clearly not the right path for me. I’m angry my sons were left to go hungry and get sick because nobody would believe I wasn’t producing breast milk. I’m angry my midwives believed in breastfeeding at all costs. I’m angry there were entries in my post natal notes essentially calling me lazy and not trying hard enough to breastfeed. I’m angry that “normalise breastfeeding” has caused the vilification of formula feeding. I’m angry that I have been made to feel like a second rate mother who is poisoning her children and condemning them to a life time of low intelligence and obesity. That is, of course, if they survive child hood at all. I’m angry that I am supposed to laud and bend over backwards to accommodate breastfeeders but the courtesy is never returned. I’m angry that twaddle like “only 2% of women can’t actually breastfeed” is bandied around and taken as gospel, despite there being no respectable scientific research into such a claim. So yeah, I am angry. But as I usually say, if you kick the dog long and hard enough, sooner or later it will bite back.” – Emma

“What it comes down to is that unless you agree with the lactivist mentality that breastfeeding is a child’s “birthright” and that it’s the “end-all, be-all” of infant nutrition, then you wrong, misguided and angry. In reality, we are standing up for what we believe in just as much as they are standing up for their beliefs. However we believe in a women’s right to choose, to keep her bodily autonomy while still nurturing her children. And above all we lift one another up as mothers. I’m proud to be a part of the latter side.” – Deanna

“Being angry about having your body policed and having your parenting choices judged and shamed is a completely legitimate feeling/thing. Or are we as women only allowed to ever be happy or sad and anger is never ever appropriate?” – Nikki

“I wonder what the end game is if they actively alienate women who chose to, or had to, formula feed. I wonder, do they really care if we breastfeed? If so, do they think this kind of hurtful rhetoric will be a useful tool in convincing women to try breastfeeding again with the next child? Or are they just turning women off to their agenda through causing them pain? I for one have found the most support and kindness in caring for my child in the ff community, so I’d stick with what worked to keep myself and my family healthy and safe. It just seems so disingenuous that they are trying to “help” through hurting people. I don’t think they give a fig in the long run what I or any of you do, or for the health of our children. They just want to stare into their own reflections in solipsistic fantasy.” – Jessie

“I’m not angry that I couldn’t breastfeed. Not anymore, at least. You know what DOES make me angry though? A bunch of sanctimonious women (and men too, I guess) telling me how wrong I am for feeding my children formula. You know what? Formula saved BOTH of my kids’ lives. And it saved my sanity! My kids are happy, healthy, and thriving.” – Tasha

“I’m not angry or disappointed that BFing didn’t work out for us. I really don’t care anymore. Shit happens. I’m angry about the way moms are treated and babies put at risk for something that doesn’t really matter.” – Amy

“It’s funny because I’m not angry at all. Formula helped my son’s life from the beginning and formula helped me through PPD and other issues with my two girls. Not angry, grateful.” – Shannon

” I honestly think we are entitled to stand up for ourselves. All of us have at least one, if not many more, stories of being shamed for feeding our healthy and beautiful babies. The whole reason we’re here is to receive support from each other, that we are amazing mothers and parents, regardless of how we feed. We aren’t here to just bash breastfeeding, we are here for each other when everyone else is bashing us. were an amazing group of women who need support. We may come off as angry, but if these individuals who bash were in our shoes, they would see just how wrong their opinions of us are.” – Alexis

“They don’t even get *why* I’m angry. It’s not about me, I don’t give two shits I’m angry for two reasons. 1-All of the lovely ladies and GOOD MOMS who come here with broken hearts because of how the lactivist community has treated them and 2- Because their judgement doesn’t end with their side eye and snarky comments, they are changing public policy (think BFHI and all the horror stories from WIC offices) and that affects all of us. I don’t care if you sit there and comment about my bottles til the cows come home, but when you’re changing policies based on bad info that’s dangerous.” – Maria

“As someone who had no desire to BF whatsoever I have never gotten used to the opinion that we’re not allowed to decide what we want to do with their bodies and we’re not allowed to get angry when people tell us we’re not allowed to decide– or act as if we are stupid or misled when I KNOW we are some of the most informed women when it comes to this issue.” – Nicole

 

“How can they read the stories of what the mothers and babies went through to establish breastfeeding, and still blame women and claim everyone can Bf!!. DARN RIGHT I am angry!!!!!. I bought the “everyone can breastfeed” BS. None of those brilliant nurses (who were also licenses LCs) managed to help my baby latch. My baby had hypoglycemia, jaundice and lost 10% of her birth weight within two days, under their ‘watchful eye’.” -Bahan

“The justification for why why “should not be angry” is both condescending and misdirecting. Also, I’m pretty sure a lot of us are way more educated on formula and breastfeeding, and have given far more thought about the rhetoric surrounding it and it’s implications than most people.” – Bethanny

“They’re silencing us, undermining our autonomy. ‘They make X choice because they’re angry and stupid so X isn’t valid'” – Stephanie

It’s Not About the Brelfie

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

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

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

This is not progress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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The Sorority

You honestly thought you were past it.

It’s been four years since you’ve had a newborn. Four years since you had to answer the inevitable are you nursing? questions, or had to buy a can of expensive hypoallergenic formula, or stare in envy at how easy it was for your friends to feed their babies. You’d sit there covered in renegade powder and splashed water, smelling like rotten potatoes; they’d push aside a designer nursing top and feed with ease. But you got through that hard first year. It was done. It was over.

But then, friends starting having more babies. Some were first timers, some were on number three. And though they may have struggled, all went on to join the sorority. You know the one: Alpha Lacta Nu. 7110705855_5443084995_mIt’s a pretty easy sorority to join; the hazing involves some cracked nipples, a few hundred dollars in lactation consultant fees (at least pre-influx of Baby Friendly initiatives and ObamaCare), and a successful completion of Lactogenesis II. But for those who don’t pass the lactation equivalent of pledge week, it can feel like the most exclusive club in town. (Exclusive. Huh. Why does that ring a bell…?)

Beyond the politics of infant feeding, beyond guilt, beyond misleading articles, beyond the pressure to meet public health recommendations, lies something far simpler and emotionally loaded: it’s the feeling of being left out. Of not being allowed into the sisterhood. Of not being part of the real Club Motherhood, the one that shares inside jokes about drinking while nursing or recipes for lactation cookies.

Years go by, and the club opens up – now, your entry is based on toddler tantrums, preschool admissions, moving to neighborhoods “for the schools”. You find common ground. You start feeling like maybe motherhood is more than this, more than milk, more than nutrition, more mind than body.

But it’s always there – that little fizzle of ugly jealousy in your gut – and it will remind you of its presence when you see one of your own – one of the “uninitiated” – gain entry into the sorority with a second or third child. Suddenly, you’re left out again. One of your uncool friends just got invited to the cool kid’s table. She looks up, over her tuna fish sandwich, and shoots you an I’m-sorry-I’m-still-me-I-still-love-you-but-this-is-way-more-fun kind of half-smile. And the leggy blonde next to her, the one with the perfect teeth and 4.0 GPA, tosses her hair and you know, in that moment, that your friend is no longer like you. How can she be? She’s in.

And while you know – you know – that your lack of breastfeeding did nothing to your child’s health, or intelligence, or beauty; and you know – you know – that you are no less of a mother because of how you fed – that doesn’t stop the hurt. Because that’s not what it’s about. It’s not about guilt, or regret, or even jealousy of the nursing itself. You know you made the right choice for your and your family. It’s not about what people think it’s about.

It’s about wanting to be part of the club. Just for once. To not have to be the one people feel sorry for (oh, she couldn’t nurse, poor thing) or talk about (I bet she didn’t have enough support) or judge (I heard she could have if she’d just tried) or try and reassure (it’s okay! My aunt/sister/friend’s baby was formula fed and she’s just fine!) as they politely close the door to the sorority house in your face.

It’s about feeling happy and sad at the same time, when you see one of your own finally gain entry. You want her to be happy, to succeed at something that caused her pain and sadness the last time. But it’s also the loneliest feeling in the world to lose one of the only people who know what you know, and feel what you feel. You’re thrilled for her. And you also hate her, in the ugliest, tiniest, most disgusting part of your soul.

It’s about wishing for the day that motherhood won’t be measured in ounces produced, or tears shed, or bottles filled, but knowing that day probably won’t come, because it’s human nature, and we’re human.

It’s about reaching out, and wanting to start your own sorority – one that accepts you for who you are, and knows that your journey isn’t exactly like hers, and that’s okay – and finding more drama, more disagreement, and more ugliness.

It’s about realizing – finally, really realizing – that you’re not alone. That there’s community out there. That one day, this too really shall pass; that the majority of your close friends will leave the childbearing jungle years, and this sorority will cease to matter.

Someday, we will all graduate. I promise. And when that day comes, I’ll be the one waving my cap in the air, shouting hallelujah to the bigger, broader, world that’s waiting for us all.

 

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.

 

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