Over on Twitter, I follow a woman who goes by “WolfMommy”. It’s an appropriate handle; she’s an incredible advocate for breastfeeding moms, a mother-wolf who hunts a nasty prey comprised of people making disparaging remarks about nursing in public, and confronts them. The stuff she unearths is simultaneously depressing and infuriating; people making comments like “This lady Just pulled her saggy ass Boob out & started Breast Feeding in. my face” and “Come on lady breast feeding your baby in steak and shake that’s disgusting!!” (To which WolfMommy aptly responded “Another women’s breasts are none of your business. And if she was feeding her baby ‘in your face’ you should step back” and “A baby eating is not disgusting”, respectively. See? Told you she was awesome.)
I love following her for several reasons – first, she’s funny and brave, and a true champion for women’s rights. But I also like getting a feed of all the crap breastfeeding moms have to endure, because in my fight to end the stigma of formula feeding, I can’t let myself forget that breastfeeding women are being punished for feeding their babies, too. Here are some more comments that I’ve seen via WolfMommy’s rage-inducing Twitter feed:
LIVE PORN!!!!!!! RT
@AyeImShanzii: This lady breast feeding the child in front of us 😐
Just saw a Mexican lady breast feeding in the parking lot of work. Broad daylight. Happy Tuesday!
Some bitch is breast feeding in A&E. Bitch put your titties away.
Shall I go on? Or have you vomited at the ignorance and utter disgustingness of it already?
It’s a complicated issue for me to write about, this shaming of women for different feeding methods. My personal shit rises to the surface – I can’t help feel resentful that breastfeeding moms get New York Times articles and fundraising campaigns and nurse-ins to help them counteract the ignorance and cruelty, while formula feeding moms are told they are being defensive, whiny and overly-sensitive when we complain about the insults directed at us. It’s hard to be objective, because I’m human, and I spend hours every evening reading emails from women who’ve been intensely hurt by this vitriol. So I want to preface this post by admitting to a strong personal bias; I admit that I never had the opportunity to nurse in public (or anywhere other than my house, my hospital room, or my doctor’s office – all places that were unilaterally supportive of breastfeeding) and thus have no experience with that particular brand of shame. I am sure, knowing myself as well as I do, that if some asshat store manager had ever asked me to leave or cover up I’d have been livid, and I’d like to think I’d have turned into the kind of warrior that WolfMommy is (rather than the type of breastfeeding advocate who wastes her passion and anger trying to prove the inferiority of formula and formula feeding moms, as if we were the enemy, instead of the actual, ignorant asshats). But that’s not my story, and my role is to defend a group that (in my estimation) has been ignored, misunderstood, and dismissed, so that’s where I’m coming from.
In preparation for this post, I asked the FFF community to send me examples of negative comments about formula-feeders; things on par with calling a woman “gross” for breastfeeding, or inflicting a sexual overtone to her nurturing act. I wanted to compare the types of hate directed at breastfeeding moms to that directed at formula feeding moms, to try and help people understand where we are coming from.
No offense, but…
Interestingly, a lot of what people sent me were not direct insults towards formula feeders but rather negative comments about formula itself – that it was crap, poison, junk food, etc. I understand how that can be triggering; the implication being that anyone who knowingly fed her baby poison/junk food/crap must not care for her child’s welfare. But this does play into the stereotype that we are “overly sensitive”; some argue that it’s a “hate the sin, love the sinner” type of situation and that no one is blaming us for using a sub-par product since we obviously didn’t have the right education/support/personal drive to do the right thing. The problem is, we only have two choices in responding to such attitudes – we can either admit to not caring about what we feed our kids, or admit to being uneducated/unsupported/lazy victims. The only other option is to defend ourselves, and defend the product, which is often viewed as “defensive” or like we are comparing formula to breastmilk, thus belittling the efforts of those who are exclusively nursing:
“I must state that I regret ever using Enfamil or any other brand of baby formula due to the toxic ingredients that compose these products. The fact that they are developed and marketed to be used by infants that are still developing is just disgusting. I wish I had known what half the ingredients were & the potential side effects when I fed it to my boys, this applies not only to formula but all other forms of infant/toddler ‘food items’. I’m writing this as an now informed consumer not someone who is being paid by some other organization to post random things” (Source: https://www.facebook.com/Enfamil?fref=ts)
“Sadly many mothers fall victim to Enfamil’s aggressive marketing. People need to wake up and understand that infant formula should only be used as a last resort. Babies don’t thrive on formula, they only survive.” (Source: https://www.facebook.com/Enfamil?fref=ts)
“breast is best…lord only knows the after affects of chemically made formula……..autism anyone?” (Source: http://news.yahoo.com/fatty-acids-formula-linked-quick-thinking-kids-195825033.html)
Are you mom enough?
These types of comments are particularly insidious, because of course moms have every right to feel proud if they’ve dedicated themselves to the goal of nursing and overcome hurdles. But this achievement is no more admirable than that of a mom who faced the same odds and had the strength to do what was best for her family. I also think there is a difference between tooting your own horn and smacking someone over the head with a tuba. For example, if I said, “I’m so proud that my 4-year-old has started to read! I read to him every night, and he finally started sounding out words by himself. So exciting!!”, it might make someone feel a bit defensive that their 6-year-old wasn’t reading, but it’s a lot different than saying “Wow, my 4-year-old is reading! I sacrificed my workout time every night to read to him for an hour, and all my hard work is really paying off. I wish every 4-year-old could have the gift of reading – if only their parents were willing to put their children’s education first rather than worrying about their muffin tops.”
“The past three months, I dealt with cracked bleeding nipples, trying to wean off a shield which now makes it hurt every time she latches still, double mastits, thrush, growth spurts where I thought my tits were going to fall off, not being able to take some time to myself because no one else can feed her, rude comments for feeding my child in public, plus many other obstacles. I could have chose to throw some powder and water into a bottle and have my husband feed her but I powered through and THAT is why I deserve an “award” and you don’t. Harsh? Yes. True? Yes.” (http://community.babycenter.com/post/a41326993/bronze_bottle_award)
“Sure some people formula feed but I EDUCATED MYSELF and LOVED MY BABY ENOUGH to breastfeed because it’s the right thing to do. Im not just going to opt for convenience at the risk of my baby’s health.” (source: unknown – sent in by reader from her friend’s Facebook feed.)
Liar, liar, pants on fire
Source: Twitter (unknown origin)
These comments accuse women of lying or making excuses for formula feeding. Lately, I’ve been seeing more and more of this type of anti-formula feeder sentiment, perhaps due to the fact that we’ve found our voices – there’s a backlash happening, with women telling their stories in hopes of countering claims that nearly every woman can breastfeed. Again, there’s no real possibility of defending yourself against these comments; there is no way to prove you had a “legitimate medical reason” unless you are willing to post your official medical records; also, for those of us who believe it’s a woman’s right to choose whether to breastfeed, participating in this type of debate is a losing battle. It gives someone the power to qualify a woman’s pain – is emotional pain valid? How much physical pain is enough? – and no matter what, there’s always someone who will claim to have had the same problem and persevered. Or at least found some donor milk.
“I’ll be the bad guy and admit that I do look down on ff when it’s not for a legitimately medical reason. The times that are for real reasons (which doesn’t include not being able to tough it out past the wretched beginning) are not nearly as common as people claim. It bothers me that we have to go out of our way to make sure ff moms don’t get butt hurt but people are allowed to make comments to moms who nurse in public. I’m over it. Do babies survive on formula? Of course, but it’s there for when there are no other options because there it’s a reason breast is best. Go ahead and hate me!” ” (Source: http://community.babycenter.com/post/a41326993/bronze_bottle_award)
“I have no problem with women who chose not to breastfeed. My issues are with women who make every excuse in the book. Just be honest and say,’I didn’t want to BF!’ Quit saying you didn’t have enough milk or my baby was allergic, etc. It makes you look stupid to those of us who are actually educated about nursing!”
“How can a baby ever be allergic to breast milk? I believe that is impossible, sound like your doctor works for Nestlé’s. It is the mother’s diet that has to change and that affects the baby. If I were you I’d start pumping my breasts to start nursing your baby again. Any LaLeche league leader has years of experience in this field. Any fake formula is harmful to your child.” (Source: https://www.facebook.com/askthechicks?hc_location=timeline)
Consider the source
It’s one thing to see a nasty comment from young non-parents, or teenage boys, or people who don’t have a great grasp on grammar or spelling. It’s a whole other sack of potatoes to be insulted and shamed by government officials, medical experts, and respected breastfeeding advocates. The following comments were in response to a lactivist blogger’s question about “defensive formula feeders”, i.e., people like Hannah Rosin, Joan Wolf, and presumably me, who attempt to approach breastfeeding science a bit more critically. But these experts manage to disparage any formula feeding parent who refuses to feel guilty for the way they feed their infants; this is less about a handful of specific social critics and more about the thousands of women who aren’t interested in self-flaggelating behavior:
“We’re talking exclusively gut-level stuff here. My feeling after hanging around the topic these past four decades is that based on the collective knowledge that is readily available to anyone with a keyboard and a broadband connection, if you don’t understand the facts today, you’re very unlikely to understand them tomorrow…
I suggest referring to this particularly virulent variety of obstinate critic as charter members of the Flat Earth Society. I’m not joking, at least not in terms of the implications of their brand of reality that is being bandied about. We are mammals; this is what we do, or at least what we should be doing. To suggest, imply or otherwise posit that, alone among the 5200 or so mammalian species that have been evolving for the past 200+ million years, we are able to willy-nilly forsake our mammalian imperative with impunity would be risible if it were not so serious in its individual and public health dimensions.” – James Akre (source: thealphaparent.com/2013/07/the-art-of-denouncing-breastfeeding.html)
“Of course, the reality is that for many children in the US, bottle-feeding doesn’t represent a ‘miniscule or poorly understood risk’ – it represents a well-established higher risk of many different diseases both in infancy and throughout life, as well as a risk of a lower cognitive functioning. And for some children, their mother’s choice to bottle-feed will result, directly or indirectly, in their death.” – Katherine Dettwyler (source: thealphaparent.com/2013/07/the-art-of-denouncing-breastfeeding.html)
Another brand of indirect vitriol comes from experts who irresponsibly perpetuate the idea that formula feeding parents are directly responsible for the ills of our society. One frequent offender is Darcia Navarez, who is a professor at Notre Dame and a blogger for Psychology Today, who floats the following out into the ether:
“When your fellow citizens are not breastfed, it costs you. If you were not breastfed, it is costing you. It is costly for all members of society, whether or not you are a parent or grandparent… People who are breastfed are less likely to be get a host of mental and physical diseases throughout life and are less likely to end up in prison.” (Source: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/moral-landscapes/201108/breastmilk-wipes-out-formula-responses-critical-comments)
And then, of course, there’s Dr. Jay Gordon, who either has a complete lack of understanding for the concept of correlation vs. causation, or just doesn’t give a crap:
NOT breastfeeding leads to 13 (!!) extra pounds by early teen years. Formula feeding creates increased obesity!
Now- none of this negates the fact that women’s rights are being infringed upon when they are being asked to leave Target for nursing their babies, or told that they have to cover up on an airplane. Those are issues of basic human rights; I wouldn’t even categorize them as “shaming” because they go so far beyond that. ALL women should be fighting against the misogyny and puritanism that contributes to this type of injustice – when a mom gets harassed for feeding her baby, that’s an insult to ALL moms. But it has to go both ways – we can’t fight for a woman’s right to breastfeed her baby based on feminist and human rights ideals, and then allow formula feeding parents to be disenfranchised instead. There must be a way to support breastfeeding without throwing formula feeding mothers under the bus. The simplistic, us-vs-them thinking that has created the Mommy Wars must end, because it serves no one, and wastes our valuable time with in-fighting. I don’t know about you, but as a working mom of young kids, I barely have time to go to the bathroom, let alone fight social inequities. It’s exhausting having to constantly defend ourselves; imagine what power we would have if we could stop blaming other mothers for our plight and instead, join together in raging against the paternalistic machine that has made infant feeding a pain in the ass for all of us, rather than the joyful experience it should be?
World Breastfeeding Week is coming up (August 1-7), with this year’s theme being “Breastfeeding Support: Close to Mothers”, and I want to throw out a challenge: I want to hear from breastfeeding and formula feeding moms about how we can support BOTH groups better. I think it’s clear that both groups are being harassed, albeit in different ways, and I am hoping that by communicating honestly with each other, we can give adequate support to all parents. I believe that by supporting all moms, we will be able to support breastfeeding mothers better. But more on that later- for now, I want answers to the following, depending on your perspective:
For formula feeding mothers:
How would the comments made about breastfeeding (above) make you feel? Can you understand why a mother might feel embarrassed, self-conscious and fed up when her method of feeding is constantly sexualized, made fun of, or stereotyped? Do you really think breastfeeding mothers are the enemy? If not, who is?
For breastfeeding mothers:
How would the comments made about formula feeding (above) make you feel if breastfeeding hadn’t worked out? Can you understand why a mother might feel hurt, defensive and angry when her method of feeding is constantly undermined and insulted? Do you really think formula feeding mothers are the enemy? If not, who is?
For combo-feeding mothers:
Considering you have the worst of both worlds when it comes to negative comments about infant feeding, what’s your take? Which make you feel worse- the comments about formula, or the comments about breastfeeding, and why?
I know it can be hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes- er, bra?- but I think if we can all accept that both types of feeding come with their own brand of bullshit, we might be able to let go of some of the anger, resentment and defensiveness that makes this particular mommy war so violent. There are people out there who genuinely believe that formula feeding is downright irresponsible and dangerous (see above comments by Dettwyler and Akre, for starters), and those folks probably have no reason to join this particular revolution. But they are the same people who want to make every woman birth the same, parent the same, and feel the same. I don’t think that the majority of mothers are so dogmatic- I think most of us are simply too caught up in our own personal plight to take a step back and be empathetic. And please notice I said empathetic, not sympathetic. There’s a difference between the two definitions, and in this case, that difference means everything.