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”?

 

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.

How the other half lives: Negative perceptions of formula feeding and breastfeeding, and why they both suck

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!

Queen Windjammer@Graceeellen

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)

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!”

(Source: http://community.babycenter.com/post/a41326993/bronze_bottle_award)

“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.

Getting a grip on the Strong Mom Empowerment Pledge Controversy

The latest outrage in the breastfeeding advocacy world doesn’t have to do with dying children in resource poor nations, or bogus “breastfeeding advice” hotlines run with the nefarious goal of undermining a mother’s goals. It’s not even about someone questioning the benefits of breastfeeding, or urging the government to rethink some of its public health messaging.

No, this week’s rage-fest is over a campaign asking women to pledge not to bully one another based on their parenting choices.

Sound silly? Well, according to a handful of well-respected bloggers, it’s about as silly as a car wreck. This is because the campaign is sponsored by Similac, a formula company, which has everything to gain by women feeling “empowered” to use their second-best (or fourth best, if we’re going by the WHO hierarchy) product in a world made less judgmental by a pledge such as this.

On a purely anti-capitalist, anti-marketing level , I understand why some may feel a little queasy about this campaign. I’ve seen some backlash against the Dove Real Beauty ads for the same reason – the message is great, but the fact that it was created by a group of advertising executives rather than a non-profit, purely altruistic group, sullies it. There’s an ad term for what Dove and Similac are doing – the “halo effect” – meaning that when you use the product, you’ll have positive, do-gooder type feelings about it. Coke’s done it, too. (Remember that catchy “I’d like to teach the world to sing” jingle? Halo effect, right there.)

I assume this is what was behind tweets I came across today suggesting that formula companies have no place talking about parenting issues. My counter argument to this is that many of us formula feeders feel abandoned by the parenting gurus (paging Dr. Sears) and in some cases, even our own pediatricians – the message we receive is that if we’re formula feeding, we’re pretty much a lost cause. So while I can’t say I’m thrilled that a formula company stepped up to fill this gap, I think we need to think a little more critically about why the gap was there in the first place.

For the record, with this particular campaign, Similac isn’t giving parenting advice, but rather advocating for an end to mother-to-mother judgment. More of an anti-bullying campaign than anything about parenting issues. Which is probably why they have Michele Borba as one of the spokespeople – she’s a well-known expert on bullying as well as parenting issues, but she barely deals with the infant/toddler set. For that matter, I don’t think babies are mentioned at all in the campaign literature –most of it has to do with embracing your parenting choices and not allowing other people to make you feel less-than.

But I’m not even all that interested in discussing the campaign itself – I’m more concerned with the response to it. Comments I’ve seen; articles I’ve read from some folks I have utmost respect for, but whom I feel really missed the mark on this one. Some of these arguments include: Similac has no right to talk about mommy judgment because formula feeding shouldn’t be a lifestyle choice; the bloggers who came on board to support the campaign are sell-outs or shills for Big Forma; and that the campaign is one big booby trap.

In a thought-provoking and controversial NY Times Motherlode column, KJ Dell’Antonia quotes Kimberly Sears Allers, who maintains that the Strong Moms Empowerment campaign is faulty because formula feeding is a public health issue, not a personal choice:

One centimeter beneath the surface of Similac’s “Strong Moms” Summit and online campaign you will find that framing of infant formula use as a “lifestyle choice” that is not to be judged has been its primary marketing strategy for decades. … And since choices are individual, they have no social consequences; women are therefore relieved of responsibility of considering the broader implications of their decisions. And once I make my choice, no one is to challenge me. We can’t talk about it. And if you do, you are judging me.

Admittedly, I’m taking major poetic license here, but my take-away from Allers’ post was that we can’t not judge other moms for doing something which puts babies at risk. KJ’s own argument is more nuanced and balanced; she suggests that this whole conversation has become too personal, and the “judgment” rhetoric just dilutes the real issues.

I agree with KJ, actually – it’s a point I’ve made myself, in my own somewhat pissy rants about how the only anti-breastfeeding-promotion opinions we hear come in the form of personal stories (which are important in their own right – don’t get me wrong – but hardly a match against scientific studies and “fact”-driven articles). But making things “less personal” doesn’t just mean that every blog post discussing breastfeeding must stop devolving into a who-had-it-harder string of comments. The onus can’t purely be on those whose choices are being questioned to buck up and be “strong”. If we’re going to make it less personal, than breastfeeding advocates cannot be in charge of conducting research on infant feeding. We need to ensure that voices from both sides are heard, so that formula feeding mothers don’t need to sit in awkward, shameful silence while the food that so beautifully nourishes their infants is compared to tobacco, lest they be accused of “taking things so personally”.  And outlets like the New York Times need to post intellectually-driven or research-based pieces from the “other” perspective, rather than just personal stories of breastfeeding failure, so that the conversation isn’t so one-sided.

But I think, in some ways, KJ’s point gets convoluted by Allers’ quote. It can’t not be personal, when a woman’s decision to formula feed is being equated to a public health issue. This is where the misinterpretation of risk within the breastfeeding canon is problematic; it is where people like Joan Wolf are so vitally important. And yet, Joan Wolf can’t participate in the conversation because it has become so personal: her assessment of the literature is brushed off as anti-breastfeeding, lost in the fervor of those who fear that discussing breastmilk as anything less than a miraculous and perfect substance, and breastfeeding as anything less than a moral imperative, will negate their admirable efforts to normalize what should be a human right.

The other common refrain in the past few days is that formula feeding mothers should be offended by this campaign. I’m crying foul. First of all, I take issue with breastfeeding advocates speaking for me – someone who felt completely ousted, chastised, and disenfranchised from their community, and their ideal of good mothering. Just like I will never know the hot rage felt by a nursing mom who is asked to leave a restaurant, someone who has a fundamental belief that breast is best will never know what it feels like to be told that your maternal instinct is faulty, due to susceptibility to marketing, stupidity, selfishness, or some combination of the three.  To hear a company which created a product that nurtured my babies echoing the same sentiments I’ve been preaching for years – that the judgment must stop; that moms need to stop fighting each other and work together for better parenting rights; that women need to stop engaging in sorority-level hazing in order to wear the label of “Good Mommy/Good Radical Feminist/Strong Woman – makes me happy. I don’t feel preyed upon; I am well aware that they are hoping to sell more formula, and you know what? If I had to decide between a brand that is marketing to breastfeeding moms and one that is finally trying to appeal to its actual audience, I’d probably choose the latter.

Someone commented on the NYT article that it would’ve been nice if this campaign came from an individual or group without profit-driven motives. Spoiler alert: that would be me. That would be Bottle Babies. We’re out there, doing this. But most people aren’t aware of us – we each top out at about 3k Facebook followers, opposed to the popular breastfeeding blogger-activists, who are all in the 200k range or higher (some of whom, incidentally, could benefit from a pledge not to bully other moms. Just sayin’.)  We have nothing behind us – no advertising, no sponsors. No money. It’s slow going, trying to make a dent, attempting to create change in a positive and real and measured way. We waste a lot of time defending ourselves against accusations of working for the formula companies; of being anti-breastfeeding; of being uninformed and defensive.  And trying to run our ad-free websites and blogs and attend conference on our own dime and BE HEARD when there are so many more powerful, louder people out there. I realize this sounds like a whiny me-me-me rant, but I’m trying to paint a picture here – because it helps explains why I’m okay with the Similac campaign. Until the indie, unsponsored voices are able to reach the masses, I’m just happy that someone can. I’m happy that women who are feeling judged and guilty and embarrassed about their choices, who are forced to read “Breast is Best” every time they see a formula ad, or open a can of food for their baby, can finally have an opportunity to feel good about the product they are using. That for once, we can feel like part of the sorority – part of the “empowered” group – even if it’s all manufactured and for profit, even if it’s bullshit.  It’s not even about the cheesy “empowerment” pledge – it’s about seeing a formula company treat formula feeding as something matter-a-fact, rather than constantly comparing itself to breastmilk, and in a more subtle and unintentional way, comparing formula feeding mothers to breastfeeding mothers. It’s about being able to feel okay about the way a formula company is operating, rather than cringing at how they are sending free samples to moms intending on breastfeeding (rather than those of us who’ve filled out the damn internet form 300 times and never received a single coupon, but I digress) or marketing some asinine product (like the company in question, with its new “formula for supplementation”. Jesus, Similac. I’m wasting time defending you and then you pull something like this? For real?)

Yes, it’s not perfect. But it’s a start. And if you think it’s sad that we are so desperate for acceptance and celebration that we are willing to get into bed with a formula company that thinks of us like an easy booty call, I’d recommend taking a long, hard look at yourself: at the comments you make; the Facebook posts you share; the policies you write; the initiatives you implement; the articles you publish.

Because yes, it is sad. It is sad that Similac has been able to capitalize on this need. It is sad that there is the need to capitalize on. And it’s sad that those who have created that need are refusing to see how implicit they are in the development of such a sad situation.

It’s just sad.

 

So funny, I could cry

I’ve said it many times before, but SO much of the breast/bottle debate comes down to perspective. If you’re a breastfeeding mom in many (and I mean MANY) parts of the world, you most likely feel like an outsider. Sure, most educated folks know by now that “breast is best”, but a lot of them get squeamish when they realize what that actually means. (“What? You mean these ladies have to actually feed their babies from their…um…eww. That’s gross and I – Oh look! My new Victoria’s Secret catalogue arrived! Would ya look at that.. now that’s what boobs are for!”)

But Mommy World is not the real world. It’s an insular, secret club; one that’s hazing process often involves failed birth plans, brutal pregnancy complications, and postpartum adjustment difficulties. Most new moms desperately need to gain entry to the club, though, because the alternative is to go through all of this crap alone, with only a meddling mother-in-law or a Victoria’s Secret catalogue-obsessed husband to talk to.

Mommy World exists in post-natal support groups, LLL meetings, and online forums. It doesn’t really matter if the club chapter you belong to is virtual or corporeal; in either case, you desperately cling to what you hope will be your tribe, and pray that you fit in, even if you were formerly a successful, ball-busting professional who scoffed at the concept of college sororities. Because you need this. You need validation that you are doing the parenting thing right. You need help getting through the foreign terrain of empty, sleep-deprived days, where all you do is pump/feed/cry/pump/feed/repeat. You need friends.

The mommy world can be a beautiful place, full of true support and sisterhood, where struggle turns into empathy. It can also be a cold, cruel world, where struggle morphs into bitterness and sanctimony, and the need to validate our choices becomes an excuse for smug intolerance.

This is why I shake my head at comments about how formula feeding moms have no reason to feel ostracized, considering our bottle-friendly society. The majority of Americans are obese, and yet most of us understand why an anorexic teen would feel undue pressure to stay thin based on societal ideals. When you add in the complexity of postpartum hormones and our innate, Mister-Rogers’s-generation need to feel special and “best” – well, I think it makes perfect sense that we’d feel a bit funky about bottle feeding.

I’m rehashing these thoughts because FFF Naima sent me this pitch-perfect clip from a recent Simpsons episode. I love it so much that I wish I could marry it (Fearless Husband just saw it and wants to marry it too, so we’re cool).

To Marge, and the rest of you hiding bottles under nursing covers – you’re not crazy. You’re just a citizen of Mommy World at the moment, and until you can beam yourself back into a normal dimension, know this: you are definitely not alone.

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