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.

 

Breastfeeding pressure doesn’t care about privilege

I am privileged.

I’m not rich, but I have never gone hungry; never been without a roof over my head; never wanted for anything (well, nothing more pressing than a better body and maybe a date with Ewan MacGregor circa Trainspotting). I don’t know how it feels to be judged by the color of my skin. I’ve been discriminated against, as a Jew and a woman; called names like kyke and jewbeggar and bitch, but I’ve never been racially profiled or held back by a language barrier, or assumed to be suspicious or uneducated because of the way I look.  I have a great husband and amazing friends and ridiculously supportive parents and in laws.

I realize that in the United States, this means I am incredibly lucky. I also realize that this means I have no business assuming things about anyone else’s lived experience. It doesn’t matter how many academic texts I read or people I speak with in a clinical setting – I can’t know how it feels to be dependent on welfare, or in an abusive relationship, or at a dead-end job with a sexually harassing boss.

I often hear that the pressure to breastfeed is a problem plaguing a specific socioeconomic and geographical subset of women; that my assumption that women are being harmed by overzealous breastfeeding promotion is dripping with “privilege-laden assumptions”. The people making these claims insist that poor, minority women think formula is superior (because they’ve all been victims of unscrupulous marketing and social pressure), and do not know the benefits of breastfeeding, and that if anything they feel ostracized if they breastfeed. Formula feeding, they say, is the unfortunate norm – my concerns have no place in these communities.

I don’t deny that I am coming from a certain perspective, and I always acknowledge that things are different depending on where you live, and what your social circles are doing. I also don’t deny that these social and marketing influences are real. But I think it’s just as privileged to assume that all women in lower socioeconomic areas need to be “educated”, and to ignore the fact that the lower a woman’s status in society, the easier it is for her bodily autonomy or emotional well-being to be violated. Ensuring that the rights of these women are protected is more important than raising breastfeeding rates – and the same policies which are worrisome for a privileged white woman are even more deleterious for someone whose voice is already struggling to be heard.

Yesterday morning, I met with two women who work at an organization serving a lower income neighborhood of Manhattan, helping teenage mothers from a variety of cultural backgrounds. These women told me that in some of the ethnic groups they serve, breastfeeding is very much the norm; in others, it is not as culturally accepted. Their organization is extremely pro-breastfeeding – there is no formula available at their office to give to girls in need, and they encourage breastfeeding throughout the prenatal period and beyond. But when I brought up the idea that the girls these women work with are not being affected by the “breastfeeding makes good mothers” philosophy, I was met with disbelief. “The ivory tower ideal is even more of an ideal for someone who is already struggling to fit the definition of a good mother,” one of them explained. They expressed a need for better messaging – encouraging at-risk women to focus on mothering rather than just feeding. Things like promoting skin-to-skin, reading to your baby, eye contact… not putting the emphasis on breastfeeding as the be-all end-all of parenting.

I also learned that the breastfeeding education these girls are given mostly consists of comparisons between formula and breastmilk, and information on how breastfeeding leads to better bonding and healthier kids. There is little instruction on the actual mechanics of breastfeeding, or how to manage the lifestyle barriers that could make exclusive nursing difficult. So while these young women may go into labor wanting very badly to give their babies the best (and they are well aware its the best, as their prenatal education features lectures on the differences between formula fed and breastfed babies), once they leave the maternity ward and have to return to work or school within a few weeks, without successfully establishing breastfeeding, or knowing how to pump, or how to advocate for their right to express in the workplace (if their workplace even falls under the parameters of the latest breastfeeding laws, many end up on formula- without any advice on how to do so safely.

After that meeting, I had lunch with an FFF who lives in Brooklyn. Her story was all too familiar – wanting to breastfeed, finding herself faced with low supply, getting conflicting advice from healthcare providers, balancing her own health and sanity with her (incredibly nuanced) understanding of breastfeeding’s benefits. The same sort of story we often see on this blog, from an educated mom with a supportive partner who had the ability to hire lactation consultants, and knew how to read scientific literature well enough to suss out her own risk/benefit analysis.

Obviously, this woman came from a very different situation than the women represented in the day’s earlier conversation.  But there was a remarkable similarity in what was expressed by everyone I spoke to. There was consensus on what we need: a more balanced, less hysterical, more individualized approach to infant feeding. All agreed that an honest discussion of the challenges of breastfeeding would be helpful, and that education on formula feeding safely and knowledgeably would go a long way in protecting the physical health of babies and the emotional health of mothers, regardless of their socioeconomic or ethnic background.

The stories these women are telling are not about white or black, native or immigrant, poor or rich. This isn’t about politics. It’s about what will be the best choice for an individual woman in her individual circumstances. These are stories with one moral: that we can – we must – support a woman’s right to breastfeed as well as her right to choose not to breastfeed.  This isn’t about doing away with Baby Friendly, because we need to ensure that women are getting a good start to breastfeeding and every opportunity to make it work (and that means switching the focus from vilifying formula to actually helping women initiate and sustain breastfeeding in practical ways). But we need to speak up and insist that there is a way to do this without loading more pressure onto new mothers.

I have a feeling breastfeeding guilt is seen as a problem of the privileged, because we are the ones with the time, resources, and autonomy to speak up about it. That doesn’t mean women of other backgrounds aren’t feeling the same pressure, perhaps manifesting in even more damaging ways. Still, it’s not my place to pretend to understand them, or to put words in their mouths. There’s no way I could, because these women aren’t an aggregate. They are individuals. To speak for the “disenfranchised” or “minority communities” as a sole entity is asinine. My experience is extremely different from other moms in middle-class Los Angeles – that doesn’t make it any less real, or valid.

One-size-fits-all infant feeding policies do not work, because women are not one-size-fits-all. In fact, in both fashion and life, one size usually just fits a lucky few. To label breastfeeding guilt as solely an experience of one type of woman, and paternalistic “education” as necessary for another, is just plain wrong.  It would be nice, instead of arguing about who has the most altruistic motives to help certain groups of moms feel empowered, we just focused on empowering all women to make choices that feel right for them, and to decide how their bodies are utilized.  Because while I would never attempt to speak for anyone, I don’t think it’s a privileged assumption that most of us would appreciate the ability to speak for ourselves.

 

 

Can formula feeding really be “fearless”?

The lovely KJ Dell’Antonia recently mentioned my book and blog in a Motherlode column she wrote about the recent onslaught of breastfeeding-pressure backlash. There was the refreshing -albeit unfortunately titled- piece by a father in the Atlantic, followed by another excellent Motherlode post by writer Marie C. Baca about “embracing” bottle feeding- these came on the heels of a number of other articles which cropped up over the summer and in the early fall, as a result of Latch On NYC and a few other initiatives that have passed in the United States and abroad. Dell’Antonia observed that in all of these writers’ submissions (including yours truly’s) to the infant feeding discourse, one thing remained consistent:

…What’s striking about Ms. Barston’s and Mr. Kornelis’s stories, and most stories of “fearless formula feeding” is still really how “fearless” they aren’t. In every narrative of not breastfeeding, there is the obligatory note of failure, as though justification were the first order of the day… for most women, not nursing, for whatever reason, remains a troubling topic. As long as women are occupied with the litany of excuses… then the conversation will stay on defending the bottle or breast, and off the more important question of how to ensure that the choice between them is dictated more by health and happiness and less by circumstance.

This struck a nerve with me. Scratch that – it pinched a nerve. Her theory was like a constant, nagging backache, reminding me that it needed attention every time I moved a bit too fast. It took me a few days to untangle what bothered me so much about these assertions; the ensuing discussion on the FFF Facebook page only served to deepen my desire for answers (or a good massage).

All of you made fantastic points about why we so often appear to be defensive about our choices. Some argued that while we may indeed give excuses, this is because we are conditioned to expect judgment. “I think our stories are tinged with defensiveness since before even sharing them we are already preparing to be attacked,” Tara mused. Lisa echoed that sentiment. “For me, it wasn’t inner guilt – it was everyone’s expectation that I SHOULD feel guilty and that I had done something wrong. Frankly, I was outright pissed off by the insinuations and outright accusations that by formula feeding my daughter, I was setting her up to be fat, stupid, and unhealthy. That’s where my defensiveness came from – the need to defend my choice.” And others thoughtfully mentioned that while we may indeed appear defensive, a lot of it may simply be our way of dealing with complex emotions over the inability to do something we wanted very badly to do:   “”I don’t believe that guilt is a simple emotion – I felt guilty because my boobs failed, I also felt guilty that I was happy that formula was working for us. I felt I was letting my daughter and others down. Guilt is often the result of being unable to change a moment in time – it’s not always about what is right or wrong,” wrote Allison.

As a few of you rightly pointed out, so much comes down to perspective. Unless you have lived through this particular kind of hell, you just can’t understand it. As Misty explained. “I think they mistake bitterness with defensiveness. Unless you’ve suffered the same societal and personal condemnation and guilt tripping that comes with the breast v bottle war, you can’t imagine what kind of damage and pain it causes to a woman’s soul. Obviously, not every woman who tried to nurse but went to formula experiences anguish about it, but many of us do, especially those who had fully embraced the ‘breast is best’ mantra. I still struggle with resentment toward the BFing friends and professionals who, in my opinion, needlessly caused me to suffer terribly as a new mother. I still have sorrow that my first year as a mother was so joyless, because others chose to reinforce my flawed views about BFing (which I’d gotten from them) instead of guiding me compassionately to a more balanced and emotionally healthier way of feeding my child.”

Perspective also plays into the issue of defensiveness in another way: the further away from it you are, the easier it is to approach the “Why I Formula Fed” question dispassionately. I guarantee that for most new mothers, ten years from now- hell, even five – this debate will bore the hell out of them. Other issues will take its place – education, bullying, puberty, safety concerns, etc. However, there are those of us for whom this isn’t just a personal tragedy, but a social problem, a cause which deserves our anger and outrage and yes, defensiveness. I don’t think it’s entirely realistic to hope that we can move away from defensiveness completely, because we are typically reacting to offensiveness.

I think you can be fearless and simultaneously feel the need to defend yourself. All “fearless” formula feeding means to me is that you feel you have made the best choice for your family, for your baby, for you. Fearless doesn’t necessarily mean regret-less, guilt-less, anger-less, resentful-less. It just means you’re not scared of your choice, because you know it is safe, and you know it was right.

But as for what KJ refers to as the “litany of excuses”… I’ve always suspected these are a necessary tool, a ticket to participate in the conversation. By explaining how much you wanted to nurse, and talking about all the struggle you went through to do it, it might help the opposition understand that this is not a matter of lack of education or drive. That it would at least start us on a level playing field, and take down the barricades at the border – I wanted to nurse, you wanted to nurse, we both believe in breastfeeding, so let’s try and discuss this rationally. I have nothing but admiration for women gutsy enough to just come out and say nursing wasn’t for them – I loved Amy Sullivan’s essay in The New Republic, and it was, indeed, the most “fearless” argument for bottle feeding I’ve seen (interestingly, Dell’Antonia felt that Baca’s piece was free from the normal guilt-ridden excuses. I thought it was an excellent piece, on every level – I mean really, really excellent, and quite fearless in a number of important ways – but the fact remains that Baca still mentioned that that she was physically unable to nurse. That gives her a “pass”, in many people’s estimation; it’s still a preemptive strike against condemnation, unconscious as it may have been). But one look at the comment section of Sullivan’s editorial, and you’ll see that it immediately erupted into a hate-fest. Breastfeeding moms took her words as an affront to their method of feeding; breastfeeding advocates told her she was misinformed; judgmental sanctimommies hurled accusations of the usual flavors- Sullivan was selfish, shouldn’t have had kids, etc.

Still, in the past few months, I’ve noticed something: no matter what the writer says, in every online piece I’ve read about formula feeding, the response thread is Exactly. The. Same. The same arguments, the same people, the same facts and studies and name-calling. So while I think we have a right to our emotions – whether these emotions are guilt or regret or anger or pride- we shouldn’t feel the need to state our case in order to create a more peaceful discourse. No matter what you tell them, haters are gonna hate, or whatever that saying is.

Ultimately, I think KJ is right: I’m not sure we can move forward in creating positive change for anyone until we can stop the vicious cycle of guilt-defensiveness-bitterness. I would argue, though, that this is not the responsibility of the women (or men) sharing their stories, but rather that the conversation at large needs to change focus and tone. This might start with media outlets allowing for more nuanced, balanced features on why breastfeeding isn’t working for so many women, rather than coping out with opinion pieces. It might continue with physicians being able to speak out against some of the newest breastfeeding promotion endeavors without risking their careers to do so. It might end with us accepting that changing our society to be more breastfeeding-friendly is far less of a public health issue than it is a question of personal freedom, women’s rights, and trusting our own instincts over what the experts deem is best.

 

 

Doctors can be fearless, too

When it comes to having emotional responses to posts about formula feeding, I’m pretty stoic. After reading so many heartbreaking stories you start disassociating – you have to, or you’d go crazy with outrage and frustration.

But tonight, I cried as I read this post. Happy tears. Tears of relief. And then, tears of frustration as I read the comment section.

The post in question was entitled “Let’s stop the war between breastfeeding and formula feeding”, and it was on a blog sponsored by MedPageToday. Pediatrician “Yolanda MD” wrote a rational, calm, but still impassioned post about how crazy the pressure to breastfeed has become, explaining that while she believes breastmilk is “incredible stuff” – she nursed her baby exclusively until suffering a supply dip after returning to work – breastfeeding is not always possible:

I still do everything I can to encourage mothers to breastfeed. I want to help them get through the ups and downs. But obstacles do arise. Obstacles abound. Breastfeeding does not come naturally for many, and life can often throw a wrench in the most well-intentioned plans. Severe pain and slow healing. Minimal time with a lactation consultant. Discouragement from family members or even medical providers. Postpartum depression and stress. Insufficient glandular tissue. Illnesses and hospitalizations. Medications. Returning to work. Limited support for pumping at work.

The idea that every woman can nurse is a hurtful myth….

Which is, of course, no shocker to anyone who reads this blog. But then, she says this:

I was fortunate and did not have difficulties with breastfeeding. But that’s all I can call it — fortunate. My ability to nurse my baby did not make me a more successful or more loving mother than someone who decided to use formula…The mark of a mother is not whether she dons a nursing cover. The mark of womanhood is not whether her breasts are able to produce enough milk. Since when did mothers need to prove that they care?

Amen, hallelujah and sing it sister!

Of course, then the comments began. It was exactly what you’d expect ….”Formula is a marginally adequate nutritional supplement for breastfeeding. But formula feeding has significant health risks for babies and mothers. We must remove the barriers and allow all babies and mothers to have a NORMAL, healthy breastfeeding relationship as long as possible for each mother and baby.” said one visitor (also an MD). “I’m sorry but can someone explain to me why mothers who are successful at breastfeeding, despite all of the obstacles in their way…aren’t allowed to be proud of their accomplishments? Please! I salute every mother who meets her personal breastfeeding goals and she should be proud and deserves a pat on the back for doing what is best for her, her baby and society at large,” said another.

These were only the first of many, I’d bet, which will miss Yolanda’s point entirely. Nowhere did she say breastfeeding wasn’t “best”. Nowhere did she say that women should not feel proud of their accomplishments. She only suggested that to make breastfeeding the mark of motherhood was unhelpful and pointless.

Herein lies the reason that we will never, ever get anywhere in this “debate”. There is no room for alternate opinions. There is no room for sensitivity, or moderation, or nuance. If a person merely hints that bullying women into breastfeeding – by making them feel like inferior mothers (women) if they don’t, or by misrepresenting the “risks” of formula so dramatically that they deserve an Oscar – is wrong or misguided, they are immediately dismissed as being Enfamil’s pawn or a women-hating moron. And if that person happens to be a doctor, god help us all.

Do they not see that this is censorship in the most naked sense? What could be so scary about acknowledging that the experience of one woman is not any less valuable than another? Does the stress caused by not breastfeeding compare to the stress of breastfeeding? Was my pain worse than yours? Who the fark cares? It’s pain, and pain sucks.

It is easy to win an argument when you are wearing earmuffs. Taking them off and hearing – really hearing – what the other side has to say takes true courage. Although I don’t know how you could turn a deaf ear to the breastfeed-at-all-costs zeitgeist, I think we should all make a concerted effort to hear, and comprehend, that point of view. Maybe if they see that we are willing to do this, they will take off the noise-canceling Bose earphones and finally have a real conversation. Not that I am holding my breath.

Regardless, go visit Yolanda’s blog and show her some love. She deserves it.

A Tale of Two Cities

One of the most repetitive arguments we’ve seen on FFF is that there is no such thing as an anti-formula-feeding culture; that breastfeeding mothers are always the minority, no matter where you live in America. I find myself living a lactation-centric Groundhog’s Day as I try and explain that infant feeding trends vary greatly, depending on the city. I also add the caveat that while there are, indeed, many parts of the country where bottle feeding is still the norm, and I understand why breastfeeding moms might feel marginalized and angry….even in areas where bottle feeding is prevalent, women can still feel guilty and defective if they do not nurse.

I’m visiting my in-laws right now, who live in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. About half of our childbearing friends live in the city; the others are back in the ‘burbs. They run the gamut with breastfeeding; most nursed for 3-6 months, with some supplementation; one breastfed exclusively, and a few others pumped and bottle fed, later turning to formula. Some say they felt pressured to breastfeed at the hospital, but for the most part, none of them appear to have struggled too dramatically with their feeding decisions.

On Sunday, my in-laws threw us a party, a kind of “meet-and-greet” for Fearlette, who was visiting her midwest posse for the first time. I got into quite a few conversations about my work, since all of my friends either had small children and wanted to reflect on their experiences, or are currently pregnant and facing these inevitable decisions. By the end of the party, I was starting to think that some of the FFF critics were right – I must live in some odd sort of ivory tower (milky white, maybe, instead of ivory) where breastfeeders are the majority, where breastfeeding pressure is so insidiously rampant. It seemed as if Chicago, despite its status as a progressive, urban, intellectual hub, was still a place where bottlefeeding was universally acceptable.

Then, on Monday, Fearless Husband and I left FC in the burbs with his grandparents, and took Fearlette with us to visit a few city-dwelling friends – including one couple who had just had their first baby 10 days earlier. We stopped at a baby store to buy said couple a gift, and somehow, my stupid clumsy self managed to trip while holding the 5-month-old Fearlette, and knocked her beautiful, fragile face on the cold, dirty Chicago sidewalk. (Incidentally, not breastfeeding is nothing compared to dropping your infant on its head on the Parental Guilt Scale. But don’t worry, I’m not going to start the Fearless Baby Dropper blog or anything.)

We ended up seeing a friend’s pediatrician for an emergency visit, and Fearlette was luckily fine, except for a small bruise on her forehead and a tiny scratch on her adorable nose. As the doctor was checking her out, she asked us how Fearlette had been in the time between the accident and arriving at the pediatricians office (about fifteen minutes, with Fearless Husband barreling down Michigan Avenue, cutting off bird-flipping cabbies and honking furiously). I told her that I’d fed her and she’d ate well. That was all I said – “I fed her, and she ate normally.” To which the doctor replied, “Oh, cool… so she finished her bottle like normal?”

Say what??

To my ears, this was shocking. Why would she assume I was bottlefeeding? Did my reputation proceed me? Maybe breastfeeding moms didn’t drop babies on their heads? Could she tell Fearlette was a formula-fed kid? Was the trademark Alimentum smell permeating the room?

But you know, I don’t think it was any of those options. I think it was simply a normal default response, just like how at my Californian pediatric office, the default is to assume you’re breastfeeding.

Again, I wondered: maybe it is just Los Angeles, New York, and parts of the Pacific Northwest that house overwhelmingly breastfeeding-prevalent cultures. Which didn’t make my blog very relevant, or bode well for future book sales.

After we confirmed that Fearlette was no worse for the wear, we continued on to our friends’ loft, to meet their new bundle of joy. The new mom was calmer and cooler than I’d ever been, and seemed to have her head on straight in an incredibly admirable way. She told me she was pumping, but only managing to provide a small amount (her daughter had never been able to latch, despite the assistance of the hospital lactation consultants; they’d told her to consult with a private LC who charged $200/visit, to which she replied no freaking way), so they were feeding a combo of breastmilk and formula. She told me that they’d pushed breastfeeding at the hospital, but she’d wanted to do it, so it hadn’t bothered her. Later though, she admitted that her friends kept telling her she should keep pumping, keep trying to get her daughter to latch, asking her about it constantly, telling her how important it was… and these were all Midwesterners. Living in the supposedly bottle-feeding Heartland. Hmmm.

We later stopped by another friend’s house, who didn’t have kids of her own, but told me about her three closest friends, all Midwestern new moms, who had struggled, “failed”, and felt morally compelled to breastfeed. How depressed they’d been. How they’d felt like failures.

Today, while the kids were napping, I checked out the Facebook site of a Chicago-area expectant mom’s group, where it mentioned that the thing most of their members were most stressed out about was breastfeeding. I reread an email I got from a Chicago-dwelling professor I interviewed, who spoke of her own exclusively-nursing peer group in a way that reminded me, eerily, of mine.

Later in the day, we went to a suburban children’s museum where there were “nursing areas” in every corner of the building. And yet I didn’t see any moms using them. I did see a couple of other parents bottle feeding.

And I realized: I have no clue if Chicago is a bottle-feeding or breastfeeding “culture”. These things are constantly in flux; for all I know, the friends who gave birth three years ago might have lived in an entirely different environment than the ones giving birth now. Heck, my own hospital in Southern California had gone all Baby-Friendly in the two year span between my two births. You just never know what the winds of change will bring.

Coming from Los Angeles, I felt far more comfortable bottle-feeding in the suburbs of Chicago. But that doesn’t mean that my friend doesn’t feel comparable pressure from her breastfeeding friends and pro-breastfeeding hospital, even if her general environment is not 100% anti-formula.

We also don’t know what is in somebody’s heart. If you are a person who desperately wanted to nurse, who always saw yourself as a “counterculture mama” and now feel like you don’t qualify as one because your boobs don’t work, living in a “bottle feeding culture” isn’t going to help.

I realize this post is going nowhere. I’m still feeling kinda out of sorts for causing even a small moment of pain for my daughter (I’m turning in my sling and wrap for a bucket seat – attachment parenting is apparently not for klutzes). I guess what I’m trying to say is that the number of baby-friendly hospitals, or pediatricians who allow formula samples in their waiting rooms, is not necessarily indicative of what “culture” we live in.  So much depends on your individual OB, pediatrician, and hospital. On your own peer group. On where you work, what neighborhood you are in. Where you went to college, and what blogs you read. Social pressure comes from many places, and in this global world we live in, we just can’t know what someone’s “culture” really is.

In the meantime, I am retreating to my breastmilky-white ivory tower of Los Angeles, where we mostly drive in cars. I can’t be trusted to walk on sidewalks.

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